A June 2005 trip
to Copenhagen by Owen Lipsett
Quote: Copenhagen has a great number of positive attributes in its favor, including accessibility, size, cosmopolitanism, and friendliness, but my abiding memory is its simultaneously austere and approachable beauty. Consequently, I have provided this overview and a quartet of my personal favorites.
In 1417, King Erik VII made Copenhagen his permanent home and many of the buildings of national importance which grace it to this day were built soon after, symbolizing the extent to which the city’s importance has been intimately entwined with that of Denmark as a whole. Fires in 1728 and 1795 led to the erection of the Neo-Classical stone buildings that still predominate in the city, although it was the bombardment of the city by a British fleets in under 1801 and 1807 that sounded the final deathnell for the city’s once-famed (but unsafe) wooden buildings.
Vast Christiansborg Slot, erected on the ruins of Bishop Absalon’s Castle (which may themselves be visited) contains many of Denmark’s key institutions including Parliament, the Royal Reception Rooms, Royal Library, and several museums. Thorvaldsen’s Museum, dedicated to Denmark’s greatest sculptor, is also located on Slotsholmen, and the superb National Museum and Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek are nearby as well. The latter, an art museum built on the profits of the Carlsberg brewing empire, is largely closed for renovations, although a tantalizing smattering of the collection is currently on display, and stands directly across the street from the famed Tivoli Gardens.
Strøget the world’s longest pedestrianized street and a sight unto itself, runs from Rådhuspladsen (Town Hall Square). Rosenborg Slot and several interesting museums lie to the northwest, and to the east the picturesque Nyhavn canal is flanked by a pair of lively streets of the same name. Beyond it are the Amalienborg Palace and the superb Danish Museum of Decorative Arts and further north still is Kastellet, Europe’s oldest working fort and a seaside park off whose shores lies the infamous Little Mermaid Statue.
To the island, the island of Christianhavn contains the beautiful Vor Frelser’s Kirke and the countercultural commune of Christiania.
Eating out is expensive in Copenhagen, as most Danes prefer to dine at home. Buffets and ethnic restaurants tend to offer the best value, but be sure to note whether there is a charge for tap water. Bakeries (konditori) generally offer sandwiches and inexpensive light lunches.
Drinking beer in parks is socially acceptable and legal in Denmark, which has Scandinavia’s most relaxed liquor laws. Most people who do so are simply seen to be enjoying life and a so-called høker beer, which also happens to be a great way of washing down the omnipresent hot dogs (pølse) for which Denmark is justly famous.
The slightly raised concrete lanes between streets and sidewalks are for cyclists only.
Train: Copenhagen is Denmark’s rail hub and is well-served by both domestic and international services. More information is available here. Don’t let maps confuse you; railway bridges connect the island of Zealand, on which Copenhagen is located, with the rest of Denmark and Sweden.
Getting Around Copenhagen:
As long as Copenhagen’s notoriously gray and rainy weather allows, try to see the city on foot, as it’s easy and pleasant to do so. If it doesn’t, or you’d prefer not to walk, city buses (stops are indicated by a blue and yellow "HT" flag) are the best option. The new subway system is good but not very comprehensive.
Attraction | "Vor Frelsers Kirke"
Despite such plebeian parishioners, however, the church’s interior is laden with heavy-handed absolutist symbolism. The elephants holding up the church’s immense organ represent the royal Order of the Elephant, although you could be forgiven for thinking they’re simply there to indicate its heft! The Order, induction into which is Denmark’s highest honor, was founded by King Christian V, who commanded the church’s construction. The king held himself in higher regard, both literally and figuratively, as his initials are emblazoned on an arch above the ceiling’s nave, on the same level as symbols depicting the four apostles.
The spire is the masterpiece of Laurids de Thurah who based it upon the lanterns inside the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome. It is one of the most distinctive features of Copenhagen’s skyline, of which it offers an excellent view. Its spiral staircase winds to the right, rather than to the left, as King Frederick V had ordered, leading to the legend that de Thurah threw himself off it when he discovered the error (he actually died penniless in 1759). The golden globe, topped with a 10-foot Jesus holding a flag, was a target for Admiral Nelson’s fleet in 1807, although they only managed to hit its leg!
The staircase may be ascended daily from 11am to 4:30pm between April and August (from noon on Sundays) but only when the weather is clear, an all-too-infrequent occurrence in Denmark’s cloudy capital. I spent an entire week in Copenhagen in June without being able to do so, and when I returned in August and finally found the tower open to visitors, the reason for the restriction became apparent. Not only are the 400 steps quite a workout even if you’re in good shape, the final 150, which circle the spire itself, are slanted and made of copper, making them slippery even on sunny days. To make matters worse, the church does not appear to regulate traffic in any manner (as has been my experience at such towers elsewhere), meaning that there is often a pedestrian traffic jam as people try to squeeze past each other on the narrow steps. Don’t be discouraged, however; the inconvenience is worth it!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 9, 2005
Church of our Saviour (Vor Frelsers Kirke)
Sankt Annae Gade 29
Copenhagen, Denmark 1416
45 32 57 27 98
Attraction | "Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket"
What sets the Glyptoteket (whose name literally means "sculpture collection" but actually includes paintings and antiquities as well) apart from many other such museums is the level of aesthetic consideration given to its contents. In addition to its impressive architecture (the Winter Garden by the entrance is a lovely place to anticipate or reflect upon the works beyond it), the individual pieces seem to have all been chosen with a strong emphasis on their physical beauty. The Roman, Greek, and Etruscan sculptures reflect an incredible level of verisimilitude for such ancient works, and many are remarkably well preserved. They find a fitting echo in the largest collection of the sculpture of Auguste Rodin outside of France, including the obligatory "Thinker" in the garden outside.
Although attractive, the collection of paintings is somewhat less impressive, as despite the great names represented, the works on display tend to be relatively minor. This does not serve in any way to decrease their enjoyability, particularly since the Danish "Golden Age" paintings are accompanied by sculptures from the same period to a much greater degree than elsewhere in the country. Most of the museum’s other canvases reflect French art from the Neo-Classical to Post-Impressionist periods with an emphasis on the aesthetically pleasing–-thus accounting for the relatively large number of works by Paul Gauguin and the representation of the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh by the luxuriant "Pink Roses." Depending on whether or not you choose to enjoy the nearby Tivoli Gardens, the verdant paintings of Claude Monet and the Barbizons (a school of French painting that emphasized outdoor painting) present either a fitting accompaniment or the requisite horticultural highlight of your time in Copenhagen.
The collection is currently undergoing a renovation to accommodate its wild popularity (it’s visited by twice as many people annually as it was designed for) but the highlights of the collection are currently on display. Consequently, this review covers the so-called "Compact Glyptoteket" that I did see, which is being displayed until the full collection, normally displayed across a pair of buildings, is reopened. Although only a fraction of the museum’s holdings, this collection is so outstanding that I heartily recommend visiting it to any visitor to Copenhagen, particularly on a Wednesday or Sunday, when admission is free.
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
Dantes Plads 7
Copenhagen, Denmark 1556
45 33 41 81 41
Although not well-regarded and even less known by today’s museum-going public, Thorvaldsen was regarded by his contemporaries as Europe’s finest sculptor. He executed a wide variety of commissions in an heroic style intended to recall the monumentality of ancient Rome for Europe’s elite, perfectly complementing the conservative attitudes that were prevalent among them during one of the most reactionary periods in European history. Although Thorvaldsen was a Lutheran, his finest work is to be found on the tomb of Pope Pius VII in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, although he also sculpted Christ and the Apostles for Copenhagen’s Vor Fruer Kirke. I found the museum’s "Christ Hall," containing the casts for the latter commission, to be the highlight of my visit.
The museum’s neoclassical architecture and its location on Slotsholmen, Copenhagen’s very heart, fittingly depict Thorvaldsen’s role in decorating the key institutions of his native city during its Golden Age and his closeness to those in power. Large galleries at the two ends of the museum contain studies for his more monumental works, while the hallways between them (as well as additional galleries behind these) contains a virtual "Who’s Who’s" of Europe’s key figures from this period. Thorvaldsen’s style, while attractive, can appear monotonous, but the sheer variety of individuals represented, from Bonaparte to Byron, more than compensates for any such dullness. The upstairs galleries contain his collections of antiquities and some of his paintings (including more than a few self-portraits.)
Although regarded by some as a genre sculptor at best and an artistic Talleyrand at worst, Thorvaldsen was, in his time, as monumental a figure as any of his works. The singularly appropriate and attractive manner in which they’re displayed here make the museum a welcome respite from the better known attractions in Slotsholmen (and Copenhagen in general) and an aesthete’s dream. Whether you have an interest in his work or not, however, his frieze in Christiansborg Slotskirke, directly next door, makes for essential viewing. Perhaps appropriately, given the extent to which his reputation has declined since his death, Thorvaldsen’s Museum doubles as his mausoleum–-his grave is located in its courtyard.
Bertel Thorvaldsens Plads 2
Copenhagen, Denmark 1213
+45 33 32 15 32
Attraction | "Rosenborg Slot"
Rosenborg Slot is a fitting tribute to Christian IV, who is known as "the Great Builder", as he also ordered the construction of the landmark Rundetarn (Round Tower), Børsen (Stock Exchange), and Kastellet (Europe’s oldest working fort). Some of the exhibitions of royal memorabilia on the ground floor cover his reign and are displayed in suitably dark oak rooms which (inadvertently) hint at the increasingly absolute nature of his rule and that of his successors. Frederick III, who dissolved the royal council and imposed absolute monarchy in 1660, is represented by bric-a-brac, including a chair equipped with tentacles that grabbed anyone who presumed to sit in it, who would be subsequently doused with water and released to the sound of a trumpet, in case anyone had missed the humiliation! The grandiloquent chair from which his successor, Christian V, bestowed the Order of the Elephant, which has elephant trunks as legs, seems tame by comparison!
The monotony of the turgid collection upstairs is broken only by the mirror cabinet, a room whose walls, floor, and ceiling are completely covered in mirrors to allow the king to peer up the skirt of whoever he chose to bed directly next door, leaving nothing (or perhaps everything) to his imagination. Being aware of this fact, I found it rather humorous that my entry into the room was delayed by the presence there of a Danish school group who were receiving a guided (and I hope somewhat bowdlerized!) tour. The top floor is the most interesting of the lot, not for any particular piece but rather its impressive collection of 18th-century silver furniture and two-thousand piece collection of exquisite "Flora Danica" pottery, each piece of which is handpainted with a different design.
The true highlight of the entire collection, and the reason for paying the admission fee (the Copenhagen Card confers only a meager discount) is the Green Cabinet, located in the castle’s basement and entered separately from the outdoors, although on the same ticket. The suitably sumptuous royal regalia and jewelry are directly inside, but it’s the Treasury, tucked behind appropriately ominous steel doors, that literally contains the crown jewels, as well as the (allegedly) millennium-old silver Oldenburg horn and a beautiful array of gold objects. It’s absolutism at its most over-the-top, and also most exquisite.
Rosenborg Castle and Rosenborg Castle Garden
Center Of Copenhagen, Oster Voldgade 4a
Copenhagen, Denmark 1350
45 33 15 32 86
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