Saturday, September 10, 2011

Surviving Copenhagen

'Wonderful, wonderful CO-penhagen...!'
Spent last weekend in Copenhagen, mainly to visit Noma, but also to sample whatever was on offer from the Danes. Some things went well - shopping in the delightful Georg Jensen flagship shop, for example - others were a bit more challenging.

Nyhaven on a balmy evening
The hotel in Copenhagen, the Kong Frederick (which I brilliantly surmised translates to 'King Frederick'), was in a lovely old building with a wintergarden, and my room, recently refurbished, turned an interesting corner, had two windows which opened wide, and was very comfortable. There my paen ends. How disappointing it is to find a lovely property sloppily managed. I might have know things were not going to go smoothly when I asked the reception desk about city tours. The young lady sent me down the road to the Tourist Centre. Not even a brochure on offer. My worst fears were confirmed when I foolishly requested another cup of coffee two whole minutes after the breakfast closing time, only to be summarily rebuffed by the kitchen person in a dirty apron who was at that moment gracing the restaurant with her less-than-cheerful presence. Ah well, they didn't have a proper espresso machine anyway, just one of those push-button things.

The Roskilde Cathedral. Exterior view only.
But now, having got over that picky little rant, let me say that the weather in Copenhagen was delightfully mild, the atmosphere on Nyhaven in the evening busy and pleasant, and the numerous waterways characterful. Also took a visit to Roskilde, the ancient town about half an hour from Copenhagen, reached courtesy of a friendly Pakistani taxi driver named Irfan, who ended up fetching and carrying us all weekend. Roskilde boasts an impressive Cathedral, a UNESCO site said to be the the earliest Gothic church in Denmark, and is the site where the kings and queens of Denmark are buried. It was, unfortunately, closed. Roskilde also boasts a Viking Museum which houses the remains of six Viking longboats. It was, unfortunately, closed. Well, that is not exactly true - our guide book claimed a closing time of 5 pm, and we arrived at 3.45 to find that the guide book is an unreliable piece of trash, and the museum closed at 4 pm. The kind entrance-lady allowed us a brief but free glimpse of the longboats - and how much time, really, do you need to view the skeletal remains of an ancient longboat? We made up for this brief viewing by spending some time considering the modern reconstruction of a longboat called the 'Sea Stallion' which has been sailed from Denmark to Ireland (a journey of 6 or 7 weeks) and pondering all those questions which must inevitably spring to mind (food? water? toilet? sleeping? shelter?) A Viking longboat is not, my friends, built for the comfort of its occupants.

Skeletal Viking longboat

I can report that Roskilde has a very nice & cosy basement restaurant where you can get authentic Danish pickled herrings, should you so wish; and clearly a repeat visit is necessary to see the inside of the famous Cathedral, and see what else the Viking Museum has to offer - it seems that you can actually learn to sail a Viking longboat, which sounds like fun. Meanwhile, to tide me over, my gift-shop purchase was an amusing magazine publication called 'The Viking Invader' - I'll give you a taste of the front page story:

Cowardice claim causes concern
Members of the Viking Standards Association met yesterday to decide what to do about Denmark. The emergency meeting was called after appalled Norsemen learned that the Danes had given up pillaging. Instead, they were accepting money (known as Danegeld) to stay at home.
'Not true Vikings'
Beautiful colours in Roskilde
Top berserker, Odd Olaffsen, was frothing at the mouth when we asked his opinion. "They're a disgrace to the name Viking! When people see a longship they should shake in their shoes, not hand around a collection tray!"

The whole publication is in this vein, and even descends to lines like "Let's loot again, like we did last summer" and "A sure-fire hit. This one will rune and rune". If you like this humour, buy your own copy here. However, although I was in Copenhagen for only one weekend, I suspect this is not Danish-style humour. In fact, I suspect it was written by Brits. But that's just a suspicion.

On the subject of Vikings, you must admit that having them as part of your deep history could be a teensy bit challenging. Yes, they were powerful and dominant and ruled, or at least occupied, large swathes of the known world in their time. However, they are also famous for a great deal of raping and pillaging. Did I detect a note of defensiveness in the interpretative signs in The National Museum of Denmark  in Copenhagen, displayed alongside hoards of silver and golden amulets and such-like collected by the Vikings? The sign read:

In several European monastery chronicles we find accounts of the attacks by Vikings on monasteries - for example on the English island Lindisfarne: "...the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter." The accounts give the impression that the Vikings were brutal warriors or disorganised pirates...However, the accounts are not quite fair. The Vikings also established a network of flourishing towns in northern Europe. 

What a lovely thing: The Gundestrup Cauldron
The National Museum does have a very fine example of the probable pillaging prowess of the Vikings, in the form of a magnificent silver cauldron, heavily embossed with wonderful faces and scenes. It is thought to be Thracian, from somewhere near Bulgaria, and the museum signage reflected puzzlement about how it could possibly have ended up in a Jutland bog. It is called The Gundestrup Cauldron and is thought to date from the 1st or 2nd century BC. It alone is worth a visit to the museum - along with all that Viking Danegeld, of course.

I last visited Copenhagen as long ago as 1993, and my memory is understandably misty. However, three things stand out: Hans Christian Andersen, Tivoli and Danish hotdogs. I report, sadly, that the Danish hotdog I loved is no longer available around town, and Tivoli has modernised itself to the point of characterlessness; but The Little Mermaid remains perched on her rock by the harbour (having lost her head numerous times, it is presently back in place. Who would decapitate The Little Mermaid? A Viking?)

Tivoli Pleasure Gardens: still looks inviting....

'The Black Diamond'
So on my weekend in Copenhagen, what did I learn? I found that I could translate Danish signage fairly easily, because the language is close to German (though I had to be told that "mad" is pronounced "mel" - it means "meal". So "morgan mad" is - obviously! - "breakfast"). I learnt that the city has some spectacular modern architecture, amongst which I could mention the opera house, the play house, and the King's Library extension (known as 'The Black Diamond'). And perhaps the friendliest person we met in Denmark was a Pakistani.

And here I've written a whole post about Denmark and haven't once mentioned Princess Mary, wife of Danish Crown Prince Frederick, known to we Tasmanians as "Our Mary". The flags were flying at the Amalienborg Palace, indicating that the Royal couple was in residence. That made two Tasmanians in Copenhagen that weekend.

Copenhagen canals

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