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Denmark: Exploring the capital, Copenhagen

 After enduring a long bus journey from the opposite end of Denmark, I arrive in Copenhagen feeling a little the worse for wear. But my spirits are quickly replenished as I enjoy a glass of wine in the central shopping district of Strøget. The pink walls, wallpaper-clad ceiling and giant chandeliers at the Royal Café are a kitsch yet stylish reminder that I am in one of the most design-conscious cities in the world. Even the menu is avant-garde – the house specialty called smushi consists of delicious Danish open sandwiches prepared like sushi.

Given that Copenhagen is home to a modest one million people, a surprising number of them are thronging through the main shopping street. As I join them, I am impressed by their attractiveness – and it’s not just the wine talking. Tall, smartly dressed men keep distracting me from the shops, which range from a plethora of international chains to homegrown brands such as Royal Copenhagen and Illums Bolighus, the latter being my personal favourite; a sprawling treasure chest of cutting-edge interior design and kitchenware.

Getting around Copenhagen is easy. The centre is conveniently compact and most of the main sights are within walking or cycling distance. The city’s freedom from traffic and pollution is due to its extensive and well-used bicycle paths; around 30 percent of the inhabitants commute to work on two wheels. To make cycling an easy option, the city provides bicycles throughout the downtown area, which can be borrowed for a small returnable deposit.

I quickly learn that the only downside to this is that pedestrians need to be extra vigilant when crossing the road. After a couple of near collisions, I find myself just south of Strøget by the canal, which loops around Christiansborg Slot. This imposing Neo-Baroque palace is the only building in the world to house all three of a nation’s supreme powers: the Danish parliament, the prime minister’s office, and the supreme court. The canal continues past another landmark building, the Børsen (the former stock exchange), recognisable by its lofty, twisting green spire resembling a dragon’s tail.

Having enjoyed a Danish diet of frikadeller (pork and veal meatballs), smørrebrødsmad (sandwiches on rye bread) and marinerede sild (marinated herring) for a week before arriving in the capital, I book my first dinner in Copenhagen at Le Sommelier, renowned for traditional French fare. Elegantly dressed waiters ply me with three of their 800 wines, along with dishes of fragrant whitefish and succulent pink beef.

Before bed, I don an Eskimo-style cloak and gloves and dive into the frozen Ice Bar at Hotel 27 for an invigorating vodka cocktail.

The next morning, I am privileged to meet local architect, Jan Sondergaard from KHRAS architects, who gives me a refreshingly non-touristy tour of Copenhagen. We begin at his studio, housed in a wooden warehouse on the water’s edge in Holmen, on the east side of Copenhagen Harbour. The exclusive terrain of the Danish Navy for centuries, Holmen was opened to the public in 1996, and the huge old mast crane serves as a reminder of the area’s history. Nowadays, Holmen is a cultural and academic hub of theatres and schools, and the most striking landmark is the futuristic-looking Copenhagen Opera House.

Jan is keen to show me Christiana, or Freetown, an area that was taken over in the 1970s by hippies, squatters and anarchists. Due to its open drug policy, Christiana has been the site of much controversy in Copenhagen over the years, and remains a partially self-governing neighbourhood. The drugs have disappeared and its residents have been paying taxes since 1994, but Christiana remains living proof of the tolerance of Danish society. Today, its small, colourful houses are coveted as vacation homes.

As we drive around the suburbs, Jan points out a mix of different kinds of housing, the result of the city’s urban planners having dabbled in Russian, Dutch and Bauhaus styles. Some of the neighbourhoods seem eerily quiet, and Jan explains that many of the newest schemes were built to accommodate a large influx of the population from countryside to city. Since the flow of people has ebbed, many of the apartments remain empty.

Most of the new buildings in Copenhagen are situated along the river, which, Jan explains, is an expression of the Danish desire to stay close to nature. Two of the most striking buildings are the Danish Royal Theatre’s new playhouse, a large glass structure that seems to hover over the water, and Den Sorte Diamant, or Black Diamond, an eye-catching black marble-and-glass extension of the Royal Library.

A June thunderstorm threatens to sabotage my sightseeing, so I dive into the Danish Design Centre before visiting some of Copenhagen’s more traditional sights. My first stop after the rain is the splendid Marmorkirken, or Marble Church, situated right next to the Amalienborg – a stately complex of four Rococo palaces set around an octagonal square. The palace guards march up and down, a sign that the queen is in residence.

The impossibly named Gefionspringvandet, or Gefion Fountain, depicts a group of animal figures being driven by the Norse goddess, Gefjun. Nonetheless, the statue I am really excited to see is Copenhagen’s iconic Little Mermaid, which I last visited over 20 years ago. The mermaid, resting on a waterfront rock, seemed a lot larger when I was a child than she does now. But despite her modest size, I am captivated by her pose of calm contemplation. The statue has amazingly survived two attempts at decapitation and the amputation of her arms.

Since it stays light until past 10 o’clock, I enjoy an evening walk through Nyhavn, a typically Scandinavian postcard-pretty area. The boat-laden canal meanders slowly past brightly coloured merchant houses, busy outdoor cafés and charming bridges complete with quaint lampposts. The nearby Kongens Nytorv Square was designed by King Christian V in 1670 and is flanked by several notable buildings, including the Royal Danish Theatre, Charlottenborg Palace, the French Embassy, and the elegant Hotel d’Angleterre.

After dancing the night away at the popular Club 8 and witnessing some of the most uninhibited dancing I’ve ever seen, I spend my last morning in the capital walking off my hangover in Tivoli, Copenhagen’s famous amusement park and pleasure garden. Attractions include one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters, the world’s tallest carousel, the Disney-esque Tivoli Palace, and lavishly landscaped gardens.

As I contemplate the happy families surrounding me, I think how apt it is that Tivoli – a place of fantasy and escapism – is located right at the heart of this fairytale city.

Getting There
Singapore Airlines has direct flights three times each week to Copenhagen: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The flight time is 12 hours and 40 minutes, departing from Changi at 1.05am, arriving in Copenhagen at 7.15am. Flights on other days of the week arrive via Frankfurt. Taxis from Copenhagen airport to the centre of town cost about S$70.
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