Denmark: Where History and Modernity Collide

Hotel Dangleterre Copenhagen

Denmark – An Ancient Kingdom with Modern Attractions

By David Yawn

As the oldest kingdom in Europe and as one of today’s forward-thinking nations, Denmark displays ancient traditions as a preface to a newer chapter of development and fresher stories. A visit to Denmark is a journey through a varied history. Placed like punctuation marks between the North Sea and Baltic is situated in this relatively diminutive kingdom.

Tucked behind sandy coastlines and beyond beech forests are quaint villages and historic buildings that blend interestingly with the modern architecture for which the country is commonly known. In some ways, it could remind one a little of Holland (old Christianshavn in Copenhagen was modeled on Amsterdam), but the distinctions are ample enough to make it all its own nation.

Yes, it bears similarities, with the many bicyclists and the occasional windmill in the countryside; but the only-in-this-country features are enough to serve as its own magnet.

With few natural resources other than the earth and sea, Danes have always valued education and creativity. Denmark is a country of many islands, though traveling among its various sightseeing landmarks usually takes one or two hours. Even the middle of Denmark is only an hour’s trip to the sea, at most.

Creativity still abounds here. This is the land of authors Hans Christian Andersen and Karen Blixen, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, and of museums such as the Louisiana Modern Art Museum.

Denmark ’s fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, would have become two years short of 200 years old this past April. That’s why the country will produce a giant hoopla for this fabled Odense-born writer in 2005.

Danish and Swedish arts and crafts have served as some of the country’s biggest exports in recent years. These include ceramics by artist Bjorn Wiinblad, handblown glass, Royal Copenhagen blue-fluted porcelain, Georg Jensen silver, Holmegaard, and Kosta Boda and Orrefors Swedish glassware.

Architect Kay Bojesen has made his mark on interior architecture and furniture for decades, an architecture that has come to be associated as natural, open, straightforward, and mostly blond – much like the Danish people themselves.

The city square in Copenhagen
The city square in Copenhagen.

Nearby Malmö, Sweden has its own tradition in design and its Form/Design Center is housed in Hedmanska garden or court in the old Lilla Torg entertainment district in that Swedish city. The buildings enclosing the courtyard date from the 16th century. In about 1850 a merchant had a large granary built, which today houses the center that opened in 1964.

Svensk Form, the Swedish association of crafts and design founded in the 1800s operates the center.

The pervasive fairytale theme seems to color the area and particularly Copenhagen in various manifestations, including the 160-year old Tivoli Gardens in the heart of that city. Tivoli is a gentrified amusement park that carries the kind of restraint its relative antiquity conveys.

in the 19th century, the King of Denmark gave Georg Carstensen his royal permission to operate an amusement park in the heart of Copenhagen. This pleasure park hosts many entertainment events every summer, from rock to symphonic concerts.

The park has something fresh, as well, to please the palate, as Chef Paul Cunningham, originally from England, has opened his restaurant simply called “The Paul” in its historic Mirror Hall. The eatery already is being discovered as a popular alternative among scores of central-city restaurants, a familiar experience for Cunningham, who garnered Guide Michelin stars twice in the past, including his previous achievements at the exclusive Sollerod Kro.

The Nyhavn mariners' district in Copenhagen
The Nyhavn mariners’ district in Copenhagen.

At least two dozen food establishments, some eight formal ones, dot Tivoli ’s grounds. The park’s season extends through September. The Copenhagen Jazz Festival is held in July at Tivoli Gardens and at other venues around the city.

Copenhagen is a royal city in every regard and home of the world’s oldest monarchy, dating to King Erik VIII in 1417. It is the scene of pageantry and royal events. Queen Margrethe II lives in Amalienborg Palace.

One can visit the crown jewels and throne room in Rosenborg Castle (vintage 1606) in Copenhagen, see the noontime changing of the guard at nearby Amalienborg Palace (vintage 1749), or see a performance of Hamlet portrayed in the courtyard of the 400-year-old Kronborg Castle at Helsingor, about 45 minutes north of Copenhagen, the setting for Shakespeare’s Elsinore Castle.

Rosenborg was built as a summer house for King Christian IV. Used from 1658 as Treasury of the Realm and since 1838 as a museum of the history of the Danish royal family, it includes a royal throne surrounded by silver lions, ancient tapestries, and the crown jewels.

Amalienborg actually contains four palaces. Since 1794 it has been home to the royal family, though it does contain an interesting museum where private rooms of royalty are preserved and showcased behind glass viewing barriers. Among these are Queen Louise’s drawing room and Frederik IX’s private study.

Nearby Malmö, Sweden has a castle of its own. Malmö has Castle was completed in the 1500s, primarily as a fortification or cannon battlement. In 1658 possession of this border province of Skåne was transferred from Denmark to Sweden. As a result, the military role of the fortress became less important during the following centuries. It became a museum in 1937 and has verdant gardens adjoining it, tended by British transplant John Taylor as a master gardener.

Within easy reach are several edifices, mostly ones erected by Danish Christian IV, who was appropriately known as the Builder King. He left the greatest physical mark on the city of any monarch. These buildings are not only relegated to royal castles but also include The Stock Exchange and The Round Tower, even sections of the city such as Christianshavn.

The most impressive castle architecturally is Frederiksborg Palace, north of the capital city. Built during the years of 1600-1620, this enormous and well-preserved edifice was inspired by the Dutch architecture of the day. The original Baroque Palace Gardens were installed in the 1720s, but changed over the centuries.

The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In the 1990s, the original Palace Gardens were recreated with cascades and colorful flowerbeds. Some travelers even arrange to spend the night in one of Denmark ’s many castles or manor houses, many of which are owned by the same families that built them back in the 1500s through 1700s.

Accommodations are keeping pace with tourism flows. A favorite hotel in the central district, just blocks from Tivoli Gardens, City Hall, and the start of the Stroget, is the large Imperial Hotel, featuring a brasserie, conference center, and banquet facilities.

Copenhagen’s Admiral Hotel situated in the historic Nyhavn district has had a facelift covering the guest rooms, lobby, conference rooms and new restaurant designed by Conran & Partners. Chef Casper Vedel Jensen presents a creative European menu with Danish undertones. Some 200 years ago, this waterside building was a vast warehouse. It was converted to a 366-room hotel in 1978.

The city’s hotel boom continues with the Hotel Skt. Petri in the heart of the historic Latin Quarter; it’s the fifth 5-star hotel to open in Denmark’s capital. The building began life in 1928 as a department store, designed in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architectural style. It has taken on a new identity housing 270 guest rooms (many with private balconies) surrounding an atrium garden, with two restaurants and a bar. Rooms there are decorated in modern Scandinavian style, characterized by blond wood and bold color details.

This hotel is a block or two from Stroget, the city’s two-mile pedestrian shopping district, and the Round Tower. For business travelers, it offers conference facilities and access to the Bella Center, Scandinavia ’s largest convention center. The Copenhagen Card offers unlimited travel throughout the metro area and admittance to more than 70 museums and tourist attractions.

In the summer of 2000, the Øresund Region created a long-awaited bridge link, connecting Copenhagen, Denmark, and Malmö, Sweden directly. The Øresund Bridge connecting the Danish island of Zealand and the Swedish Scania region is the longest combined rail/road/tunnel in the world. With two decks (cars on the upper and trains on the lower) and four-car lanes, it was built over five years at a cost of $3 billion. The result is a uniting of 3.5 million citizens living within this Scandinavian urban region. The bridge in effect links the whole Danish island of Zealand and Skåne, the southernmost tip of Sweden.

The region extends across one of Northern Europe ’s more vibrant development areas in which a range of networks enables business, research, science, and the arts to pool resources. Many international corporations within life sciences, biotech, foods, tourism, trade, and distribution fields, not to mention IT, media, and communication have located their operations there.

Copenhagen Kastrup Airport operates out of a new terminal, completed a little over five years ago. SAS, Europe ’s sixth-largest airline, is the main tenant at the airport and is networked with other airlines through the Star Alliance system. Air-rail trains are located an escalator ride from the main airport concourse. The seven-mile trip takes 11 minutes to the Central Railway Station, nexus for all other points in the area. The $3-$4 fare is a lot more favorable than a $29 taxi ride.

Breakdancer in Copenhagen
Breakdancer in Copenhagen

raveling times within the region are short. From the middle of the Øresund Bridge, you are no more than 90 minutes from the farthest corners of the region.

Traveling times from the Copenhagen Airport to Odense on the island of Fyn is an hour and 45 minutes and to reach Aarhus in Eastern Jutland is three hours and 10 minutes.

The short distance between the region’s two major cities makes it possible to host an event in two countries at the same time; in 2006, Rotary International will also take advantage of the proximity of the two countries at this point. In the region are hotel chains such as Hilton and Marriott, Radisson SAS hotels, and First Hotels.

Cruise lines gather at a dock at Langelinie Pier – not far from the Little Mermaid on the rock. Passengers arriving in Copenhagen have access to the Cruise Information Center at the pier where English-speaking staff provides them with comprehensive information. Cruise passengers also have a hospitality lounge in the heart of the Stroget walking district.

Public transport in the Øresund Region is reliable and cheap. Copenhagen has the fastest and cheapest airport-to-city-center rail link of any European capital – just 13 minutes. You can also travel directly by train from Copenhagen Airport across the Øresund water channel, via the Øresund Bridge, to Malmö in southern Sweden in 22 minutes. Trains and buses are frequent. In addition, Copenhagen ’s new Metro system opened last year. Taxis are tightly regulated and operate with fixed prices. Travel times by train between Copenhagen and Malmö are about 35 minutes.

Considering its latitude, the region’s climate is somewhat mild. From early April to late September the city’s cafés and restaurants move their tables outdoors. Sunbathers hit the parks as soon as the temperature rises. The climate is comparable to Amsterdam or London: January and February are the coldest months, while July and August are the warmest.

The towns around Copenhagen hold their own mystique. Koge is one of the best-preserved medieval towns. Roskilde features the Viking Ship Museum, a music festival, and an ancient church where royalty still is buried. Hundested is a town where sea and fjord meet.

Much is to be found in the outlying areas in northern, coastal Zealand. The Viking Museum in Roskilde features the reconstruction of the Skuldelev ship. The curators hope the results will contribute to the cultural and historical understanding of the Viking period, especially that of the maritime culture. The reconstruction venture also contributes to the knowledge of materials, working techniques, and design principles of benefit to specialty craftsmen.

An artist's rendering of the Skuldelev 2 which is being rebuilt at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum - photo courtesy of the museum
An artist’s rendering of the Skuldelev 2 which is being rebuilt at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum – photo courtesy of the museum.

Such a ship had a mast length of 14 meters and 60 oars. It was attended by a crew of some 60-100 men and an estimated speed of five to 20 knots — not bad for the 1400s. Thanks to donations from the philanthropic brewery-built foundations of Tuborg and Carlsberg, the museum is able to accomplish this building of an ocean-going warship to scale.

The size of the ship and its form place it among famous Viking longships, which represented the high technology of the time. After launching in about 2005, the ship will be tried in the Danish waters and then out on the North Sea.

Since 1982, the museum has built 10 reconstructions. The Skuldelev 2 is the largest built thus far. First the keel is laid, the stem and stern raised, and the bottom planking formed. The floor timbers are then put in, the lower frames and keelson fitted, the side planking built up and the remaining frame timbers laid in.

A magnificent Viking ship is being reconstructed at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum - photo courtesy of the museum
An artist’s rendering of the Skuldelev 2 which is being rebuilt at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum – photo courtesy of the museum.

The reconstruction is being built of freshly hewn timber. Long planks are split from long, straight oak stems while the curved frame timbers are trimmed from naturally curved forms of growth from oak crowns. Iron, horsehair, and hemp (for ropes), and linen (for sails) also are used.

Remarkably, the ship is being built with copies of Viking tools such as axes, planes, chisels, drawknives, spoon augers, and hammers based upon archeological digs from the period.

While in the town, be sure to visit Roskilde Cathedral on a hill only about three miles from the museum. Since the Middle Ages, this cathedral has served as one of Denmark’s most outstanding churches. Previous churches stood on the site, but in the 1170s, Bishop Absalon began erection of the brick Romanesque church with long and wide transepts.

The construction was changed, though, by Peder Suneson (bishop 1191-1214) who was inspired by Gothic cathedral construction in France. The actual church was finished in 1280 but has added extensions through the centuries.

Before the Reformation in 1536, the cathedral was Catholic. Almost half of the interior formed a closed choir including stalls for all the canons and farther on the east side, the high altar. Spread in the cathedral and the chapels were furthermore a considerable number of side altars. After the Reformation the side altars were removed, new furniture was installed for Protestant service, and the choir was opened to the west.

Since the Reformation, all Danish kings, and almost all of the queens, have been buried there, many in elaborate royal sepulchral chapels. In the middle of the choir is situated a magnificent sarcophagus of Queen Margrete I (1375-1412). The cathedral now is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Frederiksborg Castle and Museum in Hillerod, Denmark, is a palace in its own right. This elaborate complex of vintage buildings serves as Denmark’s Museum of National History and has done so since 1878. The castle was built at the time of King Christian IV and was restored after a fire in 1859.

In addition to magnificent sections including the Chapel, the Audience Chamber, and Great Hall, the museum contains Denmark’s most important collection of portraits and history paintings as well as examples of rare porcelain and decorative art. The Chronological Collection illustrates Denmark’s history from 1500 until the present day.

Chess players in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Chess players in Copenhagen

The Louisiana Museum for Modern Art in Humlebaek is an inobtrusive linkage of buildings, both above and below ground that blend into the natural landscaping. On a recent tour, the works of American artists Louise Bourgeois were featured.

Born in France in 1911, she was involved in the surrealistic influences of Paris. Later, she moved to America where her career as an artist gained momentum in the late 1940s at a time when renowned abstract painters made their breakthroughs. Since the 1960s she has been a leading figure in the rebellion against precisely modernistic abstract art.

An exhibit that opened in late May features the photography of Arnold Newman as he recorded history with his camera. He was a photographer of Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Georgia O’Keeffe, Igor Stravinsky, and others.

The Karen Blixen Museum in nearby Rungsted memorializes the author of Out of Africa and other works on her own homestead near the Danish coastline a half-hour north of Copenhagen. When the author set up a foundation in 1958, she directed that the acreage be maintained as a bird sanctuary with the main building serving cultural purposes.

The governing board decided to open the house as a museum. This author of seven published books died in 1962. The museum chronicles this storyteller who represents one of the greatest Danish literary achievements of the 20th century.

The specific environment, both indoors and outdoors, provide a fresh perspective to her works. It is no everyday home, rather a personification of her spirit with each room having its own mood, expressed in various colors. The writing rooms and most other parts of the house are preserved quite precisely as when she lived there.

Across the Øresund Bridge, Malmö, Sweden has the reputation of being among that nation’s most cosmopolitan city with scores of languages being spoken there. Its Old Town section (known locally as Gamla Staden) is encircled by canals. The Stortorget, or old market square, dates to the 16th century when most of the buildings were built under Danish control. The Radhuset (city hall) and the former Danish Trading Company buildings are impressive.

The St. Petri Church is a Gothic church in the center of the old city with an impressive, decorative pulpit. Lilla Torg is a cobblestone, historic entertainment district. Malmö hus Castle, built in the 1400s, was home to the Danish royal mint before being destroyed by an uprising in the 1530s. It was rebuilt under Christian III of Denmark, interestingly, in a combination of Gothic and Renaissance styles before Sweden retook it in 1648. The State Museum next door features a permanent collection covering local history.

Now that the hands of Sweden and Denmark are once again clasped by a handy bridge, it is worth the minor effort involved to see them both in the same visit. Due to its compact geography and central location to northwestern and north-central Europe, the Copenhagen-Malmö area can be relatively covered in a four-day time period.

David Yawn is an independent full-time writer.

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