There is talk of a Renaissance in Copenhagen, as Denmark moves deeper into the 21st century. Much of the city, with its copper-domed landmarks, is cutting edge. A sea of change is sweeping across Copenhagen as tired, seedy old buildings are restored -- many turned into boutique hotels. At trendy restaurants, young Danes are reinventing the cuisine of their ancestors, too long dominated by the Danish pig.
Museums are becoming more user-friendly, and even the Queen is appearing on the streets in scarlet red. The culture and charm of old Copenhagen is still here, but in a word the city has become "cool."
A dynamic new life, spurred in part by the young and the changes brought by newly arriving immigrants, has made this venerable old city more vibrant than it's ever been in its history.
"You couldn't be bored here if you tried," a visiting dancer from London told us. He was referring to the around-the-clock summer fun offered in the Danish capital, everything from a free-love-and-drug commune to beer breweries, baroque palaces, art-filled museums.
On a summer evening, there is no greater man-made attraction in all of Scandinavia than a stroll through the Tivoli pleasure gardens, which seems to have emerged intact from the days when the world was young . . . and so were we. The Danes love childhood too much to abandon it forever, no matter how old they get -- so Tivoli keeps alive the magic of fairy lights and the wonder of yesteryear.
Although many visitors arrive in Copenhagen just to visit the Tivoli, there's a lot more going on here. The city is proud of its vast storehouse of antiquities and holds its own with most other capitals of Europe, although dwarfed, of course, by London, Paris, and Rome.
People come to Copenhagen for various reasons -- some to absorb the city's art, others merely to have fun. Copenhagen hasn't become another Hamburg yet, but it still peddles miles of porno and sex toys, for which it became infamous in the 1970s. Several annual summer festivals take place here, and live bands -- some of the best in Europe -- appear in parks to keep Copenhagen rocking around the clock when the sun shines. One actor who settled into Copenhagen found it an "orgy" of boats, bikes, joggers, in-line skaters, and beer.
Shopping is another reason visitors show up here, as the city is world famous for its beautifully designed wares for the home, including porcelain by Bing & Grøndahl and Royal Copenhagen, and sterling silver by Georg Jensen, among other big names. Strøget remains one of the most fabled shopping streets of Europe.
The summer sun may not set until 11pm, but in winter expect cold, cloudy, dark, rainy weather. "We brood like Hamlet then," said a local. "But winter or summer, we're super friendly and welcoming . . . and in English too."
After years of traveling to Denmark, we heartily agree with that assessment.
Literary Landmarks -- Fans of Hans Christian Andersen may want to seek out the various addresses where he lived in Copenhagen, including Nyhavn 18, Nyhavn 20, and Nyhavn 67. He also lived for a time at Vingårdsstræde 6.
Especially for Kids -- Copenhagen is a wonderful place for children, and many so-called adult attractions -- except the Erotica Museum -- also appeal to kids. Tivoli is an obvious choice, as is the statue of Den Lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid) at Langelinie. Try to see the changing of the Queen's Royal Life Guard at Amalienborg Palace, including the entire parade to and from the royal residence. Kids also enjoy Frilandsmuseet, the open-air museum.
While there's been a massive postwar output of modern furniture in Norway and Sweden, and architectural innovations by such Finnish designers as Alvar Aalto, the streamlined, uncluttered look of modern Scandinavian design is most associated with Denmark. That's because innovations were made during the 1950s by such local luminaries as Hans Wegner, Poul Kjærholm, and Arne Jacobsen, who were trained as architects. Connoisseurs who appreciate their radical departures from previous styles avidly showcase their midcentury furniture and tableware designs.
The original inspiration for Danish design is believed to be the organic curves of Art Nouveau, wherein critics have defined sinuousness and an uncluttered elegance as "the curved line in love with itself." Danish modern managed to transform Art Nouveau from a decorative, nonessential adornment into an aesthetically pleasing, utilitarian stylistic approach that coincided with the industrial boom in Europe after World War II.
What makes a desirable and sought-after piece of Danish design? Some critics have referred to it as "structural vigor," others as "the visual expression of a socially just society" or "aesthetic functionalism," through simple and straightforward materials, including wood (usually oak, maple, ash, and, to a lesser degree, walnut and teak), steel, aluminum, silver, and copper. The best pieces of Danish modern stress flawless craftsmanship, a design that suits the ergonomics of the object's intended use, and subservience of form to function. Respect for the beauty of the components of a piece demands use of the finest materials. The artful simplicity of each piece is achieved only after laborious hours of lathing, polishing, mortise-and-tenoning, and fitting the components into a simple whole.
As the postwar years progressed, new industrial processes developed experimental materials (which later became mainstream): Bakelite, high-grade plastics, spun aluminum, and spun steel. All these were carefully integrated into the growing canon of tenets associated with Danish modern, especially the integrity of design plus aesthetically pleasing functionalism.
Home design before World War II embodied clunky bourgeois ideals. Following the devastation of the war and its aftermath, the modern design movement emerged from the peculiar corner of the world that was Denmark, a land that during the 1950s found itself uncomfortably positioned between eastern and western Europe. Danish joie de vivre rose to the challenge. Within the streamlined designs, there's an implicit belief in the intelligence of the consumer as typified in the socialist idealism of the 1930s, and an implied rejection of the romantic ideals, arrogant nationalism, and imperialism that motivated some of the carnage of World War II. There's also an endearing (perhaps even quaint) sense of optimism that science and technology can alleviate many of society's problems and ills.
The style was unusual for what it was, and perhaps even more unusual for what it was not. There isn't a trace of kitsch about it -- the very fact that the best examples of the style have endured for almost half a century (with few alterations or adaptations) attests to its timelessness. In contrast, the Naugahyde sofas and Eisenhower-era "moderne" accessories that swept across other parts of the world look hopelessly outdated today.
The allure of Danish modern hasn't been lost on art historians: Most visitors to Copenhagen's Museum of Decorative and Applied Art head straight for the Danish modern exhibits, featuring works that were purchased directly from the designers and artists in the 1950s. Hot objects on the auction circuit that fetch high prices today include midcentury cocktail shakers and the ergonomically balanced "egg chairs."
Top of the Pops in Denmark
Rock and pop bands rule the night in the underground cellars of big cities in Denmark, including Copenhagen and Århus. Formerly known as Disneyland After Dark, rockers D-A-D have found many international fans with such recordings as "Sleeping My Day Away." Currently, the major bands in Denmark are garage rockers such as The Raveonettes.
Enjoying the most popularity in Denmark is the Århus-based band Nephew, which mixes both Danish and English lyrics. Their lead singer, Simon Kvamm, is quite charismatic and is one of the biggest rock stars in Denmark.
You can often see the biggest names in music displaying their talents at the annual Roskilde Festival.
Special & Free Events
Much of Copenhagen is a summer festival, especially at the Tivoli Gardens. Although the gardens have an entrance fee, once you're inside, many of the concerts and other presentations are free. A total of 150 performances each summer are presented at the Concert Hall (which seats 1,500), or in the smaller Glassalen Hall (seats 700). Of these, more than 100 are free. Pantomime performances at the Pantomime Theater are also free. Performances on the open-air stage are free every night (closed Mon). Likewise, Bakken Amusement Park, which, by most yardsticks, is the oldest amusement park in the world, offers many free events. And you don't have to pay an admission to enter -- only if you patronize the various attractions.
The birthday of Queen Margrethe, on April 16, is a celebration with the queen and the royal family driving through the pedestrian street, Strøget, in a stagecoach escorted by hussars in full regalia. People also gather in Amalienborg Slotsplads (the square that's the focal point of the Royal Family's residence in Copenhagen), usually cheering wildly in a style that some observers claim evokes star worship at a rock concert.
The Copenhagen Jazz Festival (www.jazzfestival.dk) in early July is one of the greatest in the world, and many of the concerts are free. Squares, parks, and a wide range of cafes and clubs resound with the sound of jazz -- in all, some 450 concerts are staged at this time. Visitors arrive for the festival from as far away as China and Australia, and over the years the festival has attracted such jazz greats as Ray Charles and Dizzy Gillespie. For more information, check out www.festival.jazz.dk.
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