Denmark’s capital Copenhagen runs on paddle power, but it doesn’t mean it is out of gas.
Nishiraj A. Baruah soaks in the sights and sounds of the Nordic city
The giant tree suddenly moves, startling me. How the hell…! “Look, look, look,” I point it out to the members of our group, as all eyes turn to look at the Christmas tree, as tall as a 4 storey building, that is seemingly walking by itself beyond a stall at the plaza. It’s only a few seconds later that we discover: The tree is actually being moved by a crane. Uprooted from somewhere in the hills, it is now being planted in the middle of the square. It’s Christmas and the Nordic nation is dressed to the hilt. Shopping malls are lit up in twinkle-twinkle lights, window signs announce festive discounts, gift boxes are being filed up for effect, and the little boutiques sell posters and books on Xmas tales. Even companies like Karlsberg have bottled up Xmas in liquid form and shape. It is in the middle of this festive warmth and freezing weather that we arrive by a 6 hour Emirates flight at Copenhagen from Dubai, where we arrived earlier by an Air India flight from New Delhi.
The wind is icy and the cold is biting (temperature one day came down to -3 degree c, the average being 7 degree Celsius). We shiver. Our guide breaks into a profuse apology: “Sorry about the weather.” The cold has brought out the candles – and they are in the doorways of every house, every entrance, every restaurant tables and shop shelves. It indeed provides for a warm glow. The trees are barren, the sky overcast and by 4 pm, it’s as dark as midnight. But that hasn’t dampened the spirit which is one of anticipation as the Danes valiantly fight the gloom armed with overcoats, mufflers, boots, bright lights and music welcoming Christmas.
But a tourist gotta do things touristy and our first tour of Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark, is by rickshaw, a popular way for sightseeing. Rickshaws are better built than ours and so are the pullers. As we ride one around the city stopping by Design Museum Denmark, the Round Tower, cathedrals and the churches, our rickshawala impresses us by his knowledge on art and architecture, environment and solar power. Well-travelled, he had even been to Ladakh and Varanasi where he had worked on a project on solar powered cycles and rickshaws at Banaras Hindu University. With a forever smile on his lips, he speaks English as if it is his mother tongue.
We stop to take a look at the marble busts of the scholars in front of the University of Copenhagen. “If you want to end up as a head there, you have to study very, very hard,” says our guide. We move on, only to be stopped by a policeman. What’s up? Well, an iron canal bridge lifts itself up from the middle to make way for a tall boat to pass. This over, our rickshaw guy now turns our attention to his married life. He had been married once to a Vietnamese woman who left him, after which at 50 he is now on an on-off relationship. And when we pass by a desolate grey park, he says, “I have to sleep in this park tonight.” Is he joking? “Ha, ha, but why?” I ask. “Oh,” he says, “I’m homeless.” This comes as a surprise. After all, Copenhagen is known as the most liveable city in the world.
Later in the evening, I have another tryst with rickshaw-pullers. As I explore the squares on foot, I see a lone woman rickshaw puller waiting for passengers, a cigarette between her lips. It’s 9 pm now. The weather is getting chillier. Shops are being shut. Shoppers are thinning out. And I am too tired to walk my way to my home, er, hotel. Yes, I need a ride. She stares at me expectantly. But I hesitate. Is it ok for me to be rickshawed by a woman? She sure needs the money – else who stays out so late in the cold! But I just can’t bring myself to the idea. Just then, another rickshaw – this one driven by a man – pulls up next to her, and they start chatting. His is a battery operated one with a steering wheel. I promptly approach him for a ride, feeling guilty at the same time for ignoring the woman. Have I done the right thing, choosing him over her? Debating over this, I reach my hotel, just a little distance away. But the price is not little at all! While back home we haggle over a Rs 20-30 fare with the rickshawallas, here I shell out 150 Danish kroners for the ride. That’s around three thousand five hundred rupees.
Which is why it makes more sense to hire a bicycle instead in Copenhagen. A very eco conscious city, it has the highest density of bicycles in the world. If you are a pedestrian, it is the speeding cycles you need to watch out for in the street and not cars. In over coats, boots, mufflers and caps, the residents paddle on with a mission. Well-marked cycle routes make it easier. Our own Atlas cycles also make their presence felt. The latest cycles are loaded with tech, solar powered and equipped with GPS. And somewhere in the side of a busy street, there is a metre that indicates the number of cycles that have passed by on any given day. No wonder, instead of multi level automated parking, what you have are double decker cycle stands.
Sights from the water
Next day we decide to do the city by water . We shall do the Grand Canal Tour. But we have a pressing problem at hand as we wait for the boat to arrive. Sonia, an anthropologist in our group, desperately needs a loo break. “Hurry up, there must be one nearby,” we tell her. She finds one, but a coin has to be inserted to open the door. She returns, borrows one from us, but still the door doesn’t budge. Alas. The boat comes and now she has no option but to hold it throughout the hour long boat tour. “I will manage,” she says with a brave face, and tries to forget about it all by busying herself clicking the sights and scenes en route. It is easy to do that as you get lost in the unforgettable views of the Opera House, Amalienborg Palace, Black Diamond Library, the Little Mermaid, bridges, warehouses turned apartments, houses in metrosexual colours; ships in the harbor, and so on. And then comes the warning. “Look out, ladies and gentleman,” a voice implores over the speakers, “mind your heads!” We look up to see a bridge so low and narrow that the sides and the roof of the boat are but inches away from it. We promptly bend our heads.
I’ll skip my dinner, thank you
Next on the itinerary is a culinary tour. But avant-garde restaurants for ‘fancy meals’, ‘experimental cuisine’, ‘molecular gastronomy’ or ‘fusion food’ is recipe for disaster for a dal-chawal-butter chicken eater like me. In Europe, I would rather live on omelets, boiled potatoes and Tabasco. In such a scenario, when I hear that tonight we will be dining out at an ‘Indian eatery’, the phrase sounded like lyrics. But when the dishes are served at The Verandah, it is like seeing the Indian classics in Lady Ga Ga avatar. Needless to say, I prefer to feast my eyes on the great canal view the restaurant offers.
With nothing much to occupy my tastebuds, I let my tongue loose and fool around. In a trendy restaurant called Nimb Brasserie at Tivoli, the top five most visited amusement parks in Europe, I meet this young waiter with a Mohawk hair-do. “Are you a Sex Pistol fan?” I tease him. He looks puzzled. Clearly this boy who bears a resemblance to singer Johnny Rotten, hasn’t heard of the British punk rock band. I educate him. “Listen to them. You may like them,” I suggest.
Later, we land at a place called Marchal, a hotspot for businessmen, the traveler, the playgoer, the lovers, the fashioniasta and the urbanite. But instead of chilling on cool cocktails, I end up playing the DJ, more to help the solitary man who was doing everything from mixing our drinks, to taking our orders, clearing the tables to playing the music. He has a Bollywood section as well, and we all want to dance. But with the likes of Lata Mangeshkar and Md. Rafi at their sentimental best, we are left with no choice but to down our sorrows with a drink.
Shopping: A long story
“Don’t touch, please,” the shopkeeper who looks like a headmistress sitting in the middle of an enchanted garden tells a customer checking out the hand-made flower arrangements. “If you can’t touch, how do you expect to sell?” retorts the customer walking away annoyed. Meanwhile, I look around for Danish knives to add to my collection, but give up when I find a few way above my budget. Without a shopping experience, I never get a complete feel of a place. Mostly, I pick up statement pieces that are unique and large in size. My modus operandi is to break away from the group and shop alone. You are faster that way. So alone I go to survey Stroget, the longest pedestrian shopping street, where the biggest stores of some of the major Danish brands such as George Jensen, Royal Copenhagen and Illum’s Bplighus are located. Shopkeepers are warm, greet you with a smile, a hi and sing-song Danish. When I respond in English, they are quick to say “oh, sorry!”. If a store doesn’t have a size, they will not insist with a ‘this will fit you’ or ‘you’re looking perfect in it’ line. Instead, they will direct you to the next store. I realize this while buying myself an overcoat. There is always a smile, but bargaining puzzles them. If a shop is closing, you would not be entertained at all. Closed means closed, never mind business. “Please come tomorrow,” would be a polite answer.
But my actual shopping takes place at the Carlsberg Brewery (that also makes Tuborg), less than 2 km from the Town Hall Square. The 5th largest brewery in the world, it has the world’s largest bottle collection and houses a souvenir shop. I pick up a bulky outdoor grill that looks like a football, retro looking chiller, an artist beret, an old poster, a beer bottle holder, a napkin holder and so on. My bags are full and I’m ready to pack up.
Back at our boutique Hotel Kong Arthur, I walk inside only to find a warm lobby soaking in a club-like atmosphere. And why not? Between 6 pm to 7 pm, the hotel offers glasses of beer for free.
The great Danes
Al right, the cityscape is dotted with amazing architecture and well ordered streets. The pace is unhurried and people are warm, friendly and helpful. Fluent in English, the Danes are also a fashionable lot. Certainly a great place for a tourist. I would love to live here too. After all, free high quality education, medical facilities, paternity leaves are some of the perks – possible because as our guide says, “Danes love paying their taxes.” Even immigrants are a happy lot. “It’s a lovely country to be,” says one Pakistani watching a Bollywood movie on his car video.
However, there is more than meets the eye. “If you are not settled, then come. If you are, then don’t,” advises the Pakistani driver. My Indian friend Nainia Gupta LorentZen has, a Copenhagen resident for two years now, explains: “Danes have a habit of making you feel like an outsider. They are a very closed community and do not mingle with foreigners easily. They will be nice to you, but it is impossible to be friends with them.”
It is surprising she says that. She fell in love and then married a chef who is Danish.