I stood watching out from the open window while Madam went through that long and mysterious process that women have to do before declaring they can leave the room. After many years of marriage I am still clueless what is involved. I shower, dry and dress. I’m ready. What she does? I’ve no idea. All I know is it takes a long time and involves many electric appliances and odd-smelling substances in small pots and tubes.
I watch the pedestrians and bicycles pass below. A young man stopped and looked at the ground and shook his head. He picked up a discarded coke bottle and deposited it in the bin. A woman by the swimming lanes dipped her hand in the water and recoiled as though touching a hot stove. Two young blonde women jogged by, ponytails bouncing. Dozens of cyclists wearing office clothes. A group of Japanese tourists jumped into an unmanned boat moored to the harbour wall for a selfie. It was 8am.
We headed into the centre on the local train. It was only a twenty-minute walk but the station was opposite the hotel, and included in our pass and I don’t think we ever had to wait more than a couple of minutes for a train. The central station has four entrances and, being new and clueless, we managed to pick the one that led into the former red-light district. At least my guidebook said it was former. It wasn’t. We walked some distance into the district, becoming increasingly lost. We finally found a bus stop and the bus, fortuitously, dropped us back at the station entrance we should have taken in the first place.
There is a local ordinance that all tourists must visit The Little Mermaid. They won’t let you back on the plane until you have shown them a selfie with the statue in the background. It is the iconic attraction that everybody associates with Copenhagen.
The crowd spread along the railing overlooking The Little Mermaid was ten deep. Many more were scrambling over the slippery rocks to get their picture taken in front of the statue. Japanese selfie stick were being waved menacingly in the air. A steady stream of tour buses disgorged more visitors. Souvenir shops and stalls were doing a roaring trade, selling miniature replicas of the mermaid. Madam bought a £7 ornament.
The Little Mermaid has had a rough life since she was unveiled in 1913. In 1964, her head was sawn off and stolen by artists from the Situationist Movement. If you, like me, have never heard of this movement, I offer you this explanation from Wikipedia:
‘The intellectual foundations of the Situationist International were derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism. Overall, situationist theory represented an attempt to synthesize this diverse field of theoretical disciplines into a modern and comprehensive critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism.’
I wonder why that never caught on.
Her head was never recovered, and a duplicate was made and installed.
In 1984 on a warm evening in July, two bored young men sawed off her arm, returning it two days later. In 1998, she was decapitated once again but this time the head was recovered and reattached later that year. In 2003, explosives were used to blow her off her base. She has variously been covered in red paint, a dildo attached to her hand and dressed in a burqa. I could go on, but you get the idea. Strictly between you and me, it has always been just a copy – the original is kept hidden away, quite wisely, by the descendants of the sculptor Eriksen. Please don’t tell the throngs of tourists.
Everybody says the statue is smaller than they expected. I heard this so many times, I somehow imagined it would be a foot tall at best. In fact it is only slightly smaller than life size, larger than I expected, which I think is just the perfect size. The stains running down from the top of her head suggest that it is a favourite perch for pigeons when the tourists leave them in peace. Some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue as they say.
We followed the harbour south along the waterfront through an obviously affluent area, eventually reaching the Amalienborg Royal Palace. The Danish royal family are big on palaces and official residences. Summer palaces, winter palaces, second summer palaces and palaces just for eating their dinner.
Amalienborg is the official winter residence of the family. It is not just one, but four different palaces flanking an open square. The four were built by four different aristocratic families in the middle of the 18th century as private residences. Following a fire at the then current royal place at Christiansborg in 1794, the royal family took over the buildings. Accounts differ whether the king paid for the buildings or merely gave tax exemptions and promotions. Madam explained who lived in what building but it was all a little lost on me. I think the queen lives in one, the crown prince in another and their dog in a third. I may have got the bit about the dog wrong. Flags fly at various buildings depending on who is home, who has popped out to the corner shop for bacon, or who is walking the dog. You may need to ask Madam for the exact details.
There is a changing of the guard at noon every day and propitiously we arrived at a few minutes to twelve. Crowds already lined the square, cameras at the ready. A sole policeman stood guard in the centre of the square. Excitement mounted as noon approached. The buzz of conversation got louder and tourists jockeyed for prime position at the front. Twelve soldiers, wearing black bearskin hats, marched smartly into the square and did a right turn directly in front of Madam. It was all over in two minutes.
Nyhavn is Copenhagen tourist central. It’s the one with all the brightly coloured houses either side of the canal. Historic wooden boats line the quay. Most of the buildings are now restaurants with rows of outside tables almost reaching the water. It was lunchtime and every table was packed.
King Christian V opened the canal in 1670 to allow ships access to central Copenhagen. The oldest house dates from 1681. After a bit of a tiff with the British in 1807 and a spot of, probably well-deserved, naval bombardment, the wealthy merchants moved out. The area then became well known for sailors, pubs, prostitutes and general debauchery.
Coincidently, or perhaps deliberately, Hans Christian Andersen moved into the street at this time, living in three different houses over the next twenty-odd years. We didn’t bother to scramble over dozens of diners and tables to see the memorial plaque at number 67. We did stroll the length of the street amongst the tourists and frantic waiters dodging between tables. It would have been nice to linger and look at the boats but there was barely standing room on the quay, let alone anywhere for a sit down.
Our guide book told us that Copenhagen was walkable and we wouldn’t need public transport. Amble across the centre in an afternoon it said. Even with our city pass, taking buses and trains where possible, we had walked over five miles by 1pm. The guide book also had no mention of The Little Mermaid. You have to wonder who writes these guides and whether they even visit. To moan a bit more, just a random glance at their recommended restaurant list included Noma as one of their top choices. I’m sure this two Michelin star restaurant serves amazing food but you have to book weeks or months in advance and pay them £275 per person to even get a reservation. Hardly a sensible suggestion for somebody spending a weekend in Copenhagen, is it? Other sections, I found later were completely wrong. Anybody need a guide to Copenhagen, going cheap?
EDIT: I eventually found a brief reference on page 103 and I quote: ‘The Little Mermaid … must rank as one of the most overexposed and overrated pieces of sculpture in the world.’ There was no mention in the index nor the contents of the guide.
Being hot and knackered, we headed back to the hotel for a rest. Just as we left the train, a pigeon flew close overhead and left me a little present. Today I was the statue. Some people believe a bird pooping on you will bring good luck and riches. I suggest that those people have never had to clean pigeon shit from their ears. I decided I don’t like pigeons.
After a brief rest, we headed back into the city and I had a £15 sandwich in the Tivoli food hall. The menu was in Danish, so I had no clue what each cost before I ordered. It was all looking and pointing. It was a nice sandwich – one of those open face ones. They call them Smørrebrød so they can charge more than a regular sandwich.
I’m being a little unfair in calling it a sandwich. The filling is piled high enough to make half a dozen British Rail sandwiches. The Danes have a reputation for design and they have turned the humble sandwich into an art form. They are often a delight to the eye as well as the palate.
Smørrebrød includes countless open-face sandwich combinations, from basic to lavish. The word derives from smør og brød, or “butter and bread.” The basic bread is rugbrød or rye bread. This is buttered and toppings added. Traditional ingredients include pickled herrings, thinly sliced cheeses and meats, cucumber, tomatoes and smoked fish.
I think it worked out at about £1.50 a bite.
One of the waitresses yesterday recommended a visit to Strøget. This is one of Europe’s longest pedestrian streets stretching to almost a mile. After a struggle to find the start, we spent an hour or so walking its length. Pleasant enough but very crowded and with more gift and souvenir shops than is either healthy or desirable. Madam bought two postcards 7 Kr each (84p).
We stopped off at the local mall on the way back to the hotel for some sushi. Due to an ordering cock up by our waiter, there was a long delay before our meal arrived. Hunger gripped me by then and I gulped down a roll. I like wasabi. It clears the sinuses. The roll was 90% wasabi. Strong wasabi. My eyes bulged and watered. My glasses misted. My nose ran, dripping into the soy sauce. My throat constricted. I gasped for breath. I drank a pint of water. I mopped sweat from my brow. My sinuses shrivelled up into a small ball and retreated, whimpering into a dark cranial recess. I may never hear from them again. I do not recommend the wasabi tuna roll.