06/27/2017 - 07/01/2017
Over the last few years, we've been rapidly knocking the remaining major European cities off our list of unknowns. The are still a few left in the East: most notably Warsaw, the great Russian cities, and Belgrade. In the West the only one that neither Mei Ling nor I had ever visited was Copenhagen. I originally planned Copenhagen as a simple stopover on the way between China and the United States, but when I realized we could spend more time on the trip I devised a three week road trip that would incorporate Gothenburg and southern Norway along with Denmark. I originally planned to include Stockholm with a more limited stay in Norway, but I reconsidered after more research into Norway's southwestern coast. I've been to Stockholm before and while it's pleasant enough, I knew Mei Ling wouldn't find it as awesome as the central European metropolises. The western fjords would provide some adventure and natural beauty, and also would be more compatible with my plan to see all of Europe in road trips by breaking it down into digestible pieces. If we didn't go to Norway's west coast on this trip, we probably never would. Stockholm could be incorporated into a Baltic Sea trip in the future.
We didn't have a rental car waiting for us at the airport. Auto rental costs are extremely high in Denmark due to taxes so I'd made our reservation across the Øresund in Malmö, Sweden for the next day. Instead we took a taxi to our Airbnb in central Copenhagen, which was on the third floor of an elegant townhouse a block away from the Torvehallerne market. The apartment had a classic style reminiscent of our lodgings in Vienna and Budapest. Our three-leg journey from Shenyang had left us exhausted, but we knew better than to let ourselves fall into bed in the mid afternoon. Instead, we immediately made a beeline for the market. I quickly realized that my attempts to memorize some phrases in Danish had been completely pointless. The vendors would give me a confused look when I sputtered out some garbled Danish and then respond in faintly accented, grammatically perfect English. I had an easier time being understood speaking English in Denmark than I did in the southern US. The same ended up being true in Sweden and Norway as well. My Scandinavian phrasebook ended up at the bottom of the suitcase for the entire road trip.
The market was superb, although we had to close our eyes to the prices which were multiples higher than what we had being paying for food in Shenyang. We put together an early dinner from various kiosks and topped it off with some luscious cakes, much to the delight of the kids.
We spent another hour in the largely pedestrianized area around the Kultorvet, enjoying the energetic vibe of the cafe-lined square and taking in the 17th century Round Tower. I also bought a SIM card at a 7-Eleven which the clerk assured me would work without roaming charges in Sweden and Norway. Once we felt that we'd stayed up long enough not to have to worry about waking in the middle of the night, we returned to the Airbnb and crashed.
We got up early the next morning for the mission of picking up our rental car. On the way to breakfast we cut through Ørsteds Park, a lush trapezoid of greenery with a beautiful central lake. South of the park was a quiet neighborhood with narrow streets and colorful row houses.
I had a long list of places in Copenhagen to eat breakfast, which seemed to be quite an important meal. Once we arrived at Next Door Cafe we found it was quite busy although they had one table left that was just our size. We put together a very satisfying breakfast of sandwiches, salads, and pancakes. The proprietor was very friendly although somewhat eccentrically coutured.
We had some difficulty figuring out how to get to Malmö as Google Maps was recommending a bus that didn't seem to exist. In the end we took the metro to the central train station where we could buy tickets for the train that crossed the Øresund. It was a stressful process given that we had the three kids and we were using one stroller to transport the three car seats. Eventually we made it to Malmö's central station, which was thankfully within easy walking distance of the auto rental agency. The pick-up proceeded uneventfully, although at the typical glacial pace I'm used to in Europe. We stowed the car in a lot and walked to the town center, where we spent a few pleasant hours that I'll describe in my Copenhagen day trips post.
We returned to Copenhagen in the early evening and drove straight to Papirøen (Paper Island) which housed the city's largest food court Copenhagen Street Food. Paper Island is one of several artificial islands that comprise the Christianshavn section of central Copenhagen. I was surprised to learn that this very modern-seeming layout was devised more than three hundred years ago. Paper Island got its name from warehouses that stored countless rolls of newsprint for the Danish press industry. Once the island outlived this function, the warehouses were abandoned until 2014 when restaurateur Jesper Møller took over the largest warehouse and most of the island for his international food hall concept. Outside of the warehouse, the island is so quiet that it's hard to believe that anything of note is taking place nearby. As soon as we walked through the doors, however, we saw a beehive of busy food kiosks and at least a couple hundred patrons. In the back was a lively patio with views across Copenhagen Harbor to the Skuespilhuset theater. The food selection was impressive with offerings from the Middle East, the Far East, and Latin America as well as Europe. We put together a meal that was delicious and fun to eat, although managing the three little ones at a crowded shared table was a little stressful. I've since learned that Copenhagen Street Food closed at the end of 2017 to make way for residential development of Paper Island, but it seems it will be opening at a new location in May 2018. I'm glad we all had the chance to see and document this unique gastronomic experience before it disappeared into memory.
We spent all day Thursday visiting castles in the northern part of Zealand, the large island on which Copenhagen is situated. In the evening we visited another Copenhagen food court called WestMarket, which was unsurprisingly located in the large neighborhood called Vesterbro just to the west of the city center. There were several good kiosks but the place didn't have the same high energy level or beautiful setting as Copenhagen Street Food. I'm not really sure why, but instead of making a walkthrough video of the food hall we made a video of me playing tag with my kids plus a Danish kid who joined in. See if you can spot which kid is the Danish one.
On Friday we drove to Roskilde and the little island of Mon in the south, which I'll detail in my day trips post. In the evening, we went back to Copenhagen Street Food to try all the kiosks our stomachs didn't have room for the first time. It was much more crowded than it had been on Wednesday and the kids were falling asleep on the benches while we tried to shovel food into their mouths. We probably should have made an advance reservation in the central seating area. Somehow we managed to eat our fill while standing next to the tables our kids were slumped over.
Saturday we had an early breakfast at Torvehallerne and got to see the seafood market in its morning glory. There were beautiful examples of some of our favorites such as monkfish and turbot as well as some fish that were completely unfamiliar. One very unusual looking large fish was the wolf fish, which we would ultimately enjoy several times on the trip.
We'd already been staying in Copenhagen four days and hadn't seen much of the city besides breakfast cafes and food courts. Now that we'd completed all our planned day trips, it was time to begin our exploration of the city itself. It was a rainy Saturday morning, so we decided to start the day at the Experimentarium, a science museum designed for kids that had just been renovated and expanded earlier that year. The first thing that one notices when entering is the enormous double helix copper staircase that begins in the lobby. The kids scampered up to the second floor where there was a seemingly endless selection of interactive displays. All three of them ran in separate directions so I tried to stick with Ian and prayed Mei Ling would be able to keep track of Spenser. It was virtually impossible to get Ian to leave a huge construct of wire tunnels transporting balls from one side to the other to simulate international shipping. By the time we made it to the second floor which had crafts and countless additional displays we were already starting to get hungry. I believe there was a third floor as well which we never made it to. It was by far the best kids' museum I'd ever seen. I'd recommend budgeting at least four hours for a visit, although even then it would take several visits for a kid to get everything out of the museum.
By the time we finally were able to extract the kids from the Experimentarium we were starving so we drove to the last of the four Copenhagen food courts on my list, Kødbyens Mad & Marked. This two-year old market in the former meatpacking district of Kødbyens is best known for meats and other grilled foods but there was still plenty of variety. It's an outdoor market and only open on weekends between April and October, when the weather is just mildly chilly and rainy. We spent about an hour there enjoying several dishes, enjoying the Bohemian atmosphere, and playing a semblance of bocce with the kids.
One Copenhagen landmark that seems to be visible from almost anywhere in the city is Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior's Church) in Christianshavn. The 17th century Baroque church is famous for the golden staircase that winds around the outside of the elegant dark brown spire. When I saw that the people were climbing the stairs all the way to the top of the spire, I knew I had to have that experience for myself. Both Cleo and Ian demanded to join me, so with some trepidation we headed into the church while Mei Ling and Spenser waited for us below.
After a short wait on line, the three of us began our ascent. The first part was a few deceptively simple flights of modern stairs, but soon we found ourselves climbing very steep wooden steps that were more like ladders than staircases. It was a relief once we exited the inside of the spire and found ourselves on the shallower steps of the winding outside staircase. I was still rattled from the ladder stage and the view of houses and people far below us wasn't soothing my nerves. The vertiginous climb was too much for some people and every once in a while there would be a logjam as someone decided they couldn't go any further and started to reverse direction. The railing was way too high for the kids to climb over but I still found myself gripping their hands as much as I could. Fortunately I had my iVUE Horizon video sunglasses on so I was able to video the climb without letting go of the kids.
Back on solid ground, we found Mei Ling and Spenser who had just returned from a walk to the Christiania commune a block away. Mei Ling casually informed me that she had bought a hash brownie which completely confounded me. Neither of us even smokes pot at home, and I couldn't grasp what had suddenly possessed her to start experimenting with that kind of stuff in a foreign country with three kids in tow. Even though marijuana is de facto legal and sold fairly openly in Christiania, you really never know as a tourist when you might be getting set up for some kind of trouble. Not only that, but I can't count how many times I've seen patients in the emergency room with various unpleasant reactions to cannabis consumables. I had visions of sitting in a Danish emergency room with my hallucinating wife and three crying kids. I guess my partying days must be done for good, because I made Mei Ling toss the brownie in the trash.
The weird brownie episode didn't put me off from wanting to see Christiania myself, so we did a quick spin around the colorful neighborhood together. The community was established almost fifty years ago by squatters in an abandoned military barracks, but the residents currently own the land through a foundation. The way things work in Christiania is difficult for an outsider to understand, but the community has its own set of laws and manages its own electricity and water supply. Probably the biggest attraction for visitors is the easy availability of cannabis, which has brought a great deal of controversy with it. The cannabis itself isn't the problem so much as the money associated with it, which has attracted organized criminal gangs to affiliate themselves with some of the residents. The main street of Christiania was once known as Pusher Street, or the Green Light District. The permanent cannabis stalls that once lined the street were destroyed by the residents after the shooting of a police officer in 2016, but today there was no shortage of small stores and kiosks openly selling marijuana. Naturally, photography in this area was strongly discouraged. We and the kids were more focused on the beautifully painted and landscaped homes and cafes that were ubiquitous in the neighborhood.
We spent a little time walking around the pretty canals and bridges of Christianshavn before getting dinner and going home. There were cafes set up on barges along Christianshavn Canal as well as drinking parties on little motorized skiffs. People in Copenhagen certainly know how to enjoy themselves.