Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Toast (Skal) to Copenhagen!

The last full day in Copenhagen was a whirlwind. We decided to go to the Danish Postal Museum first. On display is everything from the "Ordinance concerning Postmen," signed in 1624, to a room filled with the first cell phones. I saw my old Motorola StarTAC, so that was very nostalgic. We didn't spend too long in the museum because our primary destination was Cafe Hovedtelegrafen on the top of the building. The view of Copenhagen was spectacular, and one of the best parts about the Postal Museum is that it's free! If I had children, I'm sure I would have lingered because of the kid-friendly exhibits and atmosphere. It isn't a must-do, but if you want a bird's-eye view of the city for only the price of a coffee or tea, put the Postal Museum on your list.

Next we took a walk around the palace complex. Amalienborg Palace was built in the 1700's. The grounds consist of four identical buildings surrounding a courtyard. It is the Queen's main residence, but we didn't see the flag raised so I guess she was Queening elsewhere the day we visited. The grounds were overflowing with tourists and we decided against going inside so we could fulfill other places on our "To-See" list.


We wandered over to Nyhavn, a picturesque canal district dating back to 1681. The oldest house in the area is in Nyhavn and it's also where Hans Christian Andersen lived (in several different houses). It's simple to see how he would choose Nyhavn as his residence; who wouldn't be inspired by the colorful facades reflecting in the harbor? As you'd imagine, the streets here were also packed with tourists but I think Nyhavn is what I imagined when I thought of Copenhagen. It was truly beautiful and easy to see what it must have been like hundreds of years ago, even if it is a bit commercial now.

Speaking of Hans, it's time to see Copenhagen's most famous tourist attraction: The Little Mermaid. I think we all know the story of The Little Mermaid but contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney is not the author. On a side note -- Anton told me that can be one of the most annoying things about tourists in Copenhagen, especially American tourists: the fact that some of them think The Little Mermaid didn't exist until an orange-haired Ariel lit up the big screen. I'm just relaying this so you don't make that faux-pas if you ever find yourself in Copenhagen speaking to an actual Danish person.

"The Little Mermaid" was first published in 1837 but the famous statue wasn't unveiled until 1913. It was a gift to the City of Copenhagen by one Carl Jacobsen. Carl's father was J.C. Jacobson and you might recognize him as the founder of the Carlsberg brewery. Carl fell in love with the mermaid after watching a ballet performance of the fairy tale. The sculpture was inspired by Ellen Price, the mermaid ballerina. Over the years, The Little Mermaid has been the victim of vandals. She's been covered in paint, decapitated twice, and someone sawed off her arm once but still she faithfully sits on the shore, waiting for her prince to come. Incidentally, August 23, 2013 marked the 100-year anniversary for The Little Mermaid sculpture.

My sister had already warned me to have reasonable expectations. When it's is a "must-see" and built up the level of mystique that something like The Little Mermaid enjoys, you automatically expect it to be a grand apparition, larger-than-life, the climax of your sightseeing. Well, it was small. Charming, but small. The only massive objects at the site were all of the gigantic tour buses parked alongside. It seemed as if hundreds of people were clamoring to get a photo with her and I'm sure all she wanted to do was swim back to sea because her prince will obviously not be armed with a humongous, flashing camera and a fanny pack. So, be sure to see The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen but please don't jump all over her. She is a lady, after all.

Copenhagen's National Museum is high on the list of one of my favorite museums! It's another free attraction and nothing is better than that in a city as expensive as Copenhagen. The Danish prehistory exhibitions are incredibly thought-provoking and mesmerizing. One could certainly spend several pleasant hours poring through the artifacts that include coins, cauldrons, and tombs.

For me, the most interesting displays are the "bog bodies." More than a thousand bodies have been discovered in Denmark. Lack of oxygen and anti-microbial properties in peat moss have preserved the bodies so well that they have discernible facial features, hair, nails, and sometimes even the clothing in which they were buried. I was haunted by the body of a little girl with a shock of blonde hair. It was fascinating. Don't leave Copenhagen without visiting the National Museum!

I mentioned Ruby Cocktail Bar in my last entry. It's on the list of "World's Best Bars," along with the one I preferred in Copenhagen: The Library Bar. The bar is located inside The Copenhagen Plaza Hotel. The hotel was originally opened in 1914 and the bar followed a few decades later, in the 70's. The wood-paneled walls are complemented by plush leather sofas, thick carpets, and oil paintings. It feels as if you've stumbled into a private gentleman's parlor. A smoking ban in 2007 forced the bar to abandon its cigars and humidor but I think the faint whiff of sweet smoke still lingers. Champagne cocktails are the specialty and I ordered -- what else -- the Plaza Champagne Cocktail. It's a potent combination of dark rum, champagne, and ginger ale. The prices are still exorbitant but I definitely got more bang for my buck at The Library Bar as opposed to Ruby. If you're pressed for time but still want a unique cocktail experience in Copenhagen, my recommendation is to peruse the top shelves at The Library.

Later, one of Anton's friends offered us a canal tour on his boat. I must admit that it was nice to have a privately-arranged tour on a small boat. We sipped Carlsbergs as our host and Anton regaled us with stories about their city. We saw a military ship and submarine, learned about the new development along the water that has been cropping up for the past 10 years, and even caught a glimpse of Christiania. The tour was lots of fun; I only wish I had friends who have friends in every city I visit.

Military Ship

Christiania Boat
Christiania House

After a nice dinner back at the apartment, we set off for our real tour of Christiania. Originally, my sister and me were just going to go on our own but then Anton and another friend offered to escort us into the settlement after sunset. I didn't really know what to expect. I'm sure I'd heard of Christiania before I visited Copenhagen, but I couldn't really remember anything about it other than the whole drug-selling business.

We passed a hand-painted sign and suddenly there we were, in a place unlike any I've ever seen. Freetown Christiania is a community built around former military barracks and parts of the city ramparts. It was taken over in September of 1971 after the military had moved out of the area. Inhabitants in the surrounding neighborhood broke down the fences to turn the green space into a playground for their children.

The homes in Christiania aren't built by architects; they are constructed by the people who live in them. This makes a Tour of Homes very interesting because they are all different and each has its own unique personality. The citizens pay the Danish state for water and electricity and rent is paid to the community. In fact, Christiania has its own currency, the Lon. The Danish Krone is still accepted but the locals are paid in Lons.

I could go on and on about Christiania and its philosophy. You can read dozens of articles about the alternative society but I think I'll leave all of that off and just give my personal impressions of this strange and hypnotizing place.

We entered the community via Pusher Street. It's well-known that photography is prohibited because of cannabis dealers and gang activity. Pushers' dogs wander around the street and Anton told a terrifying story of how a dog once followed he and his friend all the way out of Christiania, and for several minutes afterward. The air was perfumed with the scent of patchouli and cannabis. I did notice several "shifty" people but they were minding their own business, whatever business that might have been.

I'm glad we were with Anton because I never would have been able to find my way around the wooded paths and darkened crannies. Away from Pusher Street, things were pretty sedate. Every once in a while we would come upon a small group of people smoking and talking quietly and then a few steps later, we'd walk past a family carrying groceries into their whimsical house. In the darkness it really looked like a normal neighborhood... if every night was Halloween.

The concept of Christiania is intriguing. I definitely don't think there is another place like it. It seems that the gang activity is centered mainly around Pusher Street and the rest of the community is pretty normal. I was uneasy when we walked through Pusher Street but I don't think there was any real reason to be. Christiania is one of Denmark's most popular tourist destinations so I wasn't the only wide-eyed wanderer gawking at the graffiti and studiously avoiding eye contact with Pushers and their dogs. I never felt threatened and no one approached me. Admittedly, I felt more secure because we had Anton and his friend, but I think I would have felt comfortable walking through with just my sister and me during the daytime.

I suppose it depends upon what you personally find interesting, but I'm glad I saw Christiania because it's so unique and surreal.

Though I was initially dumbfounded by the cost of Copenhagen, I soon realized that it's a city full of many charms and some of the best are complimentary. From Hans Christian Andersen's haunts to magical Tivoli, and from Bog People to Pushers with dreadlocks, it was an unforgettable experience.

I'll leave you with a bit of practical advice. I was reading a "Top 10 of Copenhagen" guidebook before I arrived. One of the 'tips' was how to toast. The Danish 'cheers' is 'skal.' It's a toast to goodwill and friendship. Skal dates back to the Vikings who drank wine from bowls made of skulls. The guidebook also stated that it's very important to lock eyes with the person you're toasting.

Armed with this information, I raised my glass at The Library Bar and locked eyes with Anton as I menacingly said (well, thought I said), "Skal!" He looked at me, puzzled, and asked, "What did you say?"

"I'm doing the ol' Viking toast to you! The guidebook told me I was supposed to look deep into your eyes and now you have to say it back to me," I explained. I couldn't believe I was having to inform Anton of his own country's drinking tradition.

His expression changed to one of amusement as he said, "Ah! Skal! Yes, that's correct. But you said 'kal,' which means cabbage."

So let that be a lesson for you. When you toast a Danish person, be sure to put the 's' in front of kal. Otherwise you'll just be gazing intently into a Scandinavian's eyes, proclaiming, "CABBAGE!" And that is weird. And terrifying.

Skal, Copenhagen!