Last week I got to spend a few days in Copenhagen and the trip coincided with the summer solstice. As I mentioned in my previous Postcard, spending Midsummer in one of the Nordic countries had long been a big dream of mine. Copenhagen did not disappoint and I returned with a lot of new things I learned during that trip.
After my arrival, Copenhagen was still a bit gloomy – and, frankly, quite cold for the month of June. It was 15 degrees and my first purchase was an umbrella. This was a clear sign that I was a tourist because most of the locals had really fashionable rain coats. Furthermore, a rain coat is much better protection because the rain came from the side and it felt like a constant spray of water. Nevertheless, I had a mission to explore the city. When I travel to a place for the first time, I try to get all the typical tourist sights out of the way and then I dedicate some time to strolling through more residential areas, exploring museums and doing off-the-beaten-paths activities.
My first stop was a café in a public library. I could not believe that this was a library, it looked like a high-end book store with floors and floors of books in multiple languages covering a broad range of topics. The whole library felt like an architecture project merged with the interior design of the Apple stores. Education is valued a lot in the Scandinavian countries and throughout my trip I found proof of this attitude. The library was packed – students worked on their projects, some locals came to read the newspapers and others did research. Needless to say, English was not an issue at all. I assumed this would be the case, because the Scandinavian countries are famous for their good command of the language.
Culture and Women in the Arts
I then headed on to Rosenborg Castle and the King’s Garden to visit not only the castle but also the crown jewels and then headed on to the SMK – the Statens Museum for Kunst (the State Museum of Art). The latter is a vast museum covering art history from the Renaissance until today. Obviously, the museum has a strong focus on Danish art but there were also a few sections on other European countries. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Danish art of the 20th century up until today. I have to admit that I did not really know much about the Danish art scene and I could have spent hours at the SMK exploring all the artworks. An additional fact I noticed was the high number of female artists. I think it was about 50-50 representation-wise, definitely much higher than in other European countries.
Architecture and Design
Denmark is known for its design but I was absolutely blown away by the rich architecture scene, particularly how well old and new architecture exist side by side. One example is the “Black Diamond” which is the modern extension of the Royal Danish Library. The old part which was built in 1648 was extended by a new building decorated with black marble from Zimbabwe in 2017. At first, the people of Copenhagen were very skeptical about this modern extension and complained that a heritage building should not be paired with something so modern. But after some time, they saw that it actually worked well and learned to love it. With the current construction boom all over Europe, I also see many new buildings coming up in Vienna. Unfortunately, most of them look the same (I call them “the ugly shoeboxes”) to increase the margins of the construction companies. In Copenhagen there are also new developments but it seems that the city council not only pays close attention to the overall image of Copenhagen but also takes it a step further. For example, there is a luxury apartment project by a Japanese architecture firm being built in the former paper factory at the harbor. I am sure it will probably become as famous as the buildings by architects Rem Koolhaas (BLOX) or Henning Larsen (Copenhagen Opera House) and a further sight of the city.
Midsummer is called Sankthansaften in Denmark and, as I assumed, it is a huge thing. On June 23rd every year, bonfires are lit in the whole country. This goes back to pagan customs but is also connected to Christianity. The birthday of Saint John the Baptist (“Johannes” in Danish and its short-version “Hans”) is believed to be on the 24th of June and the celebrations in Denmark usually start the night before. The fires are supposed to symbolise the burning of all evil and since the 1920s, a witch puppet is being burned in the fire. From what I saw at Ofelia Plads and Nyhavn on the evening of the 23rd, this night is a big deal and it seemed that the whole of Copenhagen came to the harbour on their bikes.
Of course, I tried Smørrebrød, the national dish of Denmark. It is similar to the “tartine” in France – a piece of bread with some cold cuts or other toppings. But what I really loved was the variety of whole-wheat bread and all the pastry, especially the “Kanelsnegle” (cinnamon roll). As you may know, I am not really a goddess of the kitchen, but I love to bake and I will try to find some good recipes to make Kanelsnegle at home (or resort to a Scandinavian bakery which I discovered in Vienna. :D)
In Central Europe we joke that the Scandinavians are so obsessed with sustainability because they would drown first. But all jokes aside, the sustainability efforts of Denmark are truly admirable. The majority of people in Copenhagen use their bikes to go to work or, for longer routes, public transport. In contrast to Vienna, where car drivers and bikers alike always have to worry on the narrow lines, the bike lanes in Copenhagen are so big that cars and bikes do not bother each other.
This sustainability approach is in the DNA of almost anything happening in Denmark. I took one of the tourist boat tours and our guide explained that all their boats are collecting trash while we are on the tour and that the harbour of Copenhagen is one of the cleanest in the world making it perfectly safe to swim there. There are quite a few examples of sustainable architecture as well, such as the newly built theatre using the water of the harbour to cool the building.
Summing up, I admit that I did not know too much about Denmark before my trip. I knew about the cinnamon buns, the Smørrebrød and that it can be quite dark, windy and rainy. But this trip was a truly interesting insight into life in Denmark (as much as I could see in just a few days) and it is definitely a country from which we can all learn a lot.
I am currently preparing several articles about Copenhagen, stay tuned!
Have you been to Denmark? If yes, how did you like it?