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Trip Report Three Whirlwind Days in Denmark

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We are two extremely fortunate parents. Our Tween and Teen truly enjoy spending time with us, and the feeling is mutual. With The Teen’s time in Europe now winding down (he’s heading back across the pond for college in the fall) there remained a couple of places on his bucket list, one of them being Copenhagen. Because he was on IB exam study break, and more importantly, because he is pulling a most respectable grade point average heading into IB finals, we were okay with him taking a pause from his studies. A quick hop on AirBerlin from Vienna last week had us in Copenhagen in about 90 minutes.

Our visit included time in Copenhagen, villages with thatched-roof houses and Hamlet's castle, fjords and Viking history, excellent cuisine, and a language that sounded like IKEA-German with an occasional French word thrown in for fun. Neither of us felt like we knew quite where we were for three days.

But we were happy! What caught our attention immediately was the genuine happiness of the Danish people. Seriously. Whatever the method to their madness might be, the Danes have it going on. Be they a smiling passerby, a store clerk or the unearthly friendliness of our hotel bartender (more on that later), the Danes are a crazy happy people. Maybe it's the oh-my-gosh high taxes they pay (56%, even higher than in Vienna!) for social services and whatnot; or perhaps it's the biking culture. Or the proximity to the blue waters and the invigorating breezes gale winds of the North Sea. Who knows!

Copenhagen: what we toured

Our time in Copenhagen was just only marginally from the tourist checklist. To start, a smørrebrød lunch after a morning at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Though neither of us understand modern art we thoroughly loved the museum. This was the only museum we visited on our visit and it was worth it for the exhibits, the setting, and the lunch.

No, Walt Disney did not write The Little Mermaid; that was the genius of Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark's beloved author. A bronze sculpture to Die Lille Havfrue resides over the harbor near Østerport.

Nyhavn, the "New Harbor." This is postcard Copenhagen. A note about the Danes: they are proud to fly their flag. Big ones, little ones, wind-resistant flags, and even banners of flags are all about the country, on stores, public buildings, private homes and schooners in the harbor, too.

Bicycles. We visited Amsterdam as a family a few years ago and thought the Dutch passion for cycling was impressive, but I think the Danes have a slight edge. There are true bicycle lanes (about the width of a passenger vehicle lane) throughout Copenhagen and other cities we visited. We noted, too, that the Danes don't seem to bother securing their bicycles when parked.

When in Denmark…our visit to the Carlsberg Brewery was fun. I was expecting the technical experience that DH and I had in Plzen, Czech Republic at the Pilsner Urquelle brewery, but this tour included a great deal of information on the working life of a brewery employee, as well. Plus beer samples at the end, but of course.

Lastly, Tivoli Gardens. Europe's second oldest amusement park, it's fourth most-visited and, it is believed, the inspiration for Walt's American Disney Parks. It really is a small world after all! Indeed, we felt as though we had fallen through a rabbit's hole and landed in a colorful combination of the Magic Kingdom and EPCoT.

Copenhagen: what we missed

We missed the changing of the guards at the Royal Palace and missed seeing the Royal Treasures at Rosenborg Slot by a few minutes. Strøget Street, the “must-see” shopping street bored us. Tacky souvenir shops, European chain stores and a few other local specialties. We did enjoy seeing the Stork fountain, though.

We opted out of a peek at Freetown Christiania, the hippie enclave started in 1970 by a few hundred squatters in a section of the city's unused military barracks. One of Christiana's tenets is the rejection of capitalism, naturally, which the community is happy to share via social media and through the sales from its soft-core drugs, bongs and pipes at its flea market, sales at its vegan restaurants, and other bastions of anti-capitalism. The squatters sought to establish this autonomous "state," which the happy government of Denmark now mostly tolerates.

Roskilde

Having felt that we'd seen enough of Copenhagen to be "happy," DS and I spent the remainder of our time in Denmark elsewhere. Our first field trip was to fjord country and the village of Roskilde. A common misperception is that of the "fjord." No, we did not see tall glacial peaks this far south; instead, blue tidal marsh areas that reminded us of our favorite places on Cape Cod.

The Roskilde Domkirke is home to the burial crypts of every Danish king since the 10th century. Construction was underway at the cathedral for the chapel and burial crypt locations of the current Danish Queen and Prince Consort, a little unnerving given that both royals are still living. Then again, we are American and not at all accustomed to royal protocols and planning.

The village of Roskilde was well worth our time spent exploring. Pleasant shops, happy people everywhere, and amazing Danish cheddar. DS and I stopped at a local Ost & Delikatesser to have sandwiches prepared for our bicycle journey around the fjords. For the record, Danish cows produce excellent Danish cheddar.

Our bicycle ride from Roskilde took us past the Viking Museum. We learned that Vikings, when not pillaging villages, “were also fishermen.” and that Viking trade routes stretched throughout the Rhine and Mosel valleys of Germany (wine), northern Poland (amber) and as far south as Constantinople. The museum is also an active research facility, recreating Viking vessels, tracing known trade routes, and testing the seaworthiness of hand-hewn ships. Pretty cool stuff.

Side note: just as the Viennese are not keen on the "There are no kangaroos in Austria" souvenir kitsch, the Danes aren't big on the typical Viking stereotypes, either. There was little Viking souvenir tchotchke to be found.

Our ride through the fjord country took us through small villages with charming thatched roof cottages, chickens scratching in yards, and yes, more happy people out and about.

Helsingør

Our second, and final field trip was to Helsingør, at the tip of North Zealand and about an hours' train ride north of Copenhagen. In Helsingør sits Kronborg Slot, an immense fortification at the tip of the 4-kilometer wide strait separating Denmark and what is now Sweden, but at one time was part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Shakespeare fans will recognize this castle from Hamlet, in the village of Elsinore.

The castle also played a role in the facilitating the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a military coastal lookout, the Danish military in the castle confirmed that the Russian cargo ships carrying nuclear missiles had actually reversed course and were returning to the Soviet Union. How about that!

For as happy as the Danes are, it might seem that they and the Swedes aren't exactly BFFs, though. There have been 11 Danish-Swedish wars across history, resulting in the capture of national treasures. Some of the descriptive tiles throughout the castle also take discreet jabs at the Swedes for this and that. And, in the casements of the castle lies the sleeping Holger the Dane, still at the ready to protect Denmark from invading Swedes if necessary.

A short introductory video in the royal apartments informed us that up until 1857, the Danish King could sit in his apartments and watch ships transiting between the North and Baltic Seas through the sound, always stopping to pay their sound tax. Then one day an American ship passed by and refused to pay the tax. The Danes said, "OK," and the sound tax was abolished. Just like that! Or so the video in the castle informed us. Kind of funny.

We visited Helsingør on 1 May, May Day as it is known. Unlike in Vienna, which shuts down every chance they can, the stores, grocery, and banks were open! Markets were buzzing with activity; smiling, happy people (of all heritages, not just those who appeared Danish) filled the streets and restaurants, soaking up the sun and enjoying life on the North Sea.

What We Ate

DS and I discovered early in our holiday that while the Danes have fresh fish at their disposal, many of their main courses reflect historic peasant cuisine, with lots of waste-not, want-not kinds of sausages, meat patties, and other pork and potato dishes. In the village of Helsingør we sought a restaurant serving fresh fish, which just happened to be owned by a funny (and happy, of course) Italian couple.

The menu was in Danish and Italian, but the owner was happy to translate what we could not decipher. DS chose a pan-seared ocean perch with a fruit de mer sauce; and I, a poached halibut with a Danish blue and asparagus "salsa." A fresh catch lunch at a sunny Italian restaurant in a happy village on the North Sea. Whatever the secret is, the Danish magic had worked. We were happy.

Because we'd had an early flight to Copenhagen we were a little too tired to go out for dinner on the first night; plus, DS wanted to study a bit, so we decided to order delivery from Wagamama. I went to the reception area, and the bartender stepped in to offer his assistance as the reception clerks were busy with other guests. I don't think this happens outside of happy Denmark. The online delivery service required an account; the bartender, Kim, allowed me to use his account to order our noodles! Unfortunately the restaurant refused to deliver to a hotel. Sadness, but not for long!

Kim suggested we try take-away from a Vietnamese street kitchen just a block from the hotel instead, proclaiming the food, in his beautiful Danish-accented English, to be "the best." He was right! Our rice noodle bowls and shrimp spring wrappers were indeed "the best" Vietnamese food we have had since moving across the pond.

The following evening Kim saw us return to the hotel and asked where we were going for dinner. Being in the mood for good Italian fare, once again Kim came to our rescue with the suggestion of Mother, a Naples-style pizza place just a short walk away. It turns out that Mother is one of Copenhagen's best restaurants. (When my request for a small side of anchovies did not appear, our wait staff exclaimed, "Oh, dear. They must have swum away." Happiness!)

On our final evening Kim asked about our day, was pleased that we had toured Kronborg Slot, and that DS had selected a Bøfhus (Beef House) down the street for dinner. He offered that DS would not be disappointed with the ribs, and gently cautioned that I may find the food "a little bland." We both enjoyed our meals. I don't know about Kim's bartending skills, but he certainly should apply for a concierge position at his next opportunity.

Other Observations

The Danish language cracked us up. Part "IKEA-German" (DS and I made that up), part French, and mostly incomprehensible. The -er suffix was applied liberally, too: butikk-er, parkk-er, toilett-er…you get the idea.

Danish happiness was everywhere. The 7-Eleven clerk cheerily translated Slurpie flavors to DS (Vienna does not have 7-Eleven’s). The grocery clerk happily helped us count coins for our snack purchase. Vehicle drivers waited patiently for cyclists. And on and on.

Public housing was of a cheery color, not the usual staid beige or pale yellow we see in Vienna.

A cold Carlsberg at an outdoor table at The Fisken Pub in Nyhavn is good for one's happiness, too. :)

Two small points of unhappiness were the only blemishes on our short holiday. The first, we missed being in Copenhagen for the Eurovision finals by a few days, though we did see what we thought was an advance team for a contestant at the hotel near ours.

The second? Copenhagen is expensive. More expensive that over-inflated Washington D.C., more expensive than tony Zurich, and more expensive than even Imperial Vienna. A postcard? €3 equivalent (the currency is the Danish Krone); a single ice cream, €5; a pint of Carlsberg, €7,50. Restaurants, too, add an automatic 25% VAT to the already costly meal tab.

But, still. Denmark? A happy of happiest, "Yes!"

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