Copenhagen has more old world charm than new

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:00am

This city on the Baltic Sea is steeped in history and offers visitors grand architecture and compelling monuments

COPENHAGEN IS A magnificent European capital that, like Vienna, Amsterdam or Lisbon, is far grander than one would expect for a nation of relatively modest size.

History provides the answers. Vienna was the heart of a central European empire until the first world war led to sudden imperial shrinkage. Amsterdam and Lisbon had far-flung maritime colonies. Denmark was a predominant power in Scandinavia, even ruling over large tracts of Sweden until a war in 1655-8. It has also always been a leading sea power and maintains shipping lines that criss-cross the globe to this day and have a major presence in Hong Kong.

For centuries, Copenhagen has served as the crossroads between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. With this grandeur there is also a kind of world-city buzz that gives visitors from Hong Kong, New York and London a sense of deja-vu.

The entrance to Copenhagen's most celebrated thoroughfare, Stroget, is flanked by a 7-Eleven and a Burger King. But after these reminders of the present, Europe's longest pedestrianised shopping street soon yields its charm amid cobblestone alleys, many fine examples of Baroque architecture and elegant shops. The east end, known locally as the 'royal end', is where all the flagship stores of Denmark's most famous brands are, including Bang & Olufsen (hi-fi audio), Georg Jensen (silverware), and Royal Copenhagen (porcelain).

The west section of Stroget is the place for inexpensive souvenirs such as Viking-themed tankards, dolls in regional folk costumes and amber jewellery (amber being plentiful across the nations of the south Baltic).

If you choose to take a coffee break at one of Stroget's many Konditoris (coffee shops), do not ask for a Danish. Although a certain type of pastry is globally known as such, contrarian Danes call it a Viennese pastry, or Wienerbrod in Danish. When Copenhagen's bakers went on strike a few centuries ago, bakers from Vienna were recruited to meet demand for the popular treat.

Along Stroget one can also find eateries where a harvest of the North and Baltic seas, and some of Denmark's world-beating beer, can be combined with an hour or so of leisurely people-watching.

As the mercury rises in spring and summer, Stroget takes on a festive vibe and becomes a menagerie of engaging street-life, with musicians and performers conjuring up a little offbeat magic long into those endless sunny Nordic evenings.

Within walking distance are all the major sights of this stately metropolis. At the east end of Stroget lies the central square of Radhuspladsen, with its massive 100-year-old city hall (magnificent views can be enjoyed from the clock house of the Radhus).

Across the road, Tivoli Gardens offer a myriad of memorable family distractions in the form of amusement rides, flower gardens, food pavilions and open-air shows.

At Christiansborg Palace on the waterfront there is a statue of the great 19th Century monarch Christian IX on horseback - reminders of the city's golden age.

I found Copenhagen's most compelling monuments to be its churches, many of which are dazzling examples of Denmark's adventurous ecclesiastical architecture.

A personal favourite is Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior's Church), which has a 95 metre-high spiral tower that resembles a spiral staircase. The last 150 steps run along the outside rim of the tower and is not an experience recommended for sufferers of vertigo.

For those that make it, a marvellous panorama awaits, one that juxtaposes the sea with an intricate skyline from a Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Back on terra firma, it is best to cross roads with great care despite the remarkably light traffic. Copenhagen's environmentally aware inhabitants are fond of their bicycles and the cycle lanes of city streets are usually thronged with pedaling Danes, often travelling at astonishing speed. Vigilance is needed at every crossing.

For a more relaxing time, head to the Nyhavn canal, which was dug in the late 17th century to allow trade ships into the city centre. It has now become the city's activity centre. The quay is lined with old wooden ships, cafes and restaurants and is where Copenhagen residents hang out and catch up with friends.

Beyond Copenhagen, Denmark's only truly large city, lies a bucolic countryside that proudly regards itself as the world's farm, providing - the nation's ham and dairy products can be found in supermarkets across the globe.

Denmark's topography is not dramatic (the tallest hill reaches only 173 metres), but the hinterland's colouration is amazing.

Also imperative is a visit to the famous lighthouse of Rubjerg Knude in Northern Jutland. It was built in 1900 but had to cease operation in 1968 because storms kept piling up sand dunes in front of it, now reaching 90 metres high, and the lighthouse is no longer visible from the North Sea.

Koldinghus, also in Jutland, is one of the last royal castles in the country and was once the command centre of the Danish throne. A fire in 1808 reduced it to a ruin and it now attracts artists and poets.

It is being converted to a museum of cultural history and a venue for cultural activities.