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Copenhagen cityscape

Denmark's capital city is an intriguing blend of architecture both modern and ancient. But to fully appreciate it, a visitor may need to take another look.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published May 9, 2004

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[Times photos: Robert N. Jenkins]
Open-air sculpture, rows of bicycles and, across a canal, brightly colored century-old buildings are typical of the eclectic beauty of Copenhagen. This particular area is Christianshavns Torv.


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Bicycling is common transportation for business district commuters such as these folks, heading home on a Friday over a canal bridge.

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Arcades, such as this one off the popular Nyhavn canalside restaurant district, may lead to centuries-old residential buildings with eclectic courtyards.

COPENHAGEN - To appreciate this city, look up. Otherwise the very buildings that close in to create the Old World appeal may be too close to yield their secrets.

So take a few steps back from the curb, or look across the street, to admire the pale pastels of the stuccoed exteriors and the rust-colored brick walls. Glancing up, you see how many church spires poke above the four- and five-story apartment blocks, notice the many domes and slanting roofs with their sea-foam-green patina, enjoy the gilded accents on the wrought iron, see the flower boxes.

* * *

The Stroget (STROY-ett) is the name for more than a mile of pedestrian thoroughfare that is actually five connecting streets. The Stroget is lined with some of Denmark's finest stores, such as silversmith Georg Jensen and Royal Copenhagen Porcelain.

But there also are enough souvenir shops, department stores, restaurants, squares and fountains to lure throngs of strollers and street entertainers, no matter the weather.

You get the sense that you could walk the length of the Stroget, turn around to retrace your steps, then walk back in the original direction, and on each of those three trips you would have different views depending on the changing flow of pedestrians that alternately blocks and reveals the streetscape.

Beckoning the curious passers-by in old Copenhagen are arcades: arched passageways that occasionally interrupt the facade of storefronts.

Arcades are wide enough for one car, which probably suits the residents and employees who live or work within these passageways. Statuary, picnic tables or flowering planters placed by those spend their days here individualize each arcade.

While the Stroget is reserved for pedestrians, the occasional bicyclist flits among them. Cyclists are more common on other streets, and everyone from cabdrivers to strollers knows to look for bicycles before turning a corner or stepping from a sidewalk.

For their part, the bicyclists - clerks, students, office workers, government officials, couriers - obey the traffic signals and even give hand signals before making a turn.

The city provides free bicycles for anyone to use: It takes just a 20-kroner coin (about $3.25) to unlock a cycle from its sidewalk rack; you can return the cycle to any other rack and when you relock it, you get the money back.

* * *

You won't see them on bicycles Friday but rather in the royal coaches, as Crown Prince Frederik and his fiancee, Mary Donaldson, arrive for their wedding at Vor Fure Kirken (Church of Our Lady). The cathedral's austere interior, with its off-white walls, serves as a fine backdrop for the statues of Christ and the Apostles by Denmark's most-noted sculptor, 19th-century great Bertel Thorvaldsen.

The wedding has captured much of the city's attention for months, partly because, like his younger brother, Frederik will be marrying a commoner. They reportedly met at a bar in Sydney, her home, when he attended the Summer Olympics there four years ago.

Not that Queen Margrethe II and her husband, Henrik (the son of a French count), rise too far above the crowd themselves: This is a constitutional monarchy, meaning that the sovereign is largely a ruler in name only. Margrethe is paid an annual fee of several million kroner, from which she must hire her staff, maintain the various royal residences and even buy the groceries.

And she just might do the shopping herself: She and Henrik are frequently seen on everyday errands.

She also is a recognized artist who has illustrated an edition of Lord of the Rings.

The Danes like to note that theirs is Europe's oldest monarchy, dating 1,000 years. A wall-sized family portrait in one of the city's several palaces shows one of the kings of the second half of the 19th century surrounded by his children and grandchildren, which is notable because the children married into about a half-dozen other royal families on the continent, from England to Russia.

There are few monarchs left in Europe, of course, but Great Britain's Prince Charles is likely to attend Friday's wedding.

Articles on the upcoming marriage discussed the possibility that if the couple has children but should later divorce, the mother has the right to rear the future rulers of Denmark in her native Australia. The implication was that their departure would be a loss for the children as well as all the Danes who still lived here.

* * *

If that scenario came to pass, the royal offspring would miss what is the newest architectural jewel in a country that celebrates design. It is even named the Black Diamond, which certainly must be unique among national libraries.

While Jitte Hylden has four children, she acknowledges the seven-story Black Diamond could qualify as her fifth. She does claim credit for naming it.

As then-minister of culture, Hylden (HILL-dun) headed the committee charged with modernizing Denmark's Royal Library. This storehouse of precious works held illuminated books from 1000 A.D., journals of the Vikings' expeditions to North America and Greenland, and original manuscripts by Hans Christian Anderson, his contemporary, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and novelist Isak Dinesen (who used the pen name Karen Blixen).

But the old Royal Library had a reading room with just 93 chairs and no computer terminals. "It was very closed, very quiet, really just for professors and scholars," recalled Hylden as she took me on a tour of the new building.

"Ten years ago, this was a lousy area - it was the backyard of old Copenhagen," Hylden said. Now it is more like the busy living room of a popular family, living in a building cost more than $57-million by the time it opened in September 1999.

Sheathed in polished black granite, from which Hylden coined the name, the Black Diamond seems to slant on one side over a wide canal - a visual reminder of the nation's maritime history. On the opposite side, it bridges a busy road to link with the old library.

Inside, there are now more than 400 seats for visitors to several reading rooms. A theater seats 408 for musical or dramatic performances; its curtain bears the opening words from Anderson's The Princess and the Pea, in a copy of his handwriting.

There is both a casual grill and a gourmet restaurant (Soren K, for the philosopher) on the ground floor, and meeting rooms that can hold up to 100.

Attention to design is everywhere. Floors are blond wood alternating with pale gray sandstone. The walls of the interior balconies that look onto the 90-foot-high atrium are curving, to resemble the Northern Lights, which are visible over parts of Denmark and its possession, Greenland. The ceiling of the bridge between the old and new buildings is a 144-piece stone mosaic.

Hylden recounts, with a smile, the various honors the library has won: Its garden was named the best place for students to kiss, Soren K was praised as the restaurant with the best view. And the bathrooms were named as the best in a publicly owned building.

Match that, Library of Congress.

* * *

If the Black Diamond is Danish Modern, the various palaces, or slots, in Copenhagen are Danish Heritage. Each has its own special lure for visitors.

The most-important is the Christianborg Slot, now a complex of national government buildings on its own island. Here are grand rooms used for royal functions, the Parliament, the High Court, the prime minister's offices and the Royal Stables - the horses that will pull the coaches for the wedding procession are exercised even in the rain.

But one large and ornate room holds a display unique among palaces worldwide: imaginative tapestries representing Denmark's long history.

Originally planned as a gift to Margrethe on her 50th birthday, the colorful and clever tapestries wound up taking 12 years to weave, and they were not hung in the Royal Reception Chambers until just before her 60th birthday.

They were designed by Bjorn Norgaard and display icons of people and events. Most accessible to the non-Dane is the hanging that portrays the 20th century. It includes caricatures of Hitler (giving a Nazi salute), Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, Churchill, Mao, Groucho Marx, Bob Dylan, Donald Duck, Lenin, Charlie Chaplin and the Beatles.

Representing Denmark are Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and King Christian X, in a famous image of him continuing his daily horseback rides through Copenhagen to rally the spirits of his subjects during the German occupation of World War II.

A small space in the upper right of this tapestry bears the legend in English: Fill in with your own imagination.

There is no such frivolity to the decor within the Amalienborg Slot, several connecting buildings that are the Copenhagen residences of the queen and her children. The Royal Guard, in red tunics and tall fur busby hats walk as sentries within the plaza of the palaces, and the noontime changing of the guard takes place with a military band.

The public can tour a wing of a palace that is rich in the actual furnishings of the royal occupants from 1863 to 1947. One room in this lavish time capsule is a wildly overstuffed Victorian parlor in which extra tables were placed to be covered with framed photographs - a new invention at the time. Every piece of furniture seems to have tassels hanging down.

The walls of another room bristle with hunting rifles. Still another room has a beautiful Meissen chandelier with porcelain figurines. There are gilded plaster floral designs on the ceilings.

The Rosenborg Slot draws visitors to its charming gardens as well as its museum displays inside. Each of two dozen rooms on an upper floor is filled with period pieces - the royal drinking glasses and swords - and portraits of their owners, while the lower floor displays Denmark's crown jewels.

* * *

While palaces and centuries-old streets embody the capital city's past, and a couple of exhibition centers proudly showcase trend-setting design elements, one small museum displays a somber side, when Denmark yielded to Hitler's war machine but its citizens staged a resistance movement.

Their efforts are chronicled, in detail and with astounding artifacts, in the Frihedsmuseet, the Resistance Museum. Signs in Danish and English explain that the Danish government realized it could not withstand the German army and air force so it signed a neutrality agreement in April 1940. Leaflets dropped from German planes offered military occupation as protection; in truth, the Germans wanted to establish naval and air bases in Denmark and Norway to better control the North Atlantic.

Because Denmark's largest land mass, the Jutland Peninsula, adjoins Germany, many Danes were familiar with Germany and also spoke that language. A Danish Nazi party existed before the war but their German military commanders preferred to let the existing Danish civilian government maintain administration of the country.

But the Germans sent more than 30,000 Danes to perform industrial work in Germany. And 6,000 Danes volunteered to fight on behalf of the Germans - they were sent to the dreaded Eastern Front, to battle the Russians. It was the Germans' arresting of leading Danish communists that set off the first major protests against the government's policy of accommodation.

The museum displays all manner of resistance:

* When it became illegal to wear clothing with the colors of the Allied forces, such as red, white and blue, many Danes wore lapel pins with those colors or skullcaps known as an RAF (Britain's Royal Air Froce) cap.

* Because the aluminum coins used during the war were soft enough to be modified, metalsmiths would stamp them with slogans such as God save the King, and Down with Hitler.

* Illegal newspapers, printed on ingenious, homemade presses, were widely published by the latter half of 1941.

* Brochures that supposedly demonstrated mere exercises to keep the populace fit for sports but were actually detailing map-reading and marksmanship.

* Matchboxes carried messages encouraging sabotage.

But organized and armed resistance began with Denmark's political fringe - from communists to conservatives - who had been less loyal to the prewar government.

A case here holds the actual wrenches used to derail a German ammunition train in 1942, shown next to a photo of the train wreck.

While the British supplied radio transmitters for sending coded messages, they were the size of a suitcase and weighed about 31 pounds. A Dane created a transmitter nicknamed the telephone book, because it was only the size of one and weighed little more than 3 pounds.

Resistance fighters often paid with their lives, and one case holds the bullet-riddled sweater and hat of one killed in April 1945, just days before Germany surrendered.

Cases hold everything from weapons to forged ID papers.

A display recounts the heroic efforts to help an estimated 7,000 Jewish Danes to rapidly escape to neutral Sweden when it was learned the Germans planned to intern them.

Many of these people were secretly carried by boat across the narrow body of water separating the two nations. But here, too, is part of a train ticket: One Jewish man bought a round-trip fare to Sweden, lest a one-way ticket draw attention by the authorities.

In a final irony, the museum notes that as Germany ultimately collapsed, an estimated 250,000 German refugees moved to Denmark.

Not ironic but planned is the location of the resistance museum, adjacent to a lovely waterside park that surrounds a star-shaped fort named Kastellet (Citadel). The occupying Germans used the three-century-old Kastellet as their military headquarters.

Nor has the five years of occupation been ignored as old history. Copenhagen resident Irene Hess-Nielsen told me: "On May 4, old-timers like me place candles in the windows, to commemorate our freedom from this dark period in Danish history."

If you go

Denmark abuts the northern border of Germnay and consists of the mainland peninsula, Jutland, and 406 islands. About a third of Denmark's 5.3-million citizens live around Copenhagen. Most tourism sites are in an old part of the city some 2 miles square.

It is easy to walk the city, or to use one of the free bicycles. But the streets were laid out long before urban paths formed grids. That adds to the charm of Copenhagen, as you move along narrow, curving roads that often open on to squares of open space.

Though much of Copenhagen is densely built with five- and six-story buildings, it is pierced by a few large canals and also has a necklace of parks on its western edge, each of which has a lake. That makes it easy to relax on the grass or at a cafe table and watch the world go by, on land or water.

Students are required to study English for four years as well as to take a third language; most choose German or French. "We are a small nation," a businessman told me during a shared train ride. "If we are to live in the world, we must know the language of the big players."

GETTING THERE: There is no direct air service between the Tampa Bay area and Copenhagen, but numerous airlines offer connecting flights. Scandinavian Airlines has nonstop flights from Washington's Dulles and Newark's Liberty International airports.

STAYING THERE: I stayed in these hotels:

* Hotel St. Peter (in Danish, Skt. Petri) is in the university district less than 10 minutes' walk from pedestrian shopping streets including Stroget, from the Vor Frue Kirke (where the royal wedding takes place this week), and a few minutes' more from several museums.

This 297-room hotel was converted just a couple of years ago from a large department store. The decor is so trendy minimalist that there was not a single drawer in my room, though there was a large desk.

The address is Krystalgade 22, DK-1172 Copenhagen k; fax to 45 33 45 91 10; the Web site is www.hotelsktpetri.com

* The Square is more centrally located, across the street from City Hall, whose plaza is one end of the Stroget. The central train station, where the clean and efficient trains from the airport end their 12-minute trip, is about three blocks away.

This 192-room hotel caters to package-tour groups, so the lobby can be filled with 40 or so arriving/departing guests and their luggage. The hotel's location also meant lots of traffic noise even in my sixth-floor room.

The address is Radhuspladsen 14, DK-1550 Copenhagen V; fax to 45 33 38 12 01; e-mail to thesquare@arp-hansen,dk www.thesquare.dk

* I spent a night in the slick, 3-year-old Hilton Airport Hotel. The 390 rooms have all the modern amenities, and artwork and design - so prized by Danes - are in evidence everywhere. The hotel is connected by walkway to the airport.

That's good, because you want the option of taking the train ($9 round trip) from the airport into the city to save money on the hotel's high-priced restaurant.

The address is Copenhagen Airport, Ellehammersvej 20, Copenhagen DK-2770; fax to 45 32 52 85 28; www.hiltonhotels.com

EATING THERE: The city has quality restaurants featuring the major cuisines. Those I ate at include:

* Peder Oxe serves traditional country fare in a centuries-old building that has broad planks for the floor. Meat and seafood, yes, but it's popular for its salad bar.

* Testament to the city's eclectic mix of restaurants is Sporvejen, a neighbor to Peder Oxe on the small Grabrodretorv (Grey Friars Square). This was one of Copenhagen's last electric trolleys, remodeled with a grill and tables to serve burgers and omelets in a cozy setting.

* Denmark's traditional dish is smorrebrod for lunch. This is an open-face sandwich, and what you choose to put on the bread is limited only by your imagination. Thus, the menu at the famed Restaurant Ida Davidsen - the family has operated restaurants for 116 years - offers more than 200 choices of smorrebrod.

You want fish? They offer five kinds of smoked salmon, plus shrimp, lobster, eel. There are seven beef tartare sandwiches, depending on your choice of toppings (such as eggs, cooked or raw; shrimp; caviar; caviar-and-oysters-and-shrimp).

And if you need help deciding, step over to the display case and pay attention as they narrate the options.

* For a smorrebrod choice heavy on the herring, it's the Huset med det Gronne Trae. This cafe is well-located in the Gammel Torv (old square).

* Soren K is in the Black Diamond and is nouvelle Danish cuisine, heavy on presentation and price.

* Save room for a pint or three at the city's hottest brew pub, Norrebro Bryghus. The name refers to a northwestern section of the city, where the two-level pub is shouldered into Ryesgade street amid antiques stores.

The pub was opened last year by a man who had been a brewmaster at Denmark's brewing giant, Carlsberg, for 20 years. The Norrebro offers seven beers and ales brewed on site and if it is a Friday afternoon, you'd better arrive early.

SEEING THE SIGHTS: In addition to those places noted in the main story, other attractions worth visiting include:

* The National Museum. Denmark's version of the Smithsonian, it displays items used by prehistoric people, by the Romans, the Vikings (including plunder they brought back from their raids) and Renaissance figures.

* The Danish Design Center and the Museum of Decorative Art demonstrate the nation's appreciation of design.

The center focuses on the 20th century and displays traveling exhibits; a basement hall is lined with cases featuring such utilitarian designs as a 1923 Bauhaus lamp, a Wonderbra, Rollerblades and a model of the Concorde SST - it is positioned above a 1959 Morris Mini.

The Museum has its own collections of decorative art dating to the Middles Ages but also hosts visiting exhibits.

* Tivoli is a landmark. Now in its 161st year, it is a large patch of green in an area so developed that the train station is at the back door and major boulevards form the other boundaries. Rides, pleasant gardens, popular restaurants, entertainment and, at night, it is illuminated by the dainty lights that lent their name to the strings of tiny white bulbs fashionable elsewhere at Christmas.

A bargain is the Copenhagen Card, which provides discounted admission to more than 60 museums and attractions, as well as free travel on buses, the subway and some trains.

A 24-hour card costs 199 kroner currently about $32 for an adult and 129 kroner (about $21) for a child age 10 to 15 years; a 72-hour card is 399 kroner (almost $75) for adults and 229 kroner (about $37) for children. Details are at www.woco.dk/composite-37.htm

FOR MORE INFORMATION: For details of opening times and dates for these places and those in the main story, as well as for events schedules, maps and listings of hotels and restaurants, go to the city's tourism Web site, http://visitcopenhagen.com

The site for the Danish Tourist Board is www.visitdenmark.com You can contact the national agency's New York office at 212 885-9700; mail to 655 Third Ave., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10017-5617.

Guidebooks small enough to pack include:

Lonely Planet Copenhagen, $14.99.

Fodor's Pocket Copenhagen, $9.95.

I cross-referenced the free city tourism map with the laminated Insight Map Copenhagen, $7.95.

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 11:11:53]

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