Our first foray into Scandinavia was a mid-winter weekend in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Winter is not a popular time to visit Denmark, the weather is cold and many of the tourist attractions are shut, but on the plus side, flights and accommodation are cheaper and there are no crowds to contend with.

We usually know a few words of the local language, but Danish was the exception. It was rather disconcerting to read ‘hertil’ on the elevator call button and we never did work out which of ‘tykr’ and ‘traek’ meant push and which meant pull – resulting in a few ‘school for the gifted’ moments. We quickly picked up ‘goddag’ (hello),’farvel’ (goodbye) and ‘tak’, quite a cute way of saying thank you.

With the Euro in use across much of the European Union it is a novelty for us to visit a country with its own currency. The Danish Kroner coins were charmingly foreign, the silver coins were donut style, a hold punched through the middle and the copper and silver coins were decorated with crowns and tiny hearts, the symbol of the Danish Royal Mint. We spotted the heart in a few other places; it is a popular motif as nine hearts appear on the Danish coat of arms.

We strolled through the octagonal courtyard of Amalienborg Palace, the Winter home of the Danish Royal Family which includes Australian born Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark. Incidentally, Mary is also Countess of Monpezat and a Knight of the Order of the Elephant, probably not something she has printed on her stationery. Mary had recently given birth to twins, a boy and girl, whose names would not be announced for some months. The palace is permanently guarded by the Danish Royal Life Guards. Unlike other life guards, their uniform includes a bearskin hat and sabre, not speedos. The guards were distributed around the courtyard, housed in giant red pencil shaped sentry boxes. On closer inspection the sentry boxes were carved with the same tiny heart we’d spotted on the Danish coins.

The Danish are considered the happiest nationality, regularly topping contentment and quality of life surveys. As we wandered around Copenhagen I wondered if this could be put down to exercise released endorphins. Despite the cold weather we were constantly being overtaken by cyclists and joggers. If it’s not the endorphins, maybe it is the ready availability of fireworks. During the summer the Tivoli (an entertainment park in the heart of Copenhagen) has a fireworks display every night. The Tivoli was closed for the winter, but we heard fireworks each night and spotted spent fireworks all over Copenhagen.

Our accommodation was in Nyhavn canal, just a few doors up from the lodgings of Hans Christian Anderson. The canal, which was frozen over, was lined with colourful houses holding restaurants and cafes. Outdoor tables were set up on the cobblestones outside each restaurant; these are probably packed in the summer, but in winter held lanterns or candles in glass holders which lit a path to the restaurant door.

Nyhavn Canal (Image courtesy of Siebuhr @Flickr)

One of the great pleasures of visiting European cities in winter is the opportunity to rest your weary legs and warm up with a hot chocolate at a café. We sampled a few hot chocolates across Copenhagen and they did not disappoint, neither did the waffles dusted with icing sugar that Nato is unable to resist. Thank goodness there were waffles available as Nato was quite disappointed to discover that signs depicting a pretzel wearing a crown are hung outside Danish bakeries and did not indicate the presence of pretzels, which incidentally are called kringles in Denmark.

We were keen to try the smørrebrød, an open sandwich of rye bread with a variety of toppings. For lunch we bravely ordered a smørrebrød for two which included curried herring with capers and onions. I’d had a bad experience at a continental breakfast buffet, discovering the hard way that what I thought was creamy potato salad was in fact picked herring in a creamy sauce. Though potato salad was innocent in t his ruse, I couldn’t even look at it for months. Despite this experience, I reasoned that it was perhaps the surprise nature of this herring encounter that had resulted in it being unceremoniously spat back on to the plate. I liked sashimi; perhaps I would like herring when I was expecting to taste it. This theory had potential but was inaccurate, we each tired a piece of herring, then ate the bread, smoked salmon, deep fried fish, roast beef, remoulade, horseradish and soft cheese. At the end of the meal, the herring remained largely untouched on the plate.

I looked for Royal Copenhagen ice cream but couldn’t find it anywhere. A little research revealed that the Royal Copenhagen Ice Cream Cone Company is an Australian company that uses Danish style waffle cones and Danish ice cream recipes but is only available in Australian and New Zealand. It was too cold for ice creams anyway, even the Frisko (Streets in Australia) ice creams that were on sale.

We didn’t have any luck getting a reservation at Noma, winner of both The World’s Best Restaurant, and Best Restaurant in Europe in 2010, but had a fantastic meal at Customs House, a canal side building which used to house the Customs department and now houses three restaurants, Italian, Japanese and Danish/European. Carlsberg was our beer of choice during our visit, but we gave the Carlsberg Visitors Centre a miss as we had visited both the Heineken Experience and Guinness Storehouse in the past year. There are only so many times you can hear “there are four ingredients in beer; malt, hops, yeast and water”.

We visited the Vikings at the Nationalmuseet and as expected saw helmets with horns, swords, shields and boats and also a collection of bronze lurs, a musical horn that looks not unlike a shower head. What was unexpected was the way I which the Vikings were described, there was no mention of raping and pillaging and much talk of the Vikings role in opening up trade routes. For another break from the cold we wandered through the Egyptian collection at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotec. In the centre of the museum is the Winter Garden, a glass domed conservatory filled with greenery and  palm trees. This warm oasis from the ice and snow outside seemed a much better fit for the name Winter Garden than the retail precinct in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall.

We climbed the Round Tower of Copenhagen for a view of the city. The Round Tower is the oldest functioning observatory in Europe. In winter you can even climb the tower at night and peer at the night sky through the tower’s astronomical telescope. We trekked up the 210 meter long spiral ramp, which was a change from the usual flights of well worn stone steps. The ramp enabled the tower to be ascended in a horse drawn carriage by Empress Catherine I of Russia in 1716 and by car, a German Beaufort to be precise, by a German tourist in 1902. More recently, an annual unicycle race is held at the Round Tower each spring. It was cold and windy atop the tower so we quickly took in the view – which includes Sweden if you squint really hard, and then headed back down the ramp. It was from a window in the Round Tower that we heard and then saw the Danish Royal Guard marching from Rosenborg Castle to relieve the guards at Amalienborg Castle at noon.

I knew of the Round Tower of Copenhagen as Hans Christian Anderson mentions it in one of his stories ‘The Tinderbox’. The story features three dogs, “one with eyes as big as saucers, one with eyes as big as mill wheels and one with eyes as big as the Round Tower of Copenhagen”. I assume he means the 15 meter diameter and not the 36 meter height of the tower, either way it is a pretty big eye. I found it interesting that Hans Christian Anderson used such a local reference, did he not expect his book to sell outside Denmark? Though Hans Christian Anderson enjoyed fame during his lifetime, I bet he would be surprised that his fairy tales are still popular over 175 years after they were first published and that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling” are well known idioms.

Hans Christian Anderson is unavoidable in Copenhagen, you can’t miss his statue in the town hall square Rådhuspladsen which is just off H.C. Andersons Boulevard. Speaking of statues, no trip to Copenhagen is complete without a trip to see the statue of the Little Mermaid (Den Lille Havfrue) perched on a rock in Copenhagen Harbour at Langelinie. We were lucky to see The Little Mermaid who was just back from a six month stint in Shanghai where she was manning the Danish Pavilion for Expo 2010. She was probably glad to be to spend six months in a more secure location. The Little Mermaid has been gazing out to sea for almost a century, and while for the first 50 years she was undisturbed, over the last 50 years she has been vandalised over a dozen times, She has been decapitated twice, the first time the head was never recovered and had to be replaced, the second time it was anonymously returned. A third decapitation attempt was unsuccessful but left her with a deep gash to the neck. Her arm was sawn off then returned and she has been explosively separated from her rock. She’s been painted at different times green, pink and red, including strategic application which made her a redhead in a red bra. She’s also been dressed in a burka, a Muslim dress and headscarf and had an…erm…sex toy attached to her hand. Each time she is patiently restored and returned to her rock.

We really enjoyed our mid-winter break in Copenhagen, but will be sure to complement it with a trip to Scandinavia in Summer when the days are long and the sun is shining.