17 April 2010

Three days in Old Zealand


A former British ambassador to Denmark, Sir James Mellon, published a book of observations about the country in 1992.  It it, he remarked that ‘the Danes are not a nation … they are a tribe, this is the strength of their fellowship and the reason that they have unshakeable trust in each other’.  Danish historian Knud Jespersen, examining Mellon’s thesis, points out that:

…according to Sir James Mellon, the Danes are not a nation in a normal sense, but a tribe, whose behaviour strongly reminded him of the tribal behaviour he saw amongst the Ashanti in Ghana during his posting to West Africa between 1978 and 1983.  Amongst the Danes he found the same concern for the weaker members of society, the same propensity for consensus and uniformity, the same avoidance of conflict, and the same implicit faith that political results should be achieved through discussion and compromise rather than the face-to-face conflicts which are otherwise characteristic of parliamentary democracy.  All of these traits, and most Danes would nod in agreement with his analysis, he attributed to the tribal awareness of the Danish population, which in his view make Denmark and the Danes quite special amongst modern European nations. 

- Knud Jespersen, A History of Denmark, 2004

This is quite possibly true.  However, my own investigation of the nature of Denmark was somewhat less thorough and significantly shorter in duration than Mellon’s stint in Copenhagen.  To be precise, for three days over Easter I explored Copenhagen and the nearby town of Roskilde.  In the process I admired plenty of Danish architecture, acquired an impressive limp from hours of walking on cobblestoned streets, and suffered a deluge that wreaked havoc on my flimsy £5 Superdrug umbrella.

My flights to and from Denmark were on the budget carrier Easyjet, the garish orange and slightly less rapacious understudy of Ireland’s piratically cut-throat Ryanair.  The advantage of inexpensive flights was somewhat tempered by the inevitable sea of children aboard the flight and the corresponding seat-kicking tomfoolery that left me glad the flight was only an hour and a half in length.

As the Airbus banked into its approach path the view out the window showed the broad flat lands around the capital, which is perched on the eastern shore of the island of Zealand (Sjælland).  This is not to be confused with Zeeland in the south-west of the Netherlands, which is the province 17th century Dutch authorities named New Zealand after.  (Abel Tasman named the country Staten Landt when he passed by in 1642.  But I digress).

Having taken a connecting flight through Copenhagen’s smart Kastrup airport whilst returning from Russia in 2008, I was familiar with the friendly five-second border check passengers arriving in Denmark enjoy.  They still find the time to stamp your passport though.  After collecting my bag it was a simple escalator ride downstairs to the airport train station for the 12-minute ride to the central station in town.

A ten-minute night-time walk eastwards from the central station past the closed gates of the famous Tivoli amusement park (still closed for the off-season during my visit), through the open expanse of the Radhus plaza (the square in front of the town hall), and near one of the city’s many canals, led me to my hostel.  It was a great location in the middle of the city, and benefited from the usual Scandinavian attention to cleanliness and organisation.  Some pitfalls emerged during my three night stay, though.  For one thing, the hostel’s popularity with young clubbers meant that there was a constant flow of people into the dorm all through the night and into the wee small hours, most of whom had failed to learn the cardinal rule of backpacker etiquette, which is to minimise noisy backpack zip action in a sleeping dorm.  There were also no drinking fountains and the bathroom sinks were so small that I couldn’t fill my water bottle.  In the end I had to fill it with lukewarm water from a shower head!  Yes, I felt slightly daft, but at least I got a very clean arm as a by-product. 

My first full day in Denmark was spent exploring Copenhagen, which is well set out for tourists on foot.  Starting out before 9 o’clock the main pedestrian boulevard, the Strøget (‘the Sweep’) was nearly empty, and I walked along its cobblestone walkways peering in the windows of the various retailers and boutiques.  By mid-morning the Strøget was heaving with pedestrians, with Danes undertaking their weekend promenades and window-shopping in the smart department stores.  I veered southwards to take in the island of Slotsholmen, home of the Danish royal palace of Christianborg.  (The names of Danish monarchs usually alternate between Christian and Frederick, so the range of historic placenames can be a bit restricted).  Walking through a broad archway visitors emerge in a spacious central palace courtyard with a carefully groomed dirt track for equestrian exercises, which is a nice touch in the middle of a big city.


In the afternoon I spent several hours engrossed in the National Museum.  I was expecting its collection to be strong on the Viking period, and it was, but the pre-Viking early history collections were superb too.  Many of the museum’s riches have emerged from Denmark’s voluminous peat bogs, where artefacts were lost accidentally, thrown in or buried as sacrifices, or stashed and lost for reasons unknown.  A highlight was undoubtedly the astonishingly detailed Gundestrup Cauldron, a huge silver vessel in the Thracian style made the century before the birth of Christ, carved inside and out with superb Celtic-style engravings.  No-one knows exactly where it came from, why it was made or why it ended up in a Danish bog, but since its discovery in 1891 it has been one of the greatest treasures of Danish prehistory.


I should probably mention that during my day’s exploration of the capital I didn’t make the trek around the harbour to visit Copenhagen’s most famous tourist attraction – the statue of the Little Mermaid.  I actually had no intention of visiting it, as the uniform reaction of those who devote the time to the long walk seems to be ‘is that it?’  But I was saved the admittedly minimal temptation of the iconic statue by the fact that when I visited Copenhagen the statue was actually on her first overseas holiday.  She was on loan to the Shanghai Expo, having been removed by crane and shipped to China. 

On my second day in Zealand I ventured out of town.  It was a relatively late start because the various clubbing dolts in the dorm had kept me awake all night, so I inadvertently slept in until 9.30am.  But with the train station only a short step away I was on a train in no time, bound for the nearby town of Roskilde.  My wallet was considerably lighter for the journey, with a one-way ticket costing about £12 for a brief 35-minute journey.  Roskilde is probably most known these days for its annual rock festival, which sees thousands of fans descend on this quiet town for a massive party.  (This year’s headliners for the July festival include Gorillaz, Muse and Patti Smith, not to mention the Narasirato Pan Pipers from the Solomon Islands).  

The day I visited Roskilde was about as far from the rock ‘n roll lifestyle as it’s possible to get.  The skies had darkened and unleashed a continual downpour.  It was a Sunday so all the shops were shut, and almost no-one was around.  Still, there were two things I really wanted to see in Roskilde, and not even the prospect of a disintegrating £5 umbrella from Chelmsford Superdrug could deter me. 

The first was the superb waterfront Viking Ship Museum devoted to five Viking-era ships that were recovered from the Roskildefjord in 1962 and reconstructed with painstaking accuracy.  The remains of these 11th century ships may not be as spectacular or old as those I saw in the similar museum in Oslo in 2008, but the range of vessels recovered, from a fat trading ship to a sleek longship built for raiding, means the Roskilde museum makes a major contribution to our understanding of Viking ship-building.  The most likely explanation for the vessels’ deliberate sinking was that the townsfolk of Roskilde were hurrying to block a narrow passage in the fjord to forestall an invading fleet.


The second was back up the hill in the middle of town - the pointy-spired brick cathedral that houses the remains of the Danish royal line stretching back into the Middle Ages.  It’s changed a lot since it was constructed in the 12th and 13th century, with more and more lavish burial chapels being added as centuries of monarchs shuffled off to join the choir invisible.  My favourite was the chapel of Christian IV, which aside from being decorated with splendid murals and a fine statue of the king himself, also boasts marvellously ornate iron lattice gates wrought by Caspar Fincke in 1619.  It’s said that when they were made no-one believed a mere mortal could work such genius, so they must be the work of the Devil.  Obviously they didn’t say this particularly loudly, because the gates have adorned the cathedral for nearly 400 years. 


My third and final day in Zealand was truncated due to my return flight leaving at 5pm.  I had mused about the possibility of taking a train over the Oresund Bridge to nearby Malmo in Sweden, just to be able to say that I’d taken a detour and ended up in a neighbouring country.  But the continuing rain put me off this idea, so instead I stayed in Copenhagen and checked out a few of the sights I’d missed on Saturday.  First stop was St Saviour’s Church in Christianhavn with its beautiful spiral tower, one of the signature postcard images of the city.  Equally grand yet rather more obscure was the gaudy Frederick’s Church, otherwise known as the Marble Church, which is like a mini-St Peter’s tucked into a cramped Georgian square. 


Finally, I spent a few hours in the national art gallery, which boasted an excellent collection of European and Danish art.  I was initially dubious when the first room I entered contained gloomy paints with names like And In His Eyes I Saw Death.  Downer, dude.  But it turned out that was the focal point for mordant paintings, and the rest of the galleries were full of the usual portraits and landscapes.  Particular favourites included works by Cranach and Durer, and the sitcom humour of Carl Bloch’s 1866 work, In A Roman Osteria, in which the viewer is regarded with suspicion by an Italian gentleman who fears that his comely sisters are being eyed up, while the sisters in question clearly have no problem with the attention.


Soon it was time to make my way to the airport and return to England.  It had been an entertaining few days in Zealand, and while I still regard the other Scandinavian capitals I’ve visited with considerable esteem, I was glad to add Copenhagen to the list and experience its sights in person.  Indeed, my aching cobblestone heels attested to the diligence with which I undertook my exploratory duties.


Some famous Danes:

Hans Christian Andersen, writer

Karen Blixen, writer

Victor Borge, entertainer

Lars von Trier, director

Helena Christensen, model

Niels Bohr, physicist

Søren Kierkegaard, philosopher

Mads Mikkelsen, actor


Some famous half-Danes:

Viggo Mortensen

Sandi Toksvig

Er… that’s it.

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