Cutting-Edge Copenhagen

 

Hanne Varmings's 1999 bronze "Girls at the Airport" looks down from the balcony in the new terminal at the Copenhagen airport.

By R. W. APPLE Jr.

THE Danes sell Copenhagen as the crossroads of cute. Come see the cute Little Mermaid, gazing wistfully out to sea! Come see the cute little boys in their jaunty uniforms and bearskin hats, playing soldier at Tivoli! Come see the armadas of bicycles, with their own cute little traffic lights!

Come on.

Copenhagen is in fact one of the most sophisticated capitals in Europe. It boasts four of the Continent's best museums, big-league jazz and dance, a wealth of elegant modern design and architecture, superlative shopping, an ever-increasing number of cutting-edge restaurants and a tolerant, worldly, good-looking, pleasure-loving population. Evelyn Waugh once called the Danes "the most exhilarating people in Europe," and he wasn't very far off.

No German bombs fell here, and no urban-renewal madmen have been permitted to fill in the canals or bulldoze the old stucco-faced town houses that line them. Thanks to enlightened city planning, the skyline is dominated not by 20th-century high-rises but by the 17th- and 18th-century brick and copper spires of castles and churches.

And yet Copenhagen is indisputably a city of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. On July 1, 2000, it celebrated the opening of a 10-mile bridge and tunnel called the Oresund Fixed Link, which connects it to Malmo in Sweden. (You can now drive straight through from Paris, say, to Stockholm.)

The list of major projects either completed, planned or on the drawing board is extraordinary: a new, fully automated, round-the-clock subway line, whose next two stages should be open by year's end; a sleek new Terminal 3 at the airport, designed by one of Denmark's top architects, Vilhelm Lauritzen; a new opera house; a dazzlingly modern extension to the Royal Library, built of Zimbabwean marble and known as the Black Diamond; and an entire new town, Orestaden, on marshlands adjacent to the airport.

"We haven't been this hot," a Danish friend told me, "since Christian IV" - the king who reshaped Copenhagen during his 60-year reign (1588-1648).

Much of the best of Copenhagen is accessible on foot; this is a compact metropolis, with only 600,000 people in the city proper. It takes just 30 minutes to walk the length of the Continent's longest pedestrianized street, Stroget, which slices through the city center from the City Hall and statue of Hans Christian Andersen to Kongens Nytorv, a broad square dominated by the stately Hotel d'Angleterre.

Along the way you pass (or not, depending on your willpower) some of Europe's most opulent shops, such as Birger Christensen for furs, Illums Bolighus for home furnishings, Bang & Olufsen for futuristic audio gear, Royal Copenhagen for porcelain, Holmegaard for glass, Tage Andersen (which has the gall to charge admission) for flowers and Georg Jensen for silver - as well as some of its tattiest ones, hawking shoddy souvenirs and exotic lingerie.

On or just off Stroget are dozens of places to refuel. Cafes like Norden (classic, with chandeliers), Europa (younger and livelier) and Victor (the Gucci crowd) are one option. If you want something more explicitly Danish try the exquisite pastries, all of them prepared with the obligatory 27 layers of flaky dough and butter, laden with cinnamon or marzipan, at La Glace on Skoubogade or Kransekagehuset on Ny Ostergade. Prune Danish was never this good.

Despite its name, Victor is actually a brasserie, warm and woody inside, where you won't go wrong if you order the Dover sole or just a dozen oysters and a glass of fizz at the bar. In a city gripped by gastronomic innovation, some of which works and much of which doesn't, this is one of the bastions of tradition, along with Ida Davidsen's cozy cellar restaurant, where you can make a terrific lunch out of two or three smorrebrod, or open-faced sandwiches, that taste every bit as good as they look, and Krogs, the city's best fish house, which sails into dangerously faddish waters at night but at midday still serves the classics, like tiny fjord shrimps and perfect grilled plaice.

To tell the truth, my wife, Betsey, and I weren't crazy about Formel B, a laid-back, candle-lit place, though we had some intriguing dishes, like a leek-wrapped terrine of turbot and mussels, served with a shot glass of turbot cream and a slice of gingerbread. The food was too eclectic ("food with no fixed address," Betsey called it) and the service was too slow. We found out later that the team that had made it Copenhagen's hippest spot had been replaced a few months before, chef and all.

We could have eaten a half-dozen meals with pleasure at Le Sommelier. A plain-looking but popular establishment with bare wood floors, paper tablecloths, waiters in long black aprons and French drinks posters on the walls, it has a cellar worthy of a Michelin three-star (1,600 wines by the bottle and 50 by the glass). Francis Cardenau cooks mainly French dishes with Danish robustness, including a scrumptious suckling pig with apricot and pepper sauce and chicken with morels and young cabbage.

At Godt (the name means "good" in Danish), an Englishman, Colin Rice, is behind the stove. In a tiny glass-fronted, gray-walled room on two levels, he has space for just 20 clients. "It's like the officers' mess on a submarine," said Anne-Marie Ravn, his Danish wife, who does all the serving herself and chooses little-known, forgivingly priced wines from around the world to accompany each night's set menu. Highlights of our meal were a masterly lobster consommé and a plate of sliced chicken, guinea-fowl and pigeon breasts. The imaginatively chosen vegetables, such as parsley root and samphire, a green that grows among seaside rocks, were cooked with precision.

Kommandanten, probably the best restaurant in town, could not be more different, a series of small rooms aglow with that pretty Danish mixture of rustic and urban, traditional and modern. It is dressier and more formal than most spots in Copenhagen, and its service, directed by the owner, Lars Nielsen, 38, is relaxed and knowledgeable. I recall most vividly a starter: a briny oyster risotto napped with a vividly green watercress coulis. The chocolate desserts (meringue, mousse, ganache) ought to be outlawed.

The Belle Terrasse, Tivoli's best, most beautiful restaurant, is no more. The great amusement park has gone downmarket, featuring brasseries and cafes. But it is still immaculately, miraculously clean; hundreds of Chinese lanterns still glow at night; thousands of fuchsias still bloom in August; and eight-minute fireworks displays two nights a week still turn the esplanade into a sea of upturned faces, like a small American town on July 4, with people from dozens of countries.

Near Tivoli are Copenhagen's finest museums, including the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, built with the profits from millions of glasses of Danish suds. It houses four fine Bonnards, van Gogh's "Pink Roses" from 1890, the famous Manet depicting the death of Emperor Maximilian at the hands of a firing squad (1867) and a remarkable Cézanne self-portrait in a bowler hat. To say nothing of the 35 canvases by Paul Gauguin, who married a Danish woman and lived in Copenhagen before leaving for sunnier climes. "Vahine no te Tiare" (1891) is a portrait of a Polynesian woman of unforgettable dignity.

The Danish Design Center, by the brilliant Henning Larsen, which opened across the street in 2000, houses a small permanent collection of modern design, with objects by icons like Eames, Aalto, Rietveld - and Earl Tupper! It also offers innovative, often witty temporary shows, like a recent one turning common household items into "art." There is a pleasant cafe and a shop selling lots of handsome, Danish-designed products.

Behind the design center is the remodeled National Museum, where skillful presentation and intelligent explanation brings to life Denmark's distant past - rune stones with their cryptic inscriptions, the Vikings' horned helmets and large bronze horns called lurs, a Bronze Age sculpture of a horse drawing the sun across the sky, and the magnificent Gundestrup cauldron from circa 100 B.C., elaborately decorated with portraits of gods and warriors.

Before leaving this part of town, stop nearby at the 20-story Radisson SAS Royal Hotel, designed in 1960 by Arne Jacobsen in an uncompromisingly functionalist style. Forty-odd years on, it looks as fresh as paint. Jacobsen (1902-1971) was the leading figure in the group that established Denmark's reputation for design, which also included Poul Henningsen, designer of the famous "artichoke" hanging lamp, and Jorn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House and winner of the 2003 Pritzker Prize.

Jacobsen designed not only the hotel building but also its door handles, cutlery, dishes, fabrics and furniture, most notably the graceful, curvilinear, widely reproduced "egg" and "swan" chairs. A number of these stand in the restored marble-floored lobby, which has a twisting flying staircase, and Room 606 has been retained exactly as it was when the hotel first opened.

You never know what you will encounter on a stroll through the back streets of Copenhagen. Certainly you will see spots of exceptional charm, such as Nyhavn, or New Harbor, with its flotilla of old sailing vessels, or Grabrodretorv, a hidden square, shaded by a gnarled old oak and lined with red, pink, ocher, yellow and green buildings, many of them housing cafes.

Certainly you will see ample evidence of the city's inexhaustible tolerance of drugs and cigarettes and pornography of every kind.

Perhaps you will see dragons - decorating a downspout at the Royal Copenhagen shop, on a fountain, on the tower of the old stock exchange. Perhaps you will see one of the many memorials to noted Danes who lived and worked in the city, such as the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and Niels Bohr, the great physicist who helped to develop the atomic bomb (and who was given to such Yogi Berra-like utterances as "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future").

Beyond Kongens Nytorv you cross into another realm, with a regular street grid. This is home to Rosenborg Castle, built by Christian IV in a style resembling that of Hampton Court, and Amalienborg Palace (actually four of them, grouped around a cobbled square), where the royal family has lived since 1794.

There, too, you will find the National Gallery, with works by Mantegna, Munch and Matisse (the Fauvist "Green Line" of 1905), and the Museum of Decorative Art, whose most interesting section explores the historical influences, foreign and domestic, on Jacobsen and his colleagues.

ALONG Bredgade stand not only the imposing Marble Church, a domed, circular showpiece (1894) resembling the Pantheon, but also a string of fine shops specializing in design classics. Gregory Pepin's Danish Silver, at No. 22, sells old Georg Jensen pieces, from earrings to Henning Koppel's spectacularly streamlined fish dish and cover at $75,000-plus. Dansk Mobelkunst at No. 32 stocks furniture by Jacobsen, Hans Wegner and Finn Juhl.

And if even that is not enough Danish modern for you, by all means head for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 22 miles north of the city. There a series of low, glass-sided pavilions, housing yet another superb collection of modern painting, are set amid venerable trees and sculpture by Miró, Calder, Ernst and others. The museum and its excellent cafe overlook the waters of the Oresund.

Visitor Information

Hotels

Hotel d'Angleterre, Kongens Nytorv 34; (45) 33 12 00 95, fax (45) 33 12 11 18. The 123-room 18th-century grande dame of Nordic hotels, expensive and worth it. Superlative service. Doubles from $375.

Radisson SAS Royal, Hammerichsgade 1; (45) 33 42 60 00, fax (45) 33 42 61 00. The first designer hotel, by Arne Jacobsen (see text), with 260 rooms. Tivoli is but a stroll away. Doubles from $377.

71 Nyhavn, Nyhavn 71; (45) 33 43 62 00, fax (45) 33 43 62 01. A harborside 19th-century warehouse, now a 150-room hotel. Rooms are smallish but full of character. Doubles from $250.

Christian IV, Dronningens Tvaergade 45; (45) 33 32 10 44, fax (45) 33 32 07 06. Quiet, cozy and well furnished, with 42 rooms; a bargain near Amalienborg with no-smoking rooms. Doubles from $210.

Restaurants

Prices are for two without wine.

Cafe Victor, Ny Ostergade 8; (45) 33 13 36 13. Open daily. About $60.

Ida Davidsen, Store Kongensgade 70; (45) 33 91 36 55. Lunch only, closed Saturday, Sunday and month of July. About $45.

Krogs, Gammel Strand 38; (45) 33 15 89 15. Closed Sunday for dinner. About $160.

Formel B, Vesterbrogade 182; (45) 33 25 10 66. Dinner only, closed Sunday. About $110.

Le Sommelier, Bredgade 63-65; (45) 33 11 45 15. Open daily; dinner only Saturday and Sunday and in July. About $100.

Godt, Gothersgade 38; (45) 33 15 21 22. Dinner only, closed Sunday, Monday and July. About $150.

Kommandanten, Ny Adelgade 7; (45) 33 12 09 90. Closed Saturday lunch, Sunday, July 14 to 28 and Dec. 23 to Jan. 4. About $200.

Sightseeing

Tivoli, Vesterbrogade 3; (45) 33 15 10 01; www.tivoli.dk. Open April to late September, 11 a.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday and Sunday (admission $7.80); 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday ($8.30).

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Dantes Plads 7; (45) 33 41 81 41; www.glyptoteket.dk. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; closed Monday and other days, without warning, for renovations; $4.55.

Danish Design Center, H. C. Andersens Boulevard 27; (45) 33 69 33 69; www.ddc.dk. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday (until 9 p.m. Wednesday); 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $6.

National Museum, Ny Vestergade 10; (45) 33 13 44 11; www.natmus.dk. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; $7.60.

Rosenborg Castle, Oster Volgade 4A; (45) 33 15 32 86. Times vary with seasons, but open daily May to October; closed Monday the rest of the year; $9.

Amalienborg Palace, Amalienborg Slotplads; (45) 33 12 08 08. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, May to October; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m Tuesday to Sunday, November through April.

National Gallery, Solvgade 48-50; (45) 33 74 84 94; www.smk.dk. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday to Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday; $7.60.

Museum of Decorative Art, Bredgade 68; (45) 33 18 56 56; www.kunstindustrimuseet.dk. Open Tuesday to Sunday; hours vary for different sections; $6.

Marble Church, Frederiksgade 4; (45) 33 15 01 44. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Gammel Strandvej 13, Humlebaek; (45) 49 19 07 19; www.louisiana.dk. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (to 10 p.m. Wednesday); $10.90.

R. W. APPLE Jr.is associate editor of The New York Times.