[note to self: need to find some sort of opening that makes the six-weeks-late-ness of this piece look like it was deliberate]
We're well into February now: so how are your New Year's resolutions holding up? Don't want to sound too smug about it, but both The Belated Birthday Girl and I did surprisingly well in 2007. We started the year by proclaiming that we were going to stay away from air travel as some sort of token sop to the planet's messed-up ecology: and through judicious use of trains for our big holiday, we managed to do that for the whole year. Admittedly, now we're into 2008 the work commitments are starting to bite seriously, and both The BBG and I will have to get on a plane some time over the next two months. But it's shown us that with a little imagination and patience, aircraft don't have to be the only solution to a large-scale travel problem.
And the same applied to the big finish for our year without planes: Christmas week in Copenhagen, done the hard way.
As I'm sure The Man In Seat 61 would tell you, getting from London to Copenhagen by train isn't hard, really, just messy. It's a three-stage journey: Eurostar from London to Brussels, Thalys from Brussels to Cologne, Deutsche Bahn overnight sleeper from Cologne to Copenhagen, then reverse for the return journey. As with our trans-European trip earlier in the year, it gave us the chance to compare station facilities of many lands. St Pancras International hadn't changed all that much since its opening, apart from actually having food on sale now. Cologne was the main revelation: a huge station with loads of shops and restaurants, including a splendidly functional sports bar where they just hand you a glass of Dom Kölsch beer as soon as you walk in, because that's all they have. And Cologne's left luggage system - a fully automated affair where you put your bag into a compartment and it instantly vanishes into some centralised storage area - had The BBG babbling like Catweazle, terrified at the apparently Satanic forces on display. (Bruxelles-Midi, on the other hand, is Satanic in a more traditional British Rail sense, as the left luggage lockers are on the opposite side of the station to the change machines.)
As for the trains, the main part of the journey was the twelve hour overnight schlep between Cologne and Copenhagen: but if there's one thing last Easter taught us, it's that Deutsche Bahn are to be trusted, and they did us proud again here. Their City Night Line service is a tremendous thing, once you're aware of a couple of its minor quirks. Such as when you book a double berth and find you've been allocated non-consecutive bed numbers 21 and 25. Easily explained: the default train configuration is for six-bed enormo berths (21-26, say). For the most part these are partitioned down the middle with three beds in each sub-berth, odd numbers in one and even numbers in the other. And the middle bed (23) is optional and can be folded away, making for much more headroom in the bottom bunk, which is, er, useful. By default, the alarm in your room is set to go off an hour before your scheduled arrival, but be sure to get dressed quickly before the guard barges in to fold all the beds away and bring you your coffee and croissant.
The transition from Germanic efficiency to Danish quirkiness was enhanced by our choice of hotel for the week. From the outside, Hotel Fox is a little rundown-looking, located in one of the less interesting parts of town: but once you get inside, all hell breaks loose. Because a team of artists has been unleashed on all the rooms in the hotel to ensure that each one is designed differently. You can pick a room you like the look of and stay there, or you can do the Tour de Fox: swapping rooms every day or two and leaving it to chance. We ended up with three rather fine rooms during the six days we stayed there as a result. 414's minimalist statistical approach was a fun introduction to the concept: 309's whorish glamour worked nicely for Christmas Day itself: and we finished up in the bizarre parallel universe of 504, where Thelonius Monk fights Ray Charles for the heavyweight championship of the world.
So once you're there, what's to be done? The first thing you need to be aware of is that Denmark is one of those countries where December 24th is a much bigger deal than December 25th. When we arrived in Copenhagen on Sunday December 23rd, the Tourist Information Office was already closed for the holidays - but its foyer cafe was still open, with free and utterly indispensible tourist maps of the city easily available. So even if large numbers of places are closed down for Christmas, it's still possible to walk around and take in the obvious sights. You can gawp at all the wild building work that King Christian IV was responsible for, such as the Rundetaarn and Christiansborg Palace. You can take a stroll along by the side of the lakes, hoping there's a cafe open nearby if the cold or the filthy water gets too much for you. You can head out to see The Little Mermaid, and marvel at just how tiny it is. Just bear in mind that if you attempt to do any of this on December 24th, the only other people you're likely to see on the streets will be heading off to church and tutting at you.
Copenhagen's also a city of contemporary culture, with all the art, music, theatre and cinema you'd expect. Danish cinemas are even open on Christmas Day itself, unlike back home in the UK. So on Christmas morning, once we'd got the presents opened, we went to the Metropol and got ourselves in a festive mood with Ben Affleck's child abduction drama Gone Baby Gone - because hey, Herod's part of the Christmas story too. It brought back memories of what trips to Europe used to be like back in the old days, when you'd track down cinemas which were showing films that hadn't opened in the UK yet. Nowadays, of course, we track down cinemas showing local films in a language we don't understand, so our token Danish movie of the holiday was Fighter at the hugely over-multiplexed Palads. On Fighter's official site, they quote a review that claims "en vellykket og modig fuck-finger til dansk films stagnering", which amuses me greatly, whatever it means. It's not all that revolutionary, really: it's just The Karate Kid with a female Turkish immigrant in the lead. This means they can cheat and use the excuse of a culture of arranged marriages and family feuds to crank up the conflict unnecessarily. The fights are reasonably well done (Xian Gao from Crouching Tiger doubles in the sifu role and as the movie's choreographer), but it's not going to travel very far outside its home country.
Once Christmas Day is over, the usual tourist delights are open to you again. If you're in the mood for something museumy, the obvious place to head is the Glyptotek, the gigantic art collection assembled by brewer Carl Jacobsen. Our Boxing Day visit only really scraped the surface - we'd allocated ourselves two hours, and that's nothing like enough. We mainly concentrated on their stunning collection of ancient sculptures (The BBG now has a series of photographs featuring every major character from I, Claudius), and their newly-acquired 1887 vintage van Gogh. If you're looking for something a little more contemporary, then just over the road there's the Dansk Design Center, a series of exhibitions looking at the impact of Danish design. The current main exhibition, The Danish Gift (till March 30th 2008), smartly assembles iconic Danish products into dowries for Danish movie heroines, from Babette to Selma. Don't miss the basement, where FLOWmarket are doing witty things in an alternative museum shop.
If you want to travel a little further afield, the newish Metro system takes you out to some interesting areas of Copenhagen - and has the world's shortest URL to boot. We headed out to Christianshavn one morning, specifically to visit Christiania, the city's legendary hippy freetown. On a cold damp December morning, however, it all looked a bit grim, with very few signs of life apart from assorted big dogs running around, which pissed off The BBG no end. The other main attraction in the area is Vor Frelsers Kirke, a church with a fabulous spire, but irritatingly closed for at least another year while they refurbish it. (As compensation, Cafe Luna nearby does a mighty fine brunch.) We ended up having more fun taking the Metro in the opposite direction to Frederiksburg, with its shopping centres, gardens, castles and whatnot (we didn't have the time or the inclination for the zoo).
But really, Christmas in Copenhagen means one thing - Tivoli. Copenhagen's pleasure gardens go pleasantly nuts a few times a year, and Christmas is definitely one of them (apart from Xmas Eve and Xmas Day, of course). Its restaurants are serving a huge variety of food (we can recommend the smørrebrød options at Perlen), its theatres have a wide range of festive shows on offer, and the fairground rides cover all bases from the kiddy-friendly to the utterly terrifying. That isn't an exaggeration, by the way: the Star Flier comes with so many warnings about the potential dangers to both your physical health and the contents of your pockets that we ran away from it screaming. We ended up going on two friendlier rides: a charming ferris wheel with balloons on the top of each car, and the just-scary-enough speed of The Odin Express.
Christmas in Copenhagen is a time for food and drink, naturally. Though on the basis of a week there, I'd suggest that drink has a higher priority. Tuborg's Christmas beer has an iconic cinema advert which is treated as the Danish equivalent of that "holidays are coming" nonsense, and the bars are all serving the mulled-wine-with-attitude they call glogg: and that's before you consider the standard booze they serve all the year round. But to be fair, food is important too, particularly the family meal on Christmas Eve.
The BBG and I thought we'd been smart by booking our dinner in hotel restaurants for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, ensuring that we wouldn't get caught out in the inevitable rash of restaurant closures that accompany the Christmas vacation. Except we didn't quite think it all the way through. With everyone wanting to shut up shop for Christmas Eve, that meant that most restaurants were knocking off early on December 23rd (particularly as it fell on a Sunday in 2007). As a result, we spent most of that evening wandering round the streets looking in darkened windows and whimpering slightly. The only places we could find open in the end were a couple of Italian restaurants in Gråbrødretorv, who obviously didn't hold with this doing-everything-a-day-early shit. (Special thanks to Sole d'Italia, who let us in just before they closed the kitchen at 9pm.)
Our main festive bookings allowed us to sneakily check out a couple of hotels that were on our shortlist before we finally settled on Hotel Fox. Our main Christmas meal on December 24th was at Urban Kitchen, the restaurant attached to the Front hotel. It was a traditional three-course Danish Christmas dinner - salmon starter, duck main course, rice pudding for afters - but they were happy to swap out the duck to cater for The BBG's fishetarian tastes. The restaurant was positively buzzing with families and couples out celebrating, which made the atmosphere rather delightful (helped by a wine menu offering a different selection for each course).
By comparison, Christmas Day in Bleu at the Hotel Skt Petri was a bit of a disappointment. Not a problem with the food at all - if anything, it was some of the best I've eaten in a long while. But with that one-day timeshift I've been talking about, that makes Christmas Day in Copenhagen the equivalent of Boxing Day in London: so apparently everyone was at home nursing hangovers, and the restaurant was half-full and rather subdued as a result. But the staff were still friendly to us: in fact, both Urban Kitchen and Bleu were notable for the waiters winking at me when I asked for the bill. The niceness of Copenhagen waiting staff overall made the whole dilemma over tipping rather difficult: all the guidebooks say service is included, but every bill includes a space for a gratuity. What to do? The consensus on the web appears to be that you leave a couple of tens of kroner for staff drinks, rather than the full 10-15%. (I realise I've just added to that consensus, so I hope it's right.)
Of course, hotel restaurants were also available a little closer to home, but the Fox Kitchen and Bar was closed for most of Christmas week, meaning we didn't get to it till near the end of our stay. The menu there was eclectic, as you'd expect from a head chef who previously worked at wd-50 in New York: so lots of strange combinations of ingredients and foams that need to be explained by our enthusiastic waiter. We end up sharing a scallop starter, and then having veggie and duck mains each - all beautifully presented and intellectually interesting. But about halfway through the plate a strange alchemy takes over, and your reaction changes from 'what an intriguing mix of flavours and textures' to 'I must devour everything on this plate as quickly as possible'. I'm not sure I believe all this stuff about how their duck is sealed in a vacuum bag and cooked at 58 degrees for exactly six hours, but it does seem to work. The BBG was similarly impressed with her veggie dish, even though it was undersold to her as a plate full of the vegetables they were just using as sides in the other meals.
It doesn't have to be all molecular gastronomy, of course: there are plenty of more downmarket noshhouses on the streets. Nyhavn is full of them, places like Galionen that will do you one of those great Danish smørrebrød lunches for a perfectly reasonable price. And if you're in the mood for something more traditionally Danish, then Pedar Oxe has been offering that for some time now. Thanks to their ingenious house wine policy, you're given a bottle and only charged for the proportion of it you drink - which means there's no problem if I have deer and The BBG has fish, and we go for red and white respectively, because nothing gets wasted (except, perhaps, the diners). It's a properly cosy little place - hygge, I believe, is the local term - and it's easy to see why it's been so popular over the years. So, there are plenty of options for eating and drinking in Copenhagen whatever your budget. My one regret is that we never got to the restaurant called Tyvenkokkenhanskoneoghendeselsker before it changed its name to the frankly less interesting Nouveau.
Well, that's Denmark for you. But during our week-long visit, we managed to visit three other countries as well. As I've already mentioned, we had stopovers in Germany and Belgium on our outward and return journeys. But also, because of the recently constructed Orestund Bridge, Copenhagen is now a mere 40 minute train journey away from Malmö in Sweden. So it seemed like a fun idea, in our year without planes, to bump up the number of countries we'd visited in 2007 to nine. (Yes, Scotland bloody does count.)
Cologne and Brussels were both five-hour flying visits in between train rides. Here's a useful tip for you: don't assume that means you can just get off the train and wing it with the couple of relevant pages from Lonely Planet Western Europe - if anything, you probably need to plan more than you would do for an extended stay. Take Cologne, for example: we ended up wasting far too much time finding out the hard way that their subway stations don't believe in having maps on display. In the end, that wasn't too much of a hassle, as we were able to do quite a bit within walking distance of the main station: visiting the cathedral, guzzling gluhwein out of souvenir mugs at the Christmas markets, and grabbing schnitzels and local beer at Oma's Küche.
Similarly, a little prior research into Brussels public transport would have helped, though we did find out fairly quickly that day passes are especially cheap on Sundays. But once you've gawped at the buildings at Grand Place, and followed the tourists to the Manneken Pis (you won't need a map, they're all going there), there's not much else to be done. Thankfully, the Christmas festival they call Plaisirs d'Hiver or Winter Pret (with bilingual URLs to the same site to match) came to our rescue. It's a series of events taking place along the entire length of a well-signposted route from Grande Place to the Fish Market. We were there too early for the nightly light show in the Place, and the inflatable giant Ice Monster wasn't allowing anyone into his tummy, but pretty much everything else was going at full tilt. A large-scale Christmas market or two: a pair of wildly grotesque merry-go-rounds, where kids can ride on the back of a dinosaur or inside a Soviet space rocket: the largest ice-skating rink we saw on our travels: and the big wheel overlooking the rink, giving excellent views of the whole route you've just covered. Wrap it all up with lunch at Lo Scoglio nearby.
Our trip to Malmö, by comparison, was fairly well planned, as can be gleaned from the way I was dropping hints about it back in October - the film With Your Permission shuttles back and forth along the route between Copenhagen and Malmö, both over the bridge and via the ferry. One of our plans for the day was to head up to the Western Harbour area for three reasons: to see the bridge from a distance, to investigate the up-and-coming harbour area itself, and to look at the famous Turning Torso building. Sadly, the fading sunlight and blustery conditions made the bridge totally invisible to the naked eye: and when they say Western Harbour is 'up-and-coming' they actually mean 'a building site with a couple of expensive-looking apartments in the middle'. Turning Torso is fun, though.
Most tourist activity in Malmo is centred around the two main squares. Stortorget is the large one where all the big public stuff happens, such as an arthritic exhibition of New Circus called Wintermezzo: Lilla Torg is the one where you go for places to eat, including the huge array of restaurants within Saluhallen, or the local branch of Espresso House. But inevitably, this being a new country, we had to catch a local film: and the splendid Royal cinema was showing Arn - Tempelriddaren, a big old historical epic that appeared to be doing rather well. Like Fighter, we saw this one without the benefit of English subs: but it turned out that a lot of the key scenes were in English anyway, as it appears to be the lingua franca of religious maniacs the world over. So Arn the Knight Templar learns to kick arse for the Lord in a monastery run by Simon Callow and Vincent Perez, and joins the Crusades under the leadership of Steven Waddington. Meanwhile, the girl he leaves behind ends up trapped in the plot of a nunsploitation movie run by Bibi Andersson. It's a long story, with a sequel already scheduled for the summer of 2008: watchable enough, though. And we finished our day off with dinner at Chili, because a restaurant where every dish includes chili somewhere has The BBG's name all over it.
So, not just Copenhagen for Christmas, but Cologne, Brussels and Malmö too. We do seem to have given Europe a fair old run for its money in 2007, don't we? And even though we've already got a couple of planes to other continents booked for later this year (more on that anon), I'd like to think we'll be back before too long. I may even get to write about it less than six weeks after it happens. Though I doubt it. Being a monkey, and all.