The Pursuit of Happiness: First Impressions of Copenhagen
While Denmark had always been on our “Bucket List,” we’d been quick to group it in with the other Nordic countries as simply too expensive to visit in the near future. However, fate, in the guise of two Canadian friends, extended us an offer that we couldn’t refuse: a place to stay, a kitchen to cook in and a list of inexpensive things to do to get the most bang for our buck. It took a mere few seconds for us to glance at each other and start googling air fares.
A four-hour bus trip from Lagos to Lisbon was a convenient way to reach the airport and the 3-hour flight to Copenhagen made our rather impetuous decision to visit the city of Hans Christian Andersen seem pretty darn reasonable. We still had that “pinch me, I’m going to Denmark” feeling when we flew over the wind turbines of Middlegrunden offshore windfarm, less than 4 kilometers off Copenhagen’s shoreline, with the skyline of the capital rising up in the background.
Like any good travelers with an interest in history, we’d done some reading about Denmark, land of the Vikings and especially the origins of Copenhagen, a 10th century Viking fishing village located on a natural harbor with a teeming supply of herring. The fishing industry boomed, the village became a town became a city and a fortress was built in the 12th century to protect the coast from Wendish Pirates (Baltic Slavs). The kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden/Finland and Norway formed a union (1397-1523) in part to block German expansion northward and the University of Copenhagen opened in 1479, making it one of the oldest universities in the world. In the 16th and 17th centuries Catholicism yielded to Lutheranism following a three-year civil war, the Plague was responsible for the deaths of 22,000 inhabitants and the fire of 1728 burnt down almost half of the medieval city. The beginning of the 19th century saw Britain unleash some particularly brutal attacks on the city to neutralize the Danish fleet during the Napoleonic Wars and yet, despite the warfare and national bankruptcy, Copenhagen entered into a period called the “Danish Golden Age (1800 -1850) where neoclassical architecture, paintings, sculptures and music by Danish artists thrived. And the history, while fascinating, gets even more complicated from thereon so, in the interests of brevity as well as getting on with our story, we’ll leave you dangling in suspense. (Wait, wait, we’re just about to get to the electrification of the city …!)
At the airport, we exchanged some Euros for the Danish Krone, stopped by the tourist information booth to pick up a city map and headed in the direction of the bus stop to catch the 5A bus to our stop, Klaksvisgade-Langebro – our tongues and memories both had a hard time wrapping themselves around the names – and meet our friends. And the location of their sublet apartment (furnished of course in Danish modern with some Ikea influence thrown in) couldn’t have been better, within walking distance to everywhere we wanted to see. Arriving in any city for the first time can be a disorienting blur but a walk about the area our first day gave us a kaleidoscope of impressions to mix with the factoids we’d picked up about this charming city.
It’s a city that rightly earns its nickname, “The City of Spires,” and the skyline is dotted with these tapering structures. Towers and steeples adorn many of the older government buildings, churches and castles – jutting towards the heavens, silhouetted against the sky.
It’s a city with a multitude of architectural influences that mix, contrast and ultimately work together to blend the oldest section of its medieval city with eye-catching and exciting modern architectural designs that have been built since the millennium. The skyline of the historical area is horizontal rather than vertical so that the contemporary architecture doesn’t overshadow the Baroque palaces that mingle with 18th Century rococo mansions along with beauties from the Dutch Renaissance.
It’s a city where you’re never too far away from the water. Built on two islands in the Baltic Sea, Zealand and Amager, Copenhagen has eleven bridges spanning seven canals. The water gives the impression that everything has just been washed and, when the sun was out, sparkling clean.
It’s a city of wide avenues mixed with one-way streets of cobblestones and pavement. A city where three lanes of traffic means a lane for cars, a lane for bikes and a lane for pedestrians. And that middle lane, the “bike path” was actually one of the most astonishing things to us, hailing from the land where the car is king.
Here sturdy bikes, unadorned or topped with baskets or pulling kid-friendly conveyances, rule! Copenhagen is a city of bicycle super highways and networks of lanes that connect the downtown to its outskirts. In fact, more than fifty percent of Copenhagen’s residents use the bicycle as their primary form of transportation.
It’s a city of changing weather. We changed sandals for shoes and socks, shorts to jeans and carried and donned light jackets as needed. The sky was brilliantly blue one moment, steel-gray the next and during our visit we experienced intermittent sprinkles mixed with downpours and moments of radiant sun. And yet, while we were scrambling to keep up with the fluctuating weather, the residents carried on according to the calendar, wearing the clothes suited for the month to catch the fleeting rays. We even spied some hardy souls swimming in the pools adjacent to the canals, celebrating the short summer.
It’s a city where the number of daylight hours in the northern latitude carries a lot more weight than other places we’ve been. The winter solstice has only 7 hours of daylight but our visit was just after the summer solstice, June 20th, and we were treated to a whopping seventeen-and-a-half hours of daylight. Our first night saw us reluctant to end the day but fumbling for dark socks as make-shift eye masks the next morning when the sun rudely awoke us at 04:30.
It’s a city that radiates health and happiness and has, in fact, landed on various surveys over the years attempting to define the elusive nature of joy as “The World’s Happiest City.” It’s a “seize the day” sort of city where the inhabitants whizzed happily by us on their bicycles, walked with energetic strides about the streets, relaxed at outdoor cafés like they were posing for magazine covers, lounged about the various open spaces with picnics and drinks and engaged in all sorts of sports. They radiated such an absurd amount of energy and happiness that we couldn’t help but hope it might be catching! And, forgive us for mixing countries, cultures and metaphors, we couldn’t help but think of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon to sum up our first impressions of Copenhagen, a city “…where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash