The warm, buttery sweet fragrance of freshly baked cookies permeated the streets. We wrapped our thin but warm enough jackets around ourselves and let the aroma lead us into a tiny bakery that opened up into the street. Slack-jawed, my children and I let our gaze roam greedily over the shelves and shelves of baked goods – pastries, croissants, braided bread rolls, open-faced sandwiches with poppy seeds sprinkled on top and of course the piece de resistance- hot off the oven Danish cookies. A moment here, to explain just what these cookies mean to me.
Growing up and even after I did, whenever someone said Denmark, the first thing that I would think of is ‘Danish Cookies’ – the ones that came in a shiny, blue tin embossed with the mark of a crown. Once you jimmied the tin open, you could feast your eyes on those delectable goodies baked in various shapes, each sinfully full of butter and dusted with sugar and waiting to be chosen from their own butter-paper compartments. The burning question of the hour was always, ‘which one should I eat first?’ Or ‘how many could I stuff in my mouth at once’. Once those cookies were dispatched to one’s tummy, the tin would be used to hold trinkets and accessories and knick-knacks. But no matter how many years passed by, if you opened the tin and took a deep whiff of the lid, the amazing sinfully buttery fragrance would rush up your nostrils and fill your being with what can only be described as what is now known in the wider world as, ‘Hygge’ – a Danish word that can loosely be translated to mean feeling truly comfortable and at home and cozy and held in a warm embrace, all at once.
This was literally what I was feeling as I stood in that comfortably lit bakery, watching a wizened old lady with smile lines that had deepened into crevices place a tray of freshly baked cookies into the glass display. She turned to us and beckoned my children with a friendly finger. Eagerly, they trotted towards her and she carefully placed a butter cookie each in their little hands. Just as I started to pull my wallet out, she clucked at me in Danish and gave me one too. Nothing could have set the tone for our Copenhagen trip like this experience did.
Filled up on butter and sugar and all things nice, we boarded a bus to the town centre. With two young kids in tow, our first destination had to be Tivoli Gardens, the world’s second oldest amusement Park. Stepping into Tivoli Gardens is like passing through a portal to a forgotten era. The colours on the walls are bright bordering on garish. The buildings, imposing and grand in what could only be called an ‘Oriental style’, created from the imagination of someone who has clearly never to the ‘Orient’. The rides, mostly mechanical, painted in cotton candy pink and neon green, decorated with elephants and lions and dragons with fixed smiles. My eldest child of five and a half shrieked in joy as she spun round and round, trying to soak it all in and decide which one to go on first. Tivoli gardens is her big box of Danish Butter cookies. A decision is made – the first stop is a Dragon boat Ride in a pond bordered in by drooping trees. We pedal away in this ride that opened in 1936, conscious of the swans who rule the roost, looking at the interloping humans rather imperiously. Next comes the Ferris wheel, then the Little Dragon, the Elf Train, the Vintage Cars and more till I lose track. My eighteen month old gets restless till I take him on a classic carousel ride that opened in 1920. Round and round we go to the cloyingly sweet music box tunes, seated on a white steed, watching as dusk slowly creeps up on the Park. The lights start to come on over the exaggerated arches and the lampposts wake up. The dewdrops on the grass reflect a million lights transforming the amusement park into a world we are all familiar with from our childhood – a magical place where only happiness and joy abounds. Little wonder, that the great Walt Disney himself visited Tivoli garden multiple times to find ways to recreate the ambiance he found here in his own soon to be made amusement park, Disneyland.
But that is not the only connection the world of Walt Disney has to Denmark. From ‘The Little Mermaid’ to ‘The Little Matchgirl’ and even ‘Frozen’ (inspired by ‘The Snow Queen’) to many other animated shorts, the world of Walt Disney owes many of its animated hits to one of Denmark’s most famous writers – Hans Christian Anderson. Excited, we make our way to the Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale House in the town centre. Created and managed by the Ripley’s Believe it Or Not foundation, the brochure emphatically promises us that this is where his fairytales come to life. We get our tickets stamped at the booth where posters of ‘a Taj Mahal built with matches’ and a ‘19th century Vampire Killing Kit’ try to allure us to the other exhibits, as well. But resolutely we move on, determined to immerse ourselves in the life and times of Hans Christian Anderson.
It is not at all as expected. We walk past a huge iron gate that slams shut behind us, alarming the children. The insides of the exhibit are dark and my eldest child is not wrong when she declares that it is, ‘creepy’. My eighteen month old burrows deeper into the baby sling he is in. There is nothing Disney-like about this experience at all. The exhibit starts with Anderson’s childhood in Odense and it takes us through his life as an adolescent and later adult in Copenhagen and his travels across the world. Then come scenes from his stories, transformed into animatronic figures that pop up from between leaves or emerge from the ocean or slowly turn to face you, most created with unsettling expressions, lit strategically to draw you in to their imaginary worlds. Each scene gives us the option of listening to the fairytales in Danish or English. This is a mistake, as we soon find out that his tales are nothing like the happy, glossy ones we are used to seeing. The tin soldier melts to a lump, the dancer is burnt down, the little matchgirl is frozen to death and most painful of all, the little mermaid never gets her prince but turns into foam instead. Hans Christian Anderson was amongst those pioneering children’s writers who believed that children should be exposed to the joy of unhappy endings, much like life itself.
Though the fictional mermaid was turned into foam, Copenhagen does have a very real statue commemorating her story on the harbour. Made in 1913, this unimposing statue of the little mermaid gazing at the horizon is not only a tourist attraction but it has also been the victim of extreme vandalizing over the years. That rainy day though, as my family trekked over to see her, all was quiet except for the clicking of SLR cameras and the shrieks of visitors who were trying to get the perfect selfie without falling into the waters that she overlooks. We sat down for a while watching some of the crowds break into songs from the Disney classic that is what should have been playing on my mind, as well. But in the course of my reading-up before visiting the city, I had found out that the little mermaid was far from the patriarchal story that we had fun disdaining. Yes, the animated version was about a 16 year old giving up on her voice, her identity and her family for a prince, but the original story was born out of true heartbreak and oppression. Many LGBT historians note that ‘The Little Mermaid’ was an allegory for Anderson’s own unrequited love for a man named Edvard Collin. In the 1830s when the story was written Copenhagen had just officially started discriminating against gays and bisexuals. The man who Anderson sent love letters to, took care to keep himself at a distance from him and later on got married. And from Anderson’s heartbreak was born a character that would gain cult following of her own and would mean many things to many people, depending on your perspective.
Just a quick taste of the sea and the harbour left my children wanting for more. And so we decided to take a break from the sombre mood and get lost in the wonders of the sea at Copenhagen’s National Aquarium, ‘Den Blå Planet’. This massive building is Northern Europe’s largest aquarium. Built on the sea front and surrounded by water, it makes you feel like you too are underwater. With clever lighting and décor, we felt like marine explorers rather than mute visitors. Open mouthed we stared at the hammerheads that gracefully swam alongside eels in four million litres of seawater. Our children stuck themselves to the glass of the coral reef tanks like barnacles trying to get as close as they could to the vibrant visions of impossibly coloured fish and sea creatures that lived there. We felt shivers run down our spine as we watched the thousands of piranha that lived under the waterfalls in the Amazon wing. The day made us realize how dull and boring our human bodies are in the face of these brilliant creatures that survive and thrive in the ocean. It also made us feel protective of these creatures, as we understood that we are the only beings capable of either maintaining or destroying the delicate balance of their environments and ours. As the day comes to an end, we had to practically drag our children away with promises of grandeur of another kind, the next day as well.
Our last day in Copenhagen dawns rainy and damp. We layer up in rain gear and arm ourselves with umbrellas. Suddenly it seems like there is so much more to cover and we are running out of time. We head to Rosenborg Castle and find ourselves at the end of a very long line of travellers who seem to have had the same idea as us. Castles are the best bet on rainy days. We wait for a bit and decide to move on to the Botanical gardens. The rains have stopped for a spell and we walk in to a lush, verdantly green park. We choose a path that is conveniently sheltered by overgrown trees and find ourselves next to a lake with ducks on a mission. As soon as they catch sight of us, they swim to the banks with determination and clamber up the muddy banks with an awkward grace. They quack dictatorially. They have seen the crackers in my daughter’s hand and they want them. My animal-loving children feed them despite me pointing out that this was not exactly bird feed. My protests amount to naught when a local family with a young child turns up with exactly the same crackers and proceeds to feed a rival gang of ducks that have materialized as if from nowhere.
The rain clouds threaten to spill over again and we decide to make a dash for it. A bus ride later, we are in the old part of Copenhagen. Our destination is the Round Tower, the oldest functioning Observatory in Europe. Though the professionals are long gone, the tower still draws amateur astronomers and tourists looking for fabulous views of the old town. The way up is long and winding and is wide at the beginning and narrow at the very top. And so one needs to walk upward for 209 metres to get to the top of a tower that is only 36 metres tall. My daughter decided to take this as a challenge and raced up while I slowly strapped up my toddler into the baby carrier. Slowly but surely we reached the top. My husband promptly started taking photographs of the town sprawling beneath us and beyond and my daughter enjoying the view and proud of making it all the way up. And me, with my son nestled against me, promising myself the goodness of a buttery Danish cookie as soon as I got down. For surely, there was no better way to end what had been a lovely trip to the capital of Denmark.
(Shweta Ganesh Kumar is an award-winning Blogger and Founder-Editor of The Times of Amma)