Thursday, April 21, 2011

Down and Out in Denmark

The stereotypes are true about Copenhagen: The constant parade of beautiful, rosy-cheeked blondes streaming by on bicycles. Bountiful beer on just about every corner. Baked goods to die for. And it's expensive as hell.

The view from Nørre Sogade

One of the guides I'd looked at claimed that those on a backpacker budget should steer clear of Denmark, but for those of less meager means, it's still cheaper than London or even Paris. Well, considering I live in rip-off Paris and think London is a comparatively cheap-o spot to spend the weekend, this whole "Scandinavia is so expensive" thing should pose no problem.


The thing is, the wife and I aren't on vacation when we're in Paris. We usually eat in or at our favorite ethnic dives. We avoid overpriced bars, overrated restaurants, and we have our own ways of amusing ourselves. Hell, even in London we have our spots and our friends to be our guides.

But after only a few days in wholly unfamiliar Copenhagen, the ol' bank account was well beyond overdrawn. Sure, we have friends there, but they'd only moved in a few days before we arrived!

Beyond not knowing all the ins and outs of CPH, there's the problem it's just too easy to spend a ton of cash. While the plethora of bakeries and bars and cafés are no more expensive than in Paris, they're just too damn good to pass up. Yes, I was subject to some terrible Danishes and some bland glasses of Carlsberg – but despite those failures, the EPIC WIN rate is entirely too high. And even reasonably priced beers direct from the tap at Mikkeler and affordable breads from Meyers Bakery and pennies-on-the-dollar pastries from Sankt Peders add up after you have a lot of them. This is enough to leave any traveler without a huge bankroll down and out. And that's not even speaking of the new wave of Scandinavian cuisine that's put the city on the foodie map.

Despite coming home in the hole, every moment on the trip (except those on the phone with my bank) was worthwhile.

15 hours by train or 2 hours by plane
We had the choice of flying in and out of Copenhagen from Paris, or taking the train, both at roughly the same price. Since we had the sneaking suspicion that we'd be coming back again, Alannah and I figured we'd try both, taking the train in and the plane out.

Taking the train gave us the enviable option of riding the Thalys from Paris to Cologne, Germany. Thalys trains are not only smooth and comfortable, but in the negligibly more expensive first class car, the food is remarkably good and the wi-fi is free. Score one for trains.

Stopping over in Cologne gave us the opportunity to see more of the town we'd previously only seen for only a couple of short hours. This time around we had over seven hours to kill, which meant we got to see some friends from the area (and make some new ones!) and drink our livers into submission.

Staring down the barrel...

The copious amounts of cheap, free-flowing Kölsch beer made the next leg of the journey easier: A 12-hour overnight ride to Copenhagen.

When booking the trip, we assumed Deutsch Bahn's awkward translation of "moving bench" for our compartment meant the type that folded down into a bed. We learned upon boarding the train that it means "fully upright seat with the capacity to move forward roughly one inch for relaxation/sleep."

What else are you supposed to do in a sparse compartment
for 12 hours than shoot one another?

Add to that the very nice but motion sickness-prone family who ended up sharing our compartment, and it was the least restful all-nighter I've experienced since giving up chemically enhanced party aids. We now know full well to pay a few euros extra to upgrade to a proper couchette. Score one for planes.

Shock therapy
We arrived in Denmark with nary a scratch and after checking into the Hotel Kong Arthur, it was time to relax. One of the reasons we chose our hotel was because – even though we didn't know we'd be spending the night with Pukey the Kid, Barfy the Baby and their band of German cohorts – we knew we'd want to take advantage of the attached Helle Thorup spa.

And that we did. Soft, voluminous robes. Bubbly jacuzzi. Hot steam room. And is there anything more Scandinavian than a nice, hot sauna?

Yes, yes there is. And that would be the koldt vand spand. Translation: Cold water bucket. After each round of heat in the tub or the steam room or the sauna, I'd position myself under this bucket of ice water and pull the rope.

Pure masochistic bliss.

But even more fun is watching and listening to others as they dump ice cold water on themselves and shriek like little girls. Especially Alannah. Even purer sadistic bliss.

This spa ritual became our daily retreat from our everyday lives, and even from the moments of stress on the trip itself. Work issues on your mind? Sweat it out. ATM card not working? Nothing a cold shock can't eliminate. Realizing you can afford only one nice night out? Luxuriate in the jacuzzi like a boss.

Brain bath
All that bubble and steam is great for reducing stress from the outside, but sometimes we want to massage our brains from the inside. Like our previous trip to Amsterdam, Denmark is an up and coming destination for beer lovers.

Needless to say, we largely eschewed the local Carlsberg and Tuborg for much more local Mikkeler and Nørrebro brews.

Mikkeller single-hop tasting event? Yes, please!

One of the beautiful things about Copenhagen is that it's a beer drinking city. Stroll along the touristy Nyhavn canal and there are sidewalk cafés lining the entire length, each with beer taps out front. Better yet, across from all the tourist traps, locals sit along the canal and drink their own beers, seemingly non-stop. It's not uncommon to see people walking around with plastic crates full of half-liter beers.

This penchant for public consumption does have one ill side-effect, however. No, it's not broken glass or litter or puke on the streets. Copenhagen is one of the cleanest cities I've ever seen outside of Japan. Even the habitual drunks know where to find the recycling bin... It's the day-and-night presence of staggering drunks almost everywhere, to the point that it's seen as normal.

This guy stumbled into a phalanx of bearskin-capped guards in front of the Royal Palace and had to be shooed away. Interestingly, not a single one of the dozens of drunks I saw in town was belligerent or mean. Just drunk.

Sunny dispositions
Perhaps it was the amazing weather we had while in Copenhagen, but it wasn't just the drunks who fell far from the mean tree. Despite a few indifferent people here and there, one could largely conclude that the Danish people are staggeringly (ahem) nice.

Maybe it's the relative lack of vehicular traffic. (1/3 of people commute by bicycle.) Maybe it's the impeccably clean public transit. (Often with free wi-fi.) Or perhaps it's because a higher priority seems to be placed on relaxing and enjoying one's surroundings rather than me-me-me consumption and attention whoring. This isn't to say that there aren't sinister aspects here and there, but this is – again – the first time since Japan that I've seen people more than willing to park their baby buggies outside of stores while they shop. With the babies still in them.

Even the highly ethnic 'hood that is Nørrebro – unlike many ethnic enclaves in large cities around the world that seem to house a more marginalized population – appears just as bright and happy-go-lucky. The only difference is that it's, well, ethnic.

You hear a lot of Farsi being spoken in Copenhagen. So it
was unsurprising to find an Iranian restaurant in Nørrebro.

Aside from the massive construction going on there, the sidewalks are clean, people are polite, and like many ethnic enclaves around the world, some of the best shopping and eating is to be found there. Certainly as a visitor there are some issues I'm unaware of and I'm sure the great shopping and eating has something to do with gentrification, but in general it was one of my favorite parts of the city.

On the tourist trail
We literally followed the tourist trail provided on the free city map given out by the tourism center. On it there's a dotted line in a large loop, taking you from place to place, including the famous Little Mermaid statue north of the city center.

Is she sad because she's surrounded by smoke stacks?
Or because she has useless legs?

Alannah and I had initially planned to use the Copenhagen's free bike program which, at the price of completely free (a 20dkk deposit is given back to you the moment you return a bike to its stall), edges Paris' €29/year scheme. Its disadvantage is that it doesn't start running until May, and so we ended up taking in the unseasonably warm weather on foot. Hence the tourist loop.

Close to running on empty, this was actually a great thing to do for our last full day in Denmark. We opted against having a pricey dinner and decided instead to follow the tourist trail and hit various snacks and street food along the way. This added up to a lot of pastries and sausages and cappuccinos, not a single one of which was bad.

Our tour also started a little on the late side, so the sun was setting by the time we got to the area where you find the Little Mermaid. Moving further to the north, it was just about nightfall when we arrived at the new "Genetically Modified Little Mermaid," and the eerie silence and lack of human presence around us made it that much more creepy. We picnicked in front of it.

The genetically modified Little Mermaid.
This is where industrial tuna comes from.

By the time we started making our way back to the city center, it was completely dark. We were able to walk through the Kastellet, a pentagon-shaped earthen fortress. Slowly making our way through the old barracks in peace, I decided that the time we spent after the sun had set in this less populated part of town made it feel like the whole of Denmark was ours.

Ghosts of the Kastellet

The sadness of departure
We performed our now ritualized last-day-in-a-country routine that includes hitting the markets and shops for food and drink we can't easily find in Paris, meeting some interesting characters along the way. We had our last traditional Danish lunch. Our last beer. Said our last goodbyes. And, of course, survived our last koldt vand spand.

Despite having spent only a few days in Copenhagen, I think I can speak for the both of us and say that Alannah and I felt very much like we were at home. This feeling last occurred while traveling during our first visit to Paris together...

And no, that doesn't mean we're moving to Denmark all of a sudden. We happened to arrive at the beginning and left at the end of a serendipitous burst of excellent weather, and the Miserable Weather Season lasts longer than it does in Paris. I bitch enough about the weather here as it is!

What made it hard to leave was being around so many of the things we miss. Cinnamon rolls. Good beer. Bicycles. Wide sidewalks. Clean streets. And above all, our friends from California for whom we are so thankful that they can drop by Europe every so often. Even if it requires a 12-hour train ride to see them.

Bye bye, awesome Danishes. We're not sure when we'll
see you again. Say hi to rye bread for us!

The last moments in Copenhagen were spent wrangling with our luggage to make sure each piece of Danish market goodness was distributed properly to avoid weight surcharges, security issues, and potential damage in transit. Then we waited and waited 'til boarding time, and then takeoff, and then for our baggage on the other end, and then to finally arrive home via the busted-ass RER commuter train. Total door to door time: 6.5 hours. Amount of which was pleasurable: 0.

This round goes to: Train.

As usual, for a more food-oriented account of this trip, see the upcoming entry on our cooking site, Hungry Amateurs and the full complement of photos on my Flickr page.