Sunday, May 29, 2011

Copenhagen: Day 1

When we went to sleep last night, the forecast was for rain today. Nope! Dawned sunny, albeit cool, and stayed that way all day. Well, until the very end, when we were tired, as far from our hotel as we had been all day, and needed to walk back to the other end of town in the rain. We got damp enough it wasn't really even worth trying to catch the S-tog tramway.

Copenhagen is supposed to have this great bus, tram, train, metro system...and we hardly saw a bus all day and never did see any of the trains or trams. Compared to Gothenburg and Stockholm, where they are a constant presence, they just never seemed to be around when we walked. I can only assume it meant we were walking in the wrong parts of town, or something.

After stuffing ourselves full of Wienerbrod and croissants (and coffee for mark) at the nearby bakery, we just starting walking "towards town", to the main pedestrian zone in the city, admiring the buildings and the various churches we kept finding at every turn. Copenhagen has a huge network of pedestrian-only streets through the middle of the city, and scattered throughout the rest of the city are some random blocks and squares that have attached pedestrian zones -- eventually, it seems as if half the city will be only for people and bikes, with cars relegated to the outer fringes.

And bikes there are -- thousands of them. I don't think I've ever seen so many bikes in my life. Hundreds of them in racks near every bus stop and every big building, lining squares and filling the bike racks (which are as numerous as trees here, i swear) on every square. Every single street is lined with bikes just leaning against the walls -- all stolid, dependable, simple sorts of bikes (no fancy racing bikes here, or big heavy mountain bikes -- Copenhagen is the purview of the Cruiser in all it's styles). Nearly all of them sport a basket or two, many have one (or two!) child seats strapped to them, and a few even have a big square cart in front, making them more like a reverse-tricycle than a bike (think of something that looks like an old-fashioned ice-cream cart -- two wheels in front with a bin,and one behind.). Everyone rides bikes, and the bike lanes on most roads seem to be better planned and better maintained than the roads themselves. I thought Stockholm was bike-friendly, it looks positively tame compared to Copenhagen. Our hotel rents bikes, too -- we may try that tomorrow. Of course, I haven't been on a bike in about 20 years, so that could be a fun experiment. If I post tomorrow from a hospital room, you will know immediately that it's because of a bike!

Our timing worked out perfectly to join one of the canal tours (in a shallow open-topped boat that barely slips beneath some of the low bridges in the canals) and we enjoyed an hour floating around the main canals of Interhavnen and through the old neighborhoods of Holmen island, where everyone seems to have their own boat moored in the canal. It was interesting -- not so much because it told us any of the history of the city, as advertised, but because we got to see some of the areas and neighborhoods that we probably wouldn't make it to on foot, and we got to see the main harbor views from the water. The Black Diamond of the library, the Opera House, the Royal Theater, as well as some very nice views down the canals themselves, filled with sail boats and tons of people. And, the guide on the boat did the tour in three separate languages (Danish,English, and German) and swapped between the three without pause. It was quite impressive, really, and "low bridge! Watchyour head!" sounds remarkably similar in all three.

Mark decided to look for more food and coffee while I climbed the Rundetaarn (Round Tower) for the views out over the city. The tower was originally an observatory (the oldest in Denmark, from 1642). The inside of the tower doesn't have stairs -- to get to the top you walk up a huge spiral ramp, which is unique in Europe. It's a bit of a hike to the top, but the views out over Copenhagen are cool -- especially looking down on the rabbit-warren of streets and red-tile roofs just below the tower itself.

Very close to the tower is Rosenborg Castle and the huge castle garden (if you look on a map, they seem to cover about a quarter of the main island. Someone (several someones, I'm sure) has spent a lot of time, a tremendous amount of time, turning rows of beech trees into rectangular shapes. Seems rather weird, actually, since the trees are lovely in their natural shape, but the perfectly straight, perfectly block-shaped trees make for impressive avenues. There are a dozen different areas in the gardens, and we only saw the English knot garden and the large meadow of camelias (I think?) in six different colors before we went to the castle itself.

Only the state rooms are open, and some of the items displayed are really interesting (a number of brass clocks, and a room that is nearly completely mirrored are among the surprising finds), but the real draw is the Treasury beneath the castle, with cases full of extraordinary ivory carvings and cameos and steins and other tchotchkes that the rich and famous would give to the king. Some of the work is astoundingly ugly, but they are fascinating nonetheless because of their detail -- a 10" tall stein carved with intertwining branches and flowers, all perfectly formed is sort of mesmerizing, really -- how long would it take to actually carve that by hand? Without a dremel? One cup of coffee too many, one slip of the hand, and months of work have to be redone. I suppose the point was to show how rich you were, that you could afford to have this made and give it to the king, who probably just had it shipped off to a storeroom anyhow.

We listened to the advice of two gentleman sitting on a park bench to try an italian sandwich shop on the Stroget for lunch, which once again reinforced our "how to choose lunch" rules. Packed, bustling, and very, very tasty. Mark is so much more pleasant when he's had food. Oy. We were in a bit of a hurry, since i wanted to see the Royal Stables at Christianborg palace, andthey were only open from 2-4. They are completely restored -- in fact, completely rebuilt, due to changes in the rules as to how horses can be stabled. The old stable had stalls that were too small and the new law didn't allow the horses to be left in them for very long. So, they basically gutted the place and rebuilt it (using the same materials and as much of the old stsables as possible), including digging down the the floor over a meter and expanding all the lovely wood and stone horse stalls into even lovelier wood and stone "openboxes" that are three times the size. The troughs are still granite, the stall walls are still dark-stained wood, and the whole stable actually looks like the inner aisle of a huge stone church, big stone columns and all. It's really nice. I'm also a sucker for the bits and bobs that make up the old carriages, and the stables have almost twenty examples, some of them several hundred years old. The stable was theonly part of the castle to survive both fires (which destroyed the first two versions entirely).

Another thing that nearly always fascinates me are excavations and old foundations of things (crumbly bits!) and Christianborg has a huge underground walk through the excavated remains of the first castle built there inthe 12th century by city founger Bishop Absolom. They were restored about five years ago and you can walk through to see the remains of the old castle walls, towers, and wooden water mains built into the early stone castle here. The current castle is about the sixth iteration of a castle here (and it's more a manor house than castle, if you ask me) -- the previous two versions before this one burned to the ground because of faulty construction. A heating pipe lit a fire in the hollow spaces above a ceiling and the fire raced through the first building until it reached the attic...where they were storing wood to dry. The replacement palace was designed with firebreaks and better fire-fighting capabilities, but when it, too, was lit on fire by a faulty heating grate, the crew to fight the fire was denied entrance to the great hall (the fire had started inthe hollow passages underneath it) by the steward because he'd just polished the floors. It burned to the ground in a spectacular fashion and it was years before it was rebuilt. A lot of the art and furniture didn't survive the blaze (which was described by one person as a volcano, as if Vesuvius had erupted in the middle of the palace. It's quite a visual).

We also did our turn as Tourists today and ambled out to see the Little Mermaid statue, along with gaggles of other poeple. It's really quite tiny, and very close to shore. I was expecting something a bit further out, to be honest. But, now I've seen it, and can assure peple that yes, I've been to Copenhagen, I've seen The Little Mermaid, and survived. Frankly, I was more impressed by the Gefion fountain, which is a rather amazing thing with bulls and spouting water and rock-filled waterfalls. Amazing in a "um..why would anyone build that..." sort of way. Still, we sat and admired it in all its glory for a few minutes before heading on. We were going to walk around the fortifications on the island, but it decided at that moment to pour down rain and we simply stuck our hands in our pockets, ducked our heads, and walked as quickly as possible back to the hotel. It's still raining, but it's subsided to a faint drizzle, at least.

Tomorrow? Out into Copenhagan again-- Amalienborg Palace, the National Museum, the Navy Museum, and more pastries, I'm sure.

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