It’s not very common for any Europe first-timer, among my peers at least, to have Scandinavia as the first stop. So when the opportunity presented itself earlier this year, I knew I had to grab it. True enough, the moment I stepped out of the plane that morning, it wasn’t just my first step in a country; it was also my first step in a continent. The last time I first set foot in a continent other than my own was when I visited my Dad in Chicago at age three. It felt surreal replicating that milestone thirty years later. And this was quite possibly the most fun I ever had hanging out with a group of dentists. That one, I’ll explain in a few…
Denmark may be the smallest country in Scandinavia (that is, if you exclude its constituents, Greenland and Faroe Islands), but its capital, Copenhagen, is actually the second largest city in the region. It’s also the second most populous Nordic metropolis, with roughly two million residents as per recent data. It’s no surprise, then, why Copenhagen Airport, located in the suburb of Kastrup, is known as one of the region’s busiest airports. It was where I spent my first five hours in Europe.
I was invited to this trip by my Mom, who was, in turn, invited by her dentist friend, a member of the Philippine Association of Esthetic Dentistry (PAED). The group had just attended a two-day seminar in Zurich. The Scandinavian sojourn being the culmination-of-sorts. Since the group practically had no time to tour Switzerland prior to this, Mom and I opted to skip that leg altogether.
We landed at 7:30am, local time. With home turf being six hours ahead, I was already wide awake. Outside, the temperature wasn’t as freezing as I expected. The sun was in full glow; it offset whatever faint chill the breeze brought along. I managed to smoke outside without a jacket.
An ill-fitting long-sleeved blue shirt was what provided my warmth that day – perhaps, a bit too much warmth: I broke into sweat while queuing for immigration. Emblazoned on the shirt’s upper back was the tour’s official logo. PAED Lakbay-Aral 2018, it read. Now, as I’ve established earlier, I was neither a participant in the seminar nor a member of the organization. But since the people we’d be traveling with were still mostly nameless, faceless strangers at that point, I complied to be easily identifiable.
It was three quarters past noon when the contingent of 36 arrived. As anticipated, they were all clad in the same long-sleeved blue shirt. At first, it felt like I was crashing a field trip, but hey, the shirt scheme worked. Quick introductions were made, and we were greeted by jet-lagged smiles and tentative nods. Fortunately, it wouldn’t take too long for us to jell.
As we prepped to leave the airport, we were picked up by an Asian man who spoke with hints of the local accent – the tour guide, as it turned out. With only roughly four hours left to see the capital, we scrambled towards the bus.
Denmark is the home of Lego and Carlsberg, but we neither had time to visit Legoland nor the breweries. The most our tight schedule could allow was a sampler of the carefree way of life. The country is known for the word hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). While it roughly translates to “fun”, the Danish definition transcends the English equivalent by far. Hygge is an integral part of the local culture. It refers to an overall state of comfort and contentment over even the simplest or seemingly most mundane activity. The concept is discussed in great detail in The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, written and released by Meik Viking in early 2017. With such a principle, it’s no surprise why Denmark as consistently placed in the Top Five of the World Happiness Index over the last seven years. Ditto for the recent surge in both immigration and property prices.
Nothing says “laid back” more than the proliferation of bicycles. In fact, it was earlier this decade when the International Cycling Union tagged Copenhagen as a “Bike City”. Its citizens, from vendors to politicians, live by the pedal. So, apart from being a simple, convenient mode of transportation, the bicycle has also proven itself to be a great equalizer. Nowadays, the city continuously lobbies for cycling as a way of life, offering bike rentals and bike tours for both its inhabitants and its visitors. This pseudo-movement gave birth to a new word: copenhagenize.
Well, we did make a few stops, the first being Rådhuspladsen or City Hall Square. Located in the heart of the capital, it’s where the Copenhagen City Hall and the Palace Hotel stand adjacent to each other.
Also within the vicinity is the Tivoli Gardens, which has been operational since 1843, making it the world’s oldest amusement park. While the “Happiest Place on Earth” tag belongs to Disneyland, it is said that Walt Disney himself visited this park for inspiration.
Standing at the corner of the City Hall, by the sidewalk, is a statue of Denmark’s Father of Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen. While there’s a whole museum devoted to him in Odense, this bronze monument is already grandiose in its own right. To further emphasize how proud the Danish are of his legacy, there’s a Flying Trunk ride, inspired by one of his stories, in Tivoli Gardens, and of course, a statue of his iconic maritime character which is an obligatory stop for visitors. More on that later.
The Copenhagen City Hall serves as the headquarters for the city’s municipal council. It was designed in the National Romantic style by architect Martin Nyrop and was completed in September 12, 1905. Ergo, we arrived a week after its 103rd birthday. Among its distinguishing features is the 105.6-meter clock tower, which makes it the tallest structure in the city. Its atrium also served as shooting location for the hospital scenes of the 2015 Eddie Redmayne film, The Danish Girl.
The City Hall also houses Jens Olsen’s World Clock, which looks straight out of a steampunk fantasy. This astronomical clock doesn’t just tell time. It also displays solar and lunar eclipses.
The sun shone even brighter as the bus drove us to Nyhavn, the city’s world-famous waterfront district. Apart from upholding Copenhagen’s reputation as a picturesque port city, it is also, in effect, the capital’s trading and lawmaking hub.
Børsen, or the Danish Stock Exchange, has been around since the 17th Century. It was built during the reign of Christian IV to solidify trade relations in Northern Europe. Spectators can’t miss its distinctive spire, which takes the shape of four intertwined dragon tails. These days, the building serves as the base of operations for the Danish Chamber of Commerce and is protected for conservation purposes.
Right across is the Christiansborg Palace, which is the seat of the Danish Parliament and the Supreme Court of Denmark. It served as the official royal residence centuries ago, until a fire forced the monarchs to relocate in 1794.
These impressive structures are both nestled near the district’s colorful quays and houses, which our bus luckily drove past.
As we segued to the Frederiksstaden district, the tour guide went into a few royal anecdotes, thereby hinting at our next stop. He described Queen Margarethe II, who marked her 46th year on the throne last January, as a warm, casual queen, who will not hesitate to greet any person who crosses her path. She is also known to be an accomplished artist and a heavy smoker, who reportedly consumes two packs a day. Based on that tidbit, she appears to be a relatable ruler – pretty fitting for such a tiny kingdom known for its hygge. It’s also why she is loved by her subjects. Her residence happened to be our next destination.
Now, to call Amalienborg Square as such would be geometrically inaccurate, because this vast cobbled compound is actually an octagonal courtyard. It’s surrounded by four identical palaces: Christian VII’s Palace, Christian VIII’s Palace, Frederick VIII’s Palace, and Christian IX’s Palace. The first two are normally open to the public (VIII double-functions as a museum); the latter is where the Queen takes up residence.
At the center of the courtyard is the Statue of Frederick V on Horseback, by French-born sculptor Jacques Saly. It’s made of bronze, apparently the material-of-choice for many public monuments in this region. West of the courtyard is Frederik’s Church, a colossal marble structure which serves as the focal point of the whole district. Because of its rococo design and proximity to the royal compound, it can be easily mistaken for a palace itself.
Since we arrived in the area past 3:00PM, we missed that day’s guard-changing ceremony by three hours. We settled with snapshots of the guards in duty.
We concluded that stop with a stroll along Amaliehaven (Amalie Gardens), which overlooks one of the city’s wider waterways.