The late Victor Borge often sang a song whose lyrics began “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, Salty Old Queen of the Sea …” This was a popular seaman’s ode to Denmark’s great capital, a city whose fortunes have been tied to the sea. The majority of Baltic Sea cruises either begin or end in Copenhagen. This gives travelers opportunities to linger and enjoy this grand city either before or after their cruises around the Baltic.
Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, which happens to be the smallest of the Scandinavian countries. Denmark is made up of the Jutland Peninsula, extending north from Germany, separating the Baltic Sea on the east from the North Sea on the west. In addition to Jutland, the remainder of the country is comprised of numerous islands, many interconnected by road and rail bridges. At its narrow point, the Øresund is a slender strait separating Denmark from Sweden and it is the main transport route into the Baltic Sea.
Denmark covers a land area 16,562 square miles about the ¾ the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Its population is just over 5,600,000 people. Denmark is considered to be the gateway to the Baltic Sea. Geographically it is classed as a fragmented country because its lands are not contiguous. At the Øresund where Denmark and Sweden almost meet all of the international shipping in and out of the Baltic Sea could be blocked in time of war, giving both countries a strategic advantage in controlling this major inland sea. Beyond the Øresund lies the Skagerrak Strait, an often stormy body of water that separates Jutland from Norway.
Almost all of Denmark is low-lying and somewhat rocky as the result of having been created by glacial debris at the end of the last ice age. There are many fertile areas, and the country is known for its fine dairy herds, sugar beets, barley and wheat crops. Much of the land is still covered in a mix of broadleaf and needle leaf woodlands, presenting a rather idyllic landscape, especially with its neat and tidy villages, each dominated over by a church steeple. There is an almost fairy tale quality to the Danish countryside.
Fishing is also an important part of the Danish economy, as the Danes have always looked to sea for its bounty. The country is highly industrialized, producing fine quality manufactured goods, especially furniture, but having to import most of its raw material needs.
Although a tiny country, the history of Denmark is intimately bound up with the history of much of Europe. The Danish Royal House married its children into more royal families across Europe than any other. It is often said that no European royal is without Danish blood, thus it makes looking at this miniscule nation’s history a must to appreciate its importance.
The Danish tribes are of Viking origin just as are the Norwegian and Swedish. There is evidence of their presence in Denmark as far back as 500 BC. From Denmark the Vikings raided and established colonies as far away as England and the Normandy Coast of France. By 950 AD, there was a Viking kingdom in Denmark, and its rule extended into what is now southern Sweden.
The Danish Vikings set out across the Atlantic, settling Iceland in the 10th century, and from there the illustrious Leif Erickson continued west to colonize Greenland, and for a brief time the northern coast of Newfoundland, long before Columbus was even born. At one time Iceland and Greenland were united under the Danish Crown. But Iceland gained its full independence in 1944. Although it has home rule, Greenland is still Danish territory, making it the largest colonial territory remaining in the world relative to its physical size. And it is about 45 times the size of its parent country.
During the early 11th century the famous King Canute actually united Denmark and England for a period of nearly 30 years. In 1397, the Kalmar Union united Denmark and Sweden and Norway until 1523. In 1814, after the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden, which it held until 1905. This was the result of the Congress of Vienna punishing the Danes for having supported Napoleon during his attempt to conquer Europe. But the Danish crown maintained control over Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, the last two still being Danish today.
For the next hundred years, not much is heard from Denmark, as the nation keeps essentially to itself. However in 1849, the country followed the British example and became a constitutional monarchy. During the Victorian Era in England, King Christian IX of Denmark married most of his children into the royal houses of Europe, making him the ‘father-in-law of European royalty. The two best-known examples are his two daughters, one of whom married the future Tsar of Russia, Alexander III and the other the future King of the United Kingdom, Edward VII. And the King Christian’s younger son became the King of Norway when that country had no heir to its throne and another son became the king of Greece when that country declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. The list of descendants of King Christian IX is long and extends into almost every major royal house on the continent.
During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, using it as a stepping-stone into Norway and also to have better control over the Baltic Sea for their navy. There is a story that has circulated saying that when the Nazi captors ordered all Danish Jews to wear yellow armbands, that many Danish citizens including the King also did the same. There is a statue of the Danish king wearing an armband with the Star of David located in the Copenhagen suburb of Fredericksborg.
British forces liberated the country in 1945, and Denmark became one of the original signatory members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Denmark has a parliamentary government, similar in nature to that of Norway and Sweden. The monarchy, one Europe’s most prestigious, still exists, but in constitutional form with Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II having only limited powers. Unlike the United Kingdom, the Queen and her family are often seen in public without the benefit of pomp and ceremony, making Her Majesty more accessible to ordinary people, again similar to what is seen in Norway and Sweden.
Metropolitan Copenhagen has a population of just over 1,975,000 people, making it the second largest city in Scandinavia, yet many tourist brochures claim that it is the largest Scandinavian city. It is claimed to be one of the most beautiful of European cities, blending land and water in a similar manner as seen in Stockholm. Denmark in general is a rural nation, but one that does not possess any high mountains. This rich agricultural nation is lush and green, dotted with small lakes and woodlands that extend right into Copenhagen. And even the city of Copenhagen does not offer the feeling of being in a large metropolis. Its lifestyle is somewhat unhurried, characteristic of the mild mannered Danish population.
Throughout historic times, Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia were separated by a narrow waterway, necessitating a ferryboat crossing to Sweden. Since the summer of 2000, Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden have been linked by a combined bridge and tunnel that allows for both rail and road crossing. It now takes only minutes to cross the Øresund. This has given Copenhagen a greater hinterland for the purposes of trade, making it truly an international city, including the city of Malmö.
The name Copenhagen means merchant’s harbor, reflecting the fact that this has always been a city devoted to trade. However, since neither Denmark nor Sweden use the Euro, two currencies are still necessary when people interact across this border. Today it is possible to travel from London via the Chunnel to mainland Europe, and then one can continue on through Copenhagen directly into Scandinavia. These two links have given a greater sense of unity to the nations of Europe.
If anyone wonders why the posting has not mentioned King Hamlet during the discussion of Danish history, it is because he never existed. Although William Shakespeare used Kronborg Castle north of Copenhagen as the setting, the character is purely fictitious.
One Dane who was quite real, however, was Hans Christian Anderson. His great stories are exemplary of Danish life, the most famous being The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Little Mermaid. Anderson is considered as a national treasure of Denmark.
Copenhagen is a city of the sea and of course by the sea. There are also canals that tie the various dock and wharf facilities together to create a massive harbor devoted to major shipping, fishing and pleasure craft. And the harbor of Copenhagen is exceptionally clean. The focal hub of the city is the Radhus, or City Hall. Located on the most prominent square, it is the very center of the city’s downtown area, which like in most European cities, is a mix of residential and commercial buildings essentially cheek by jowl with one another. The Radhus is a massive brick building with a large clock tower, but in Copenhagen towers are quite common. There are few high-rise in the city, most being located in suburban areas and serving as apartments or condominiums. The inner city is devoted primarily to buildings that date back to the grand days of the 16th through 19th centuries when the city served as a major European port.
Beyond the central city, the remainder of Copenhagen spreads out into the Danish countryside, essentially forming a crescent around the old city. Shaded streets are home to rows of neat little houses, interspersed with beautiful parks and public gardens. The most famous of all parks is Tivoli Gardens, a 19th century park that combines the beauty of neatly landscaped grounds with amusement rides, restaurants and outdoor entertainment, especially on long summer nights. Tivoli Gardens became one of Europe’s premier attractions long before the age of Euro Disney. Even in today’s modern computer age, the old fashioned rides of Tivoli delight visitors, taking them back to a grand era.
There are manufacturing districts dotted about the city, but essentially Copenhagen is not a primary industrial center. The city does, however, possess extensive dock facilities, which cruise passengers notice when entering the harbor. Copenhagen is a major seaport because of its strategic location at the head of the Baltic Sea.
Getting around Copenhagen is rather easy, as the city maintains an extensive network of commuter rail services. There is also a Metro, but its two lines do not serve all the major tourist venues and therefore it is not as useful. Copenhagen is a city of bicycles, as most Danes learn to ride as young children and continue into old age. There are special bicycle lanes on all major streets. And there are parking lots designed just for bicycles. At the Central Railway Station there are as many as 10,000 bicycles parked at any given time.
The major highlights not to be missed by visitors include:
- Amalienborg Palace – Home to the Royal Family where a changing of the guard is performed daily before noon.
- Rosenborg Palace – Home to the Danish crown jewels, it is surrounded by a beautiful public garden.
- Christianborg Palace complex – The seat of the Danish Parliament this complex of buildings occupies what is now an island because it is encircled by a small canal.
- Fredericksborg Palace and Park – Used today by the Danish Navy, the grounds are quite magnificent and merge into a large public park
- Tivoli Gardens – The 19th Century amusement park in the heart of the city just opposite the grand and beautiful railway station.
- The Little Mermaid – The signature statue defines the essence of Copenhagen. It honors the story of the same name by Denmark’s beloved author Hans Christian Andersen, and it is located close to where cruise ships dock.
- Kastelette – The great fortress that once protected Copenhagen and now serves as military headquarters. It is still surrounded by a moat, but also by a beautiful park.
- Øresund Bridge and Tunnel connecting Denmark and Sweden, easily visited by means of the high-speed Øresundtåg train between the two countries.
- Carlsbad Brewery Museum – The famous Danish brewery is now a museum and gift shop.
- Strøget – The main pedestrian street of Copenhagen, home to Illum and Magasin du Nord, the two major department stores.
- Radhus – The old and beautiful City Hall and square at the western end of the Strøget.
- Nyhaven – The fishermen’s harbor located south of the Amalienborg Palace is a major venue for its colorful buildings and seafood restaurants.
Copenhagen was founded about 1,000 years ago by Viking warriors Sweyn I Forkbeard and his son Canute the Great. But it remained simply a small fishing village until it was fortified in the year 1167 because of its excellent harbor. It immediately became a trade center, initially attacked by the Hanseatic League, but it never fell into League domination.
It was during the period of the early 1400’s that the city became the royal and military capital of the nation, initially existing as a walled city. Some of the old ramparts can still be seen in modern Copenhagen.
What gave the city and Denmark added prosperity was the navy’s ability to collect tolls from shipping passing through the Øresund, and it is this prosperity that brought about much of the magnificent architecture that graces the city today.
Sweden and Denmark have not always been such close friends and allies. During the years from 1658 to 1660, Sweden laid siege to Copenhagen, but ultimately the Danes prevailed.
The city lost about one third of its residents during the Black Plague, suffered a major fire in 1728 and again in 1795, but each event only strengthened the resolve of its people to make their city even greater.
Much of Copenhagen’s classical architecture owes its existence to this time period. Apart from the palaces, monuments and elegant old buildings in the city center,
Copenhagen is about people. The Danes are very warm and friendly, and most speak some English. And then there is the food. Danish food is heavily oriented toward the sea. It is a seafood lover’s paradise. The Danes claim to have invented the open-face sandwich. Whether this is true or not, they are absolute artists with the preparation of these delightful morsels. Meats, cheeses, seafood and eggs are the main ingredients of the Danish open face sandwich. To have an open face sandwich followed by a flaky Danish pastry is a memorable luncheon experience.
The Danes are incredible bakers. In America the term Danish when referring to baked goods is used to describe rather heavy yeast dough coffee cakes. But in Denmark the breakfast pastries are light and tender, with butter used rather than oil, as is typical in American Danish. It is a shame that the term Danish is even used and in a way it is an insult to fine Danish baking.
Today Copenhagen has no fears of invasion, but simply enjoys its importance as the old grand city of Scandinavia. And Denmark prides itself as being the gateway to Scandinavia, especially now with its road and rail bridge connection to Sweden. And it surprisingly is also the aviation gateway to all of Scandinavia. There are a few direct flights from North America to Stockholm and fewer to Oslo. Likewise Stockholm receives some flights from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But the majority of overseas traffic is directed to Copenhagen. Scandinavian Airways System, which is jointly operated by Denmark, Norway and Sweden, is headquartered in Copenhagen
Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com