Originally Published: July 30, 2009 8:54 p.m.
She sits small and alone on a rock at the edge of the sea, wistful and pensive. This is a beautifully bittersweet figure, doomed by unrequited love to live in a friendless land, giving up her immortal soul for a pair of feet. Although visited each year by thousands of tourists, she is essentially alone and lonely. She is forever separated from the things she loves - a stranger in a strange land.
Hans Christian Anderson (the middle name is always included to distinguish him from that other well-known Danish author, Hans Moslem Anderson) was a writer of great poignancy and beauty, whose creations are painfully lovely. The statue of the Little Mermaid at the edge of Copenhagen's harbor is the symbol not only of his genius but also of the many fascinating treasures that this small and perfect city offers.
The city is flat and compact and very old. It was only a tiny fishing village until the warrior Bishop Absalon built a fortress there in the 12th century, and it was trade and the toll of passing ships that made Copenhagen the principal harbor in the Baltic. The Danish royal family has been reigning for more than 1,000 years and Copenhagen has been the royal capital since 1416. So let's go meander a little.
Although Copenhagen is quite large, the old part of the city still feels like a small town. Walking out in the morning, you might start with breakfast at the Klimt Café, a tiny and cozy café near the canal. Then just a few blocks north is the Rosenborg Slot, a 17th-century castle that has been meticulously restored and boasts a grand knights' hall and a precious princess' lacquered chamber. The Danish crown jewels are tucked away in the basement and you should take a few minutes to explore the elaborate gardens surrounding the building; they are the country's oldest.
On your way to visit the Mermaid, stroll through the small cobbled lanes of the Nyboder district. Originally built for Danish Naval personnel, these 17th-century homes have slanted gables, low doors and are painted a sunflower yellow. Then, after you've paid your respects to Anderson's legend, you might have a traditional open-faced Danish sandwich for lunch at the garden café of the Kunstindustrimuseet. This four-winged museum houses an excellent collection of European decorative arts from the medieval to the modern including tapestries, pottery, porcelain, glass and furniture.
Passing the onion-domed Russian Orthodox church, the Amalienborg Slot should be your next stop. The Palace consists of four 18th-century French-style rococo mansions built around a cobbled courtyard. When the swallowtail flag is out, the queen is home. Some of the rooms are open to the public and they are perfectly lovely - all golds and blues and ready for a Hans Christian Anderson story. Keep an eye out and you may see the very tall, very disciplined Royal Life Guards in black bearskin busbies accompanied by their band marching down the street to Rosenborg Castle and its marvelous gardens.
Walking then toward the Christianborg, which dominates the heart of the city, be sure to notice the pastel rows of 300 year-old houses along the Nyhavn, the oldest part of Copenhagen Harbor. The canal is packed with old wooden ships, and is now called the "longest bar in Scandinavia." Apparently ancient sailors and modern tourists have similar propensities.
If you're not "castled out," there are tours of the gilded interior of Christiansborg Slot. The Danish Parliament meets here and there is a very interesting self-guided tour of the ruins of the original castle built by the enterprising Bishop Absalon in the 12th century. And finally, if you haven't walked your legs off already, try a climb up the Rundetarn (Round Tower), a 17th-century observatory. The view of the twisted streets and crooked roofs of old Copenhagen from the top of the tower is worth the climb. It was built in 1642 and is still maintained. Peter the Great of Russia, in Denmark for a state visit, galloped up the ramp on horseback. I bet the Danes were very polite to him. They are a very gracious people.
When I go to the Baltic this summer, I want to spend some time at the Tivoli Gardens, which covers about 20 acres and has satisfyingly old-fashioned entertainments and is great for people-watching. There are rides, concerts, gardens, fountains and, when night falls, there is the park's grand finale - a fireworks display that lights up the night sky. It's a magical way to end a day in a magical city.
Leslie and Mike Ross have owned Kachina Travel since 1975.