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Mermaids and Mermen

Copenhagen, Denmark

It would have been really easy to call this article ‘Wonderful Copenhagen’. That particular form of words is such a cliché, though, both in Denmark and abroad, that’s it’s lost its meaning. Is Copenhagen wonderful? If so, why?

Copenhagen Naptune Statue Well, the news is that yes, it most certainly is a wonderful city. The reasons why are a little more complex. If you happen to be taking a Baltic cruise, Copenhagen has a virtually guaranteed spot on your itinerary. Being built on one large island and several smaller ones off the west coast of Jutland, it’s both easy to get to by sea and virtually unmissable – the city made its fortune by being the gatekeeper to the Baltic.

(Jutland, by the way, is the name of the bit of land that sticks out on a peninsula north of Germany. It’s wrong to simply call this piece of land ‘Denmark’, as the southern end of it is German, and there are parts of Denmark – including the capital, of course – that are not on the mainland of the peninsula. Oh, and if you were wondering: it’s not called ‘Jutland’ because it ‘juts’ out into the ocean. It’s because it was, historically, the land of a people called the Jutes.)

Your first sight of Copenhagen itself will be as your ship nears the island of Zealand, on which the city is located. The sight of city’s lights peeping through the Zealand mists is memorable – but possibly not as memorable as some of the things you will see and do once you are ashore. In many ways the city itself remains a museum. Although it is in many respects a cutting edge kind of place – the Danes are very proud of their long history of innovative design, for example – you still get a sense of having stepped back into the past as your tramp its cobbled streets and admire the gleaming copper spires of some of the fairytale churches. One word of advice: there are really a lot of cobbles: cruisers are well advised to wear sensible shoes, as a turned ankle is considered one of the natural hazards of walking around the city!

Copenhagen Canal As in most capital cities there are some excellent museums. The people of Denmark, considering that they live in such a relatively small country, are inordinately proud of their history and culture. To be fair, you can see why – there is an awful lot of it. The nation has a recorded history stretching back centuries, and an oral one that goes back millennia. A thousand years or so ago the Danes were the dominant power of northern Europe. They ruled the northern and western end of what is now England – a fief referred to by the native Brits as the Danelaw - and to this day there are many Scandinavian place names in England. You can find out about all this and more at the Danish National Museum. If you’re more specifically interested in Copenhagen itself you should head along to the City Museum, which has some excellent archaeological displays about the settlements that have been on the city’s site for thousands of years.

As previously mentioned, the Danes are very enthusiastic about their roles of innovators and patrons of new design. This enthusiasm is reflected in some of the architectural curiosities you can see as you wander the city’s streets. The Danes have more architects than their own needs require, it seems, and they have made something of an industry out of exporting architectural talent. The Sydney Opera House is just one example of a famous building designed by a Danish architect – Jørn Utzon in this case – and built thousands of miles from home. If you want to learn a little more about the city’s rich architectural heritage, you should visit the Danish Center for Architecture, where a number of permanent displays will teach you all about this particularly rich vein of Danish culture.

Copenhagen Nyhavn Harbour If you have kids, you’ll probably want to catch one thing before your ship departs – the Little Mermaid. She isn’t a real mermaid, of course, but a statue (but why tell the kids that?) She sits on a rock just off the city harbor wall, and is something of a tourist attraction beyond her size and years. She was presented to the city in 1912 by the owner and founder of the Carlsberg Brewery, and commemorates the fairytale of the same name written by Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s most famous writer.

She fits right in, in fact – probably because Copenhagen itself is something of a fairytale city. As you board your ship once more – which will probably be somewhere in full view of the Little Mermaid – you can reflect that this is a place that exists somewhere between the ultra-modern and the very, very ancient indeed.

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