Saturday, 31 January 2009

Wonderful, wonderful

The country of Denmark has become more prominent in the thinking of the average Australian since a young Tasmanian woman, working in a bar in Sydney, was first approached by a wealthy European gentleman holidaying there. Despite that, when confronted at Stansted Airport by the news that Copenhagen was to be our destination on this trip neither Brock nor Quinn had any idea where it was or what was there. What should we have told them? Royal Copenhagen Icecream? Danish pastries? The racehorse ‘Nothing Leica Dane’? We chose to go with Princess Mary and Prince Frederick and the stories of Hans Christian Anderson. Is it a failure of the education system, or an indication of just how wide the cult of celebrity dominates our media, that they had both heard of the former but neither of the latter?

Scandinavia was an entirely new part of the world for all of us, but we showed we had been learning from our previous experiences in other places by at least getting to the airport on time to make the plane. The weather forecast for England was predicting snow on Sunday into Monday, but the weekend in Copenhagen looked to be cloudy but otherwise ok. This proved to be the case when we touched down at Københavns Lufthavn and went to collect our baggage. Flying in, our overwhelming first impression had been just how flat the area was, which is typical of the island of Zealand, the largest island in Denmark (excluding Greenland, which is a Danish territory) because the highest natural point on the island is only 121.3 metres above sea level.

Unfortunately, because of some problems with the computer systems, there was a delay in collecting our bag but this did give us an opportunity to look around the airport a little. The site has been used for this purpose since April 20, 1925 (which makes it quite old) and in 2006 it handled more than 20 million passengers for the first time. There are plans to complete a new low cost terminal in 2010 but the current one is lovely and clean with lots of wood featured throughout. Eventually we found our bag and made our way down to the Metro Station (completed in 2007) to catch a train into Copenhagen Central station. Because of the hour time difference between England and Denmark, by the time we reached the city centre it was already 10:30pm.

Another thing we have learned from our previous trips is that it is very useful to have a hotel near to the centre of the city if you don’t have ready access to transport. Fortunately, the Norlandia Star Hotel was only a couple of hundred metres from the station although, once again, we found it was in the red light district of Copenhagen. Brock and Quinn commented on the ladies standing on the street corners but, as with Madrid, we were all pleased to observe that at least they were warmly dressed. Inside the hotel we received a warm welcome from the staff, who informed us that their monarchy was one of the oldest in the world, but also one of the poorest [hidden message: don’t try to sponge off Mary just because you are Australian]. We made our way up to the rooms, then the boys and Wayne went for a quick walk to the 7/11 to grab some drinks before we went to bed for some well earned sleep.

The next morning we awoke to find an overcast but otherwise nice day (however, a little on the chilly side as a large thermometer on the side of a building showed the temperature to be a fraction under 0°C) and we walked out to find some breakfast. Our plan was to take a guided tour of the city and we were pleased to find the central Tourist Information building not far from the station, and opposite the famous Tivoli Gardens (one of the ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die’ by Patricia Schultz). The very helpful staff member that we talked to (and one of the many wonderful things about Copenhagen was that everyone that we talked to spoke excellent English and was concerned to be as helpful as possible) told us that the tour we wanted was to leave in half an hour, a short walk away next to the City Hall in front of the Palace Hotel.

The buildings we saw around us were fabulous architecturally, but we were all somewhat surprised at just how many neon signs there were, advertising everything from bacon to airlines. One of our favourite buildings was the cinema just off the main street which was brilliantly painted in bright colours, the predominant one of which was pink. Another thing we noticed, which isn’t really surprising given how flat the area is, is how many bicycles there were in the city centre. In fact, most of the roads had sizeable cycling lanes and wherever we looked there were people riding all sorts of bikes. In front of the city hall is a lovely square, the Rådhuspladsen which was emptier than usual, largely because of the breeze coming up H C Anderson Boulevard, which was somewhat brisk.

We have really enjoyed the bus tours we took in Belfast and Madrid, and were unsurprised to find that this one was also positive. Our tour guide was a very funny older lady who wasn’t above a little name dropping but who knew her city. We started off doing a drive around the Rådhuspladsen itself, before looking a bit more at the old part of the city to the north of the Tivoli. In much of Copenhagen, different areas owe their existence and form to various kings from the cities history and the number of monuments to various Kings from the past bears this out. In this case it was King Christian VIII who, in 1841, disturbed by civil unrest said, ‘When people amuse themselves they forget politics’ and so commissioned the Tivoli Gardens from Danish architect George Carstensen. When it was first built it was in the countryside on land that was once part of Copenhagen’s foundations. With the passage of time and the expansion of the city, it is now right at the centre. Indeed, during WWII the invading Nazi’s, angry at the resistance from the local population, burned the Concert Hall to the ground. Within a week the Danes had erected a tent to replace it and the current, permanent hall was completed in 1956.

Just to the south of the Tivoli is a series of art galleries and museums which was the next part of our tour. The first of these was the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek which the guide spoke about so favourably that we decided we would do our best to get to it on the next day. On the next block was the Conservatorium of Music and a couple of blocks to the east was the National Museum. At the back of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek was a cast of Rodin’s famous statue ‘The Thinker’. While the original is in the Musée Rodin in Paris, there are over 20 different casts made from the original displayed around the world. Denmark is very pleased to have one of these.

While lots of the impressive sights in Copenhagen are aged, one of the most striking features of architecture in the city is much newer. In 1999 a fourth site for The Royal Library, the National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library was opened at Slotsholmen overlooking the water. It was constructed of black marble and glass and is known as the Black Diamond for it’s impressive appearance. As well as housing part of the library, it also houses a concert hall and has a series of bridges which link it to an older part of the library. It certainly makes a very imposing sight.

Interestingly, our guide also related to us the story of one of the largest book thefts in history. During the period between 1968 and 1978 around 1,600 historical books (worth more than $50 million), including prints by Martin Luther and first editions by Immanuel Kant, Thomas More and John Milton, went missing from the library. After 20 years some of these books worth some $2 million began to be sold at various auctions. The case was finally solved in September 2003, after a stolen book had surfaced at Christie's auction house in London. The thief turned out to have been a head of department of the library's oriental department, one Frede Møller-Kristensen. He had died in February 2003 and his family then became careless in selling the remaining books. When the family's homes in Germany and Denmark were raided in November 2003, some 1,500 books were recovered. Ultimately, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and a family friend were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 3 years; the friend was acquitted on appeal. It was all a laugh for the guide, because at least they had got the books back.

Opposite the Black Diamond are a series of old warehouses and other buildings that act as a reminder that Copenhagen achieved it’s prominence in the region because it is a port city. It is through the access to the sea, and therefore to other parts of Scandinavia and the world, that Copenhagen gradually became the economic, cultural and political focus of Denmark. Otherwise, it is situated well away from the rest of the country, on an island rather than part of the mainland. This was also emphasised by the number of bridges over which we passed during the tour, because Copenhagen is crisscrossed by numerous canals.

Another feature, which our guide made particular mention of, is the extraordinary architecture which you see as you travel around the city. For the Danes, we were told, architecture is more important than life. One of the elements of this that drew our attention was the particular emphasis on spirals within and upon buildings. The Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen has a spiral tower which can be seen from many parts of the city. Another building with a spiral tower is the Børsen, which houses the Stock Exchange along with other financial institutions, however the Børsen tower spiral is composed of the tails of dragons. While striking, this was also the basis for another sad story for the architect who designed it is said to have committed suicide when he realised the building had been completed with the tails twisting in the wrong direction. They do really take architecture seriously here.

Nearby is the Christiansborg Palace, a large and impressive series of buildings which now stand on a site that has been used as a palace for centuries. In 1167 Bishop Absalon of Roskilde built a castle on an island outside Copenhagen harbour surrounded by a wall of limestone from Stevns Cliffs (remains of this wall and other parts of the original castle as still able to be seen in the basement of the current building). While that castle stood for 200 years, it was eventually destroyed by the Hanseatic League, covered with earthworks, and built over with another castle. It was used as an imposing prison for some time before being knocked down and rebuilt by Frederick IV in the 1720’s. However, his castle was too big for the foundations and the walls began to crack. Christian VI (Frederick’s successor) had this castle completely demolished and began building the new Christiansborg. Unfortunately, this castle also suffered a serious fate, burning down in 1794, at which point the Royal Family had to find a new place to live (firstly at Rosenborg Castle then later at Amalienborg). Once again it was rebuilt only to suffer the same fate in 1884. The next version of the Castle was begun in 1907 and completed in 1928. The palace now houses the Royal Reception Rooms, the Queen's Library, the audience chambers, the Sovereign in Council rooms, the Chapel, Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister's Office, and thus has the distinction of housing all of the country’s supreme powers, judicial, executive and legislatial.

Nearby to Christiansborg is one of the more exclusive suburbs in Copenhagen, Christianshavn, though this one is named after a different King, Christian IV. He had been reponsible for having the port and naval yards upgraded and needed somewhere to house the workers responsible. He employed Dutch engineers (because of their experience working with reclaimed land and among canals) and they built a suburb on what is essentially an artificial island. Nearby is the Free City of Christiania, a partially self-governing neighborhood which has established semi-legal status as an independent community in an area of abandoned military barracks. Among the houses we saw was the home of Hans Christian Anderson, suitably marked with a plaque.

Not far away was one of Quinn’s favourite sights in the centre of Kongens Nytorv, a square constructed on the former ramparts of the city. There was an outdoor ice skating rink built around the central park and loads of people of all ages skating around on it. This is a feature of this part of the city during the winter months and locals and visitors alike take advantage of it. Around the square are some very impressive buildings, especially the headquarters of the Royal Danish Theatre where, on opening nights, the whole square can apparently be filled with people. Other buildings are the Thotske Palace (now the French Embassy), and the department store Magasin du Nord, the most beautiful department store in Scandinavia. Even the statue in the centre, of Christian V, is impressive.

Embassies were becoming a big feature (although we didn’t get to see the Australian one) as the buildings in this part of the world were obviously more upmarket. Seeing the Theatre however, didn’t quite prepare us for the much more modern building which is the new Danish Opera House, which is one of the newest in the world and one of the most expensive ever built. Like the Black Diamond it makes effective use of water frontage and glass. What is amazing is that the funds to build it were donated by the A.P. Møller and Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation (a private organisation) and it was officially opened on January 15, 2005.

Opposite the Opera House was one of the highlights for all of us (and the first place we stopped) the Royal Palace at Amalienborg, which is the Winter home of the Danish Royal family. Although we didn’t get to see Prince Frederick, Princess Mary or even Queen Magrethe II, we were treated to the spectacle of a changing of the guard. Like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace this involved lots of people marching around in precision groups while a band played, but they were impressive at how they maintained their lines. When they had finished there was no problem with talking to the guards nor of having photos taken with them.

The palace itself is very impressive, being made up of 4 smaller palaces which originally belonged to 4 separate families but which were incorporated together after the fire at Christiansborg Palace in 1794. In the middle of the central square is a large equestrian statue of Frederick V which is aligned with the Marble Church at one end and the Opera House across the river, so that a person standing in front of the Opera House can see all the way through to the Marble Church.

Next up we journeyed the short distance to Churchill Park. Surprisingly (given that the British have not always treated the Danish well) it is named for former English Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, of whom there is a statue in the centre of the park. The World War II War Memorial also stands here, as does the Resistance Museum. At the centre of the park is the Anglican Church of St Albans built in the 19th century for a growing British population in the city. The Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII) was married to a Danish princess. An interesting juxtaposition is the statue alongside in the middle of the Gefion fountain. Gefion is the Norse Goddess of unmarried women. Her four sons (just because she was unmarried didn’t mean she didn’t have fun) took the form of oxen and she put them in front of a plough given to her by king Gylfi of Sweden. Gylfi had told her (not expecting her to take him up on the deal) that she could have the land she could plough. This turned out to be such a chunk that it left a great hole in Sweden, today known as Lake Vänern (Sweden's biggest lake), and this chunk was dropped into the sea and created Sealand which is the island on which Copenhagen is situated.

In contrast to this statue (which is large and impressive) is the one commissioned by Carl Jacobson (the son of the founder of Carlsberg Brewery) in 1909 and which has become the symbol of Denmark. The little mermaid (Den lille havfrue) is only 1.25 metres high, which generally comes as a shock to visitors seeing her for the first time and was so underwhelming for Meg and Brock that they didn’t even get out of the bus. The statue is not even the original (which was kept in an undisclosed location after it was completed) but has become iconic nonetheless. In fact, it is regularly vandalised by people who want to draw attention to a cause. It has been covered in paint, had various parts painted, had the head removed on more than one occasion, been decorated with various outfits and props, and in 2003 was blasted off the stone on which it sits. Like ‘The Thinker’ there are various copies extant around the world, including one on the grave of Victor Borge (a Danish American entertainer who Wayne once saw in concert).

The final part of the tour took us to the Copenhagen University and some of the brilliant museums and buildings connected with that. One of these is yet another building famed for a spiral, although in this case the spiral is on the inside rather than the outside of the building. The Rundetårn was built at the behest of Christian IV between 1637 and 1642 as part of the Trinitatis complex so that scholars would have an observatory, a church, and a library. Instead of stairs, the tower contains a helical corridor which circles the tower to the top. This has meant that various people have been able to ascend in unusual ways including Czar Peter the Great who travelled to the top on horseback, and in 1902 a car was driven to the top of the tower for the first time.

Not far from the tower is the cathedral of Copenhagen, the Church of Our Lady (Vor Frue Kirke) which was the final stop of our tour. This was completed in 1829 and is one of the more impressive church buildings that we have come across so far on our travels. Inside it is fairly stark (compared to some) but around the walls are some amazing white statues of the twelve apostles while a larger statue on Jesus, in similar style, is at the front of the building. There are multiple levels at the entrance with the top floor including an orchestra site (they were practising while we were there). It was so impressive that Quinn decided to use it for his major composition for photography and took many many snaps. Many of our Australian friends may have already seen it if the watched the marriage of Crown Prince Frederick to Princess Mary in 2004, for the ceremony was conducted in this cathedral.

This was our last stop on the tour, which had managed to cram an awful lot into 2.5 hours. There were so many things to see that we were already very impressed with Copenhagen as a location, and we were only half way through the day. Next on our agenda was to find some lunch before beginning the next chapter in our day.

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