Friday, August 24, 2012

Denmark diary - day 10

In theory we could have gone into central Copenhagen for our final evening – it was only about fifteen minutes away – but we just stayed in the Hilton. It actually worked out very well – the food was terrific, especially a dessert created out of wheat and beetroot. We’ve concluded that the distinctiveness of Danish cuisine is more about the vegetables than the meat (some sources had described stuffed puffin as a common delicacy on the Faroes, but unsurprisingly, we never came across any sign that people eat such a thing – I expect it’s just done in intimate darkness). The waiter chatted to us a bit, mainly about the wonders of the Hilton chain, and gave us two free glasses of wine, always a sign of potential magnificence. In the morning we had breakfast there also – yet another awesome selection, although does a breakfast buffet really need to include a carrot cake? (presumably most people think not, since it was untouched).  In the lobby, there's a chair signed by luminaires who’ve stayed at the hotel, including Al Gore, Cherie Blair, Jacques Rogge and (the piece de resistance) Bonnie Tyler.

The cash we brought with us ran down pretty effectively over the course of the trip, and we didn’t need to take out any more, but all this really means is that Denmark seems better advanced towards becoming a cashless society and that it was very easy to keep using the Visa. Copenhagen was much more expensive than the Faroes – the bill for one night at the Hilton exceeded that for three nights at the Foroyar -  but nothing about the trip was cheap, and I probably literally mean nothing. We bought nothing at all to take home except some cookies at the airport, and that was just to use up the last of the cash. We would have purchased some permanent souvenir of the trip, but we never saw anything that ever seemed to need to belong to us.

It was a wonderful trip – we loved every day of it. Many people seem to view Denmark as an odd choice for a vacation, in the absence of any family tie or suchlike, and I can see why they'd think that – it doesn’t have the classic, mythic standing in Western culture of France or Italy, while yet not seeming quite as self-defined as Norway or Sweden (it’s certainly more culturally diverse than either of them). If you don’t know the country’s history (and nothing about it really pushes you that much to learn) it might seem like little more than the connective material between other countries, “European” in all the ways we view that as being a good thing, but perhaps too small and quiet to tell us much about the ways in which it isn’t. But this is largely why we liked it so much – we took the country as we found it, and it completely held up its end of the bargain. I’m sure it’s not a perfect place by any means (although in the recent past unemployment was in the very low single digits) – I guess all that teenage drinking must have some sinister side, no matter how indulgently you’re inclined to view it – but it doesn’t even remotely force its rough edges and neuroses upon you. Copenhagen is simply an ideal place to spend some days simply walking and exploring – it’s just thrilling to us that a place we’ve vaguely known about basically forever is now such a tangible presence in our memories – and the Faroe Islands, while it would perhaps be an odd choice as the centrepiece of a trip, worked perfectly as a complement. Although I think we’ll likely go to a different part of the world next time, we’re already discussing our next Scandinavian visit (most likely to Finland, even though we couldn’t count that as a “new” country, as we did once spend an afternoon in Helsinki).

We were checked in and through security within about twenty minutes of leaving the hotel – hard to know if that’s luck or a final example of Danish awesomeness. I finally finished my magazines on the way home, although it seemed like hard work at the end. Ally watched The Best Little Marigold Hotel; even though the Air Canada movie selection nowadays is truly quite admirable, I still stuck with my own inventory and watched L’Avventura on the laptop. The flight was pretty much on time, but it took over an hour for the luggage to appear. I think people complain about Pearson airport too much, but this one aspect of things does seem to be, how would you put it, sub-optimal. Anyway, we got home around 5 pm, and shortly afterwards I went to get Ozu. He was just thrilled to see me, and dragged me all the way home. He usually takes me a bit for granted, because we spend so much time together, and he treats Ally as being more special when she’s around, but when we go away, I guess he realizes how much he depends on me, and he was just all over me, following me everywhere, staring lovingly at me – just like Ally used to do (or at least that’s how I remember it). Eventually he tired himself out and went to sleep, and then there was no doubt we were home.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Denmark diary - day 9

We ate last night in the hotel restaurant (“Koks”), reportedly the best on the island, and that seems likely – it was excellent food, a little unusual (neither of us can remember the last time we were served so  many onions) without seeming at all strained. It was one of our best meals of the trip – overall though, I think we had more interesting meals in Sweden, although that’s probably mainly due to chance. After that we sat in the bar for a while – it was as quiet as ever. We hadn’t noticed before that the hotel has a “Bill Clinton Presidential Suite,” so presumably this is where he stayed. Re the other recent famous guest, it’s right next to the “Elton John Queen’s Suite” – or so I would say if I was basing my persona on Ricky Gervais, which of course I’m not.

The following day we had breakfast, also served in the restaurant. It’s only the second time we had breakfast on the trip, but it’s pretty obvious the Danes do a good job of it. We checked out and stored our bags, then spent a couple of hours walking a hillside trail near the hotel. At last we had an extended scenic view of the city, and the water, and even of other islands in the middle-distance – most if not all of this had usually been lost to the fog. At times in our walk the sky was actually stunningly blue, and we even started feeling mildly hot (!) We were finally able to see how the start of our big walk two days ago, which we had so much trouble figuring out, related to the rest of the city – unsurprisingly, from up above, it all seemed much simpler than it did at the time. It looks like several farms exist within the town, surrounded by housing developments on all sides – maybe because of stubborn farmers who wouldn’t sell out. It’s funny though how sparse these farms all seem – as I mentioned previously, it’s as if every sheep was guaranteed its own amount of space (this being more than that of many downtown condo dwellers). The town also contains many horses and many geese. And on this particular trail at least, quite a few dogs – it seems to be a popular walking spot. However, all the dogs were on the leash – a notable contrast with Toronto where almost all dogs get offleash in such open spaces, whether or not that’s actually allowed. Maybe it’s because of the grievous consequences of having your dog chase sheep (which I believe in Britain at least would give the farmer the right to shoot the dog). In similar vein, Danish people always seem to wait patiently for the crossing light to turn green, however far the empty road might stretch into the distance, and the motorists are also very well behaved. However, they must have some strange dark recesses, or how else would this ever be prominently displayed in a hotel lobby?

We got a shuttle from the hotel to the airport, with the hotel slightly blemishing its performance here by not adequately explaining to us how this would work, so that we were still standing there after all the Danish people were safely on their way, and by not informing us that once we had been picked up, the driver would divert to the ferry terminal to pick up someone else. But I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg of things we missed, or where we did the equivalent of getting from A to B only via ridiculous detours to C, D and E  – this one just made more of an impact because no one likes being messed around when you have a plane to catch. Anyway, there was no problem – we made it (by that time it was foggy again) and on this occasion we were able to sit together too. Ally finished the Jennifer Egan book in record time. I’m on the second-last of my magazine inventory, so I guess I’ll finish what’s left on the way home.

The trip has had a rather quirky musical soundtrack – on the ferry to the Mykines, they played the title song from Xanadu at one point, and similar echoes of the lesser past have been coming up throughout. In the cab on the way in, we heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call me Maybe, which I believe is currently playing in cabs all over the world. As for local TV – who knows, we only had the TV on once, and then only briefly. We weren’t always that uninterested in hotel TV, but then we didn’t always have Internet (I usually just mention me being on it, but Ally spends a fair bit of time on the ipad too).

We spent our last night in the Hilton attached to the airport, just a couple of minutes' walk from the terminal, to make things easy for our flight home. It’s smart and spacious like all Hilton hotels, but after having free wireless in both our previous locations, it can’t help but seem a bit unclassy to charge for it here. As in any country of course, you can never figure out the local ways. A very tiny example:  for our initial stay in Copenhagen I never saw any hand soap anywhere – it was always liquid soap from a dispenser – and I assumed this was the Danish way. Then in the Faroes I started to see hand soap again, so I assumed maybe the liquid soap was the Copenhagen way. But now the Hilton also has hand soap, which may or may not mean that it’s chain-think and they haven’t adequately researched the Danish way. Or maybe the premise is that anyone staying in the airport Hilton doesn’t care about the Danish way. Anyway, I’m sure there are better illustrations of this train of thought than soap, but that’s the one that comes to mind right now. Maybe more would come to mind if our room at the Hilton had a better view, but the view says only that it’s time to go home.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Denmark diary - day 8

Today we were out of the place by 8.20 am - as a reward for our early start, the fog actually lifted and gave us a view, and it’s true, from our window you can survey the entire town. Obviously the whole location would have seemed much more accessible initially if we’d had that perspective from the start. Anyway, we walked to the station and caught a bus to the little town of Sorvagur, basically retracing our steps out toward the airport, but again with everything shown off much more crisply today; for example we noticed how many little waterfalls punctuate the landscape, as if the entire rock face were bursting.

Shortly after 10 we caught a ferry to the island of Mykines, only 10 square km large, but with a little town of some twenty or thirty buildings, even including a tiny guest house. The water was a bit choppy and it seemed that the ferry may have had trouble making it into the harbour - looking at the rock face, it was hard to imagine there could ever be a harbour - but suddenly we were there, with a stone staircase stretching up in front of us out of the mist (which had well and truly returned in the course of our journey), and a group of locals there to meet the ship, which was carrying all kinds of cargo in addition to the twenty or so passengers. Later on we saw how (maybe literally) half the population came down to wait for the later ferry – I guess when you’re so dependent on a few sources of supply, every arrival is a major event.

We went to the one visible store, a little snack bar attached to the guest house, with a meagre but for our purposes adequate inventory – we purchased two thirds of the guy’s visible sandwich inventory, among other things. Then we embarked on the main Mykines attraction, a walk out to an old lighthouse (the westernmost structure in the Faroes), allowing great views of breeding grounds for puffins and gannets, and including a crossing of a little suspension bridge which one online commentator had described as an Indiana Jones-like experience. Actually, the bridge was entirely secure, so no problem there – other parts of the walk were a bit steep and slippery though. And although the mist hid the amazing views I expect we would have had otherwise, at least it cleared for the most spectacular section, standing on the bridge, looking into rock faces crammed with birds, and with more of them circling around us than you’d ever see outside a Hitchcock special effect. Along the way we saw probably thousands of puffins, often in masses on every available inch of space, just standing there as they do, as if watching and waiting, until they take off on another brave expedition.

We made it to the lighthouse where we ate our lunch, then we set back. We’d assumed we’d run into everyone else from the boat on the way back, but only a couple of them seemed to be walking that same route – strange, given that it’s the island’s star attraction, and that once the ferry left, we all had six hours or so to wait for the next one. Anyway, we continued across the peaks, passing more puffins, and more sheep, until we’d reached an extreme of the island that even they didn’t care about. We returned to the town, and by now the snack bar guy had put out a plate of waffles, so we bought some of those, and they were pretty darn good. A couple of people from the boat were merely occupied with their ereaders; others seemed to be forlornly circling the town.

Ally saw somewhere that the island has eleven permanent residents, supplemented by others in the summer – if the number was eleven as of today, then around half of them were gathered around an earth mover admiring a big hole. It’s quite a pretty town, although some of the buildings look rundown and are presumably unoccupied. We picked a nice vantage point and tried to speculate on how such an isolated place would actually work in practice (if nothing else, it has cellphone reception, which is more than I can say for the part of Wales where my parents live) – for example, a building near the harbour was identified as the electricity generator, but who would actually maintain it? How would food distribution work given the apparent absence of an all-purpose general store? I’m sure there are mundane answers to these and the dozens of other questions that came to mind, but at that moment it all seemed quite mysterious.

The mist lifted for a while and several visitors headed part way up the path to take in the view. We were content with what we'd already seen though. Unsurprisingly, everyone was at the harbour by the designated ferry arrival time of 5.05 pm. As I mentioned, many of the locals came down there too, and no surprise – there were four excited sheepdogs on board. They certainly didn’t seem to be new arrivals – maybe they’d all been on their annual check-up or something. Released from the boat, they went leaping up and down the stairs like medal winners, contrasting with a dog we’d seen a little earlier, shut inside one of the houses and mournfully sticking his nose under a hole in the bottom of a door. Anyway, the journey back was much calmer, and we were able this time to see where we were going (it is truly mysterious  how you’ll be looking at some forbidding natural formation that you assume has never been scaled by human civilization, and then you’ll look up and see sheep grazing at the top). We arrived back at Sorvagur, and the only glitch was that we had to wait forty minutes for the returning bus. So we walked around a bit – it seemed like another pleasant little community with a seaside vibe (lots of local kids wandering round with fishing rods). The bus eventually came and took us back and we enterprisingly did the big uphill walk to the hotel again, rather than take a cab. Of course, by now it was shrouded in fog again. And that was our day’s excursion – just about eleven and a half hours long. It was a gorgeous outing – I’d recommend it to anyone. Well, except for anyone who might not enjoy walking.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Denmark diary - day 7

We woke up late again today. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying I’ve never had such a series of late-rising days. Even when I initially wake up earlier, I just lie there and drift, instead of forcing myself to get moving as I usually do. Of course, vacations are meant to be different, but I usually resist that aspect of the difference. Anyway, we got out of the hotel by 11 am, so that's something, and then walked into town to check things out further – again finding more shops and restaurants than we did at first, although not that much more actual people - and to visit the information centre. A little coffee place has a photo outside of a visiting Bill Clinton, who made a speech here in 2007 – ever obliging, he posed for lots of pictures and said the coffee was great. Even more surprising perhaps is that Elton John played a gig here in 2010 – it seems he sometimes just likes picking quirky locations (the proof being that not long afterwards he played Hamilton, Ontario). We got the information we needed and set out to walk to the village of Kirkjubour, 11 km away. The trail is supposedly easy to find, but we had trouble locating the start of it and spent lots of time just wandering up and down different streets. Even worse, once we were on the trail, and heading into the fields, we rapidly lost track of it (it's meant to be marked by stone cairns, but maybe someone flattened the all-important ones at the start): we spent time trudging in two different directions, realizing each time that this couldn’t be right and retracing our steps. In the end we found the right one – by this time it was well after 1 pm, and the fog was fairly thick. We weren’t really sure we’d manage to do 22 km there and back, but we decided to start out and see what happened. Fortunately we’d bought some sandwiches and some almond cookie type things so we were adequately supplied.

Anyway, we did manage to do the whole thing. Except for a bit of ascending/descending at either end, it was mostly a fairly easy walk through the craggy hills – we didn’t see any other walkers, only a lot of sheep and a few birds (but not that many birds - mostly just sheep), and a friendly sheepdog early on. We did have a few challenges – I had on some good boots, but my seen-better-days socks kept rolling down and bugging me; Ally was only wearing sandals, which weren’t entirely up to the muddy trail, and she tore her jeans on a fence. Happily, the fog lifted halfway through and allowed us some scenery, layers of green and blue rolling away from us, and a mysterious black mountain edging above its own protective mist like a surfacing whale. For all the boats tied up at Torshavn, we didn’t spot any in the sea, just a single ferry. We felt quite triumphant when we saw the village in the distance. It’s a small but very pretty place, a collection of maybe twenty houses, most of them painted black with red windows, many of them with living green roofs, and with a white church at the end of it all, overlooking the ocean. There’s no apparent commerce, except for one little building with a window display of dresses, only a few picnic tables. Two other people were exploring, but they’d arrived by car (losers!).

We sat there for a while, enjoying our achievement, and then headed back. The fog was thicker now, and most of the sheep had disappeared. It wasn’t raining, but the mist, blowing in from one direction, rendered one side of our hair and clothes dripping wet, while leaving the other side untouched. We came back at a pretty fast pace, considering, but once we’d left the trail and hit the Torshavn streets again, it all caught up with us, and we covered the last stretch in a distinctly stiff and creaky fashion. We decided to eat right away rather than take our usual break in the hotel, and went to the Hvonn brasserie, cited as one of the better eating places in town. In fact it was just one of those characterless places which tries to excel simply by offering just about everything you can think of, rather than by doing a few things well. This did seem to confirm though an impression we have of the Faroes, that their location doesn’t seem to entail any great material deprivation or lack of choice – for example, it seems to have as many car dealers as you’d expect to find in any comparably-sized mainland location, and probably more. On some islands you sense how the separation defines the people and their identity, giving their lives a particular rhythm and contour that doesn’t exist anywhere else, but we haven’t really picked that up here. Of course, after a mere day of hardly very extensive research, this may be an entirely vacuous train of thought.

Anyway, we split a pizza and a pasta and then headed back to the hotel, again moving very slowly up the steep trail. It seemed as unoccupied as last night, and just as shrouded in mist – we still have no idea what the surrounding landscape might look like. We abandoned any idea of spending more time in the bar, and so were done for the night by 8 pm, which doesn’t happen too often. But it was a massively satisfying day - funny how walking yourself to the verge of death works that way. I fell asleep almost immediately (that is, after getting my daily fix of Ozu on the webcam  - as usual, he was in his favourite spot on the platform, looking pretty content) but woke up later and wrote this diary while doing my usual web reviewing. Ally is now reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which she’s tearing through at a champion pace. I haven’t watched any movies on the entire trip except for our visit to Weekend, which was a planned vacation activity rather than something I was doing to feed an addiction. Of course, you might say that only an addict would ever feel compelled to point out that he’s not an addict, and there’s little doubt I’ll be back to my one-a-day pace as soon as we get home. But for now it feels like a very cleansing and somehow principled kind of withholding. Anyway, given our planned schedule for tomorrow, I’m pretty sure there’ll again be no time for movies.

Denmark diary - day 6

We thought we might manage a last morning walk around Copenhagen, but of course we moved too slowly. We did have breakfast in the hotel for the one and only time – even though it’s free, we'd never made it down there – and it was a good array of stuff too. Then we left for the airport and easily caught our flight to the Faroe Islands at 12.30. It’s fun occasionally to head to a virtually random destination, and that’s what this is – we decided our trip should include somewhere that would provide a contrast with Copenhagen, but since that basically could mean anywhere else in Denmark, it’s largely chance that brought us to this one. It’s largely because of the seeming oddness of the place – a cluster of islands, occupied by fewer than 50,000 people, closer to the Shetlands than to the Danish mainland…it seemed like somewhere that few non-Danes would ever visit. Ironically though, when I emailed a friend in Britain that we were going to the Faroes, he replied back that he’d also been there, on a cruise, and just last year. This instantly made it seem a little bit less adventurous. And then as soon as we got here we saw Rick Whiler walking down the street…no, I’m joking on that (at least for today)…

The flight was just two and a quarter hours (we gained an hour on the time zone though), and with surprisingly good food (you’d be happy to be served those meatballs anywhere), although we had to sit separately, because the plane was full of mostly elderly people, apparently belonging to a tour group. As soon as we got off the flight we knew we were in a different climate – several degrees colder, and with a pervasive mist. We took the bus into the largest town, Torshavn, about 50km away – a journey painted almost completely in green and observed mainly by sheep, taking us through one very long tunnel and past various small communities of no particular beauty. The bus dumped us at a terminal, where a map of the city indicated, a bit troublingly, that our hotel was far away from everything else – fortunately, there was a taxi station close by to get us there. Our initial impression of the hotel was a bit uncertain though – it seemed more than nice (very long and flat), with possibly the best amenities on the island (which is likely why we’d booked it, not that we really remember), but far away from everything else and shrouded in fog, we couldn’t help wondering if we’d made the wisest choice…Ally mentioned The Shining, which is the worst movie for a hotel ever to allow to enter the mind of a guest (later she said the reference wasn’t really justified, but I don’t know – long hallways, a sense of pervasive isolation, a crazy husband, it’s not so unfair...)

Anyway, we walked into town (supposedly the hotel provides grand sweeping views of the whole landscape, but in this fog we’d have settled for a grand view of our feet), which takes about twenty minutes, initially down a little footpath and then through a series of residential streets. When we got there, it added a bit to our concern – since there didn’t seem to be much of a there, just a lot of boats and a few bewildered people wandering round, presumably in much the same state as ourselves. But then we went round a corner and found some more activity, albeit still not much. The town is quite handsome in spurts, with some buildings bearing moss-coloured roofs and others painted in striking colours, but it’s very modest.

Anyway, we explored the downtown to some extent, including a little lighthouse on the edge of it, and then randomly set off walking for a while. Again, we saw more sheep than people, although they are quite handsome sheep, often with impressive horns, and it seems that each sheep is carefully allocated a generous amount of space, and maybe its own little wooden structure. Actually, in the prevalence of sheep, as well as in the appearance of the landscape and the particular kind of freshness of the air (sheep tinged), it reminded me of nowhere as much as the part of rural Wales where I grew up, although little as was going on in Torshavn today, it was still more than was generally going on in Wales. It was all quite mysterious though – we’d come in on a full flight, and not the only one that day, so presumably there must be plenty of visitors around (not to mention 48,000 residents), but I guess they were all hanging upside down in their closets. And the fog never lifted – as I write this, I have no idea what might lie outside the hotel window.

The sheer wackiness of it all became quite entertaining to us, so we were in a good mood as we walked back. The walk got pretty tough though as we entered the final stretch, so I don’t think we’ll be doing that too much at night after a big meal and some wine. It being Sunday, the hotel restaurant was closed today, but it has a bar/cafe open until midnight so we decided to eat there. Initially it was a bit stark, just the two of us and one other guest in a big space, but then as time went on it also became very entertaining. Our waitress, who eventually admitted it was her first night, was beautiful and stylish but also inept and careless, and after a while spent all her time staring out of the window and waiting for her boyfriend to come and get her, regardless of whether we might have had any further requests. At around 10 pm, the hotel experienced a strange peak of arrivals, which they were ill-equipped to process quickly – our guess is that there’s some corporate meeting tomorrow (they must love the manager who came up with that idea). And outside, it just got darker and foggier. When we were done (and had duly signed for our bill, not that they would have noticed if we hadn't) we went outside and walked a short way, and it didn’t take much for the hotel to be reduced to an abstract patch of light, which left us feeling as close to nowhere as we would ever likely be – out in the Atlantic on a barely material dot of land, with our only coordinates engulfed by the night. But of course, as long we we have wireless Internet, then we must be somewhere..

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Denmark diary - day 5

Today we started by filling in some of the gaps in our exhaustive mapping of central Copenhagen, including exploring more of the grounds around Rosenborg Slot, and then having a snack in the same baker as on two previous days - every trip yields some routes you just keep repeating, by accident or design, and this one keeps taking us past that baker. It’s on the same street as the movie theatre where we saw Weekend, and sitting there today we were facing a poster for Take this Waltz, which features a picture of the CN Tower, which we can see from our living room. Spooky! Then we embarked on a walk to Frederiksberg Slot (listed in the “further afield” section of the guide book, a former summer palace. The Pride parade was happening in the vicinity, and the music from that accompanied our entire walk around the grounds - not perhaps the most obvious of soundtracks. It’s a very pleasant area, with lots of shaded paths around mini-lakes, occupied by lots of young families having picnics. We walked only briefly around the outside of the palace itself – it didn’t seem to be attracting a lot of action. Then all of a sudden we came round a bend and we were looking over the wall at an elephant enclosure. We’d known the Copenhagen zoo was in the vicinity, but hadn’t realized it was quite so close. But a free look at elephants is a pretty good way to get you in a zoo frame of mind, so we decided to pay up and go inside.

Zoos are problematic places – the more impressive the animal, the keener the sense of its removal from its natural instincts and rhythms (elephants, which cover many miles a day in the wild, being as good an example as any), but you might wonder if the zoo animals are in some sense taking one for the team, serving as ambassadors of awareness and sympathy in the hope of safeguarding the greater good. That latter train of thought would be more compelling, I guess, if the omens for the greater good were more positive. Compared to Toronto zoo, Copenhagen is much more compact – much more old-fashioned I guess, although it appears it’s being modernized over time – the outside world never feels far away, and you can get incredibly close to the animals. Actually, a man died just last month after jumping into the tiger enclosure and swimming the moat, and I haven’t been so near to a rhino or a lion since we were actually on safari. At various points the animals are also well able to study each other – a giraffe was taking a great interest today in the adjacent hippos – and sometimes they do a great job of creating ambiguity: a polar bear was studying the crowd so intently that you might entirely forget which way round this was supposed to work. Despite all of that, the most popular area by some distance seemed to be the petting zoo, where the kids can run around with goats and suchlike. Anyway, for all its inherent issues, we were entirely entertained there and found it a bit hard to leave.

We walked back by a slightly different route, and as we were approaching the core I saw a former colleague from Toronto, Rick Whiler, coming the other way. This was remarkable because anyone would agree it’s bad luck to run into Rick Whiler even in Toronto, let alone on a completely different continent. I ran after him to check if my luck had really been that bad, and indeed it was – he and his wife are here for a few days before embarking on a cruise. Spooky!

The Pride event had taken over large chunks of the city – we went down one side-street and could hardly move nor hear for all the drinking and celebrating. We switched to a quieter street and made our way back. Today might have been the hottest day so far and we’d been walking almost constantly, so we were pretty exhausted, even without that Whiler encounter depleting the resources we had left. The standards in the hotel are a bit mysterious – the soap dispenser in the shower fell off this morning and we left it lying there assuming it would speak for itself, but it was still lying in the same place when we got back.

We’re always good at getting good walking coverage of the cities we visit, but I think we may have overdone ourselves this time – there seems to be nothing left of note on the main city map. It’s not just that Copenhagen’s fairly small – if anything it covers a larger area than we thought it would – it’s that we’ve really plunged into it. Throughout we’re helped along by being able to make cheap shots at the Danish language, which seems to consist only of very short words and very long ones, and its acronyms – for example, an elegant-looking gallery, full name “School of Drawing,” proudly draws people in with a sign saying “SOD.” It’s in a very nice font though.

We ate tonight at the Lumskebugten restaurant, a slightly out of the way place dating back to 1854 which we’d looked for and failed to find the other night. It was likely our best meal so far – for example I had an appetizer of astoundingly fresh lobster and tomatoes (by their quality confirming Letterman’s recent remark that most tomatoes are manufactured by the same people who make lacrosse equipment). Then we set a new vacation record by having a bottle of wine in the same place for the fourth successive night – dull maybe, but that waterfront location is just perfect. The waiter recognized us by now and remembered our order, and volunteered that while Copenhagen is indeed an energetic city, a lot of it is just powered by drinking. Checking this afterwards, Wikipedia says that Denmark “which has the most lax access to alcohol in Scandinavia, unsurprisingly also has the highest alcohol consumption among teenagers, not only the highest in Scandinavia but also in the world” which bears out what we’ve been seeing. However, it goes on, “the alcohol consumption among teenagers in Denmark is lower than the alcohol consumption of adults in Denmark, which is only average worldwide.” See, you let them burn themselves out early on, and then they’re well-behaved for life!

Denmark diary - day 4

We started moving earlier today and took the train to Humblebaek, about forty five minutes away; from there it was a ten minute walk to the oddly named Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (I think the name comes from the founder’s wife). It’s a beautiful place, completely worth the pilgrimage, with the original 19th century building having expanded over the decades into a series of modern galleries, built around a large sculpture garden in the middle, and with great views throughout of the water and of Sweden on the other side. We nearly always include a modern art gallery in our itineraries, and it’s always entirely stimulating and even thrilling, and always a bit overwhelming and quasi-depressing because you’re always forced to acknowledge how inadequately you scratched the surface of it all. It’s easy enough to absorb the familiar material – the museum had its appropriate quota of Warhols and Rauschenbergs and so forth, and almost as many Henry Moore pieces as Toronto’s vaunted collection – but you pass by the unknown (to you) artists so quickly and randomly that it verges on feeling disrespectful (regardless that we’re being less quick and random than most of the other visitors). Still, we did pause at several pieces in particular, including a huge installation by US artist Ed Kienholz called Five Car Stud, created in the early 70’s but mostly kept out of sight by a private collector unil recently. It's a life-size casting of a group of masked white men brutalizing a black one, lit by the headlights of their surrounding cars – as you walk around it, you momentarily confuse the figures with the other visitors, and become scarily disoriented about your relationship to the work (and thus your implied moral culpability). Throughout the museum actually, the curatorial notes on the walls were unusually complete and stimulating (even in translation), even when the piece involved, for instance, Scrooge McDuck.

We returned to the station and continued on to Helsinger, where the landscape is immediately dominated by the 15th century Kronberg Slot castle, also known as the castle of Elsinore, in which Shakespeare set Hamlet (Laurence Olivier once performed the play within the castle itself, as part of a continuing tradition of annual performances). We walked up there and went through the royal apartments, furnished as they would have been in their active 17th/18th century heyday, and explored just about as much of the interior and exterior as is possible; the castle has an active history, of being partially destroyed by fire, conquered by the Swedes, and other setbacks, but has emerged from it all in remarkable condition. After that we walked back through Helsinger itself, also very well-preserved and full of life – the main shopping area was extraordinarily active. It seems to us that Danish people really enjoy walking and enjoying their environments and the fine weather and the whole experience of being alive, although of course it could be that we’re just being distracted by visiting Finns, and the Danes are all huddled inside watching TV.

Unsurprisingly, all the trains today were impeccably clean and all ran precisely on time. Ally is reading Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, which she started back in Toronto. For years I stockpiled magazines in the weeks or months leading up to a trip because I hate being caught with nothing to read, and magazines are ideal for vacation downtime, but on the last few trips I seem to spend less time getting through them (through a combination I guess of easier Internet access and of better scheduling to minimize such downtime, as well as perhaps sleeping a bit more), so that by the end of the trip I’m scrambling not to bring unread magazines back home, which would the ultimate annoyance. Anyway, today I got through most of a New Yorker, including a long Bruce Springsteen profile which just made the time fly by.

We arrived back in Copenhagen around 5.30 and it was just teeming – it felt like the whole place was gearing up for a big party (sure, it’s Friday night, but even so, you wondered how everyone could be that excited). It’s Pride week, although from what we’ve seen so far most of that action is confined to a single performance space – on our previous walk-bys it was moribund, but today it was crammed, with a lot of joyous open air dancing. I don’t know whether young Danes like dressing up, but after seeing  a large group the other day in sailor hats, we today saw several groups in Viking headgear, as well as a possibly rival group in Braveheart face paint. Music was erupting over the city – everywhere you go you come across if not quite a flash mob, at least a flash trio. Even at this early point in the evening, it was all a little dizzying. We’re not exploring this side of it, but it really looks like you could plunge into the energy and conviviality and never want to come out: the city certainly ought to be exhibit A in any defense against charges of the Scandinavian psyche being chilly.

It was very boisterous by our hotel too, where the series of evening performances continues. We went out again later to pick a restaurant, and it surprised us that a group of guys was drinking beer in the vast guard-patrolled royal square I described the other day; I guess the guards don’t care about people lowering the tone, as long as they don’t try to break in. But actually Denmark is a good test case for one’s views on the subject – you can buy booze just about anywhere, and in some areas people were drinking on just about every other doorstep, but it never seemed particularly raucous or threatening…maybe it was still too early, or maybe the Danes have an innate sense of limits. We ate in one of the places on the always bustling Nyhavn strip – the Els restaurant, which dates back to the 1850s and claims to have had Hans Christian Andersen hanging round outside on occasion, and although it’s one of those tourist-angled restaurants which are almost pre-wired to be disappointing, it was actually pretty good, and moderately distinctive. We went back to our favourite spot on the water, which we seem to have established as our nightly habit, and encountered disaster - all the tables were full (Friday night!) But a place soon opened up and we stayed for ages. Re our ongoing project of observing the ship performers, it looked like they might already have been performing out on the water, because they were in costume when one of the ships came in, so after that they just seemed to spend  a low-key evening. Which may have put them in the Copenhagen minority.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Denmark diary - day 3

We got moving slowly today too – I guess we’re really finding it easy to sink into vacation mode. Once we did get outside, we largely retraced our steps from yesterday morning, including the same pastry shop (it all tastes good, whether or not you can pronounce the names) and then to the Grand Teatret movie theatre, where we saw the British film Weekend at noon. Although going to a movie might not be regarded as the optimum use of vacation time, it’s a "tradition" of ours to try to see a film in every new country, carried on ever since we saw Backbeat in Paris in 1994 – of course it only works if the local practice is to use subtitles rather than dubbing, and then we aim to find something on the quirkier side. Weekend worked perfectly – an acclaimed movie which for whatever reason never came out in Toronto, and it'll now join the list of memorable oddities that includes The Brothers Bloom (Jerusalem), Ripley’s Game (Amsterdam) and Two Days in Paris (Hong Kong). As always in Europe, the experience feels partially like going back in time – the theatre has a classic ornate quality, the tickets assign your seating, and the ads before the movie aren’t all for the latest gadgets (one of them seemed to be promoting a book, which I can’t imagine anyone trying to push to the The Dark Knight Rises audiences). No surprise though, attendance seemed very sparse, and mostly very old.

After that we walked back through a different combination of streets – I’m sure one could keep doing this indefinitely – and then crossed the river again to return to Christianshavn. We walked in the opposite direction from yesterday, sticking close to the waterfront, but it’s not that interesting – there’s been a lot of new development which I’m sure is economically transformative but not very visually striking. We did however stumble on the somewhat bleak location of Noma restaurant, sometimes cited as the best in the world – we’d put our names months ago on a waiting list for reservations, but unsurprisingly didn’t hear anything.

We then walked into the area of Christiana, founded in 1971 as a kind of self-proclaimed mini state within an abandoned military barracks, with the objective of creating “a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.” Forty years later it’s still going strong, although with fewer than 1,000 residents, and subject to constant argument and negotiation about its status, including varying external tolerance of its open hash sales on so-called “Pusher Avenue”: because these activities are technically illegal, the community enforces a strict no-photo rule once you're inside. It’s a ramshackle kind of place as you can imagine, with all kinds of small-scale commerce, and various kinds of occupier architecture to supplement what came with the barracks. There’s no way as a casual visitor to assess the merits of the project – a lot of people are obviously just there for the drugs and the grungy vibe, a lot (like us) to tick it off their Copenhagen highlights list; it’s hard to sense the deeper core. Certainly the arts and crafts store, the only one we entered, seemed much more conventional than you might have expected (filled with exactly the kind of pointless items you might regard as markers of psychological destituion).

We kept walking, mostly through further nondescript areas, until we came to the most imposing new structure on Christianshavn, an opera house on the water, very close to our hotel as the crow flies, but something like an hour’s walk away in the horseshoe-shaped route required of the non-crow. Which is exactly how we spent the following hour. I haven’t mentioned yet that Copenhagen does indeed have as many bikes as its reputation suggests – I’m not sure what the right of way is in all cases, but I feel it’s much more likely we’d be taken down by an unseen bike than by a car. People seem to leave their bikes against every available wall and structure, often seemingly unlocked, and a lot of the bikes seem in much worse shape than you tend to see back home, where I guess you ride a bike in the expectation of it being scrutinized (if you’re going to take sides in the war on the car, you’d better look good doing it). On a different note, we’re both certain we’ve seen more strollers than we have in years. I guess there aren’t many babies in our section of downtown Toronto – whether Copenhagen has a disproportionate number, I just don’t know.

We were going to try having dinner in a more traditional old-time Danish place, but we couldn’t find it, so we ended up in the Café Oscar (and doesn’t every European city have a Café Oscar?) where Ally had a veggie burger and I had pasta, which was all we really wanted anyway. Then we returned to the same waterfront spot as last night – it’s good to have your mini-rituals, even on vacation. The sailing ships were initially absent, but then a couple of them returned – one of them docked right in our eyeline and a group of partiers disembarked, then the ship slowly transformed itself into something completely different, with people turning up to set up lights, and others getting on board and seemingly preparing for an event, and others on bikes stopping alongside and talking to them as if asking, is there a party or what? However, even though we observed all this for the best part of an hour, they never actually launched into a performance comparable to last night. It was a bit chillier (it had rained a bit too while we were in the hotel), and several of them were heavily wrapped up, so maybe they just lost their nerve. Either way, the sense of collaboration and possibility, so late at night, seemed like further confirmation of a city with a young and active soul.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Denmark diary - day 2

We slept for over nine hours – I can’t remember the last time I did that, regardless of the night before. It meant we didn’t get out until 11 but hey, this trip ain’t a sprint. We walked back into the central shopping district, much of which is pedestrianized, and just explored up one street and down the next, all of this interspersed with a huge number of restaurants and cafes (it feels comparable to anywhere we’ve been in Europe in that regard) and occasionally yielding to a beautiful old church or other artifact. We only went inside one place – the Lego store! You can still get the classic blocks of course, but the bulk of the inventory now consists of spin-offs from The Green Lantern or suchlike, or of weirder creations like a kit that yields a model of New York’s Guggenheim museum (I wonder how many kids would place that high on their Christmas lists). We stopped in a pastry place for a snack – a spinach focaccia and some kind of tart with a multi-syllable name (Danish seems a lot like German that way).

We walked past the Central Station, which seems to mark the outer boundary of what tourists need to know about – beyond there it dispersed into office buildings and, I guess, more places where people just live and work. We kept walking though, and went all the way to the end of a big long street called Sonder Boulevard. The buildings are about a hundred years old, mostly apartment blocks it seems, separated by (working in from both sides) a very wide sidewalk, a bike lane, a car parking strip, a single lane for cars, and a wide space in the middle consisting of grass, or basketball courts, or little sitting areas with actual waitress service (a long way for servers to keep going back and forth across those four lanes). It looked like a lot of people might leave their apartments, cross the road into the middle and spend a big chunk of time sunbathing or reading or, in one case, playing backgammon: an apparent model of a pleasant, coherent neighborhood (based on an allocation of space which would be blasted back home as a “war on cars”).

We noticed afterwards on the map that if we’d kept going once the Boulevard ended, we would soon have arrived at the Carlsberg plant – a prime tourist attraction, but probably not one we’ll go for. Anyway, we walked back and entered the Tivoli, an amusement park dating back to 1843, and another of Denmark’s premier attractions (apparently an inspiration for the original Disneyland). It contains a large number of carousels and classic-type rides - nothing based on The Green Lantern or suchlike - ranging from things that raise toddlers about four feet into the air to others that swing adults around like bags of sand. It also has very nicely maintained gardens, casinos, performing spaces (mostly active only in the evening I think) and – this apparently being the number one activity in the Tivoli – countless places to eat and drink. It was a nice place to walk around, but didn’t detain us for much more than half an hour – presumably at the extreme low end of visitor duration.

We walked down Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard (much less fairytale-like than it sounds) and crossed the Inderhavnen to the Christianshavn district on the other side. We walked south along the water, with a huge number of young Danes sunbathing on boardwalks by the water to our right, or swimming in roped-off sections of the river, and an equally huge number of young Danes hanging out on the grass to our left. I don’t think we’ve ever been in a city where so many great-looking young people were just lying around looking happy – it had the ambiance of a beach resort, but with no sand and no cocktails with little umbrellas. Even stranger, virtually no one seemed to be texting or otherwise staring at smartphones – if not just sunbathing, then they were generally talking or reading. Beyond strange.

We walked all the way to the end of that and then back again (you know, to make sure we didn’t miss any nice-looking young Danes the first time) and then continued on, through areas which have apparently been recently reclaimed through urban development programs, and have that kind of feeling about them – one strip, alongside a canal, felt distinctly like Amsterdam. We’ll do more on Christianshavn another day, but by now we’d walked over four and a half hours with only that brief break in the pastry shop. So we walked back to the hotel, trying again to take a slightly different route: it becomes clear pretty quickly that Copenhagen is a good city for exploring, with every new street yielding something , whether it be an antique shop, another café, or the “Angels Gentlemans Club.” Although there’s not the sense of a huge number of foreign tourists here, English seems to be established as the logical language of interchange – many of the restaurants have translations posted outside, and we’ve yet to encounter anyone who didn’t speak it much more than adequately. It  was a wonderful, varied day, entirely trouble-free, and even better, while we were gone they removed the scaffolding from the hotel, so we now have an unimpeded, multi-faceted view.

Later on we walked along the water again in the direction of the Little Mermaid, then walked a few blocks deeper in to find a restaurant. We ate in a place called the Sommelier, with the overwhelming wine list you'd expect from that name, and very good food again. We ended up with a further bottle of wine at the Salt bar, attached to the hotel adjoining our own, overlooking the water,bordered by several old-style sailing ships which you can charter for trips. At around 10.30 pm, a bare-chested man started climbing one of the masts, faintly highlighted in a blue beam from above. You couldn’t initially tell whether or not this was a functional activity that just happened to be eye-catching, but suddenly there was a woman up there too, both of them in harnesses, and they started swirling round each other, painting body patterns in the night air. The man kept going for a long time, maybe an hour, with his partner changing twice; they didn’t do anything more to announce their presence, and indeed only a handful of people noticed them, which made it all the more mysterious and beautiful. They stopped just before we left, and people seemed to be arriving at the boat for a party, which must at the very least have had possibilities.

Denmark diary - day 1

We flew out of Toronto around 9 pm on Monday night, only slightly behind schedule. We both slept for maybe half of the seven and a half hour flight; the rest passed by easily. Copenhagen at 11 am might have been the easiest semi-major airport we’ve ever flown into – we were at and then through immigration control in a few minutes (no line up and no silly information card) and the bags arrived a few minutes after that. And the centre of the city was only a ten-minute cab ride away. If things were always this easy, life wouldn’t seem serious.

We’re staying in the Scandic Front hotel, right on the Inderhavnen river, which on the map holds up the main slab of the city; in terms of the guide book partitions , we’re in North Copenhagen. The hotel is part of a Scandinavian chain and shows a few signs of aging – I’m surprised there’s anyone still alive who remembers how to service the elevator – but otherwise it’s all good: the wireless Internet worked easily, the bed is comfortable (for me that’s the right order of priority), there’s a Nespresso machine, and so on. It would have a good view of the water and surrounding events, but that’s hampered a bit by scaffolding outside the window. Anyway, none of this is a problem, and the location is terrific. We took a few minutes and then went right out and started walking, around noon.

We started going north along the river, following the natural visual pull of where we were. The initial impression reminded us of somewhere like Bermuda’s dockyards, with the feel of a reclaimed industrial heritage, although I expect the difference here is that it never had to be reclaimed because it was never lost; the harbor is filled with ships, both functional and decorative; the stone landscape is immaculate, mostly long-established but with various grandly isolated new buildings visible on the other side of the water as we walked along, as if from the legacy of a past Olympics (that’s a topical reference). Before long this opened out into an initially rather confusing deep-green pattern of circling trails and water, which eventually resolved itself into the Kastellet, the former site of a 1600’s fort surrounded by a moat, now seemingly a prime location for joggers. But before that, just through beginners' luck, we ticked off what’s apparently the city’s prime tourist attraction, the statue of the Little Mermaid, on the rocks watching the water. It’s a beguiling sight, because it’s unusual to see a statue in such an informal location, but obviously, as aesthetic wonders go, you’d have to limit your scoring.

We walked around the Kastellet, and then wandered away from the water, through streets which evoked some parts of Paris - the elegant parts located away from the action, on a very slow day (we often wish we were more attuned to architecture, and better able to detect something of a city’s history from the contrasts between one block and the next). We passed a lot of art galleries and a lot of restaurants – no sign that anyone living in this part of town needs anything more than that. The streets were largely deserted until we were close to the hotel again, and then suddenly we came round a corner and there were hundreds of people eating and drinking and hanging out. There are versions of this in every city, like the tourist equivalent of the drug dealers who never leave the block where they do business. We’d found the Nyhavn, a canal crammed with boats and atmosphere, where it seems every building on the north side is a bar or a restaurant (and where I guess the owners have coordinated their paint jobs to present a relative colour explosion – Stockholm was like this throughout, but what we’d seen of Copenhagen so far had been muted by comparison), and I guess we had it at the peak of a summer lunchtime. The south side of the Nyhavn has some restaurants too, but it doesn’t look like anyone eats there.

We continued walking south, towards the square on our map containing the word “CITY” in red upper case letters, past the Magasin du Nord, a huge department store of the kind most notable these days for being in financial trouble, and then we stopped for lunch on a little side street, at an elegant place called Café Zeze. We had a glass of wine, Ally had a chicken salad sandwich and I had a smoked salmon sandwich – it was very good, and cost around $60. Finance-wise, it’ll just get worse from there, but we always knew this wasn’t a budget destination (or at least, we knew that if there’s a way of doing it on a budget, we wouldn’t worry about trying to find it).

It was a warm day, but several degrees below what we’ve had in Toronto recently, so very comfortable. We walked a little further, finding the Danish cinematheque (screeing a Nicholas Ray season, among other things), and then getting drawn into the large park that surrounds the Rosenborg Slot, a royal palace containing the Danish crown jewels. The park was surprisingly full of young people, as if they were waiting for a concert or something, although there was no sign of one – I guess we’re not used to seeing people simply enjoying their parks in such numbers (random observation – the Danes definitely seem to smoke more than the Swedes, and to engage in more open air drinking). We passed through the palace without going inside it, and walked back into the city, surely finding the shopping heart of it now – more brand names and quite a crush of people at various points. That was just about enough for an initial expedition, so we walked back to the hotel by following the water, passing through the Nyhavn again and getting back around three thirty.

We were both asleep within minutes, although I did of course check the webcam at Urban Dog where Ozu is staying. He was lying in his favourite spot, on the platform in the middle of the room, conserving energy while almost all the other dogs run around trying to use it up. We went out again around seven thirty. By then the area was a bit noisier – there’s some kind of festival going on nearby with a makeshift stage – although tonight's performance sounded merely like banal sing-along stuff. We walked fairly randomly in the same area where we’d left off earlier; again, the Nyhavn was buzzing but everywhere else was heavily winding (or already wound) down. We passed a big group of student types with makeshift sailor hats and a big beer supply, but that was mostly it. We wandered into a residential area and past a store displaying things like pencil kits in the window, always a sure sign you’re in Europe.

We got a bit lost on the way back, trying streets in the right general direction without seeming to get anywhere, and then one of them opened out onto a huge, traffic-free octagonal square, bringing us almost face to face with a guard in a fuzzy hat (I momentarily thought he was clicking his heels at me) – it was the Amalienborg Slot, consisting of four royal buildings, another kind of sight you only stumble across in Europe. At this time of night though the guards outnumbered the other people. From there we could figure out our way back. We had dinner at the Restaurant Kogt, the kind of quiet tasteful place that could be in any city, if you’re in a good city: a perfect place for our first night. It wasn’t very busy, but an adjacent table held a group of four who got increasingly louder as the night went on, in particular because of a visiting Australian who talked about his achievements and his money in such detail that he should have been easy to track down on Google (I couldn’t subsequently find him on there at all so it was probably all lies and embellishment). The hotel was only a few minutes from there – the sing-along was over, and a group of performers on a boat was putting on a show involving languid choreography, plaintive music and a video projection conveying the sense of being underwater. It finished soon after we started watching; we had another drink in the hotel bar and called it a day. And I don’t mean just any old run of the mill day.