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Travel & Holiday

Danish gem

As the most liveable city on earth, Copenhagen offers many sights and sounds for the visitor to explore.
The Business Times - November 1, 2013
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Danish gem

SO here's the thing: if Denmark is the happiest country in the world, why do its cyclists want to kill me?

Governments should put out a travel advisory on these militant two-wheelers - with their angry bell-ringing, screeching brakes and piercing death stares - out to rid Copenhagen of hapless tourists who didn't get the memo that "these bike lanes are MINE!"

So, if you're fresh off the airport bus, consider yourself warned. That spacious bit of asphalt between the bus and the sidewalk is no place to linger with your Samsonites. Danes are extremely friendly people in general but you don't want to get between them and their destination. Don't forget - they're Vikings.

You can't really fault their smug sense of entitlement. It comes with the territory as the most liveable city on earth - if you believe in magazine rankings like that of Monocle's. And what's not to like: cool late summer days; sumptuous waterfront views; user-friendly and efficient public transportation; strong economy; wide open spaces and small population; generous social benefits and quality-of-life policies - almost makes you want to buy into the hype (and high taxes) and cash in your Ezy-link card.

But - let's not be too hasty. Like buying an overseas condo based on a 3-D model in a hotel function room - it's always better to see before you buy. Copenhagen is so compact, so flat and walkable, bike-able and easily explorable, you can cover the city and its surroundings in a few days and feel almost like a local by the end of it.

The first thing you should do is get a Copenhagen card. While it sounds a little pricey at DKK299 (S$68) for a 24-hour card up to DKK749 (S$170) for five days, it's a value-for-money option if you're planning to get out and about a lot. Already, transportation is free whether you take the bus, subway or even a train out of the city. And the price of admission for one adult and two kids to one attraction a day is built into the card - with 1,000 years of history, Copenhagen has had plenty of time to build up a collection of them.

Especially castles. Denmark - which is a constitutional monarchy - has a bunch of them, mostly around Copenhagen, and all of them inhabited at one time or another by a king named either Christian or Frederik. While the Danish royalty wasn't too imaginative in term of birth names, their designers were less restrained when it came to interior decor.

Frederiksborg Castle is one of those Medieval Quarterly home-of-the-century kind of abode that dates back to 1560 and named after, yes, Frederik II, who lived there until Christian IV moved in around 1602 and gave it a Dutch-inspired aesthetic that remains today. Now it's home to Denmark's Museum of National History - a walk-in showpiece that recalls the days when guests came to dinner, admired your ceiling and demanded to know which designer did your trompe-l'oeil.

Churches, too, weren't wanting in terms of grandeur, with the granddaddy of them being Roskilde Cathedral, circa 12th century and now designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The brick Gothic church which spawned a design trend throughout Northern Europe was also where the founder of Copenhagen, Bishop Absalon led his diocese at the tail-end of the 12th century. It's been the burial ground of monarchs since the 15th century and current queen Margarethe II already has a spot picked out for her. It's both magnificent and macabre to see the elaborate tombs that are testament to the game of royal one-upmanship that does not end even in death.

The cathedral stands in the charming little town of Roskilde - an easy-to-get-to spot that's worth a half-day of meandering around. Flea markets spring up on the cathedral grounds on weekends and there are enough by way of cafes and shops to distract you. If you're open to seeking out your inner Viking, the Viking Ship Museum nearby is ready to accept you with appropriate outfits for your personal rampaging close-up. Carefully preserved remains of five ships salvaged from the Roskilde Fjord take centrestage but if you like action with your history, there's a small replica docked outside that you can test your oar-pulling skills in.

Water, of course, is the key feature of Copenhagen. Geographically, it sits on the east of Denmark on the coast of Zealand, practically kissing Sweden (it's just a half-hour train ride to Malmo). The city itself is divided into different neighbourhoods by the many canals and waterways - each with its own vibe from retro to modern to bohemian. The best way - albeit also the most touristy - to get a feel of the place is on a Canal Tour which takes you past landmarks like the Black Diamond library and even Noma - the acclaimed restaurant that captured the world's attention with its new Nordic cuisine.

Get on the boat at Nyhavn,so you can kill a couple of birds with the same stone at this colourful waterfront district where Hans Christian Andersen penned his fairy tales for 18 years. Once a red light area, Nyhavn sits at one end of Stroget, the popular pedestrianised shopping street home to the likes of crockery doyenne Royal Copenhagen and Illums Bolighus - a multi-storey retail shrine to Danish design. For a one-stop shopping spot, Magasin du Nord offers the works in a conserved 19th century hotel building. That, and dinner or high tea at the luxury digs of Hotel D'Angletere - Copenhagen's Raffles Hotel - give you a concise sampling of old world glamour.

They're a sharp contrast to the cleaned up grittiness of Nyhavn - now a bit of a tourist trap with its throngs of foreigners spilling out of the restaurants and cafes such as smorrebrod specialist Restaurant Cap Horn. The former brothel is now home to the Danish speciality of open faced sandwiches - thin brown bread piled high with everything from pickled herring to mustard-slathered roast beef slices. Check out also the Royal Smushi cafe inside the Royal Copenhagen store for its Japanese take on smorrebrod - dainty sandwiches moulded into sushi shapes. It's also a feature of the newly opened Restaurant Kahler in the still fun-filled Tivoli Gardens, where upscale smorrebrod is topped with high-end meats and cheeses and served amidst Danish designer furniture.

But there is more to Danish food than smorrebrod, thanks to the likes of Rene Redzepi and his like-minded ilk who have edged away from traditional Danish austerity - eating for sustenance and not enjoyment was the way of the Lutheran church after wresting religious control from the Catholics during the Reformation - towards high-minded culinary delights.

The result is a Danish food movement sanctioned by the Michelin guide with its generous sprinkling of stars on the likes of Noma, Geranium, Relae, Kadeau and Restaurant AOC - all with different personalities but united by their proud embrace of locally sourced ingredients.

For sure, there's a lot to pack into any visit to this Danish gem, and if you feel comfortable enough to get around by bicycle on your own - don't. Save your skin and ego with a less challenging but no less efficient "rickshaw", where strapping young men (and women) will do the peddling while you sit down in their little carriage and explore the sights and sounds of the streets, even making a pitstop at where else but the Little Mermaid - the icon of the city which, for all intents and purposes, makes Copenhagen, well, some kind of wonderful.

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