Flair for design

Among cobbled squares, narrow streets and old buildings, the history of Copenhagen lives with us to this day, writes Arundhati Hazra

Christiansborg Palace. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

The history of Copenhagen is defined by fire, says our guide. Two major fires in 1728 and 1795 destroyed most of the cityscape, but the city rebuilt itself brick by brick. Fire wasn’t the only thorn in Copenhagen’s side, though. The German Hanseatic League repeatedly attacked the city as it grew in prominence as a trading centre, and Denmark was often at war with Sweden, and even today Danes are playfully antagonistic towards Swedes.

Despite its turbulent history, Copenhagen’s architecture demonstrates its design focus for centuries, and it is this history that I am keen to explore through the afternoon walking tour I take.

Our tour begins at the City Hall Square, admiring the Dragon Fountain, featuring a bull in combat with a dragon, built for the 1901 Town Hall Exhibition, that forms a dramatic silhouette against the dark brick buildings.

There is also the statue of The Lur Blowers, two men playing large horns mounted on a terracotta column, that was gifted to the city by the Carlsberg Foundation. Danes find the statue quite amusing, and a story has developed that the blowers will blow their horn if a virgin passes by the monument ­— no horns have been heard in the recent past though!

We walk some distance down Stroget, Copenhagen’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue, a car-free shopping street that has a host of Danish and international brands. Our guide points out stores to bookmark for later visits — the LEGO store, dedicated to Denmark’s most famous export, the La Glace patisserie, Copenhagen’s oldest pastry shop with decor as decadent as its desserts, and premier Danish design stores such as Illums Bolighus and Mads Nørgaard.

Copenhagen street
Copenhagen street.

 

Towering structures

We stroll through a narrow street with brightly coloured buildings to reach Hojbro, an 1878 bridge connecting the Slotsholmen Island to the rest of Copenhagen. Slotsholmen is often called the Island of Power as it has been the centre of the Danish government since the Middle Ages.

The Christiansborg Palace, which houses the Parliament, Prime Minister’s Office and the Supreme Court of Denmark, in addition to some portions being used by the Danish Monarch, is the only building in the world housing all three branches of a country’s government.

The palace, first built in 1745, was twice burned down by fire; its current avatar was the winning entry of Danish architect Thorvald Jørgensen in a design competition, built between 1907 and 1928. It is too late to enter, so I admire the neo-baroque facade, with the central tower peaking at 105 metres.

A bronze equestrian statue of King Christian IX, nicknamed the Father-in-law of Europe because four of his children became European monarchs or consorts, stands in the palace square, and is notable for being the first equestrian statue of a monarch carved by a woman sculptor. In particular, I notice the hat of the monarch, resembling Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker hat; Danish sense of style is historical, it would seem.

Also on the island is the 17th century Danish Stock Exchange, the Børsen. It was built by King Christian IV at Copenhagen’s entrance, to impress visitors and mark the wealth of the city. Built in the Dutch Renaissance style, the roof was originally made of lead, but much of it was removed during the Swedish occupation of Copenhagen of 1658 to make ammunition, and the present copper roofing is a product of 19th century renovation. The most impressive part of the building is the spire, with four dragons and their tails twisting to the top and culminating in a spear with three crowns representing the Kalmar Union between Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The dragonspire is believed to protect the building, and it is notably one of the only major buildings that has survived Copenhagen’s numerous fires.

Dragon Fountain
Dragon fountain.

 

Picture perfect

We continue to Nyhavn, originally a busy commercial port and now one of the trendiest districts of Copenhagen, choc-a-bloc with restaurants and bars. Lined with brightly coloured townhouses of wood and brick, with wooden ships owned by the Danish National Museum parked in the harbour opposite them, Nyhavn is an Instagrammer’s delight.

Equestrian statue
Equestrian statue

 

Made of stories

Our guide points out where popular children’s author Hans Christian Andersen lived; he lived across three houses in Nyhavn for most of his life, and I can imagine the colour and vibrancy of the place seeped into his stories. We rest our tired feet and feast on some Danish pastries at one of the numerous cafes lining the harbour.

At one end of the harbour is the Memorial Anchor, commemorating the 1700 Danish soldiers who died in World War II. We walk via Kongens Nytorv, a public square at the other end of Stroget, to the National Museum of Denmark. The museum covers Danish history from prehistoric times to the Vikings, the Middle Ages, and then the modern era. Some of its famous exhibits are the Huldremose Woman, the body of a woman from the Iron Age that was naturally mummified in a peat bog, and the Bronze Age artefact of Trundholm Sun Chariot, where gilded horses drag the sun in a chariot across the sky. Our tour ends at the gates of Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world and Scandinavia’s most popular.

Tivoli is a theme park, an entertainment centre and garden space all rolled in one, and I enjoy the sights, sounds and rides, especially the midnight fireworks show that happens on Saturdays. The glimpse of Copenhagen I got through my walking tour reminds me of Danish actress Connie Nielsen’s words, describing the persona of Copenhagen being generous, beautiful, elderly, but with flair. I agree – everything that the Danes design has flair.

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