It was a Danish relative who took us to Copenhagen in summer 2009. Not literally, as he’d been dead for decades. My dad and aunt had finally got round to doing the family tree and discovered a Danish ancestor from Copenhagen. The only way to find out more about him was to check the city archives. This turned into a family holiday with my parents, aunt and uncle. I didn’t know it at the time but it was to have a lasting effect on me.
Coming in to land at Copenhagen I could see past the blur of our plane’s propellors to the slow blades of an offshore wind farm. Behind it, the Oresund bridge snaked between Denmark and Sweden. At first it looks like a road bridge until you notice the train deck underneath. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take photos. I’m quite familiar with it now since watching The Bridge detective series. We planned to cross it for a trip to Mälmo but there was too much to see in Copenhagen.
Obviously, most of the sights are outside but part of my reason for going was the tasteful interior design Denmark is known for. Simple, understated rooms with good materials seem to be the key to it. I’m not saying my hotel room is the perfect example but it’s one of the few interiors I shot. If Copenhagen has some tacky places then we never found them. Even the Tivoli amusement park was relatively restrained.
Seeing the city on foot
Copenhagen is a lovely place for a sunny stroll. It’s bustling but didn’t feel overcrowded or polluted. Our first walk around took us under a beautiful golden archway next to the Royal Danish Theatre.
We made what must be a classic tourist mistake. On a wider street, we walked along what we thought was an extension to the pavement (or maybe a sidewalk to the sidewalk?). It sits between the height of the pavement kerb and the level of the road (about 1-2cm from each). Of course, once a cyclist came up behind us we realised it’s the bike lane. They’re not on many side streets but all the main roads in Copenhagen seem to have cycle lanes. Bicycles are absolutely everywhere in the city.
We went across the main square to Nyhavn. The pastel-coloured buildings are the typical picture postcard view of Copenhagen (as seen on biscuit tins in the city’s Magasin du Nord department store). The place was mobbed with people sunning themselves along the harbour. Many were drinking small cans of Carlsberg – an unusual sight for us, as drinking in the street is banned in Glasgow. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the sunshine – we never saw any trouble.
We continued round to the royal palaces at Amalienborg. It’s a very large cobbled square but I was distracted by the view west to the huge domed church.
Looking east across the harbour, a modern building caught my attention. It turned out to be the new opera house. I appreciate old buildings but I’m really interested in new ones. The way the view is framed probably helped it make an impression. Copenhagen looks like it was planned with good vistas to its new buildings as well as the old. That seems quite rare in Scotland, where developers don’t often look beyond their plot of land.
A few days later, the older generation were going to see inside the palace at Rosenborg. I wanted to see more of the opera house (and lie in for a bit). Having been at Christiania in between, I realised the opera house was an even longer walk.
I decided to hire a bike from the hotel. I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t walk it. Probably a mixture of being practical, lazy and curious after seeing so many people cycling. People seemed to ride everywhere in the city so I figured it couldn’t be that hard. It was sunny and everyone wore normal clothes (including many women in high heels) so I didn’t feel I needed any extra kit. I don’t remember seeing anyone wearing a helmet but I don’t remember seeing road rage or anything either. I felt the city was safe to walk, even at at night, and it seemed quite laid back. In any case, I paid a few Euros at reception, picked out a bike and rode off for the first time in years.
The great thing about most bicycles in Copenhagen (and elsewhere in Europe) is they’re 3-speed. While these hub gears add a bit of weight, it has a great advantage for someone who’s coming to it cold. Not only is it simpler but you can also change gear when stopped at lights. I did this quite a bit without even realising at the time.
I guess this is where I’m supposed to say cycling was instantly wonderful and life-changing. However, what actually happened was the right leg of my jeans flapped a bit too close to the chain so I had to stop to roll it up. It’s probably just as well I hadn’t heard of Copenhagen Cycle Chic at this point!
I’m not sure exactly what route I took but I think I went towards the harbour and definitely over the hump-back bridge (called Knippelsbro – no sniggering at the back). These are main roads but they’re really wide with cycle lanes at the edge. Once you turn up towards Christiania the road gets a bit quieter. You can see a photo of part of it in this site’s header (refresh the page a few times if need be). I think my photo of the road and lane next to the graffiti wall was taken in the middle of Prinsessgade.
I managed to arrive at the opera house when the building tours had stopped for lunch. At the time this was annoying but, in hindsight, I’m glad it forced me to spend time cycling around the city. On the way back in to town I was stopped at lights before a right turn onto a main street (much easier when you drive on that side of the road). There was a BMW behind me so, when the lights changed, I waited; fully expecting him to roar past me. Instead, he waved me on in front of him so I wobbled round the corner. He held back before getting up to speed once I was in the cycle lane. I remember this seemed quite nice and a bit unusual for a Beemer. Since experiencing UK traffic on a bike, I now look back at it with amazement and nostalgia. I think it gave me confidence that Danish motorists would look out for you.
One thing I decided I wouldn’t do was overtake anything stopped at the pavement. Copenhagen has less buses than Glasgow but I ended up waiting behind them a few times. I don’t think their fumes were as bad as Glasgow (or most UK) buses but I ended up getting frustrated with it. Eventually I just joined the swarm of Danes overtaking the stopped buses. I remember that feeling a bit scary the first time but after that I was fairly comfortable around traffic. It’s important to say I didn’t feel I was ‘in’ traffic, as I was mostly in cycle lanes. Most other cyclists were overtaking me in the bike lane but there was no aggression to it, like there can be in the UK (Hyde Park, London in rush hour, for example). There were no close passes from cars or bikes as everyone had their own space. I enjoyed riding around seeing some of the other sights of the city.
A dramatic building
After a while it was time to go back to the opera house for the tour. I treated it like a tour of a cathedral or museum or any other public building – I might not be a worshipper or a patron but I can still appreciate the architecture. The inside of the building has three distinct parts – an auditorium like a modern university lecture hall, a modern theatre with plush seats and gold ceiling and a stage area that feels more like an aircraft hangar. I only have photos of the auditorium as they were setting up for a show and didn’t want any pictures taken of the stage (even though hardly any of the set was in place). The ‘giant baubles’ in the foyer really lift it from being purely functional. The way they catch the light is beautiful.
White walkways take you inside the theatre, which is a red and gold update of the traditional style. It’s only when you’re on the stage itself that you see the really innovative part of the building. The stage floor is one block out of six. You know those puzzles with a square missing where you shuffle around the other squares to make the image? The opera house has a supersize version of this where the stage would be set with the first act scenery. During the interval, the floor in one of the wings will sink and the entire stage will be moved across into the space. The other wing would be moved in with the second act scenery already on it. All of this works using hydraulics and there are another three identical areas behind the main stage. Apparently, the floors can be jacked up and down during a performance, a bit like a low-rider car. Instead of all that, our tour party got a nice excerpt of Summertime sung by a tourist from the USA.
Outside the building the front steps go right down into the water. It’s very simple but probably makes for a glamourous arrival to a premiere. There were no sign of any boats so I went back to my hire bike. I should mention the way many Danes lock their bikes. Most use a built-in lock instead of carrying a heavy chain or U-lock/D-lock. In my hire bike I think this was attached to the frame behind the rear brake. To lock it, you move the bolt between the wheel spokes into the housing at the other side. It unlocks using a simple key. All the lock does is stop the back wheel but in Copenhagen there seem to be so many similar 3-speed bikes that this is sufficient. It wouldn’t work everywhere but it was very handy.
The bike bug
I think getting around by bike is one of the best ways to experience a place. You’re not screened off from the world like you are in a car or bus. You can move around much more quickly than walking but still stop when you want a closer look at something (not always possible in a motor vehicle). My day on the bike in Copenhagen showed me how enjoyable cycling could be. I think it probably ‘planted a seed’ but I didn’t get back into cycling straight away. I didn’t buy a bike until 2011 but I did get a 3-speed. It had an aluminium frame that was a cross between a cruiser and a ‘Dutch bike’. It had a similar look to bicycles in Denmark or northern Europe (affectionately called opafiets, ‘grandad bikes’, in the Netherlands). I really liked that bike for shopping or going around town. However, it couldn’t do some of Glasgow’s steeper hills and wasn’t easy to carry up tenement stairs. Also, my commute to work is about 20 miles, mostly by train, so I changed to a folding bike a few years later.
The last time I’d ridden a bike before Copenhagen was a works health event in Strathclyde Park. We were given hired mountain bikes to go round the loch. The weather was muggy but rainy too so I had to borrow someone’s heavy anorak. It was too big for me and made me overheat. Halfway round, during a gear change, the chain came off. I couldn’t get it back on so a colleague had to do it for me (thanks to whoever that was!). No surprise I hadn’t been back on a bike until the trip to Denmark about six years later. I was always interested in the Tour de France – partly because of family holidays at French campsites. Somehow, I can still remember 1990s riders like Mario Cippolini, Bo Hamburger or Jesper Skibby. However, like most people in the UK, I stopped riding during my teens and never really went back to it in my twenties.
I think the above highlights how important it is to have a positive experience to draw on. Most of my riding in Copenhagen was made possible not just by its great street design but also the knock-on effects that has on safety, congestion, air quality, etc. Copenhagen isn’t perfect but even its average streets are better than most in Scottish cities. I think any effort to encourage cycling in Scotland (or the UK) has to include segregated paths on main roads. Most people don’t have the confidence to mix with heavy traffic. Even if they’ve had training it’s still daunting.
In the time I’ve been cycling in Glasgow I’ve seen some improvements and I think things will gradually move towards more protected cycle paths. However, this depends on people in power who ‘get it’ and are able to deal with the kind of opposition cycle infrastructure sometimes attracts. Talk of “Copenhagen-style cycle lanes” or “step change” is clearly written by people who’ve never turned a pedal in Denmark or the Netherlands. People like me who’ve been there, even if we’re not experts, already have a clearer vision of how things can work on the ground.
The ‘returners’ coming back to cycling will increase the demand for better designed streets for all ages. This is already filtering through into regional groups like Go Bike or Spokes and national campaigns like Pedal on Parliament. It will take a long time to close the gap between what politicians say and what happens in practice. Eventually, I hope Scotland will have a better balance between modes of transport, like in Denmark and other European countries.