A crash course in Copenhagen

This was not taken from a bike, but it proves there's a lot to explore from one.
This was not taken from a bike, but it proves there’s a lot to explore from one.

The collision came out of nowhere: one moment I was reaching my gloved hand from my wide rubber handlebars to adjust the strap on my bag. It was full of rye bread and cheese, so it took some body shifting to get it to move. The next, I swerved into a Danish woman who started to shout at me in that language as we lurched back and forth, elbows knocking. Other cyclists shot past us. Impossibly young parents cast annoyed side-glances as they pedaled their carriage-fulls of kids home from school.

The woman was still shouting at me in Danish. I had no idea what she was saying. I thought any second I’d slap onto the pavement painted with a white bike and arrow on it, my helmetless head one with the cycle-friendly blacktop. But somehow, miraculously, we were still moving. She broke away from me as we wobbled forward on our bikes. I managed a “sorry,” the English only highlighting my stupidity as she pedaled the hell away from me.

For three days, I saw Copenhagen from a bike. For two, from foot. I’m sure you can guess which method was crazier.

Getting on the bike

The morning was gray, as I hear it usually is in Copenhagen. I walked from Nyhavn (the harbor street full of colorful buildings that is on so many postcards where I somehow, some way stayed) and bought a morgenkaffe from a shop for 19 krone. Two delightful changes in surroundings: (1) the fact that they have good coffee readily available off the street, and the fact that you can get that coffee to go, and (2) a completely new currency, the Danish krone. It takes about 7.5 krone to make a Euro.

I retrace my steps from my first night in Copenhagen, which was spent at the design museum and eating with my friend, Brian, and his parents who were visiting him here. I walk past Kongens Have, a park staffed by stern royal guards. I pass Nørrebro station, a modern span of concrete and sculpted awnings packed with bikes.

Bikes (many of them) locked up around Nørrobro station.
Bikes (many of them) locked up around Nørrobro station.

What makes a Copenhagen bike? The first thing that registered as I watched the masses of cyclists rolling down the streets was how practical their bikes were. Made for commuting through the flat streets, the town bikes are heavy, with wide handlebars and medium-weight wheels. They were rarely flashy; my friend told me Copenhagen citizens normally do not buy expensive bikes. They ride cheap ones into the cold ground and buy new ones every few years. It’s also common to have multiple bikes, he said. One for riding from your house in the suburbs to the train station, and one from riding from the train station to work. These normally have a cable lock attached to them, though many just lock at the back wheel, leaving the impression of many free-standing bikes on the street.

My Copenhagen bike, with its wide handle bars, lockable back wheel and kick stand for leaving it on the street when I was off the bike path.
My Copenhagen bike, with its wide handle bars, lockable back wheel and kick stand for leaving it on the street when I was off the bike path.

Brian and I talk on the curb. Then, far down the narrow street, I see my new friend, Therese, gliding toward us on a black bike. In one effortless movement, she gets off the bike and onto the curb with us. The move seems like a telltale sign of a Copenhagen citizen. Even after a few months in Paris, she hasn’t lost it.

I try out my new bike by pedalling off of the curb and following Therese down the road. Soon we’re passing tiny and adorable shops, parliament buildings and Strøget, the pedestrian shopping street. Following her lead, I learn how to turn left: glide to the far right corner of an intersection and turn slightly at the corner. When the sign turns green, complete your turn and move forward. You are now going right.

We step into Lagkagehuset, an upscale Danish bakery chain. We order a dark rye bread with peanuts and chocolate in it. Sitting at a window full of gray light, we watch pedestrians and cyclists cross the street and we talk about moving to Paris and learning French. It’s awesome to be talking about this in an entirely different place; a place she somehow actually grew up in.

Therese and I leave the bakery so she can go get on a plane back to Paris. I find my cream-colored bike, unlock the back wheel with its small key, and head out of the old city center. I cross a canal, passing a protest full of high school-aged kids marching down a street with smoking flares. I get off my bike and walk along a long yellow wall, turning into it to find a wooded graveyard. I bike along the main path then pause. I see a sign: this way to H.C. Anderson’s grave. “H.C. …,” I think. “Hans Christian Anderson?!” I pick through the clearing, passing old tombstones and warped trees with stalk-straight branches shooting out at the top. After a few lost loops, I come across a family pausing at the storyteller’s grave, taking pictures. How fitting that the author’s true audience is in good attendance here. I find the path and get back on my bike, catching myself behind yellow buses and flying past walls of graffiti as the city starts to darken around 4:30 p.m.

With not much more than morgenkaffe and chocolately rye buns in my belly, I find a grocery store and stalk up on Danish essentials: rye bread and cheese.

Dropping cheese from the bike

Heading back toward the canal, I find myself on Nørrebrogade in a heard of bike commuters. I try to practice my best Copenhagen bike etiquette, keeping my wheels straight and unwavering in the smooth separated lane. But then I spot a sign that makes me think of my friend. And because I’m in tourist mode, I think, “I MUST STOP AND TAKE A PICTURE.”

I take a hand off my handlebars to signal, and my bag of rye bread and [fairly strong and stinky] cheese unwinds from the rubber and falls onto the asphalt. I hear some startled Danish cries from behind me as I pull off the path. Once I’ve stopped, I turn to see a young man brandishing my grocery bag. As he hands it to me, I say, “tak.” He says a storm of words I can’t begin to understand. You’re welcome, here’s your very stinky cheese, maybe? He walks away. I’m warmed by the kindness of these cycle-friendly people on their evening commutes.

A few minutes later, I find myself where I began: swerving into that Danish woman after adjusting my bag. Luckily, my body — and my cheese — stayed intact. After the incident, thought, I felt it would be best to get off my bike. I locked it up in front of Københavns Biblioteker — the Copenhagen Library. As soon as I was inside, I marveled at the warm modern design and the bright colors of every book. I climbed to the fourth floor of the atrium  to read an English book I found and to observe the Danes in the rectangular frames below.

Then I was back on my bike and crossing a bigger canal. This time, I was searching from Noma, a restaurant I knew about from my favorite cooking show in the U.S., New Scandinavian Cooking. Picking my way around government courtyards, bumpy cobblestone roadways and fountains in the dark, I made my way across a bridge and down Strandgade, continuing along the water until the street stopped. Turning to the last warehouse on the water, I knew I had found Noma. I stood outside it like a creep and watched people eating on fur-backed chairs, smelled the intriguing stink of the smokehouses out back, and listened to cooks cooking in the kitchen, rock music blasting.

The world-famous restaurant Noma in the dark.
The world-famous restaurant Noma in the dark.

I looked across the canal. On the other side of the almost finished bridge, I saw the hostel where I was staying. These two places were so close, but the bike was what got me there. I got back on it and slid through the darkness, glancing down streets with cozy lights. I wanted to turn down every single one of them, but I kept my tires straight and on solid stone. Thanks to this thing, I had already seen so much more in a single day than I would have on just my feet.

So if you ever find yourself in Copenhagen, and you can do it, bike. It might be the crazier method — but it’s worth the craziness.

Other pictures (taken off the bike)

Bread at a stall in the Torvehallerne, a farmers market in a glass building in the city center.
Bread at a stall in the Torvehallerne, a farmers market in a glass building in the city center.
The canal in Nyhavn, the famous harbor street (imagine lots of colorful buildings around. The hostel I stayed in is in the brown building on the left.
The canal in Nyhavn, the famous harbor street (imagine lots of colorful buildings around. The hostel I stayed in is in the brown building on the left.
Grød from Grød, a café that serves an updated take on porridge, a Danish staple.
Grød from Grød, a café that serves an updated take on porridge, a Danish staple. This one had figs, nuts, and a little bit of chocolate in it!
Copenhagen is divided by canals but brought together by bikes (and don't forget the boats).
Copenhagen is divided by canals but brought together by bikes (and don’t forget the boats).
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