Monday, April 05, 2010


My experience in the most beautiful and different place I've seen in Europe.

I'd always been intrigued by Scandinavia. I'd read loads about their cities, language, weather and social system, as well as their much celebrated penchant for social harmony and respect.

Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to spend five days in Denmark and this is an incredibly brief account of what I observed.

The city

Copenhagen is, quite simply, stunning. One of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited. It's not only an architectural dream, with its thousands of amazing constructions (both old and new), but it is also an urban planner's paradise, with a fantastically organised layout, spaces, parks, cycle lanes.

You're immediately blown away by how clean and well-kept everything is. Perhaps I was lucky, but I think I only noticed one dogshit in five days, and that includes parks.

Copenhagen is also a maritime city, with the added bonus that its jagged coastlines creates a myriad canals, each of them adding to the unique atmosphere.


The first thing that strikes you in Copenhagen is calm and tranquility. Denmark must be the one country I've visited with the lowest volume of traffic I've ever seen in my life. Whether it's a weekday, rush hour or the weekend, there are very very few cars around. It's almost like when you watch a documentary of Britain (or any other Western country) in the 1960s.

This is obviously reflected in a) the amazingly clean air; b) the distinct lack of noise pollution, especially when you consider this is a capital city. Compare Copenhagen with London, Paris, Rome or Athens and it's just shockingly quiet. You've got to see (or hear) it to believe it.

You may have heard that cycling is a common activity in Denmark. That's a huge understatement. Again, in my life, I have never seen such an amount of bicycles. The Danes cycle everywhere, all the time. The urban layout is extremely cycle friendly. Most striking are parking spaces. Whereas cars are few and far between, bicycles are parked in throves at each corner.

It is not at all uncommon to spot bikes trailing a two-wheel cart or mini-rickshaw which is designed for children.


Obviously you cannot judge such complex issues on the basis of a few days. Hence I will just write what I observed, which is just two police cars in five days. Seriously, we did not spot a single police officer or "bobby on the beat" anywhere, whether in the shopping areas, old town, metro or elsewhere. Whether that means people feel safe, I don't know, but this is what we observed.

Most amazingly, the greatest majority of the above-mentioned bikes are parked unlocked! Even overnight, it looks like most people simply leave them outside their home without a single chain, lock or cable in sight.

Generally, it all felt quite cosy and civilised. Even the biggest main squares were notable for the absence of dodgy-looking types (whatever that means), which is unusual for big cities. Again, I'm sure crime exists, yet everywhere felt distinctly unthreatening.


Copenhagen has the cosiest pubs I've ever seen. They are just stunning. And they do what they're supposed to do, that is: serve drinks. Most don't serve food and music is only in the very background, which means people have a chance to chat and socialise without busting their vocal chords because someone decided that it's cool and trendy to blast Robbie Williams on until your eardrums throb, even at 3pm. We did not encounter a single pub where music was being pumped up loud.

A couple of times we remarked that if this had been an English place...they'd have stripped the walls, changed the original flooring, added big fuckoff speakers everywhere, put up a DJ booth in the corner and cleared the tables to make room for a make-believe dancefloor.

Everywhere in Copenhagen is candle-lit. It helps that most pubs are incredibly old buildings, which adds to the general atmosphere. Old school tufted settees and upholstered stools, now a dying sight in English pubs, are run-of-the-mill in Denmark. Smoking is allowed in premises that don't serve food - which means you can light up in most pubs.

Our favourite one quickly became the one round the corner from the hotel because it had a free pool table.

Another discovery is the fact that they do ale in Denmark. They actually produce it themselves and even Carlsberg has its own breed. Most pubs serve it and it's actually really nice.


You will immediately notice that everyone in Denmark, even older people, are really fluent in English. Out of all the countries I've visited, I dare say the Danes are the best foreign speakers of English, even better than the Dutch. Which is a shame if you want to pick up some of their language.

Danish sounds really nice and musical, like a more melodic version of German. They say it's fairly similar to Swedish, but not in the way it sounds. You can tell where some Anglo-Saxon words come from, but in no way does it resemble the English language.

At a guess, as long as you master certain specific sounds and letters (æ, ø, å, etc), which is easier said than done, grammar structures appear way less compicated than neo-latin languages. By the way, one beer is "en høl".

English-speaking films on local TV are never dubbed. They show them in the original language with Danish subtitles. One person we spoke to told us this is probably one of the reasons why Danes are so good at English.

Still on the subject of TV: guess who hosts their Champions League programme? Peter Schmeichel.


This trip confirmed that stereotypes are just an enormous pile of bollocks. That old crap that Scandinavians are distant and unfriendly? Balls. Sure, you can't judge over a few days, but then we must have been quite lucky because everywhere we went people were extremely friendly, corteous and helpful.

The old chit chat with shop assistants or staff, which is so unusual amongst the supposedly caliente Spaniards, seems to be the order of the day in Copenhagen. The same with "have a good day", "enjoy your day" and similar expressions. From the grottiest shop to department stores, it looks like routine behaviour. Think of the friendliest establishment in England applied on a wider scale.

As soon as you arrive at the airport and look around for directions (there are both metro and trains taking you to whichever destination directly from there), staff will be on hand to offer help and advice. In our case a very nice chap came over to us and offered help.

Another thing that happened straightaway was that, as we got off the metro taking us into town from the airport, there was a man who left an empty bag on the train and made for the exit door. Immediately another bloke pulled him up on that and sure enough the man apologised, collected his rubbish and then got off the train. Interesting.


But Copenhagen is also unique because it's home to a place you won't find anywhere else. In the beautiful south-eastern area of Christianshavn, there's a self-proclaimed autonomous state called Freetown Christiania.

The place was founded in 1971 when a group of people decided to reclaim an enormous (and derelict) military area as protest against high property prices. That soon became a fortified self-regulated community which the Danish authorities have more or less (increasingly less, apparently) tolerated ever since. The land value of the area must be sky-high and there's increasing suspicion that the government will soon push to have the community cleared with an eye on starting new developments.

Today, around 1,000 people live in Christiania. No cars are allowed in and there are signs everywhere saying "no fights, no hard drugs and no guns". The place consists of an independent town centre with shops, market stools, leisure centres and industrial amounts of cannabis and weed like I've never seen before in my life.

As you carry on walking, the place then turns into a totally rural community. It absolutely looks like you're in the middle of the countryside, with clean air, loads of dogs roaming freely around fields and gardens and a succession of the quirkiest self-designed and self-built houses, some of them absolutely amazing.

The place is both weirdly fascinating and fascinatingly weird at the same time. When you leave (and sure enough a sign informs you that 'You are now entering the EU'), it feels like you're reawakening from a dream.


Here comes the fly in the ointment. Copenhagen is extortionately expensive. I never thought I was ever going to say that Central London is cheaper than another place. Well, it is. Seriously, let me type it up again. London is definitely cheaper than Copenhagen and that applies to every item apart from cigarettes.

The local currency is the Danish Kroner and a small beer (25cl) is almost never cheaper than 30 DKK, which is to say £3.50 or 4 Euros.

True, alcohol is taxed to fuck, but you'll find that everything is extremely dear. This also applies to areas away from the most touristy spots. We took a peek at supermarkets to get an idea and the cheapest item we spotted (and that was at Netto) was a can of tuna costing DKK 7.50 (roughly 1 Euro).

We came to the conclusion that the base price is the equivalent of £10. Everything else comes on top.

Standards of living

Which begs the next question. How can the Danes afford it? There's a vast literature out there explaining that Denmark has amongst the highest standards of living in the world. Public services are spot on but in order to fund them taxes have to be extremely high, to levels that would be unimaginable in the UK.

But then it also strikes you as a really cohesive society and one that works incredibly well. We did not spot a single beggar or homeless person. Again, I'm sure they exist, but go to London, Milan, Barcelona or Paris and count the seconds until you see one. In five days travelling the length and breadth of Copenhagen we didn't see any at all.

The Danes will tell you that they pride themselves on being an "egalitarian" society. Their percentage of workers on low pay is amongst the lowest in the EU and their system of flexicurity (that is, easy to hire and fire but with extremely generous safety nets that include unemployment benefits at up to 80 per cent of your last wage) seems to be working alright. Their current unemployment rate stands at 4,2% with the country left virtually unscathed by the global crisis.

What catches your eye is also the relatively low number of retail businesses. Most capital cities you go to are a dazzling concentration of clothes shops, malls, restaurants, take aways, supermarkets, souvenir shops and assorted temptations to spend money everywhere.

Intriguingly, less so in Copenhagen. Whether that's due to high taxation or cultural approach, I don't know.

1 comment:

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Try Norway, it's wicked and I'm on the TV there.

What more could you want?