x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Street smart Copenhagen makes footwork fun

My Kind of Place From its pedal friendly thoroughfares to a wealth of architectural treasures both old and new, the Danish capital holds an undeniable allure.

There are bicycles everywhere. Pink, black, purple, yellow and blue; two-wheeled, three-wheeled, fold-up, retro and tandem. They run around the perimeter of the square, a haphazard boundary wall of wheels, chains, baskets and saddles.

Nowhere is Copenhagen's love affair with the bicycle more apparent than here, in Amagertorv Square. Located just off Stroget, Europe's longest pedestrianised street and Copenhagen's main shopping district, Amagertorv is where the city's cyclists have to abandon their bikes and take to their feet.

I've been told, repeatedly, that there are more bicycles than people in the Danish capital, and as I survey the chaotic jumble in front of me, I don't doubt it. So ingrained is cycling in the city's psyche that it has given rise to the term "Copenhagenisation", a cyclist - and planet- friendly - approach to urban planning that is being embraced across Europe.

There are 350 kilometres worth of cycling tracks snaking through the city and at least a third of all Copenhageners use them each day to go about their business. Everybody's at it. Women in pretty summer dresses perched on old-fashioned bikes with baskets; sporting types with their layers of Lycra and barely there racing bikes; parents carting their kids around in three-wheeled Christiana bicycle trailers, a uniquely Danish contraption made in an eponymous hippie commune in the east of the capital.

This is probably why, on my final morning in the city, having not ridden a bike for nearly a decade, I find myself going for a very slow, very shaky ride along the banks of Copenhagen Harbour.

I may have been inspired by the city's natives, but I display none of their grace. I'm huffing and puffing, and my calves are cramping. I find myself thanking the cycling gods that after four days of uninterrupted sunshine, the weather has turned slightly.

I blame the bike. It is old, heavy and rickety, but also provided free of charge by the City of Copenhagen as part of one of Europe's oldest city bike schemes. Having parted with a meagre 20 kroner (Dh14), I can use the bike to my heart's content, and will get my money back as soon as I return it to any of the 110 allocated racks dotted around the city.

Luckily, topography is on my side. Copenhagen is completely flat and extremely easy to navigate. The city centre, or Indre By, is hemmed in on one side by Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. Tivoli is one of the city's anchors, socially and geographically, and acts as a useful way-finding tool.

My cause is also helped by the fact that Copenhagen's roads are remarkably safe. Motorists are unexpectedly deferential, if not sheepish, as if they know that they too should be abandoning their heavily taxed, gas guzzling vehicles in favour of two wheels.

"Everybody shares the streets. And the smaller you are, the more people take care of you," says Vincent Brice, a rickshaw driver who has spent the past eight years transporting people around the city. The Frenchman insists that he has had no major run-ins with either cars or pavements in that time, so I take his word for it. "Cycling is just part of the lifestyle. You'll see kids riding behind their parents from a very young age."

I test my own unpractised cycling skills along the waterfront promenade of Kalvebod Brygge before crossing over the channel into Islands Brygge, an area best known for its Harbour Bath, a cluster of open-air pools filled with water from the Islands Brygge channel. Copenhagen went through a process of cleaning up its waterways in the late 1990s, and the Harbour Bath opened as a result in 2003.

A sign on the perimeter fence tells me that the outside air temperature is 18°C, while the water temperature in the pools is 21°C. It's too chilly to tempt me, particularly at nine o'clock on a blustery, overcast August morning, but there are plenty of other takers.

In the centre of the baths, a tall wooden structure resembling the bow of a ship emerges dramatically from the water. It's a diving board, but also a reminder that in Copenhagen, even the most simple and practical of structures are inherently well designed.

I'm reminded of this as I head back over the channel and approach the Royal Library. The facility consists of two very different structures set on either side of Christians Brygge. The original red-brick building, which was built in 1648 by King Frederik III, was extended in 2009 with the construction of a new, contemporary building called the Black Diamond. As the name suggests, the extension is dark, brooding and angular, with a startling glass facade.

In its entirety, the library acts as a striking example of how traditional and contemporary architecture can sit comfortably side by side, if approached intelligently. In this way, it's a fitting reflection of Copenhagen as a whole.

Denmark's preoccupation with the environment extends to its buildings, and how its inhabitants relate to those buildings. The capital is filled with architectural gems, many of which can be attributed to two very different men from two very different times. The first, King Christian IV, ruled from 1588 until 1648 and was one of Denmark's most proactive, prolific monarchs. He was responsible for commissioning some of the country's most noteworthy historical sites, including the Round Tower and Rosenberg, a renaissance castle set in the heart of Copenhagen.

The only other person to have had as obvious an impact on the city's skyline, one might argue, is Arne Jacobsen who, 40 years after his death, remains the poster boy for Danish architecture and design. Within short cycling distance of the Royal Library is the National Bank of Denmark, one of Jacobsen's last and most controversial projects, which was completed posthumously in 1978. With a facade made from unhewn stone, glass and grey-toned Porsgrunn marble, the building is imposing, unyielding and not to everybody's taste, but it has earned itself a listing by the Heritage Agency of Denmark nonetheless.

To get a better appreciation of Copenhagen's contemporary architecture, its best to abandon the bike and take to the water. I catch a canal boat from the postcard-pretty Nyhavn, a waterfront neighbourhood whose former inhabitants include Denmark's most famous son, the fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. Built in 1673 to connect Copenhagen Harbour with the centre of the city, the Nyhavn waterway is flanked by cheery, brightly painted townhouses. Its proximity to the harbour and popularity with sailors meant that this was a somewhat unsavoury spot until a regeneration project transformed it into a popular entertainment district in the 1960s.

At the height of summer, boat tours depart from Nyhavn every few minutes, but there's still a mad scramble to get a seat. By the time I get on to the 100-plus-seater, open-air canal boat, I've been trampled on by individuals of every conceivable nationality. It's the only point in my trip where I feel like a true tourist.

The boat eases its way into Copenhagen Harbour, past the Royal Danish Playhouse. Across the water sits the Royal Opera House, an unlikely combination of linear and circular elements that is, nonetheless, one of Copenhagen's most beautiful buildings. Designed by the Danish architect Henning Larsen, the opera house was a gift to the city from the local shipping giant Maersk McKinney Moller.

Next stop, Holmen, a group of small islands, formerly home to the Holmen Naval Base, that now boasts the kind of trendy residential projects that can be accessed by kayak as well as by car. We sail past a torpedo boat factory that has been converted into luxury apartments and former gunboat sheds that have been transformed into offices.

The boat loops back across the main harbour and we approach the Little Mermaid, the iconic sculpture inspired by one of Hans Christian Andersen's most famous tales. She's smaller than I expected, and looks sadder. Poignantly, there's a bunch of red flowers in her lap, a touching tribute to those who lost their lives a week earlier when a gunman went on the rampage in neighbouring Norway.

As she sits quietly on her rock in the sea, gazing forlornly over the throngs of tourists vying for her attention, I can't help thinking that the Little Mermaid is a fitting metaphor for Copenhagen as a whole. Unpresuming, understated and smaller than you might imagine, but still undeniably alluring.

 

If You Go

The flight Emirates (www.emirates.com) operates daily flights from Dubai to Copenhagen, with return flights starting from Dh3,080, including taxes

The stay The Copenhagen Marriott, located on Kalvebod Brygge, has standard double rooms from DK1,499 (Dh1,067), including taxes and breakfast (www.marriott.com; 00 45 88 339 900)

The info DFDS Canal Tours (www.canaltours.com; 00 45 32 963 000) offers one-hour guided boat trips from Nyhavn, with departures up to six times an hour. All tours are in English, Danish and a third language, which varies among German, Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. The tour covers the Opera House, the Little Mermaid, a number of Copenhagen’s waterfront neighbourhoods, including Christianhaven, as well as sites such as the National Museum and the National Bank. A family ticket for two adults and a maximum of three children costs DK180 (Dh128)