We finally landed in Copenhagen after 16 hours on a red-eye. Although Anita and I travel quite regularly, it has been about a year since the last time I was on a plane for more than just a few hours. I am now back in Europe for a two-week vacation thanks to my lovely better half. This trip to Denmark marks not only my first visit to any Scandinavian country, but also the first leg out of three to what I consider to be the pilgrimage and foundation to a promising adventure. Right off the plane, the blue sky and fresh air reminded me of what it was like to live in Europe for three years. What a contrast with my current life in Ho Chi Minh City, a city that is considered to have one of the poorest air quality in the world.
At the customs, a happy greet from the agent asking what brings me to Denmark. “I’m visiting with my girlfriend.”, I said, while turning to Anita next in queue. An immediate smile from the agent got me the go-ahead to enter the country while she carried on with a charming follow up question: “Why only two weeks?”, she said. Sorry, we don’t have that much vacation! On the way to the baggage claim carousel, all advertisements featured world-famous actor and pride of the country, Mads Mikkelsen. The man literally became the face of Denmark with featured appearances on countless blockbuster movies. What better personality to embody some of the most famous local brands, such as Carlsberg. At the baggage claim, the famous Danish extravagance was shown in living colors when the suitcases cat-walked on the carousel. All black everything!
The first thing on Anita’s to-do list while visiting Denmark was to get a Danish hot-dog. The Danes have perfected the art of serving hot-dogs at street food carts. They took this very simple delicacy and brought it to the next level with all sorts of combinations more delicious than the next. She craved it so much that her initial plan was to get it right from the airport we arrived at (…am I in a Louis CK bit about Cinnabon?). As we waited for our (also black) suitcases to turn up, we walked to the nearest hot-dog stand. Lack of luck, the stand was closed. Sorry buddy, the crave will have to wait before being satiated. I guess some things are just too early to have at 6:00am.
We got a hold of our two pieces of luggage only a few minutes later. Just out of the security zone, people dressed in the most basic colors waited for their loved ones with national flags in their hands. Now, in any other country, greeting someone at the airport with national flags could only mean that an Olympic hero was on his way back home with a few gold medals around the neck. But, in Denmark, national pride is a thing! All it takes is for a Dane to leave the territory for a short period and come back to the motherland to be greeted like a war hero. I admit, there is something beautiful about this tradition, and I might just be a tiny bit jealous of it.
We took the metro right from the airport to the Christianshavn station. Don’t you just love a city that connects its international airport to its city center with the perfect public transportation system? Remember, I am from Montreal! We surely don’t take efficient public transports for granted! At the square, we met with some stranger who was tasked by our hosts to come and hand out the apartment keys. Anita managed to have us stay at her friends’ apartment while they were on vacation. Just a few minutes walking on the cobblestone sidewalks between the canals to get to our apartment. Just the time to drop our luggage and freshen up before discovering Copenhagen with the best guide I could possibly get while in Denmark.
We walked from our apartment to the city center. As the hunger started to build up, we stopped at Tivoli Food Hall in search of the mighty Smørrebrød. Caution: Don’t try to pronounce this word! You might sprain your tongue! The literal translation for it is “smear bread”. What it really is is an open face sandwich on a slice of rye bread. As for the toppings, the possibilities are endless. Here is the list of different combinations we have tried while in the capital city:
Traditional Pickled Herring
Cured Salmon (Gravad Laks)
Fried Fish Filet with Creme Fraiche
Stjerneskud (Shooting Star)
Roast Beef with Pickles, Horseradish and Fried Onions
Roast Beef with Remoulade and Crispy Onions
Liver Paté with Red Beets
Beef Tartare (Tartarmad)
Since the Tivoli Food Hall doesn’t have any dedicated area to sit while eating, we ended up having lunch at a café just a few steps from there. An outdoor table just on the edge of the sidewalk will do the trick. A pint of Tuborg Classic and two smørrebrød should be sufficient. Anita went for the pork liver pâté, and the Greenland shrimp, while I went for the beef tartar, and the fried fish filet. Simply delicious! Not only the food was great, but we were finally back to a normal size beer at 500ml per glass - and without ice cubes in it (as the Vietnamese do). Although, there was my first slap in the face when the bill came. The bill for this very light and simple lunch came up to 330 DKR (about 50 USD). Surely, that could have been enough to knock me out of my jetlag! I had heard that Copenhagen was very expensive… but, damn! Happy we are not spending anything for our accommodation!
Now fully satiated (except for the hot-dog craving still yet to be fulfilled), we visited the Rundetårn, a 17th-century round tower and one of the many architectural projects of Christian IV of Denmark. It was originally built as an astronomical observatory, but today serves as a panoramic viewpoint over the flattest land on earth. Christian IV’s reign was literally as far as his eyes could see. For 30 DKR, you are granted access to the spiral pathway that climbs up the tower to its very top. While looking over the vast land before me, I couldn’t help but to remember the “Morning lesson” scene from The Lion King:
Mufasa: “Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”
Just out of the tower, I spotted the exact same stall that Phil Rosenthal (from Somebody Feed Phil) ate his hotdogs while in Copenhagen. Our bellies were still full from the Smørrebrød, but how to say no to a delicious and juicy hot-dog. Especially when the stalls play a constant hide-and-seek game through the city, and that it’s even harder to find the ones offering options that don’t include pork. The stall I found offered everything from spicy beef to vegetarian sausages, and even goat meet with herbs. So we went for it with my very first experience savoring an authentic Danish hot-dog. Its taste really lived up to the hype that Anita had entertained over the past few weeks. It was delicious!
King' Christian IV’s Rosenborg castle / KONGENS HAVE
What better way to spend your afternoon than walking around a park with a beautiful landscaping and a yet another of Christian IV countless ambitious projects to contemplate. That’s exactly what we did while at Kongens Have. It was very warm outside, and we had just stuffed our faces with some that hot-dog. So we decided to walk to the garden and have a walk around the Rosenborg Castle, a renaissance castle originally built as a country summerhouse in 1606. The garden is the country's oldest royal garden and attract an estimated 2.5 million visitors every year. We couldn’t afford missing out on seeing it, especially on a hot and sunny Danish summer day.
This is probably the most random place in all of Europe. Freetown Christiania is an international community and commune that operated outside of the Danish legal scope. It was created in 1971 by a group of hippies who squatted an old military area. Slowly but surely, this squat turned into a functioning self-sufficient community than even came up with their own set of rules independently from the Danish government. If you wish to move to Christiania, the citizen will vote unanimously on your admissibility. If you are voted in, you will have the possibility to build your own house, contribute to the community and, of course, be exempt from paying Danish taxes. On the way out of the free town, I couldn’t help but notice a sign on one of the gates mentioning “You are now entering the EU.” Of course, it goes without saying that a free state would also promote the legal use of cannabis… and that’s exactly what was going on out there. While large signs limited the areas where the use of cameras is prohibited, booths erected every three meters are dispensing that green stuff to its many aficionados. Though, the whole town does look like a giant squat or an abandoned warehouse. And, as much as living in a tax-free state sounds appealing, Freetown Christiania is not appealing at all! Personally, I wouldn’t want to live there.
After spending an hour by the lake in Christiania, we decided to head back to the apartment for a short nap in the attempt of recovering from a long overnight flight and a heavy jet lag. It was 6:00pm when we went to bed… and that’s all she wrote… Next thing you know, we woke up the next morning at 6:30am! Looking at my watch still strapped around my wrist, I thought: “Well, that was a very satisfying 30-minute nap!”
NYHAVN, AMALIENBORG & THE LITTLE MERMAID
Now with the jet lag and tiredness behind us, we were ready to take on the capital city in the early morning. We thought we’d be alone in the streets at such an early hour. In fact, we simply joined the people still partying from the night before. Drunk people in the streets, puke patties here and there, people still drinking in bars with loud music playing; the endless summer sun of the Nordic countries is definitely a gift and a curse. You can easily lose any notion of time, as the sun doesn’t fully set. You can still enjoy a clear blue sky in the midnight hour. At 7:00 sharp, we walked in Lagkagehuset, a famous Danish bakery, to enjoy some of the most delicious pastries along with a hot cup of coffee. With a few calories in our system, we headed back to Nyhavn before any tourist would show up. The usually overcrowded area was completely deserted at such early hour. It was the perfect moment for a couple’s photo shoot. Although, we did see a young lady stripping down to her underwear and diving into the ice cold Nyhavn canal to the sound of her friend yelling: “Only in Denmark, baby!” He was sitting along the canal and made sure to capture the feat on smart phone… and so did I!
A few steps from the harbor is Amalienborg, the royal palace and residence of the queen Margrethe II of Denmark. A few minutes spent on the main square among way too many tourists freshly disembarked from their cruise ships was well enough for us. We took our mandatory picture with the Queen’s guard who accepted our request with a very dry “Yes, but don’t get too close.” As I gently approached him to a distance of 2 meters, he then said “That’s close enough”. We took the picture and left to our next stop: The Little Mermaid. Many are not aware of it, but the famous Disney character that made little girls dream of a Prince Charming for generations is the fruition of the famous Danish fairy tale author, Hans Christian Andersen. Well, that explains why Ariel is a redhead! To commemorate the tale’s global success, a bronze statue and now iconic landmark of Ariel is located by the bay, not far from the Kastellet. As you can imagine, the statue is very popular among the Chinese travel groups.
It’s now lunch time! What better place to get food than the famous TovehallerneKBH, the perfect market for epicurious such as ourselves. This foodies’ paradise had much to offer, but we once again settled for two new flavors of Smørrebrød accompanied with Chardonnay. What better to digest a light lunch than lying on the grass under the warm sun. To do so, Frederiksberg was the perfect venue - a beautiful park with plenty of grass where people can gather around for a picnic while a view on the castle. We had the mindfulness of bringing a few fruits and green beans along for an afternoon snack, but we forgot the essential: beer! But, no worries! Let me ask the three dudes over there if we can buy a few cans from them. They seem to have two 24 packs, so I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.
Me: Hi, guys! Sorry to bother you. We didn’t bring beers with us. Would you mind if we bought a few cans from you? Two will do the trick.
Them: “Sure, no problem.”
Me: “How much would it be?”
Them: “I guess, 10 DKR should be fine.”
Them: “No, in total.”
Me: “Ok, cool! Well, heres is 20 DKR. That’s all I have, but you can keep the change.”
Them: “Well, in that case, here are two more.”
Danes are indeed very fair and honest people. Now that I think of it, that Danish-Canadian exchange is a good representation of the stereotypes that inhabits our two countries… just like on Hans Island. Adjacent to Frederiksberg Haven is the city zoo. Anita and I have strong opinions about animal captivity, and we surely don’t want to encourage this kind of business. So, we skipped it and crossed the street instead to extend our afternoon walk to Sødermarken - another beautiful park. It’s been a while since I visited a city that had so much green areas.
On our way back to Nyhavn, we walked through an up and coming neighborhood named after the famous Carlsberg’s beer. Carlsberg City District is a small area in Vesterbro named after Carlsberg's beer, which was brewed on the premises from 1847 to 2008. This industrial complex – once resounding with horses and carts carrying heavy beer barrels – opened to the public in 2009. Artists and creatives soon moved in, occupying several buildings during the initial planning phase. Today, although the district is not complete yet, it is already a thriving neighborhood and next best thing for young professionals in Copenhagen. Vesterbrogade, the main artery of Vesterbro, showcases a large middle isle separating both ways of the boulevard for the benefit of football players, pétanque aficionados and craft beer drinkers. The street that was once known for hosting drug deals and ladies of the night is now the hipsters’ paradise. No tourists at sight, we could fully immerse into the estival Copenhagen experience.
A visit to Copenhagen is not complete without going to the Tivoli Gardens amusement park. What makes the Tivoli Gardens so special? It is the oldest amusement park still operating today. It was founded in 1843 and has become a national treasure and an international attraction. Fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen visited it many times, as did Walt Disney who even found the inspiration to his own Disney World here. Part of Tivoli Gardens' secret is that there is something for everyone. The scenery is beautiful with exotic architecture, historic buildings and lush gardens. At night, thousands of colored lights create a fairy tale atmosphere that is completely unique. The park’s oldest and most popular ride is the wooden roller-coaster. It dates from 1914 and is one of only seven roller coasters worldwide which have a brakeman on board every train. This feature alone should give you a bit more confidence in making it to the end in one piece. It’s no secret for any of my friends that I hate spinning rides as it will surely result into dizziness. Anita, on the other hand, hates roller-coasters and free-fall experiences. So, we settled for a very safe walk around the park. Sure, some will say that I’m boring, but I’m not! I just know better!
2019 COPENHAGEN JAZZ FESTIVAL
Back in Nyhavn for the evening, we found a place to get our groove on near The Standard restaurant, on Havngade. We enjoyed a nice view on the harbor before joining the crowd in front of the stage to enjoy live jazz music. It’s no secret that both Anita and I are suckers for live music, let alone if it’s jazz. By pure luck, we visited Copenhagen during its Jazz Festival. Therefore, live productions were happening across the city in venues of different sizes. For three days, every time we stumbled upon a live band on stage, we simply stopped to enjoy a drink with amazing music playing before us. Later in the evening, around 10:00pm, we enjoyed one more performance on Højbro Plads with a Tuborg Classic in hand before calling it a night. Before heading to our apartment, the mandatory European end-of-night pit-stop has to happen. We shared a heafty kebab while all I could think was how I missed such a treat since I moved to Asia. “My precious!”
HIJA DE SANCHÉZ
We had a few hours to kill on the morning before getting on the train to Jutland. We thought we’d fill our schedule with two things we both enjoy a lot. Those being food and street art. It was almost lunchtime, so we thought we’d first start with the food stop. Having binge-watched all food shows on Netflix, we wanted to take advantage of our travel to Copenhagen to pay a visit to Hija de Sanchéz - a trendy taqueria owned by Rosio Sanchéz. René Redzepi’s young Mexican-American apprentice from her time at high-end restaurant Noma who decided to stand on her own feet.
Anita and I both highly anticipated our visit to the now famous taqueria thanks to the Netflix hype from the TV shows Somebody Feed Phil, and Ugly Delicious. We showed up at 11:15am. The door was open and the establishment let us believe that the service had started. With the opening hours on their website showing “from 11:00 to 7:00pm”, I don’t see why I would think any differently. We walked through the door and found Rosio Sanchéz sitting on the corner bench to our right. “Hi! Are you open yet?”, I said. “No, we open at 12:00pm.”, they replied. No worries, we will come back later. It’s no big deal for me, but Anita does tend to get hangry very quickly if she doesn’t eat on the dot. We simply reshuffled our schedule and headed to Nørrebro before coming back.
We ended up coming back around 2:00pm. The main sign behind the counter displayed a streamlined menu featuring two (2) tacos de carnitas for 130 DKK (20 USD). For this heafty price, no drinks are included. Carnitas, literally meaning "little meats", is a dish of Mexican cuisine made by braising or simmering pork in oil or preferably lard until tender. For those seeking for an alternative, the staff offered to prepare vegetarian tacos with grilled cabbage. Not that I don’t like cabbage, but 130 DKK for that does sound a bit excessive. Either way, we are already here, and Rosio Sanchéz is a world-renowned chef, so I might just be in for a treat (I thought, very optimistically). In the end, it was still two (2) tacos for 130 DKK. To me, it was just overpriced street food. Again, I’ve mentioned many times that I don’t mind spending the money for quality food. Yes, the tacos are handmade, but in the end tacos are still considered as street food. Perhaps Rosio Sanchéz spent a bit too much time working in high-end restaurants. To add to the bitterness of our experience, a few steps further was a street food fair erected on the occasion of the Copenhagen Jazz Fest. Among the stands, a Mexican taqueria sold three (3) tacos for as cheap as 95 DKK (15 USD). That’s half-price on the piece! I won’t lie, a single tear dropped from my eye.
We stumbled upon this urban art space on Instagram while doing research on landmarks in Copenhagen. Superkilen is a project part of an urban improvement plan coordinated by the City of Copenhagen which objective is to upgrade the Nørrebro neighborhood. Nørrebro is advertised as being known for its poly-cultural society. The multi-ethnic main street Nørrebrogade runs through the area, with a multitude of shops and restaurants. In reality, Nørrebrogade is known as the site of many riots over the years. During the 1980s, it often provided the setting for violent clashes between Danish police and militant squatters known as BZ. The battles were of a very vicious nature, often involving Molotov-cocktails and pipe bombs being used by the squatters, as well as batons, tear gas and firearms used by the police. Let’s just put it this way: if Denmark was indeed Simba’s Pridelands, Nørrebro would arguably be that shadowy place Simba was not allowed to go to. The main elements found in the urban park are:
Swings from Iraq;
Benches from Brazil;
Fountain from Morocco;
Litter bins from England;
Neon signs from throughout the world advertising everything from a Russian hotel to a Chinese beauty parlor;
Manhole covers from Zanzibar, Gdansk and Paris;
108 plants and artifacts illustrating the ethnic diversity of the local population.
We were left disappointed by the park. Not that it is not a great way to upgrade Nørrebro to a high standard of urban development, but it just didn’t live up to the photos we had found on Instagram. But, hey! Don’t take my word for it! See yourself!
Overall, we loved our stay in Copenhagen. It is strange how this city reminded me of my hometown, Montreal. There is a non-palpable atmosphere that floats in the air that can neither be described or explained. It just felt comfortable and familiar. Hygge, if you will. No wonder, the Province of Quebec does often base its social projects on the Scandinavian model. To sum up, it was the perfect way to kick-off our two-week vacation, just the two of us, before heading to a tour across Jutland to visit Anita’s family. We are now sitting on the train for a three-hour ride toward Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. Anita has arranged a panoply of activity which i can’t wait to participate in. This is my first visit to Denmark, and Anita is fully determined to showcase her home country to me with the absolute best that Denmark has to offer.