Travel diary: 4 days of cycling in Copenhagen
On your bike
The crisp Scandinavian air blushes my cheeks, but is offset by a burst of autumn sunshine as I crest a rise between the Sortedam lakes. On the descent I gently squeeze the rear brake and pull up among 10-12 (lycra-free) stylishly dressed cyclist-commuters. We wait 60 seconds in a dedicated bicycle lane next to a bus with a broad advertisement for Formula One racing. Someone, somewhere is trying to break the hegemony of pedal power in Copenhagen. But as the green bike illuminates ahead, and the polite flock of head-bobbing-bell-ringers takes flight, I'm convinced that this city is a hard sell for motor sports.
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Copenhagen's 412 kilometres of bicycle tracks make it a present-day fantasy of sustainable urban design and the envy of cyclists languishing in urban sprawl the world over. Suitably, I've arrived by the sustainable option, overnight rail sleeper (booked with Rail Europe), and am giving myself four days to explore the city upright in the broad comfy saddle of a red single-gear, fat-tyred, vintage cruiser.
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My first spoke-turns end at the National Gallery of Denmark, which, in true Scandinavian style, is free (even the bag-lockers) and, like everywhere else, has ample parking for bikes. Inside is 700 years of Nordic art condensed into an afternoon's diversion. My perspective is most provoked by the mid 19th century travel portraits and landscapes of Frederik Vermehren and Harald Jerichau. Their styles echo directly in contemporary travel photography - as do their notebooks, betraying the tourism absent from their paintings.
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From the gallery I continue the tradition of framing tourists out of my photographs (though they're more a hazard stepping into bike paths) and each day navigate via pocket-map to some of the city's standout sights: The Kastellet (a 17th century star fortress), the Amalienborg Royal winter palace, the Nyhavn waterfront (Copenhagen's most recognisable postcard canal), the Round Tower (second oldest astronomical observatory in Europe), Strøget (at 1.1km, the longest pedestrianised street in Europe) and Freetown Christiania (a ganja-tolerant, autonomous neighbourhood).
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Appearing on my map as Copenhagen's market, I ride straight by Torvehallerne, before doubling back and realising the elegant, modern glass building is actually where I'm headed for lunch. There I lip-smack a Danish classic, fiskefilet with remoulade, capers and lemon from Hallernes Smørrebrød, and for (a slightly carried away) dessert I finish with salted liquorice, a chai latte and a pistachio and citrus 'rumkugler' from Granny's House.
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In the evenings I'm inevitably drawn into Copehagen's pointy spear-tips of hipsterdom: the inner suburb of Nørrebro and Gammel Strand, where style and substance are proven not to be mutually exclusive (I go by the flat-screen TV to bar ratio, and whether the number of beers available outnumber the preservatives used therein). Ambience is currency, and I suspect the super-comfy, warmly lit bars and restaurants aim directly for thigh-weary pedlars like myself.
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Over a Svane Heve at Retro Bar I debate how cycling can be the transit norm where darkness pervades, the average winter minimum is minus two degrees and rainfall can get over 60mm a month. Ironically, the cold and the rain fall in the plus column, allowing locals to cycle in work clothes without arriving in a sweat - though the complete absence of slopes doesn't hurt either.
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Tipsy-wheeling my way home I notice that the city's subway stations in progress aren't standard walled-off-to-the-public construction sites. They're open-air galleries, canvasses for huge, interactive and conceptual works of art commissioned by the government. Like cycling in the cold dark, it's reflective of Danish mentality: creatively, thoughtfully, making a positive from a negative. It's why Copenhagen's living conditions are an attraction in themselves, let's hope they're not contained just there forever.
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