The D&O Diary is on assignment in Europe this week, with the first stop in the Danish capital city of Copenhagen, for meetings there. Copenhagen has a population of about 1.2 million spread across its many neighborhoods and boroughs but perhaps owing to the height restriction on its buildings, the city feels much smaller, even cozy. In 2013, Monocle magazine selected Copenhagen as the world’s “most livable city,” and after just a short visit, it is easy to see why. With its many parks, canals and quiet charm, Copenhagen is a very comfortable city.
Copenhagen is also unmistakably a Northern city, and in late March, the weather arrives in two forms: chilly sunshine and chilly rain. Fortunately for me, though I got soaked to the skin my first afternoon there, sunshine otherwise prevailed. In addition to a good coat and a scarf, a pair of thick-soled boots is also required for tromping around on the city’s cobblestone streets and sidewalks.
Despite the cool temperatures, Copenhagen is a city filled with bicycles and bicyclists. For example, during my visit I saw a new upscale mall that has just been completed. The mall has a massive parking lot – for bicycles. The highlight of my visit to Copenhagen was a bicycle tour of the city’s harbor and canal district with the head of the local Chubb office, my good friend Bjorn Petersen, and his wife. As part of the tour, we took our bicycles on a ferry boat to the islands across the harbor from the central city. One of the literally high points of the tour was a visit to the historic Vor Frelskers Kirke. The church’s corkscrew spire has an external spiral staircase, and the view from the top of the churchtower is extraordinary (if also vertiginous)
Denmark has been and remains a monarchy and the vestiges of the country’s royal heritage are a distinctive feature of the country’s capital city. A key part of the mandatory tourist itinerary in Copenhagen is a visit to the several palaces around the city. The royal palace of Amalienbourg (pictured here, with two of its four wings flanking the Marble Church), which was next to the hotel where I stayed, is remarkably accessible. Cars drive freely through the palace’s central square. A Danish flag flying from the rooftop signaled that the current monarch, Queen Margrethe II, was in residence at the palace while I was in town. The Queen, who I am told is much beloved by the Danish people (I heard her referred to as “Mom”), claims direct lineal descent from the Viking King, Harald Bluetooth.
The city’s most famous tourist attraction may be the statue of the Little Mermaid, based on the character from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. The statue sits on a rock in the harbor and attracts tour buses of visitors, but I am guessing just about everyone has the same reaction I did, which was — “That’s it?” Perhaps the statue came to be such a prominent landmark because, like the city she inhabits, she is quiet, modest and attractive.
At least the people of Copenhagen have a sense of humor about their iconic statue. Not far from the tourist bus-surrounded site of the famous statue, in a canal away from the central harbor, is a less well-known sculpture, the “Genetically Modified Little Mermaid,” a fantastic figure that suggests that the Danish don’t take their famous statue too seriously.
The city’s chilly climate calls for hearty food, which explains the quintessential Danish meal of smørrebrød, which is basically an open-face sandwich made heavy rye bread (rugbrød) covered in butter (or, more traditionally, lard) and accompanied by an assortment of toppings, such as herring, eggs, tomato, onions, cheese, and liver paste. I found I particularly enjoyed the herring, which is served a variety of ways, including marinated, curried or pickled. The traditional way to enjoy herring smørrebrød is with a glass of schnapps, accompanied by a glass of beer.
A smørrebrød lunch with friends was an appropriate opportunity to contemplate the distinctive Danish cultural concept of hygge (pronounced “hue-gge,” sort of). The word is usually translated as “cozy,” and in a comfortable candle-lit restaurant filled with flowering plants and happy Danes chowing down on heavy rye bread, it is easy to feel as if you have the sense of the concept, particularly after a glass or two of schnapps. But it was explained to me that hygge is not just a descriptive term, it is a process, and you are part of it.
I had an experience in Copenhagen that I think helped me get closer to the true meaning of hygge. One evening while I was there, I went to hear jazz at a club I had found on the Internet. I arrived before the music started, and I was seated at a table with a young couple, who were in their young 20s. It quickly became clear that (1) this was a first date; (2) it was not going well; and (3) the last thing in the world either one of them wanted was some old guy stuck at their table with them. It was apparent that emergency measures were required.
I got up and found the waitress and told her to bring a bottle of champagne and three glasses, and to fill the glasses before anyone had a chance to ask what was going on. In answer to the looks of surprise and confusion that appeared on my tablemates’ faces, I told them that it was traditional in America to serve champagne when you were meeting new friends. After a clink of glasses, I was soon able to learn that my new friends’ names were Jan and Carla. Jan is a student and Carla works in IT for a bank. It turns out that not only was this a first date, it was a blind date. Jan’s sister works with Carla at the bank, and the sister had set up the date. As I anticipated, after the first glass of champage, Jan and Carla were relaxed and laughing, and by the time the second set started, they were sitting, as song goes, dangerously close to one another. The evening which had threatened to become a total disaster for them had been transformed into a big success. I haven’t had a chance to check with any of my Danish friends, but I think this sequence represents a good example of hygge. I also hope that Jan and Carla will name their firstborn after me, and I expect that they will be telling their grandchildren about the crazy American who bought them a bottle of champagne on their first date.
I had hoped that my visit to Copenhagen might include a side trip to Malmö, which is a short-train ride just across the bridge in Sweden, but business back home required my attention and so I will have to save the trip to Malmö for my next visit. And I do have to come back. Everyone here told me that I need to see the city in the summer. It was a great place to visit in the early spring so it has to be fantastic in the warmer months.
More Views of Copenhagen
Sankt Jorkens Canal
The Strøget Shopping District
Who’s this guy? Obviously, a Great Dane.
More Danish Royal Palaces
Copenhagen, a place to discover the meaning of hygge.