That Little Mermaid
The Nordic countries are revered among my leftist friends. It’s easy to look at the high level of happiness in those places and not be jealous. This past weekend I went to visit Copenhagen to see their secret sauce for myself.
It was unfortunate timing. Rain got in the way. And rain it did. Continuous, non-stop rain or ominuous skies for the entire weekend I was there. Which made the whole travel thing less pleasant than, say, it was for my weekend in Brussels.
The biggest shame is the mismatch between the dreariness in the sky and the bright colors of Copenhagen’s buildings. That dichotomy is best reflected at Nyhavn, the waterfront canal and entertainment district. Nyhavn is where the colorful facade most associated with Copenhagen is found. This is a lively part of town. The bustling restaurants and street musicians match the splashiness of the decor. You can see in the photos how the grey and colors just don’t quite mix the same.
Denmark is also an active monarchy whose current head of state is Queen Margrethe II. Queen Elizabeth in the UK and she are the only two incumbent female monarchs in the world. Queen Margrethe lives in the Amalienborg Palace residential complex in central Copenhagen during the fall and winter months. It’s a plaza-like courtyard with buildings on all sides and a statue in the middle.
A Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place daily at 11:30AM at the Amalienborg Palace. I think it is similar to the one that occurs at Buckingham Palace. Each guard’s step is slow. Meticulous. Deliberate. It’s about half an hour before the new guards take their posts and the crowd slowly dissipates.
If Manneken Pis is the symbol of Brussels, the Little Mermaid is the symbol of Copenhagen. People crowd the waterfront walkway where the Little Mermaid statue is nearby, hoping to take photos with the iconic statue. Tourist boats swoop by every few minutes with guides giving quips about Hans Christian Andersen’s story. Personally, I thought it was similarly underwhelming to Manneken Pis. I wanted to grab a couple of snaps to say I’ve been here, but it was more appreciate-the-legacy-of-the-fairytale than blow-your-mind-worthwhile.
Something that I did find cool about Copenhagen was its anarchical commune. There’s nothing to my knowledge like it in the United States except that summer in Seattle when protestors chose to establish CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone). What a time that was looking back.
The OG version of that in Copenhagen is called Freetown Christiania. Squattors in 1971 occupied this land and established a micronation. Laws are different here than the rest of Denmark. For example, cannabis is allowed and sold on the street. Gangs operate here, there is the use of hard drugs, and shootings have occured here. I’m not saying it’s unsafe in Freetown Christiania; there’s just a little more tension.
The main street in Freetown Christiania is Pusher Street. A few shops line the side of the street with people (likely) selling cannabis. Don’t ask me, I didn’t inquire. Signs on the side of buildings constantly remind visitors to avoid taking photos. And normal commercial activity does exit (e.g. there is a food court in the center I had lunch at). Some British tourists and I found a book exchange too, which had in its inventory of all books, the Bible. We all got a laugh out of that. Since no photos were allowed, I leave you with a picture of the gate.
Near Freetown Christiania, I passed by Noma, routinely rated as one of top-rated restaurants in the world. (In 2022, Noma was given first place in the Top 50 Restaurants in the World list.) Yes, the irony of the top-rated restaurant located so close to the anarchical commune was not lost on me. Noma is known for its chef’s use of foraging to cultivate Nordic cuisine. I wasn’t able to get a reservation on such notice sadly. When I passed by around lunchtime on Saturday, it didn’t even look open. A little surprising to see.
Noma (or lack thereof) aside, the culinary scene wasn’t for me. It’s not to say the food is bad. It’s just not my taste. Local dishes are heavy on seafood, which I struggle to eat. One memorable dish was my smørrebrød at Selma, a highly regarded place for the dish. The fact the dish consisted of pickled vegetables, raw herring, and wheat bread meant it was always going to be an uphill battle. Don’t shy away from Danish food if you go. People typically enjoy seafood and I suspect you’ll likely find your reaction different from mine.
Overall, my trip to Copenhagen left me reflecting on how much our travel experience come down to luck. Sometimes it’s just walking by the right cafe that makes a great experience. Other times it could be stumbling across a timely stranger. And yes, weather plays an important role. I wouldn’t mind going back to Copenhagen one day to see the city under a sunny day. Or Oslo Or Stockholm too.
Maybe I’ll put it down for another time.