June 04, 2004

The Wrong Way to Copenhagen

With the conference wrapping up mid-day Friday, Susanne and I soon made our way back to the Ronneby train station to continue to our final destination, Copenhagen. We’d have the rest of Friday and all day Saturday to enjoy the Danish capital before returning to Boston on Saturday. The train arrived as expected a couple minutes before the hour, so we climbed on board and settled ourselves for the journey.

About 15 minutes later, the train conductor came by to punch our tickets. She looked at our tickets and began speaking rapidly in Swedish.

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Swedish,” I replied.

“I am sorry…. You are on the wrong train,” she said.

Susanne and I looked at each other. Uh-oh.

“Wrong train?” I replied. “Where are we going, then?”

“This train is to Karlskrona,” she said. “Your ticket was for the other direction.”

I couldn’t believe we’d done this. A few times I’ve gotten on the wrong subway before, but never a train. “So what should we do?” I asked, bracing for her reply.

“The train, it will go to Karlskrona, then it will turn around and go to Kristianstad,” she said. “There you can get the next train to Copenhagen. I will explain to the conductor your error.”

Susanne and I both had to suppress laughter as she wrote a note on the ticket explaining to any future train employee inspecting our tickets that we were dim-witted Americans who didn’t know east from west. Fortunately she was very nice about the whole thing, and connecting trains ran hourly to Copenhagen, so we wouldn’t have a major problem getting there eventually.

We settled into our books, now having an extra hour for quality reading time, as the train passed through the farm country of Sweden’s Skåne province. After arriving in Karlskrona, we waited about 10 minutes before the train reversed itself, giving us the chance to experience traveler’s déjà vu as we spotted familiar cows, barns and rolling hillsides along the way.

Arriving in Kristianstad, we departed the train and crossed platform to our next train. I stood for a moment outside the train, double-checking and triple-checking the digital sign that displayed the word Kobenhavn in large blocky letters. This time we would not get on the wrong train. Fortunately it was unreserved seating, so we didn’t have to worry about finding free seats on a booked train; we just grabbed what was available as soon as we could find a pair of adjoining seats. Not long after the train started to roll west, the conductor came down the aisle to check everyone’s tickets. I handed her our tickets, and she inspected them for a moment.

“Ah, yes,” she said, suppressing a grin. “I heard about you two… Don’t worry, this train is going to Copenhagen, so this time you will make it.”

“Word spreads quickly,” I replied, trying not to look too embarrassed.

“It is very easy for this to happen,” she said, seemingly feel the need to comfort us. “Ronneby is a small station, there is no announcement or platform information sign, so you should not feel bad about it.”

The rest of the ride to Copenhagen passed quickly; before too long we were crossing the bridge over Øresund, the sound separating Sweden from the Danish island of Zealand. About 20 minutes after crossing the sound, we arrived at Copenhagen’s central station. We exited the station and walked several blocks west to our hotel as a light, chilly drizzle fell on us. The weather had changed markedly in the time since we’d left warm and sunny Ronneby; Copenhagen was at least 15 degrees Fahrenheit colder, not to mention the rain. After walking half a block we stopped under a hotel awning so we could put on our coats; we were not dressed for these conditions.

Soon we arrived at the Hotel Løven, a modest accomodation located in a Turkish neighborhood in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district. Once we put down our bags, we decided to get some food; between the rush to the train station and the accidental excursion to Karlskrona, we never got around to having lunch, so were feeling quite famished. A couple blocks east of the hotel we found a delightful café decorated with Italian art posters and jazz festival lithographs. Along with some strong coffee, we each ordered a smørrebrod, Danish open-faced sandwiches. Even though they were called smørrebrods, the sandwiches actually looked more like baguettes, both of them overflowing with fixings. Susanne ordered a mozzarella and pesto, while mine was smoked salmon – simply outstanding. And I was relieved to see that the bill was just over $12, much more reasonable than Sweden, and particularly Iceland, where you’d be lucky to get one sandwich for that kind of money.

After polishing off our smørrebrod, we continued walking east, soon passing the entrance to Copenhagen’s famous amusement park, Tivoli. We planned to explore the park some time tomorrow; for now we just wanted to walk around and get a feel for the city. Just beyond Tivoli, we reached Rådhuspladsen, or town hall plaza. On the far right of the plaza sat the stately town hall, a turn-of-the-century structure with a fine clock tower. The square was crowded with people, some clearly on local business, others enjoying the sights in between the occasional raindrops. Bicyclist whizzed by the perimeter of the plaza, following along one of the many paths reserved for bicycle traffic.

Crossing the plaza, we found ourselves at the start of Strøget, a pedestrian mall that stretches northeast through Copenhagen’s Latin Quarter for more than a kilometer. The heart and soul of old town Copenhagen, Strøget was jammed with sightseers and shoppers, oblivious to the mediocre weather. Groups of German and American tourists followed tour leaders sporting colorful umbrellas; mothers driving baby carriages the size of small SUVs negotiated the pathways with streams of bicyclists.

A couple hundred meters up the street, we veered left across Gammel Torv to pay a visit to Copenhagen’s cathedral, Vor Frue Kirke. Originally founded nearly 900 years ago, the cathedral had burned down on at least two occasions, so the present structure dated from the early 19th century. The outside was surprisingly modest for a cathedral; no gargoyles, no flying buttresses. The inside was even more peculiar – whitewashed with neoclassical vaulting, columns and statues, the interior was oddly reminiscent of the US Capitol. Susanne and I wandered the cathedral, reviewing the giant statues of Jesus and the disciples sculpted by Bertel Thorvaldsen. For some reason, the names on the apostle statues didn’t seem to match the apostles as we’d remembered them. Perhaps the names were strikingly different in Danish? Hard to say.

Leaving the cathedral, we continued north by a couple blocks before reaching a much older church, Sankt Petri Kirke. Constructed in the 15th century, the church was the oldest in Copenhagen, home to the city’s German Lutheran population. Again, we found the interior of the church a surprise; the hall had been completely renovated and whitewashed, with an unusual amount of modern art on the walls. If we hadn’t known it was a 600-year-old church, we certainly wouldn’t have guessed it.

Around the corner, we briefly passed the local synagogue. Dating from the early 1800s, the synagogue is closed to the general public, so we had to do with an exterior view. From there, we walked through a delightful medieval arcade called XYZ’s Passage. This led us back to Strøget, where we headed directly for La Glace, one of the most famous 19th century pastry shops in Copenhagen. Susanne and I began to drool as we stood at the window, staring in at the vast selection of cakes, cookies and danishes – known locally as wienerbrod (Vienna bread), quite curiously. Inside the shop it was total chaos, so we needed to know what we wanted when we approached the counter; otherwise we might get bowled over by hordes of elderly ladies with no patience for our indecisiveness. Along with a small pot of coffee, Susanne ordered a slice of almond wienerbrod, while I requested the Karen Blixen cake, a mocha mousse concoction.

Sitting at our compact table, we lost ourselves in our treats as the chaos continued around us. Only when we’d finished our desserts and come up for air did we realize how hectic it was in the café. “It’s like Thunderdome in here,” Susanne said, in reference to the Mad Max movie.

Abandoning our table to a group of tourists hovering nearby, we left the café and said a brief hello to a friendly Parson Russell terrier residing next door at a boutique jewelry shop. Once the pup was ready to go back to napping in her little bed, we returned to Strøget and strolled along the shops for several more blocks. Reaching Kongens Nytorv (The King’s New Square), we veered to the right to explore the canal area known as Nyhavn. Historically the home of local fisherman, Nyhavn’s most famous resident was undoubtedly Hans Christian Andersen, who spent many years residing in house #67.

Susanne and I criss-crossed our way towards Nyhavn, having to dodge roadside construction in several different directions. Eventually, we arrived at Nyhavn – a picture-perfect stretch of colorful houses and cafes along a canal, sailboats lining either side. Touristy, yes, but still absolutely adorable. Unfortunately the skies were still dark with clouds, so it wasn’t the most suitable conditions for taking photographs, but we did our best just in case we wouldn’t find ourselves back this way again. We walked the length of the canal, even climbing onto a canvas-covered boat to get closer photos of the houses lining the other side of the water. Crossing to the opposite side by way of a small bridge, we walked along the numerous cafes, many of which were busy with Danes wasting away the damp afternoon over pints of Carlsberg and Tuborg.

Halfway down the canal, a group of young people in red costumes and funny hats came our way, handing out pamphlets to strangers. One of them came up to us, pamphlet in hand.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you tourists?”

“Yes,” Susanne said somewhat hesitantly.

“Oh, I’m very sorry,” she replied. We figured she meant “sorry to bother you” because the pamphlets were written for local Copenhageners, but it came across as “I’m sorry to hear you’re a tourist.” She was actually very nice, and even offered to pose for a photo by Susanne.

Leaving the Nyhavn canal, we decided we had just enough energy to explore a little further. We walked northwest on Bredgade, in the general direction of Amelienborg Palace. After a few blocks we came across the Marble Church, an enormous, neo-baroque structure modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. Though construction had started in the 1700s, the project soon went bankrupt due to the price of Norwegian marble; it took the assistance of a wealthy businessman to finance the rest of the construction, which was completed over a century later.

As we entered the church, we passed multiple signs each displaying the world SILENCE in large, uppercase letters. Susanne and I had visited many churches that requested you respect the sanctity of their space, but I’d never seen one so insistent on absolute silence. Nonetheless, as we entered the church we soon encountered a group of tourists whispering rather emphatically. The ornate inner dome had just the right acoustics to create an echo inside, so there was no way of disguising the visitors’ conversation.

Continuing up the street, we passed a Russian Orthodox church built in the late 1800s by tsar Alexander III. Soon we reached an enormous park that surrounded Kastellet, a 16th century fort still used by the Danish military. To the right of the fort stood St. Alban’s, a tall Anglican church that was built for the wedding of King Edward VII of Britain, who had married a Danish princess before being crowned. We approached the wooden bridge leading to the fort and couldn’t figure out if we were able to enter or not. Just past the gate we could see a number of soldier in camouflage. Unsure what to do for a few minutes, we soon observed a family pushing baby carriages stroll across the bridge and through the group of soldiers without any sign of problems. So we followed their lead and proceeded across the bridge, where we were thoroughly ignored by the troops.

Susanne soon disappeared up a hill above the barracks while I fished out my tour book to see if it had any information on this place; the guide said that the fort was a public park during daylight hours, so we weren’t trespassing after all.

Looking across at an opposite hill, I was befuddled when I saw an enormous cruise ship appear to glide across the hillside. I climbed a little higher and realized that the fort was located along the waterfront; in fact, somewhere just beyond the fort was the home of the famous Little Mermaid statue. Once we realized this, we decided to proceed through the fort to the other side, so we could reach the harbor and seek out Copenhagen’s most famous landmark.

A chilly breeze greeted us as we exited the northern gate of the fort. We followed a path to the waterfront; across the harbor we could see industrial windmills, smokestacks and warehouses. It wasn’t exactly the type of location I expected to find the Little Mermaid. Ahead of us we could see a group of tourists working their way down a set of stone steps; that must be the place. Soon enough, we reached a quay, below which sat the statue of the mermaid on a rock, a few feet into the harbor. A man and his daughter had just jumped from rock to rock until they’d climbed onto the statue’s perch, posing for a picture before struggling to jump back to the quay. The statue was smaller than I expected, but delicate, pretty; you couldn’t even tell that the poor thing’s head had been sawed off by pranksters on two different occasions.

The wind began to pick up as we stood along the quay, so we lingered long enough to appreciate the statue and snap a couple of pictures. It was now getting rather late, and I realized that we were almost three miles from our hotel, so we had a long walk ahead of us. Following the path around the upper edge of the fort, we connected to a busy roadway, passing a series of quaint row houses before veering southwest down Rigensgade. After a few more blocks we reached a large, meticulously manicured park; it was the grounds surrounding Rosenborg Slot, a 17th century palace that served as summer residence for the king. We cut through the park, following a path lined with perfectly symmetrical trees, until we reached the center of the garden, with a view of the palace to our west. The palace had closed for the evening, so we’d have to return tomorrow if we wanted to see its collection of the Danish crown jewels.

On the other side of the park, we were approached by a group of young women sporting plastic purple crowns, one of whom was also wearing a wedding vail.

“Could you take our picture,” one of them asked.

“Of course,” Susanne said. “Bachelorette party?”

“Sorry?” the apparent bride-to-be replied.

“Batchelorette party,” Susanne repeated.

One of the other women jumped in at this point. “Yes, batchelorette party; she is the bride.”

After Susanne took their picture, plus one for good luck, we encountered a group of young people in their early 20s. They were sitting in a circle, drinking beer and smoking, singing a song. They sounded like a glee club, each picking different harmonies or singing counterpoint. We paused for a moment to listen to them but some of them began to giggle, becoming self-conscious of our presence.

After several more blocks, we finally found ourselves in familiar territory, at the far eastern end of the Strøget pedestrian mall. The street was even more crowded than before, as shoppers were joined with throngs of diners having dinner at local cafes. We paused for a while on a bench near a church as a group of Roma musicians played Slavonic Dances and other Eastern European classics. Susanne spent a few minutes taking pictures of the musicians, who appeared to be having a grand old time. The two fiddlers jousted with each other as the hammer dulcimer player kept up furious pace, hollering and laughing at appropriate crescendos in the music. The bench was a perfect spot for people watching; beautiful young fashionistas, elderly couples in their finest outfits, tourists with exhausted children, street hawkers selling bubble machines and tin whistles.

By the time we reached the neighborhood around our hotel, the local restaurants were getting crowded with the second or third round of diners. Just across the street from our base camp, we found the Ankara restaurant, a Turkish all-you-can-eat buffet. Upstairs we managed to claim one of the last available tables just as a large group of people arrived behind us. The waitress told us about the buffet and ordered our drinks, so we jumped in head-first into a wonderful assortment of hot dishes and salads: kofte meatballs, cacik yogurt, shepard’s salad, several different bean dishes, olives and bulgar wheat pilafs. Eventually, we returned upstairs to the hotel, our stomachs stuffed and our feet swollen. Hopefully we’d have enough energy tomorrow to take full advantage of our final day in Scandinavia.

Posted by acarvin at June 4, 2004 09:20 PM | TrackBack

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