My sleeper train from Oslo finished its route in Malmo, Sweden, where I had to transfer to get to Denmark. Sweden and Denmark had just the week before held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new bridge that crosses the sea between them. Now instead of driving a train onto a ferry and back onto tracks on the other side, there are tracks that cross the sea. Technically the bridge doesn’t connect the two countries—the Danish side terminates at a man made island where the tracks enter a tunnel to go under the water for the last bit of the journey. Why they did it I can’t say, maybe they liked it better that way.
Waiting for this short international train I felt nature’s call. I heeded that call only to discover yet another “cash-to-pee” facility with its own attendant/guard. Having only 4.90 in Norwegian crowns, I offered it to the attendant/guard/cashier in lieu (no pun intended) of the five Swedish crown bounty. Even after explaining, “this is all the money I have; I can’t withdraw money in her currency just to go to the bathroom before I leave the country, and it is odd that a traveler from Norway to Denmark has to have Swedish money to relieve himself?” she showed me no compassion! Would the policy wonks who devised this system prefer me to find a quiet corner in the station?! Here is my advice—if you don’t want your public areas to smell of urine then provide some free facilities. This should not be a natural monopoly. (For those who are interested in the end of this story, I simply held it until the train to Denmark arrived with free toilets on board.)
Arriving in Copenhagen in the early morning I decided to walk to the hostel. It had looked close to the station on the map. It turned out to be quite a hike. My sister, Kate, had just graduated from university, so I convinced her to meet me for a couple of weeks in Europe. She wouldn’t arrive until the evening, so I spent the morning doing maintenance activities like laundry. (I could write for a while about the challenges of deciphering laundry directions in foreign languages, but I will let you imagine.)
At the laundromat I met Ernst from NYC. Since we had both recently arrived in Copenhagen, we decided to explore the city together. It was raining and chilly, the beginning of a dreary summer in northwestern Europe, so we bundled up and started walking. First we headed towards the pedestrian center of town called Stroget (the word sounds completely different than it looks in English). My Lonely Planet recommended a little restaurant, but when we arrived they insisted that they were full for lunch. We asked to wait, but they insisted that we would not get a table. Ernst and I finally gave up and grabbed a kebap down the street, after which we stopped at the tourist office for info and free fifteen minutes of internet access. With the rain pouring down, we navigated the bus system to the Carlsberg brewery. Unluckily we disembarked on the opposite corner of the very long campus and discovered that they closed in fifteen minutes. With the beer-thirsty desperation we jogged toward the entrance. The beer gods did not shine on us this, for we had missed the last admittance with free brew. Dejected, we made our way back to the hostel where I waited for my sister Kate to arrive.
Kate recently graduated from Colby College. It did not take much to convince her to travel with me before starting her new job in Boston. We had argued back and forth via email about how long she should stay. I kept pushing for more time, but schedule issues forced her to limit herself to two weeks.
Her train from Amsterdam was to arrive at midnight, or so the message said at the hostel. Somehow at the appointed hour we missed each other on the train platform, so we both wandered the station seeking each other. Finally after almost an hour of searching I gave up and went back to the hostel. I need not have worried about my little sister alone in a foreign country—she was nearly asleep in bed when I got back to the hostel. While I wandered aimlessly about the train station she hopped into a cab and went to the one place she knew where she could find me.
Kate was the first person I had seen in two months that I had known before my trip began. It was a little hard for me to adjust to this. I practically smothered her with attention on the first day, withdrew on the second, and became moody on the third. Finally on the fourth day I became almost normal. Traveling solo on the road introduces you to many great people, but seeing Kate made me realize how much I missed my long time friends.
On the subject of old friends, we rang up HP, an exchange student from Demark who had studied in our hometown of Augusta, Maine for a year of high school. We hadn’t seen each other in a dozen years. We arranged to meet up with him and Gitte, his girlfriend, for afternoon coffee. In the meantime Kate and I walked into the center of town to see a few sights. Realizing we were short on time, we found some free bikes to speed us back to the hostel so we could change before meeting our friends.
Bikes are part of the magic of Copenhagen. Raised lanes specifically designed for bikes flank almost every street, complete with bicycle traffic signals. In addition the city commissioned 1500 bikes and “locked” them to special bike stands around the city. To unlock a bike, insert a 20 koruna coin (about $2.50 U.S.). When you relock the bike at any other stand your coin is returned. To thwart theft, the bikes have unique parts that will not fit other bicycles. To reduce maintenance costs the city sells advertising on the wheels. The cyclist’s coin as well as a usage agreement on the frame (restricting the usage to the inner city limits) ensures that the bikes are returned to the stands. The bikes are specifically intended for short journeys, so the seats are fairly uncomfortable. And these machines are built to be rugged not high-performance as Kate can attest. On her maiden voyage she tried to hop back on the curb of the bike lane and took a tumble. The silver lining—this provided us with a handy excuse for being late to meet HP and Gitte.
Twelve years is a lot to cover, so coffee stretched into a three-course dinner at an outdoor cafe. By the time we finished dinner we discovered that hours had passed while we caught up. We rode our four bicycles to the closest free bike stand and retrieved our coins.
Kate and I spent the next two days doing the typical tourist things. We rode out to see an old fort called Kastellet as well as the Little Mermaid statue in honor of Hans Christian Andersen (imagine a little statue of a mermaid with a busy harbor in the background. Disappointed?). The most interesting part of town is Christiania, a utopian (hippy) community that was granted its own jurisdiction about 1000 years ago. Today it is known as little Amsterdam—the place people go to buy drugs and funky art, though only the latter is permitted to leave with you. We tried to get to Christiania but ran out of time before we had to go to dinner.
That night we went to HP and Gitte’s apartment for a tasty meal before heading to Tivoli to meet up with their friends. Tivoli is an amusement park in the center of the city, smack between city hall and the train station. That night Tony Bennet was crooning in the gardens, so we went to see him and the park, and a to take few rides. None of us wanted to brave the line for the free-fall tower so we flew the magic carpet ride instead and took a spin on the roller coaster.
The next day we made it to Christainia where we saw kiosks set up to sell hash, the odd marijuana plant in flower gardens, welded metal sculpture and candlesticks, plenty of graffiti, and a small Tibetan Buddhist temple. Dogs ran through the streets, most of which felt slightly jungle like due to the overgrown bushes that had not been cut in ages. The place did felt neither friendly nor safe, so we grabbed a slice of pizza and left. Walking out of the main gate we spotted an interesting looking church whose steeple has an outdoor staircase that spirals to the top. We were treated to a fantastic panoramic view.
On the way back it began to rain, dashing Kate’s hopes of a canal tour of the city. Instead we took shelter at the National Museum, which has a fine collection of Ohm stones, medieval bronze, and mummified warriors. My favorite exhibit was the miniature Greek statues where some curator with a sense of humor had added two McDonald’s toy figures from Disney’s Hercules to the ancient art. Before grabbing dinner at Cafe Klimt we checked email and checked out a travel tip from HP. It turned out to be cheaper and faster to fly to Brussels on Virgin Express than to take the train!
A tour around the island that Copenhagen is on, Zealand, kept us busy the next day. We caught the train north to Hillerod to see the Fredricksborg castle. The castle was nearly destroyed by fire, but the Carlsberg family restored it. The chapel has ornate painted woodcarvings covering it, as does the grand hall, plus more coats of arms than you will ever need to see. We grabbed some bread and cheese to eat on the train and headed further north to the coastal town of Helsingor, which has the castle, which apparently inspired “Hamlet.” If anything were rotten in the state of Denmark it would have been in the creepy basement that also has a stone statue that is supposed to rise up if the country is ever in need. Outside Kate put her literary degree to use and hammed it up as Ophilia. She soon recovered herself and enjoyed the view across the sea to Sweden.
On the way back south we stopped to see the Louisiana art museum. Nope it is not host to art from the Deep South; it gets its name from the main building, which was designed in the American plantation style. The rest of the structure is quite modern and houses an excellent collection of modern art, including a Warhol exhibition. Some of the more bizarre installations were video, for instance the Hungarian artist who hummed through straws while snipping them ever shorter with scissors, or the huge room with five projections along three walls of people who had been filmed sitting on their own without their knowledge, or finally an American female artist who projected into a corner a hue-shifted underwater scene of Barbie toys tumbling down a coral reef while she sang “Wicked Game,” with angry emphasis on the phrase, “I don’t want to fall in love, with you.” My favorite part was probably the sculpture garden that looks out to the sea.
With only two weeks we had to keep moving, so after another dinner and a bit of Copenhagen night life (saw the sunrise) we caught a train to the airport for our flight to...