Denmark’s most famous female looks out onto the waters of Copenhagen wistfully, head bowed, eyes solemn. She gazes out to sea, but her body – half human, half mer-person – would rather be back on land. She has a decision to make. I am staring at the postcard of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid that I bought at the airport before my flight home, back to London, with the same mournful sense of sadness.
Perhaps her popularity has something to do with the fact that everybody can relate to that aching battle between head and heart, between want and need. There is something resonant, something strangely romantic and at the same time sorrowful, about the way the Little Mermaid looks out over Copenhagen, unsure of her future. And she should be – she’s lost her head twice, and various other limbs throughout her time serving as Denmark’s most popular tourist attraction. Even if you’re made of metal, being a woman is hard.
Being in Copenhagen, conversely, is not. Copenhagen (København, to Danes) is a beautiful, clean city with a breathtakingly seamless fusion of modern, cutting-edge architecture and the historical traditions of olden-day Denmark – back when Hamlet was still attacking people through the arras.
On my whirlwind tour, I was enthusiastically shown the pride of Denmark, Amalienborg Palace, where the royal guards protect the Queen and rest of the royal family, day and night in their bearskin hats and their toy-soldier style uniforms. My companion, as a former member of the Livgarden, animatedly pointed out their neatly polished satchels, their rifles and swords that are every boy’s dream, before sighing nostalgically, “That was the best year of my life.”
Certainly, these guards and their presence in the city make up a big part of Copenhagen’s identity. They’re everywhere, circling the Dutch-Renaissance Rosenborg Palace, in their camouflage uniforms, more suited to the modern-day combat of Armadillo than the pomp and ceremony of palatial protection.
We strolled our way through Rosenborg’s picturesque, topiary-peppered gardens, weaved our way through the main shopping streets and finally found ourselves at Nyhavn, or ‘New Port’, the well-known, postcard-perfect view of Copenhagen harbour. Lined with colourful buildings along the waterfront that, what was once the sailor’s hangout is now home to tourist-friendly bars and restaurants. “And that,” my companion pointed and announced proudly “is the strip club we used to go to in the army.” It was a stop on the guided boat tour I could have done without. “How lovely,” I grimaced, eyeing up the seedy-looking establishment, erroneously named Hong Kong, feeling slightly queasy.
Luckily, the rest of the boat tour we took from the harbour erased the Hong Kong-shaped blot on Denmark’s so-far clean sheet. We floated tamely alongside the new, modernist Royal Playhouse and past the glittering Royal Library, nicknamed the Black Diamond for it’s distinctive shape and colour. We passed Christiania, the former ‘free-town’ where drugs were once legally sold, casually considered de rigeur. I ogled a good couple of spires and equestrian statues, and envied the converted warehouses that are now modern-chic canal-side flats. “Who lives here?” I asked my makeshift tour guide, who still hadn’t quite redeemed himself from the strip club comment. “Students, mainly,” he explained, nonchalantly. I balked and felt suitably sick again.
It seems students have it pretty good in Copenhagen. Nauseatingly good, in fact. My first meeting with Denmark was actually with Copenhagen Business School, where my tour guide now studies. We took a winding route through neat little green walkways, nearly got run over by a few bicycles, double-backed on ourselves and finally, with that fairytale feeling of pushing foliage aside to discover Narnia, came out the other side at a little greenhouse-cum-café, looking out over flowerbeds in bloom. Set in the midst of the University of Copenhagen’s Life Sciences Faculty, I peeked into the veterinary labs and watched Danish students with pipettes quietly doing science-y-things in an unnervingly appealing way. Who knew Bunsen Burners could be such beacons of idealism?
It was these little things: discovering a great local greenhouse eatery like Væksthuset, sneaking an insight into student life, or umm-ing and aah-ing over which Danish pastry to try, promptly buying three and snaffling them all (I recommend Romsnegls, for the name alone – “rum snail”) that gave me a real sense of the city. The buzz you get just from sipping a bottle of Faxe Kondi, a Danish lemonade with a name that sounds like an office stationary supplier, purely because it’s Danish lemonade is just as good as the buzz one gets from seeing a national monument.
Copenhagen is that city that you wish you lived in. Sure, there’s the language problem (though they’re all virtually bilingual and speak perfect English) and in winter, it’s undoubtedly freezing, but it has an overwhelming sense of space and freshness. The city has had much money and pride injected into it by its inhabitants, and it shows. I couldn’t help but form romantic visions of myself sailing across town on one of the Copenhagen’s characteristic bicycles – complete with basket containing a few neatly wrapped romsnegl – with a Copenhagen clarity of mind. They say Danes are the happiest nation on earth, and it’s not hard to believe.
So I felt suitably sad as I sat on the metro, the flash, clean, fully-functioning new metro, back to the airport, alone. I was leaving my Hans Christian Andersen, modern-day fairytale behind. Something might have been rotten in the state of Denmark in Shakespeare’s time, but right now? Copenhagen’s feels pretty fresh.