June 06, 2004

Copenhagen, Day 2: Vertigo and Tivoli

Susanne and I woke up Saturday just before 8am. Outside there appeared to be some rain clouds in the distance, but from what I could tell they were heading away from the city. We decided to leave our umbrellas behind when we left for breakfast; it would be a fateful decision.

Since our hotel didn’t serve breakfast, we decided to walk towards Strøget in search of a café. Several of the cafes near our hotel were either closed or deserted, so we continued walking past the Rådhus until reaching the western end of Strøget. Our choices were rather limited; several Irish pubs were open, but their clientele appeared to be continuing their drinking from the prior evening. Eventually we arrived at Café Europa, a swank little place with nice outdoor seating on the square. When we looked at the menu, my eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my head: nearly $10 for a croissant, jam and fruit platter, and it didn’t even come with a cup of coffee. By the time we left there we’d spent nearly $30 and I still felt like I hadn’t had breakfast. Frustrated, I walked across the street to another coffee shop; this one didn’t have outdoor seating, but at least I could get a coffee and a roll to go for less than four bucks.

Our plan for the morning was to walk across the main canal into Christianshavn to visit Von Frelsers Kirke, a church with a curious spiraling steeple that offered one of the finest views of the city. As we headed south from Strøget towards the canal, we made a brief detour to Slotsholmen, a small island that serves as Denmark’s seat of government. Tightly packed with palaces and gardens, Slotsholmen was supposed to be a beautiful place to visit. Unfortunately, the best buildings were usually closed to the public, or only open on special tours. Nonetheless, hiking across the outer courtyards gave us a feel for the place. We spent a while lingering in the gardens of the royal library, watching several families of ducks playing in the large water fountain at its center.

We exited Slotsholmen, passing a horse and carriage bringing a Danish military officer into one of the government offices, then proceeded to cross the canal into Christianshavn. We soon found several smaller canals that were modeled on the waterways of Amsterdam; their resemblance was quite striking. Off in the distance, the rain clouds I’d perceived as heading away from us were now clearly headed straight towards us. It wasn’t a matter of if we’d get wet; it was whether we’d get wet while spiraling up the outside staircase that leads to the top of Von Frelsers Kirke.

Within a few blocks we reached the outer courtyard of the church. High above us, Susanne and I could see the marvelous steeple, black with a gold strip winding its way to the top, like a gilded, chocolate-coated ice cream cone. We first visited the interior of the church; built in the late 17th century, the church features a 300-year-old pipe organ and an altar designed by Swedish architectural genius Nicodemus Tessin.

Near the entrance of the church, we each paid an attendant 20 kronor for the privilege to climb more than 400 steps to the top of the steeple. The first hundred steps were rather straightforward, as we ascended a series of stone steps. Then, we passed through a large door, leading us to a labyrinth of wooden scaffolding housing the church bells and clock. On several occasions we had to duck our heads to fit through the tight passages leading upward.

Nearly 300 steps to the top, we proceeded through another door and found ourselves on the outer base of the steeple. A gold-painted railing was all that protected us from a long fall and a quick death; fortunately, my fear of heights seemed to be taking a holiday this morning. Walking clockwise around the platform, we reached the spiral staircase that winds dramatically to the very top of the steeple. Susanne and I were quite knackered from the climb, but didn’t want to stop with only a short way to go to the very top, so we started the final ascent.

As we walked counterclockwise to the top, the rain clouds to the west were becoming darker, more ominous. Neither of us wanted to linger at the very top; a few moments snapping some pictures of the old town would suffice.

“Okay, let’s go,” Susanne said, ready to head back down.

“I thought you weren’t afraid of heights,” I replied, following her.

“Sometimes, and this is getting to me,” she said. “I mean, look at it out there.”

I looked over the edge of the rail, and suddenly imagined what it would feel like if the rail had vanished. Suddenly I felt a wave of nausea come over me. “Okay, I see your point,” I said. “I can only imagine what it was like to build this thing 300 years ago.”

Both of us were quite happy when we went through the door back into the maze of wooden scaffolding. Even though the scaffolding was much riskier for us – the steps were slippery and quite vertical – we were just happy to be indoors again.

Back at the entrance of the church, we started to hike northwest towards Strøget again. The clouds that we’d seen approaching us from atop the steeple were now straight overhead; it was just a matter of time. We crossed the canal and walked parallel to Slotsholmen when the first raindrops fell. At first it was just an inconvenient drizzle; within a matter of minutes it was a steady shower. Just a couple of blocks below Strøget, we retreated to an apartment doorway and spent the next 30 minutes keeping dry as best as possible. The rain was actually quite pretty to watch falling on the cobblestones, now that we were no longer standing in it. But my coat was quite drenched and my hair was dripping wet; I knew the next couple of hours were going to be rather uncomfortable.

Once the rain died down to the point that we didn’t mind walking out into it again, we hiked another block to the coffee shop where I’d picked up my supplementary breakfast. The café was jammed with people retreating from the rain, and the staff seemed quite overwhelmed. I waited about 15 minutes to get a couple of bottles of soda for us – the coffee service was so slow we didn’t care if we had cold drinks at this point – then we found a couple of seats by a second-floor window with an excellent view of the square.

The rain continued to slow its pace, as best as we could tell through the window. Off to the distance I could even make out some sunshine penetrating the fluffy clouds, so perhaps there was hope we could salvage part of the afternoon. Eventually, the rain died down to no more than a nagging mist, so we left the café and walked towards Nyhavn in search of lunch. I’d heard good things about Nyhavns Færgekro, an old Danish café famous for its lunchtime herring buffet. Neither of us were into herring, but they supposedly had a good selection of smørrebrod sandwiches as well.

Reaching the canal, we went downstairs to the lower level of the restaurant, which looked like it’d been serving customers there since the 18th century. A waitress who appeared to have been several inches taller than six feet tall first sat us at a long bench in a corner of the room, then offered us our own table when it opened up a couple of minutes later. Susanne and I each selected a smørrebrod for ourselves: I wanted to have the smoked salmon while Susanne stuck with her mozzarella and pesto. We then waited for the next 25 minutes, unable to make eye contact with any of the wait staff. On a couple occasions several of them appeared to debate who would work our corner of the restaurant, but they came to no satisfactory conclusion. So we waited and waited as the rest of the people in the restaurant got to order and receive their food.

Eventually I waved down a waiter and gave him a look of exasperation; he took our order and vanished somewhere in the kitchen. A few minutes later, our sandwiches arrived; neither of them were larger than the palm of my hand, and Susanne’s was so stingy it featured only a single slice of mozzarella. (Compare that to the sandwiches we had for yesterday’s lunch, and these smørrebrods were a joke.) For the second time today, it appeared I’d have to supplement a meal with a second round of food. I was really getting frustrated with the poor service and overpriced finger food; it probably didn’t help that I hadn’t slept much the night before and was still quite wet from the morning rain.

After lunch, we stepped outside and discovered the rain had stopped, replaced by huge crowds of people, many of whom were wearing red and white Danish football jerseys. Hundreds of them were crammed along the edge of the canal, sitting wherever there was room, carrying handfuls of Carlsberg beer and hotdogs. Later today the Danish national team was going to play Croatia, so the entire country, it seemed, had come out to Nyhavn for a tailgate party. Susanne was eager to wander the crowd and take pictures of people; I meanwhile, was in a bit of a sour mood from still being wet and hungry, but I did my best not to drag Susanne down with me.

Once Susanne had finished her portraits of face-painted, Viking-helmeted football fans, we returned to Strøget, heading west down the pedestrian mall. The street was as crowded as we’d ever seen it, with an apparent majority of people sporting the red and white football jerseys of the national team. The sun had now reappeared from its morning exile, and I could feel the dampness slowly vanishing from my coat. It was actually now warm enough to tie our coats around our waists, so we stripped off our outer layer and went in search of an ice cream cone.

Back in Stockholm, we’d discovered the marvels of hazelnut ice cream when we had dinner at Tomas and Eva Ohlin’s house, and we were eager for a repeat performance if we could find it anywhere. We had to visit a few ice cream shops before we found one that sold our flavor of choice, but it was well worth the wait. I ended up getting a cone with two scoops of hazelnut, one scoop of pistachio, while Susanne the purist stuck with hazelnut ice cream only. We found some space for us to lean against on the edge of a marble fountain and spent the next 20 minutes enjoying every lick and bite of the ice cream, while watching the crowds of red-and-white sports fans drinking their beers, making the most out of a sunny afternoon.

As far as either of us were concerned, we only had one other thing to do while in Copenhagen, and that was visit Tivoli. For over 160 years, Tivoli has been the grand dame of European amusement parks, and you didn’t even have to leave the old town to visit it. Tivoli is actually located in the heart of Copenhagen, squeezed in between the central train station and the Rådhuspladsen. So we stopped by our hotel just long enough to get rid of our jackets – and grab our umbrellas, just in case – then backtracked three blocks to the entrance of the amusement park.

After paying the $9 entry fee, we walked into Tivoli, and immediately forgot we were in the biggest city in Scandinavia. Tivoli was a throwback to the Victorian age, its gardens and amusements jammed with thousands of visitors. In fact, we were quite taken aback by the throngs of people crammed into such a small space; I wasn’t sure how long we’d last there, particularly as it began to appear that the rains would return. But soon enough the skies cleared again, the crowds thinned a little, and we had just enough space to wander the park at our leisure.

Rather than climb onto any of the roller coasters – not one of my favorite activities anyway – we explored the grounds of the park. Much of Tivoli had a Near East theme, with restaurants designed to look like the Taj Mahal, and rides located in sultans’ palaces. I imagine these Islamic themes must have seemed really exotic at the turn of the last century, which seemed ironic considering there were now many Muslim families strolling around the park, and groups of children led around by women in headscarves.

Everyone at Tivoli seemed to be having a marvelous time, particularly the parents, with constant access to Carlsberg beer around every corner. Oddly enough, it was the kids who seemed to be having less fun at Tivoli; lots of kids were pouting, crying or screaming, perhaps from exhaustion after a long day of queuing for one ride after another. Susanne and I made a loop around the park, then settled down at an outdoor café so I could have my first taste of Carlsberg since arriving in Denmark. The beer was sudsy and cold, well worth the $7 a cup they were extorting from us visitors.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lingering in different corners of the park, watching families paddleboat across ponds and big bands perform in the outdoor palladium. There was even a parade of live toy soldiers, with boys dressed like they were marching straight out of a gingerbread house, escorting a “king” and “queen” in an ornate carriage. The royalty, probably no more than eight or nine years old, even had the royal hand wave down pat, rotating their wrists left to right in a hilariously pompous fashion.

Around 6:30pm we left the park, getting our hands stamped just in case we wanted to go back later in the evening. Susanne dropped off her camera at the hotel before we proceeded to the Koh-I-Noor restaurant, which Lonely Planet had recommended for its nightly Pakistani buffet. But after getting one look at its disturbing selection of oily meats and stagnant mushroom curry, we decided to take our business elsewhere, so we walked a few blocks south to Denmark’s first Pakistani restaurant, the Shezan. There, we had a delicious dinner of chana masala and chicken vindaloo, along with naan that was more akin to Afghani flatbread.

By 8pm we returned to the hotel, hoping to spend some time reading and journaling until it got sufficiently dark outside before returning to Tivoli. The amusement park is supposed to be particularly beautiful at night, and they have a fireworks show just before midnight on Saturdays.

We spent about an hour at the hotel before heading back outside; the sun hadn’t set but was now hidden in a bank of low clouds. Walking several blocks east to Tivoli’s entrance, we showed the security guard the green stamp on the inside of our wrist – the word “ROCK” in capital letters – and were welcomed back into the park.

Tivoli at night is a marked contrast to the park during the day. Less crowded, more subdued Tivoli took on an entirely different character as the sun set. The number of children had decreased significantly, with more well-dressed adults appearing for a fancy dinner at one of Tivoli’s many restaurants. As we entered the grounds, we soon reached a pavilion featuring a chamber orchestra. The musicians were playing an upbeat Tchaikovsky waltz, as a crowd of people listened while sitting in rows of park benches. We stood to the side and enjoyed the waltz, which was followed by a Richard Strauss piece.

Knowing that we had around two hours before the 11:45pm fireworks display, we decided to get some dessert at the ZZZ restaurant. Housed in a glass pavilion with penetrated by a large tree, the restaurant was jammed with well-dressed diners drinking copious amounts of wine, beer and aquavit. We soon managed to get a table; both of us ordered the hazelnut pie, while also ask for a small glass of chilled Pedro Ximenez sherry. It took a while to place the order, but we were in no rush; I didn’t know if we would be able to stay awake until the fireworks, but a least we wanted to be at Tivoli long enough to fully appreciate it at night.

My sherry soon arrived, followed by our pie. Each slice was piping hot, accompanied by a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, strawberry sauce, sliced passionfruit and a dusting of crushed pistachios. The combination of flavors was simply magnificent, and the syrupy sherry was an added bonus; all that was missing were cigars.

We lingered over dessert until just after 10:30pm, at which point we paid our bill and began strolling deeper into the park. The restaurant modeled after the Taj Mahal was now glowing with thousands of light bulbs, reflected in a small pool out in front. Water danced in the central fountain, while some of the remaining young children were treated to balloons shaped like dolphins and butterflies.

Susanne suggested we try going to the right, along the western edge of the park. I couldn’t remember if we had seen anything back there earlier in the day, so I was pleasantly surprised to discovered a street heading up a hillside, each side of the street busy with cafes, pubs, amusement games, candy shops, even slot machines. Some of the storefronts were decorated with a Wild West theme, which added to the character of the small casinos and bars. We paused for a while at a poster shop that sold reprints of vintage Tivoli posters dating back over 100 years. The posters ranged in style and quality, with the most charming posters surprisingly coming from the early 1980s.

Backtracking down the busy street, we walked the perimeter of the park. We discovered there were several casinos towards the back of Tivoli; perhaps they weren’t open in the daytime, because we hadn’t noticed them earlier. The casinos added to the park’s more “adult” aura at night; even though there were still some kids around, the evening hours at Tivoli were the time for their parents to come back without them.

The Chinese pagoda restaurant, not far from the roller coaster, was lit with colorful bulbs from top to bottom, accented by several dozen glowing paper lanterns in the adjacent tree. We walked to the far side of the pagoda and took pictures of it from the pond, with the glowing lights reflecting in the water. Further to the east, you could see the clock tower of the Rådhus, apparently lit up by floodlights, with haunting, fluffy clouds floating behind it.

By now it was just passed 11:15pm, according to the bells that tolled from the clock tower. We were only 30 minutes from the start of the fireworks, but both of us were starting to feel quite exhausted. We decided to persevere and stay for the display, but the next 30 minutes would pass very slowly. Soon we parked ourselves on a bench facing the Taj Mahal restaurant. A somewhat tipsy Turkish couple sat next to us, smoking and laughing; I had to lean towards Susanne on several occasions to avoid being stung by errant ashes escaping the man’s cigarette.

Just after 11:30 we noticed that groups of people were assembling in the central pavilion, just in front of the large water fountain; this must be the best viewing spot for the fireworks. We found an open row of seats and sat down, just in front of a group of drunken women from Yorkshire who appeared to be having the time of their lives.

As soon as the bells of the clock tower sounded the arrival of 11:45, most of the lights around the parks dimmed quickly. Far ahead of us, on the building beyond the water fountain, roman candles shot upwards from the roof, followed by a giant sparkler display that spelled out the words 05 Juni 2004. For the next 10 minutes we were treated to a delightful fireworks display directly over the southern perimeter of the park. Each fire burst created a percussive thud that echoed behind us in the central band shell, generating collective “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd.

Almost as suddenly as the show had begun, it was over, punctuated by a final volley of roman candles, flares and sparklers. The crowd applauded excitedly, half due to the quality of the show, half perhaps because of a readiness to head out for the rest of the night. We soon joined the river of people walking to the north gate of the park, the exit closest to our hotel. Outside we spotted several groups of young men sporting the colors of the national football team; they were quite drunk but not giving away much of any sign if Denmark had won or lost.

Soon the crowd dissipated as we crossed the street and headed west to the hotel. Despite the bright lights of the city, we saw stars above us, the first stars we’d seen since arriving in Scandinavia over a week ago. With the sun setting close to 11pm in Denmark, and the skies never getting darker than dusk in Iceland, the stars surprised both of us. In an odd way it reminded us of home -- just dark enough to see some stars, but not dark enough to see that many of them – and it made me realize that we’d be off to the airport in less than 12 hours. I didn’t expect to get a good night’s sleep, considering what I’d experienced the night before, but it really didn’t matter. We’d just seen the fireworks over Tivoli, and I couldn’t think of a better way of ending our brief, but delightful trip to Scandinavia.

Posted by acarvin at June 6, 2004 09:21 AM | TrackBack
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