Copenhagen

Life is not life without a polar bear on the piano, another on the guitar and a third on the violin. That is unless you find yourself in Copenhagen on a frigid November weekend staring at three benign polar bears playing music (because it is the food of life, dear knucklehead) to drown out the chattering of your teeth. It was 2015, I was going to turn 35, and my husband had decided that it had to be in a nation that declares itself the happiest in the world.

There we were in a smart city, where the people are smart enough to reduce their carbon footprints by cycling everywhere, the bars and cafes straight out of the pages of slick magazines, where not a speck of rubbish dots the streets… heck, even the streetlights are smart – yet in that smartest of all smart cities, the shower of our hotel room was not quite so sharp. I had expected something akin to the technologically advanced loos of Southeast Asia, but no this idjit here, it sprayed water all over the bathroom. We changed rooms thrice in the matter of a morning which meant that we cadged up a whole lot of bonus points. You can never have enough points if you rely on them as much as we do.

After we had found our point of reference in the city, the Magasin mall at Kongens Nytorv, we walked around the city doing almost nothing touristy. That would include not visiting the 19th century amusement park, Tivoli, or entering the palaces and castles. Not eating bugs at Noma for a fortune. I would like to point out here that The Little Mermaid is poof, bloody underwhelming. Instead we walked and walked, taking it all in. The turquoise towers and spires, girls on skateboards swishing by, bikes just about everywhere and then those trendy bike carts, hip cafes and brewpubs in working class districts such as Nørrebro, the business district of Ørestad with architectural marvels like the Black Diamond Library…During the course of these rambles about town, I loved looking up because oh those vintage street lamps, dangling from wires above the streets like pretty earrings.

In Nyhavn, the 17th century waterfront, where Hans Christian Andersen lived during the 1800s and where old townhouses in peppy colours line the canal, people queued up for boat rides. We queued up for piping hot churros and chocolate at Rajissimo, a chain of cafés in Copenhagen which serves homemade ice-cream, coffees, waffles, basically all kinds of fried dough, and tells you ‘to be good to yourself’. Who am I to bypass such wisdom on an icy evening?

After, we sat outside by the canal at one of the old bars, wrapped ourselves in blankets kept outside on the chairs and sipped on chilled draft beer. When we moved inside to try out more varieties of local beers, three giggly girls who manned the bar shared stories with us of the curiously oriental décor of the bar. In Nyhavn, on the evening of my birthday, we also almost entered a strip bar mistaking it to be a Chinese restaurant.

The one touristy thing to do in Copenhagen which is quite unmissable is the Carlsberg Beer Factory. Its brewery dates back to the year 1847 when the founder J C Jacobsen, a Danish industrialist and philanthropist, started brewing beer using new scientific methods in the Carlsberg laboratory.

The story of the Jacobsens is worth exploring and you will also find yourself quaffing free pints of icy beer apart from gaping at the brewery’s astonishing collection of beer bottles, apparently the world’s largest, numbering about 16,600 different kinds. The numbers might have gone up. They are vintage beer bottles, hundreds of years old. I spotted Thomas Hardy’s Ale, said to be produced only once a year and first made in 1968 to commemorate Hardy who spoke of a strong Dorchester beer that would be “the most beautiful colour an artist could possibly desire, as bright as an autumn sunset.”

Now Carlsberg’s ambassadors are tall and muscular. Jutland horses who are part of the staff. Louise and Laura, Jern and Oda Brit…they have names labelled outside their stables with their lineage — their far (father) and mor (mother) listed out too — for they have stellar genes. They could easily play the role of warhorses for which they were originally bred but they have made the switch to tamely carry beer around the city in old carts during special occasions.

A dream birthday trip that included a helluva spat when I stomped off to see The Little Mermaid by myself. Now I wonder what we fought about but I remember taking the train by myself to the Langelinie Promenade and caught her photo thus on a dull rainy evening when the bent of my mind did not allow me to be partial to an insipid little mermaid waiting for her prince to show up.

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Copenhagen airport
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Sights from a Danish bus window

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The castles and palaces of Copenhagen 
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The hotel room that is worthy of a mention because it earned us points and an upgrade

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Nyhavn
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‘It’s bloody cold. Can we just go inside?’
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In a Nyhavn bar

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A birthday night dinner

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Carlsberg Brewery

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J.C.’s son Carl Jacobsen
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Carl Jacobsen at work in his lab
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Carl Jacobsen and his crew at the brewery
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The Carlsberg gardens reveal the Jacobsens’ enthusiasm for art
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French sculptor François Jouffroy’s ‘The First Secret’ (1839)
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The brewery’s collection of beer bottles

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Deserted train stations in the Ørestad district
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In the Ørestad
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A blurred bit of The Black Diamond in Ørestad
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Magasin du Nord on the grand old square of Kongens Nytorv
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The Little Mermaid
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Three musicians 

 

Christiania in Whispers

Two years ago for my birthday, Adi booked us on a flight to ultra hip and modernist Copenhagen. The emphasis in the Scandinavian city — where everything is cutting edge, where nothing is stick-in-the-mud or capable of inducing ennui — is on going green. Cycling is the national mantra, hotels and restaurants are overwhelmingly environment friendly, organic food and beer is de rigueur. There hygge is embraced by bringing the outside into the inside — inexpensive, cosy elements which transform the interiors with an intimate and warm touch at once. It is just fitting that there should be a green quarter in this city. Truly green.

Christiania. Utter it and you are usually faced with ecstatic reactions. A cousin sister-in-law of mine calls it the land of ‘sweet air’. Her friend had gifted her a piece of land in Freetown Christiania. Another chap, one of our building residents and a Sheldon lookalike, went into raptures. ‘Isn’t it just wonderful?’ he asked us with a gleam in his eyes as we chugged on bottles of beer on our terrace a few months ago. My reaction was a piteous ‘erm’.

On that shivery November day in 2015, beneath a sky that was a dome of soulless grey, we took the metro to the Freetown of Christiania. After we had passed a few whimsical statues, cyclists clad in coats and beanies, and a church with a serpentine spire wrought in gold it seemed, we entered the bohemian quarter. A sign announced, ‘Now you are leaving the EU’.

Beyond the gates stand a district which was once a military base. Abandoned in the ’70s, it was taken over by hippies and declared as an autonomous neighbourhood, where lay the beginnings of a self-governed and self-sustained society. The Danish government of the day granted it the status of a ‘social experiment’ and therefore exempt from taxes. The buildings inside are shabby but inhabited. As proof, you spot pairs of mud-coated tiny and big wellies propped up outside the worn-out doors.

Only bikes ply within the neighbourhood. It is a car-free zone, you see. Badass graffitis pop up on the walls of old barracks, a cafe or two shows up, pop-up markets sell hippie paraphernalia, and then there’s the stretch of Pusher Street where cannabis is rife in the air. From behind wooden kiosks smothered in camouflage nettings, a guy in dreadlocks whispered, ‘Brother, you smoke?’ I whispered to Adi, awed by the public nature of it, ‘Does he mean hash, baby?’ And the fellow whispered again, ‘Yes, he does’. A game of Chinese Whispers.

I had grand plans. That I would document it all on my phone. Capture Christiania in stills. But the signage at the start of Pusher Street declared ‘no photos’ because ‘buying and selling hash is still illegal’ (right), and my beloved, who lives by the rulebook, confiscated my phone right away. I sulked and stomped, wheedling in phases to extract my phone, but he would not budge. ‘Rather me than some druggie,’ he said. Organic vegetable stores, decrepit but colourful house fronts, yoga studios, a boutique or two, bikes, a lake, a tiny temple with a miniature goddess, muddy tracks… in my field of vision it unravelled rather like a post apocalyptic scene. Soon the heavens burst above our heads. We ran through the mud-caked paths in Christiania soaked to our skin, feeling grimy and the urge for a hot shower to slough off the veneer of slovenliness. Later we sat in a bakery on Dronningensgade and comforted our soggy selves with flaky bites of stuffed pastry and pizza.

I am not its biggest fan but the notion of Christiania is unconventional. Anything that bucks conventions is a winner in my books – the fact that there can be an alternate way of living and a place where no one owns private land is intriguing. Like my cousin sis-in-law, you too can own a share of this hippy haven. But it does not make you a stakeholder in the property or allow you voting rights. It is symbolic — a donation to the cause of the people of Christiania who are buying the 85-acre land from the government in parts. Also, there is the strange dichotomy of it – within the paradigm of a strictly law-abiding city, it is incomprehensible that Bohemia might prevail, but exist it does and with an avant-garde flair.

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Chasing Illusions in Gudvangen

Google Gudvangen. ‘Has she gone crazy?’ you might interject. ‘Here I pop by her post and she asks me to google the name?!’ Humour me for two seconds.

Atop the wikipedia page (you do not have to click further) dedicated to the small Viking village in Norway, you find yourself staring at an image of marvellously lofty peaks. The main peak in it has been squished and stretched up to look like a model lengthening her svelte body. Then you notice later, much later, that the topmost peak seems to show you the middle finger.

Somebody’s idea of awful humour.

The day we reached Els’ cottage in Norheimsund we drove straight up into the county of Sogn og Fjordane. Gullible us inched closer and closer yet the peak did not materialise. Something was terribly wrong. The GPS informed us that we were there.

If you can look high and low for a peak, we did the job alright.

Then there we were in the middle of a valley that looked like it had been scooped out of the surrounding steep mountains, parts of which carried patches of fresh snow. A row of waterfalls gushed down in slender threads of white from the mountains, at the foot of which stood a handful of white and red cottages and a harbour.

Welcome to Gudvangen. Not least like the photo we had seen. The jaws dropped once in disappointment – I cannot lie about that – but then it did drop once again in recognition of the tranquil beauty towering above us.

Dwarfed by the mountains, I stood there and wondered about what the Vikings must have felt when they arrived in this scenic spot on Nærøyfjord and transformed it into their market place. Did their seafaring nature make them glad that they had chanced upon this sublime Norwegian landscape? Or were they intimidated by the mountains that stood guard around the valley like antiquated sentinels. Who knows, but they did not survive the 12th-century onslaught of black plague. People returned to Gudvangen only when hundreds of years had passed by.

Some of these Viking graves are to be found nearby. Hiking paths lead you into other pretty villages but it was too late for us to start on a hike. We never got the chance to do any hike (Trolltunga or Gudvangen) given the rains holding sway over the next few days that we spent in Hordaland. We did however bask in the shadow of those mountains as we popped into Gudvangen Fjordtell, a hotel that makes you think you are entering a Viking home, its roofs charmingly sheathed in grass. Inside the hotel’s cafe, I bought a wrap, the price of which was pure extortion. Then in Norway, you are holding onto your purses in vain if you decide to venture into any eatery.

An astonishingly expensive wrap in our bellies and mixed feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction (strange bedfellows) mingling in our minds, we left Gudvangen, the village whose name translated, reads, ‘God’s fields by the water’.

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The Weathered Viking of Gudvangen
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Roads that take you into Gudvangen, flanked by dramatic mountains.
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Cottages in the village

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One of the highest waterfalls in Norway is this, Kjelfossen.

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Gudvangen Fjordtell
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Ferry dock where cruise ships roll in from time to time

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Hamlets that pop up after you have left Gudvangen behind

Where to Stay: If you want to do hikes in the area, it would be a good idea to stay in Gudvangen. You have all of two choices: Pitch up a tent or mobile home at Gudvangen Camping. Prices range between NOK 500 to NOK 800 per night. Or  put up at the Viking-inspired hotel called Gudvangen Fjordtell.

What to do:

The Magic White Caves of Gudvangen

Take a ferry trip between Gudvangen and Flåm

Hike the mountainous paths for views over the fjord. From a tiny village called Bakka, which is about 5 km from Gudvangen, take the path to the steep mountain of Rimstigen. It is a steep hike which takes two hours one way.

P.S.: The misleading wikipedia photo that I talk about right at the beginning is that of Lofoten Islands, the dramatic archipelago in Norway, and for added misery beat this, it is a photoshopped version of it.

Country Hiking in Norheimsund

In the Hardanger region of Western Norway — made up of serene fjords, gushing waterfalls and statuesque bridges leading the way to chains of hills linked up by a series of tunnels — is the village of Norheimsund. During the Nazi occupation of Norway, the village served as a training camp for the Germans. There would have been fortifications along the bay once, but now they have been replaced by houses built the local way with wooden panels and slate roofs, small windows peeking out from cheerfully painted facades. Old fishermen’s cottages still stand in isolation close to the fjord, and along with a handful of stores and small harbour, Norheimsund tempts you want to sit on the pier for a long, long time. Chuck in a few cafes, a church and a school too, and you have the essence of a quiet village that was our nest for four days.

Now I have a confession to make. We started on a hike in the countryside around Norheimsund and *whispers* we abandoned it after a fair bit of trudging up steep hills. Why, you might wonder, is she a big wuss? I am one but only when it comes to water and haunted cottages. I am willing to take on hiking challenges of any nature unless you ask me to climb up paths made up of tiny slippery rocks — which I abhor with all my heart (because of late we have ended up on such hikes).

The skies had opened up the day before, letting loose their wrath upon the earth. The path was immensely boggy. My shoes kept sinking in and I felt slimy and damp. It did not help that my beloved insisted on sending out leech alarms, leeches that were apparently creeping up my leg and getting fatter by the minute. Now try as I may, I cannot and I will not develop a fondness for reptiles and creepy crawlies knowing fully well that they are our fellow creatures too. So I shrieked and shrieked (like an exasperating girl) – here I have to quickly point out that I do not scream anymore, but when I was living with my flatmates in Delhi I used to be a banshee. Every time one of my flatmates’ boyfriend turned up at the door, I would open up and scream. We had no keyhole, you see. Yet could that be a valid excuse? Or was it a subconscious urge given that he would finish all the food in the fridge. I wonder.

Adi and I huffed and puffed as we climbed up while an old man in his training shoes ran up the hill we were climbing. Did he just run past us? Overcome by incredulity, we quickened our pace and examined pretty mushrooms as we made our way through the woods. After a while, we found ourselves walking along a water pipeline and found sheep atop the hill, chewing and meditating. What do you think sheep contemplate about as they graze or when they sit and reach out for more grass?

I had mentioned in my last post about the sturdy Norwegian sheep. I sat near them and wondered if they might scuttle like the English sheep. But no, they sat there, their faces stoic. They looked at me. I looked at them. A silent communion disturbed by the sniggers of an errant husband.

It was after this point, when we had a spectacular view of the village of Norheimsund below us and islets sticking out from the waters of the fjord, that we decided to turn around. It was a most dissatisfying feeling. The kind of feeling that nags you when you have abandoned a hike midway.

Do you have any such stories of abandonment? It might just make me feel better.

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Hiking path along the water pipeline

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Hardangerfjord
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Houses of Norheimsund
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Norheimsund
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Norheimsund’s harbour

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Tunnels and green hills maketh a lovely marriage
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Steinsdalsfossen

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