Heritage and humour: Down the cobbled streets of Copenhagen
Take a heritage walk down ancient pathways past historic landmarks where bits of Denmark’s colourful history and culture come alive with a dollop of humour.
High above the Richs building at the corner of Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen, I spotted the gilded Weather Girl sculptures. The rotating ladies atop a tower warn Danes about rain and shine!
One rides a bicycle and sticks out of the tower when it is sunny. And if it rains, the sculpture swivels to let the other lady out, who carries an umbrella and walks her dog! Created by Einar Utzon-Frank in 1936, the artwork summed up a typical scene in Copenhagen – omnipresent bicycles and rain! There’s an inside joke among men in Copenhagen who swear that “these are the only two women you could trust”!
“The Hans Christian Andersen heritage walk is a wonderful way to unearth the city’s hidden stories in buildings and landmarks often ignored in everyday urban tedium. We followed our guide Richard Karpen (aka ‘Hans Andersen’) to where the Old City began, past a straggle of tourists posing near the Bull and Dragon Fountain to cut across the massive courtyard fronting the century-old City Hall.
At the doorway above the balcony was the gilded statue of the city’s founder Absalon, the Catholic Bishop who fortified the castle near the harbour in 1167. The Clock Tower rose 105.6m, making it one of the tallest buildings in town, with the Jensen Olsen astronomical world clock on the ground floor.
Copenhagen’s emblem or Coat of Arms – a shield with three towers – rests at the base of the flag pole. Six statues at the top represent the nightwatchmen, the police force and the fire department. The polar bears in the corners represent Greenland and the 32 Faroe Islands which are part of Denmark’s territory.
The sea faring nation actually comprises 400 islands and is about the size of Switzerland with a population of 5.6 million Danes.
Thor of perception
Inside City Hall, we found ourselves in the august company of Denmark’s most famous luminaries. Four wonderful marble busts decorate the vast hall — Martin Nyrop, the architect of the building, Bertel Thorvaldsen one of the greatest sculptors of early 19th century, Nobel prize-winning physicist and atomic researcher Niels Bohr, and story-teller extraordinaire Hans Christian Andersen.
After signing marriage contracts inside, newly married couples often clink champagne flutes and pose for a picture against City Hall’s stunning backdrop! Some grooms even cart their brides in Copenhagen’s iconic quirky Christiania cargo bikes! The large hall exemplified Danish pride with its simple walls displaying the Danish flag.
It is the oldest flag continually in use since the 1300s and Danes consider its signature Crusader’s Cross a symbol of joy. It is perfectly normal in Danish culture to find these flags decorating Christmas trees, birthday cakes, or being propped around picnic blankets… Danes even carry them to greet someone at the airport!
Thorvaldsen’s exquisite statue of Jason and the Golden Fleece is displayed in one section. Initially following the Classical style, he sculpted statues of Greek and Roman Gods before taking inspiration from Nordic deities like Odin, the king of the Gods who gave us Odin’s Day (Wednesday).
Here you discover how days of the week are dedicated to gods featured in Norse mythology — Thor the Destroyer with his thunderbolt gave us Thor’s Day (Thursday), Fria is the Goddess of Fertility to whom Fridays are dedicated and Tuesday is named after Tyr, the God of Combat.
Try saying “Strøget” in Danish and you’ll confess that Danish is indeed a difficult language. “Everyone here will speak English except your bus driver and the one you’re asking for directions!” Richard joked as we checked out the shopping precinct of Strøget, one of Europe’s longest car-free pedestrian streets. Chockful with global brands and souvenir shops, you will also find upscale shops selling Danish amber, crystal, fur and fashion further down.
Danes of delight
A towering bronze Lur Blowers, a pair of Vikings caught in a musical moment nearby paid tribute to the notorious sea-faring Vikings, who were raiders, traders and settlers.
For centuries, they struck fear in the hearts of the rest of the world. The sculpture was gifted to the city during the centenary birthday celebration of Denmark’s most famous brewer JC Jacobsen’s who founded Carlsberg.
Vikings trace their origins to Danish, Swedish and Nordic tribes who flourished a thousand years ago. Their common language – old Nordic, gave us words like ‘berserk’, ‘kill’, ‘thrust’ and ‘wife’! The myth around the Lur Blowers statue is that they blow their horns if a virgin passes by; a sound not heard since 1914!
We strolled to the old bridge connecting the Court house to the old Debtor’s prison, surrounded by Neo Classical architecture. It was nicknamed the Bridge of Sighs in a nod to the famous one in Venice, which also spans a canal between a Court House and a prison!
The spectacular view of the pastel-coloured buildings through the archway was a picturesque angle chosen by Danish painters since early 19th century! Many of the buildings were designed by the Dutch during the Renaissance in the 1600s, like the Rosenborg Castle housing the crown jewels and royal regalia.
The elaborate ornamentation of French or Rococo and Baroque architecture emerged in the 1700s. In the 1800s, as artists and architects visited Rome and Greece where great monuments were being unveiled, and often imitated such great works while rebuilding cities across Europe.
The antique became the ideal as most cities copied Greek and Roman designs, which spawned the simple and symmetrical Neo Classic architecture in the region. The Danes did not develop their own style of architecture until much later.
We halted at Cafe Nytorv, a small restaurant at the square, run by Dennis and Charlotte that specialises in Danish cuisine. The yellow corner building dated 1792, is a century and a half old and one of Copenhagen’s oldest inns.
They welcomed us with a shot of traditional Danish Schnapps or akvavit, a sweet alcoholic drink flavoured with herbs and spices.
“It’s designed to make men feel strong and women feel weak,” quipped Richard as we learnt the nuances of its drinking protocol. Our hosts raised a toast and we all uttered the Danish greeting ‘Skål’ (pronounced skol)! The guest could propose another toast and this ceremony could go on “until everyone at the table begins to look good!”
If we knocked a couple more, he confirmed that “Dennis will look like Brad Pitt and I will look like George Clooney!” Today, skål means hello, cheers, good health or ‘bowl’. But the word holds more history.
During Viking times, it was a tradition for the victorious to drink from the skull of the slain opponent or leader after war, which was scooped out to a bowl. It became a warcry and later evolved into a salute to good health.
Nytorv stands right near an ancient whipping post. It was hard to imagine how this cheerful café-lined area was an open square where public humiliation was common in the old days. Women brought their children to witness it for it was somewhat ‘educational’ and taught them the consequences of a life of crime!
At the heart of Old Copenhagen was Gammel Torv, the Old Christmas Market Square, the oldest in the city. The marvellous Fountain of Charity of a nude woman with a child at her breast and one at her feet occupied pride of place.
It was a part of the water system erected in the 1600s by the King Christian IV, who built Rosenborg Castle and the old Stock Exchange. Two major fires during the 1700s destroyed much of Old Copenhagen.
Oddly, most buildings were about the same height; there’s an unwritten law that you’re not supposed to block your neighbour’s sunlight! We saw a gabled roof carved with Neptune or Poseidon, the God of the Sea holding a trident on one side representing navigation and Hermes or Mercury, the messenger God with wings on his helmet, holding a staff and bag of money, signifying commerce, on the other.
An arty sign to inform people that the owner was probably a ship merchant. At the University premises, we admired the Library’s brick-work and stained windows and the vibrant wall frescoes inside the Law Faculty.
Our walk ended at the carved doorway of city’s famous 17th century Round Tower or Rundetarn. It is the oldest observatory in Europe and only 36m tall, yet visitors take a cobbled spiral walk of 209m to reach the lookout for a view of the old city.
Apparently, HC Andersen often visited its library hall for inspiration. In about an hour, we had covered entire centuries to witness the evolution of this fairytale city.
Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways and other airlines have daily flights to Copenhagen from major Indian cities via Dubai, London or Frankfurt. The journey time varies from 11 hrs 45 mins to 12 hrs 15 mins. Air India will soon launch direct flights to Copenhagen from Delhi thrice a week initially, starting September.
WHERE TO STAY
Avenue Hotel Ph: 0045 35373111
Award-winning boutique hotel with cosy simple stylish Danish design rooms in the heart of Norrebro, close to the metro with organic breakfast and signature wine hour at the bar.
Hotel Danmark Ph: 0045 33114806
Brand new upscale boutique hotel in a historic neighbourhood close to City Hall Square and Tivoli. Has a rooftop bar and terrace with great views, fab indoor and outdoor dining options.
WHERE TO EAT
Copenhagen Street Food is a harbourside hangout on Papiroen Island with foodtruck-style local, artisanal fare. Gemyse at the Tivoli Gardens is the legendary Nimb’s newest addition serving gourmet, healthy veg food with a few meat and seafood options. (nimb.dk/en/gemyse)
At Guldbergs-gade in Norrebro, taste Danish food with Italian produce at Bæst, known for organic food, woodfired sourdough pizzas and handstretched cheese. Mirabelle bakery is famous for naturally fermented bread, homemade pasta, Baest charcuterie and adventurous flavours of ice cream.
WHAT TO DO
• Discover Copenhagen from the water on a GoBoat goboat.dk/en
• Hans Christian Andersen Heritage Walk copenhagenwalks.com
• Bicycle Tours with Cycling Copenhagen cycling-copenhagen.dk
• Aquatic adventure along the canals with Kayak Republic kayakrepublic.dk
• Savour a community Danish dinner at Absalon absaloncph.dk
• Visit Tivoli Gardens tivoligardens.com
Follow Priya's travels on Instagram at @red_scarab and @priyaganapathy on Twitter.