The poor fellow, according to the translation of the ancient script, would be sorely missed and fondly remembered by all. The deceased man was generous in spirit, neighbourly and sensitive.
So much for the common belief that Vikings were ferocious take-no-prisoners savages, conquerors of both the Old and New Worlds.
What I was reading was an epitaph, in archaic hieroglyphic-like Norse characters, or runes, on a tombstone displayed at Copenhagen’s marvellous Nationalmuseet. Along with the massive stone, I stumbled across heavy yet surprisingly stylish gold necklaces and a reconstruction of a slender and elegant Viking vessel.
For visitors to Copenhagen, a tour of the Nationalmuseet, with its detailed and lively exhibits on Danish history, both prehistoric and relatively modern, is a must. So is Tivoli, the world’s second oldest amusement park. So is The Little Mermaid. And there are two palaces in the capital too. But even with so many delights to offer, the Danish capital is compact and easily covered on foot or bicycle.
On a recent visit, already familiar with the must-see attractions, I went instead to a museum of Islamic art, and also ventured a bit north to visit the homestead and grave of celebrated Danish author Karen Blixen.
On my first day in town, I walked to Rosenborg Slot, one of Copenhagen’s two palaces. It was sunny and the Kongens Have park that surrounds this Renaissance castle played backdrop to picnickers and cyclists alike. The Danish crown jewels are on show here, as is the sword of King Christian III, a Lutheran reformer and able administrator of the 16th century.
My imagination still filled with gentle Norsemen and Danish nobility, I exited the park and crossed the Kronprinsessegade to the east to reach a stately yet unassuming villa. It’s easy to miss the plaque out front that announces The David Collection and directs you to an inner courtyard and a different world.
The David Collection is perhaps the most impressive collection (and certainly the largest in Scandinavia) of Islamic art. Even better, entry is free. C.L. David, a practising lawyer in the early 1900s, was an indiscriminate collector of everything from 18th century European to Danish early modern art, as well as Islamic tapestries, mosaics and ironwork. You can see his European cache on the first and second floors. But I headed to the third floor to take in the breathtaking mosaics, calligraphy, textiles and miniature paintings originating from Spain, India and Persia. The rooms are kept dark, eliciting a dramatic feel to the exhibit; and all the explanatory texts are in well-written English.
The next day, I was on the trail of yet another worldly Dane. I took a local train north for half an hour, arriving in the small town of Rungstedlund, and after a short walk from the station through a wooded path, I came upon the simple grave of Blixen under a muscular beech tree. Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen, entered the pantheon of world literature in 1937 with the publication of her book Out of Africa. Also known for her Seven Gothic Tales and Babette’s Feast, she was regrettably (as the committee admitted years later) overlooked for a Nobel Prize before her death in 1962.
Further on through the woods, which are actually a nature preserve and bird sanctuary established by Blixen in 1958, visitors come to the Blixen family homestead, a handsomely decorated country house facing the Øresund coast. The highlights for me were Blixen’s study and the heavy desk where she penned her books. On one wall hangs her collection of Kenyan spears, and there are wistful photos of her with the dashing British pilot—and her soulmate— Denys Finch Hatton, along with a classy shot of her at cocktails with Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers and Marilyn Monroe.
Later, back in Copenhagen, I was struck by two opposing and appealing features. The first was its modern architecture, innovative and aesthetic. It may come across as cold and austere, but I found it sleek and bold. Some examples are the expressive Danish Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, and also the Amerika Pier, which is a community of waterfront penthouses and open spaces. Both impressed me as perfect examples of Scandinavian design, several admirable notches above Ikea.
At the same time, I was charmed by what the Danes refer to as Hygge, which roughly translates into “cosy”. You see this in the cafés on a chilly day, in the creative window displays and in the vibrant façades along the Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s picturesque canal promenade.
The Nyhavn, where I had stopped for tea one afternoon (food around the Nyhavn is especially pricey in an already pricey city) at Cap Horn, can give Amsterdam a run for its money any day of the week (as can the armada of cyclists who blanket the city). The 17th century town houses face the canal that was constructed to link the harbour with the city centre. Today, it bustles with both locals and tourists, the latter snapping photos at every turn, despite a wind that was rather brisk that day.
After warming up amid the Hygge at Cap Horn, I walked a few blocks north to Amalienborg Slot, Copenhagen’s royal residence since 1794, when the regal family moved here from Rosenborg Slot. If you arrive at Amalienborg at noon, you can see the changing of the guard. I missed that during my visit but I also one-upped it.
Amalienborg is, unlike its British counterpart Buckingham Palace, a rounded open plaza around which the guards parade. There are no gates or barricades which, in this age of omnipresent security measures, is quite remarkable. You can easily approach the guards, ignoring their regal garb and serious demeanour. I took a chance, and asked one of the younger ones if he wouldn’t mind a photo. He nodded, I tip-toed up to him, and struck a pose.
Later, browsing through my photos, I found that I’d managed to tease a smile out of the chap, not unlike, say, that ancient Norseman whose tombstone at the Nationalmuseet demonstrated a generosity and hospitality the Danes really do possess.
The story has been published again due to technical errors.