Monday, 4 February 2013

Scandinavia By Train: Denmark / Sweden January 2013 (Part Two)

Continued from here... (this doesn't exactly contain everything I promised it would but if I'd carried on writing we might all have died of old age before you got to read any more...)

Saturday 26th January (morning): Heathrow - Copenhagen

3.30am comes around, as apparently it does every day (I try not to notice, wherever possible) and off goes the dreaded alarm which signifies that it's time to get out of my nice warm bed after just 2 hours' sleep, step outside into the frosty Surrey morning, and drive round the M25 to Heathrow. To be fair, we could probably get up a little later but Karin's slightly obsessed with getting to the airport two hours before the flight in case of delays.

Actually, I'm quite into arriving stupidly early too - there's something exciting about dropping off your bags and heading through security (setting off the alarms, naturally, no matter how much you remove from your person), and then turning a corner to see what the kind people of local aviation have provided for you to pass the time. If you're very unlucky, you get a few rows of hard chairs and a vending machine containing gone-off chocolate (hello Limoges), however if you're extremely lucky you hit the jackpot and you end up at Heathrow Terminal 5.

Yep, Terminal 5 is a great place to window shop - containing as it does branches of Harrods, Tiffany's and various other hilariously overpriced mega-brands, as well as a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and a caviar bar. But none of these are our destination today - no, there's only one thing that's called for at Heathrow at 5.30am, and that's Wagamama. 

I always remember a well-travelled ex-girlfriend (rich parents) telling me about an airport McDonald's somewhere in the world which was open 24 hours, serving the proper burger menu all round the clock. This seemed impossibly glamorous to me at the time, but it's nothing compared to the wonders of ordering a bacon sandwich or an omelette from Wagamama, and then trying to eat it with chopsticks. To be fair, they do provide more regular breakfasting cutlery, but the sight of the conjoined wooden twins taunting me on the table is a challenge I'm only too happy to accept for the sake of comedy.

Actually, there are some intriguing sounding items on the menu rather more fitting to Wagamama's Japanese theme, such as Okonomiyaki and Breakfast Yaki Soba but none of us can bring ourselves to eat anything spicy at this time of the morning, so Karin goes for fruit and granola, whilst Helen settles for a Coke Zero. 

Eventually the gate opens, so we head along to the plane and I begin the ritual of preparing myself for the flight. This basically involves getting everything out of my bag that I might conceivably want to use whilst we're up in the air - book, phone, headphones, laptop, tissues, Vaseline (for dry lips, what else?) All the while a queue of Danes are trying to get past to their own seats.

"You really are the King of the faffers, aren't you?", says Helen, also reminding me that the flight is only 90 minutes long. Doesn't matter. Nobody wants to be stuck mid-air without immediate access to their favourite spreadsheet.

Once the plane gets going and the seatbelt signs are off, the trolley service starts and I begin to wonder whether I've wasted my money at Wagamama since it appears we're to be served breakfast on the plane on this occasion - never a given, nor is it always likely to be edible. The previous worst food I've been served on British Airways is a mushroom sandwich, however they up the stakes today with an Egg and Watercress Croissant - which I have no choice but to accept as the ridiculously inflated cellophane package also contains  some orange juice and the milk for my tea. Still, I find a better use for it than nutrition...

The flight's fairly uneventful until we come down to land over the sea, an occurrence which always terrifies the life out of me until the tarmac appears. However, on this occasion I don't even relax when I can see land, as I notice that the runway and everything in sight is covered in a thin layer of snow and ice. And then I remember that we're not in the UK anymore - we're in Scandinavia where 'Snow Chaos' looks like this...

... and not like this...

And somehow, even though we have a British pilot, we don't skid on the runway, take out a bus load of nuns and crash into a petrol tanker in a ball of flames, but come to a perfectly normal stop. I feel like applauding, but nobody else does, so I don't. 

Stepping off the plane, one thing strikes me immediately - it's pretty flipping cold. And we've not set foot outside yet, we're just on one of those funky sky-tunnel things. Never mind, we're soon inside and heading towards passport control for me to have my photo laughed at yet again (explanation here, if you really must), mingling on our way with outbound passengers, many of whom are clutching little bags from the Lego shop in the airport. I'm tempted to see if I can find said boutique, but then I remember that I'm not 11 years old, and more importantly that we only have a few hours to spend in Denmark as we have a date with the 13:53 to Malmö. Instead, we speed on through customs, collect our bags and head for the fast train to Copenhagen Central.

To get down to the train platforms at the airport, there are some awesome travelators, reason enough to visit any part of the world, I'm sure you'll agree. The three of us are fascinated by these because they're quite long and steeper than most - making us wonder how much fun it would be to let go of our trolley cases at the top and have them gently roll all the way down to the bottom, perhaps opening the sliding doors onto the platform and stopping nicely about where we want to get on the train. We don't do this because, well, we're still not 11 years old, and also we're British and therefore don't want to cause any kind of a scene, so this opportunity goes untaken.

Stepping out into the actual outdoors of the train platform, it becomes painfully obvious that the pilot wasn't lying on the way over when he told us (with as much 'Ha! Sucks to be you!' subtext as possible) that the temperature in Copenhagen is a brisk -4 degrees Centigrade, with a windchill factor of -12. (That's 24 degrees Farenheit with windchill of 10, if you're American. Or old. Or both.) Helen immediately puts on every piece of clothing she's brought, but still looks thoroughly miserable.

We're just standing there drinking in the wonderful Danish platform musk, when suddenly there's an almighty thud and the unmistakable sound of splintering glass from the direction we've just left. Going back over to take a look, the sliding doors are caved inwards and hanging from their fittings, and a slightly worse for wear trolley case is sitting forlornly at the bottom of the down travelator. What isn't forlorn, however, is its owner, who saunters obliviously down the remaining few metres, collects her bag and, finding that for some reason she can no longer get out on her side, signals for one of us to come and let her in through the 'Out' door.

"Thank you!" she says, as if nothing has happened.

"Um, you should probably go and tell someone about that," says Karin, pointing at the mangled steelwork and pulverised glass in a way that suggests this isn't optional.

"Oh, wasn't it like that before?", says our hapless tourist friend. Nice try, love.

"Er, no, it was working just fine a moment ago."

"Oh," she says, carrying on walking down the platform as we stare blankly after her.

At this point, the train pulls in, and, good citizens though we are, there's not another one for 20 minutes, so I do the only helpful thing I can think of and whip out my camera to take a hasty photo for us to all laugh at later, before we jump on the train and settle in for the epic 10 minute ride into Copenhagen proper.

With great haste comes rubbish photography.
Still, at least you can see I didn't make it up. And at the end of the day, that's all you can really ask.

We just about have time to sit down and count out the Danish money Helen has brought with her (about £12, or enough for a beer, as her boss jokes before handing it over) - a ramshackle collection of coins vaguely resembling proper money but with holes through the middle in case you ever need to wear them around your neck on a piece of string.

Stepping off the train, we head up from the platforms and emerge into Copenhagen Central station, which is rather nice as train stations go. As soon as the sliding doors open, an overwhelming waft of cinnamon immediately hits our nostrils, making us absolutely starving, and it's so good not even the friendly tramp who begs us for money within 15 seconds of arriving can overpower it with his musty goodness. Skilfully avoiding having to fob him off by means of none of us knowing enough Danish, we head across the concourse in the direction of the Left Luggage lockers, passing such artisan Dansk outlets as 7-Eleven and, er, WHSmith.

I get the job of speaking to the man behind the counter since, although Karin definitely knows more Danish than me, she's mortally embarrassed that she can't speak enough of it to have a Danish-Swedish conversation. These are more common than you'd think, especially given that the languages are reasonably close together - a bit like someone from Margate trying to have a chat with a Glaswegian. In fact, there's a whole (excellent) TV series called 'The Bridge' based entirely around the premise of Swedes and Danes trying to work together to solve a crime whilst steadfastly refusing to speak each other's languages.

Luckily for me, the Danish for 'Hello' is 'Hej', pronounced 'Hai', which sounds rather a lot like 'Hi' in a funny accent, so I'm able to do quite a passable impression of knowing what the heck I'm talking about.

'Hej', says the left luggage man. We stare at each other for slightly longer than is comfortable for two grown men.

"Errrrm, can we leave some bags please?"

Bags dropped off, it's time to actually start visiting Copenhagen. When planning this trip, we made a decision not to plan these three hours too much, as the idea of simply strolling through the beautiful streets of this ancient capital in a leisurely fashion, just seeing what we can see, seemed far more hip than making lists of must-visit monuments and museums. However, when making these plans, we were sitting in front of the TV on a nice comfy sofa with the central heating on full blast. And I don't know if I've mentioned this, but it's a bit nippy out on the actual day.

I'm auditioning for a part as one of the Seven Dwarfs, obviously.

Stepping out into Bernstorffsgade, the icy wind immediately strikes every part of our being; well, those parts that aren't covered up, anyway. Who'd have thought you could lose so much heat from your cheeks? Karin pulls out the map which we've picked up at the Left Luggage desk, and unfolds it so we can all take a look at which direction to head in, whereupon it is immediately torn in two by a particularly strong gust. I struggle manfully with it for a while, trying only to determine in which general direction all the "good stuff" might be, as various sections flap about, whipping my hands. Finally I grab the entire thing, crumple it up into a tiny ball and toss it into a bin. (I expect it's the wrong kind of bin, this being Scandinavia, but I don't care.)

So now what? The original plan was to take a quick look at the Tivoli gardens and amusement park, which looked great online but are distinctly closed for the season, and are being dug up and renovated (along with most of Copenhagen, as we will soon discover.)

The answer actually comes to us in the form of a crazy man in a bright blue coat - who spookily enough appears in one of my photos when I look through them later. It's almost as if he knew there'd be cold English tourists ready to be pounced on near the main railway station on a January morning.

"Hey, where you from? Ah, England, yeah, great, yeah I was there once! Well, we got a special deal today for the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus - normally 200 Kroner but we're doing it today for 150- you get to see all the sights from inside in the warm and the bus is right here..."

Our natural instinct, not wanting to be seen as tourist mugs, is to tell him to sod off, so I go with a "Yeah, thanks, we'll just have a think about it...", which lasts as long as it takes for us to step another 15 metres towards the city centre, observe each other shivering, and decide that being warm tourist mugs is infinitely preferable to hypothermia.

"Yeah, ok, we'll go for that, please - did you say 150...", I start to say, but he's off - running as fast as he can in the direction of the bus, which has just pulled out. Not for him the laws of the road; we start to follow but stop in our tracks as he comes to the main street and makes a kamikaze dash across, dodging between the Copenhagen Saturday morning traffic. Eventually he pulls up alongside the bus, frantically signals for the driver to stop, and then gently saunters back to us with a massive grin.

"Alriiiiight, enjoy your trip!"

Safely inside the bus, we ignore the glares from our fellow passengers for delaying their journey - it's warm, there are sights to see, and there's an unintentionally amusing running commentary which you can plug into with some earphones provided by the driver. It seems to have been recorded by a native English speaker, but I think it's fair to say she's more of a beauty salon receptionist than a professional voiceover artiste. (She would DEFINITELY say 'yourself' instead of you.) Either that, or she is a pro, and she's wondering why the heck she's been reduced to such menial jobs.

"On your left, you can see... the Tivoli gardens. The Tivoli gardens are... ... a world famous amusement park and pleasure gardens, opened in... ... 1843."

It's almost as if someone's standing there telling her to speed up and slow down, and she's getting more and more frustrated, as is evident from her intonation. Still, halfway round the route, she disappears mid-sentence and is cut off by a man with an Italian accent who barks some facts about a park completely apropos of nothing, before letting her resume. He still sounds happier than her, though.

Perhaps it's being forced to read out stuff in this vein, which is nearly as bad as the product placement in an episode of 'Bones'...

"On your right, you will see the historic Mariott Copenhagen hotel, completed in 1984. With 401 rooms, it's one of the largest hotels in Copenhagen and also has the best views over the waterside. With complimentary wi-fi in the lobby, and a selection of Danish specialities on the menu, it's definitely the place to be for Sunday lunch... which is where I'm going now... I'm done with this. You can stick your stupid holey money..."

Still, the bus tour is great - we get to see this...

... and this...

.. and, erm, this...

Huh.. huh... foreign languages are funny...

Yeah, I take a whole ton of photos, but although I do listen to what our friend Chardonnay has to say, I'm afraid none of it really sinks in enough to remember.That is until we get to the one thing we definitely wanted to see - which is probably the singular same landmark you know in Copenhagen - the statue of Hans Christian Andersen's Den Lille havfrue (The Little Mermaid). The Danes seem to have a love/hate relationship with their most famous landmark, having variously decapitated her, doused her in paint and blown her up at various times - not to mention dressing her in a burqua and putting a dildo in her hand.

I think she's rather fetching, iconic of the city and symbolising one woman's struggle between land and the water. I'm tempted to start singing 'Part of Their World' as the bus pulls up, but stop myself just in time.

You might want to put a top on, love, it's a bit parky out...

We're allowed to get out of the bus at this point, as it stops for a 5 minute photo-break, which seems rather stingey until we step outside and remember just how it feels by the waterside in the middle of winter. We therefore take several photos, enjoy the view for a couple of minutes and then hop back on, just in time for the driver to pull away with approximately two thirds of the number of passengers he had upon arrival. I do hope the stragglers were wearing some nice warm clothes.

The bus then starts heading back towards the city centre, past some more historical bits and bobs, including the canalside Nyhavn district, which is probably the only part of Copenhagen which looks beautiful today (and one of the few which doesn't appear to be under construction). However beautiful it looks, though, I can't agree with our favourite tour guide's insistence that it's "a lovely place to sit outside by the water, and drink a beer whilst watching the world go by..." - if it's alright with you, I think I'll leave that for a day when the water isn't completely frozen over.

Still, something for which it's never too cold is ice cream, and it's always one of the great joys of any trip abroad to find out what Wall's Ice Cream is called locally - here it's "Frisko". Valuable information and well worth the cost of the bus tour by itself, although not quite as much fun as the kebab kiosk I spot shortly after called 'Kebabenhavn' (Kebabenhagen) - I'd so steal that if I were ever going to open a kebab shop. (In Copenhagen.)

As we pull up close to where we started, in what our guide describes as the beautiful square of Radhuspladsen, only to see carnage and construction behind a load of ugly billboards, we all separately come to the conclusion that we perhaps haven't visited this great city at the best time of year, and decide to come back when you can step outside without running the risk of accidentally snapping your nose off.

Still, the good thing about Rådhuspladsen is that it contains the Rådhus, or Town Hall - so we take a quick peek at this, which will be familiar as the office of Troels Hartmann to anyone who's watched Series 1 of 'The Killing' . Even more excitingly, today it's the finishing line for a classic car rally from Aarhus, which rolls into town along with attendant news crews just as we cross the square.

We're crossing the square because we're blooming hungry, and our virtual tour guide on the bus let us know that over the other side is the start of Strøget, a giant pedestrianised shopping and tourist area (the longest in Europe, apparently - no, not the biggest, just the longest.) Not that we have the time or inclination to do any shopping, the only thing we care about is getting back in the warm and finding something hot to eat.

Hereford Village Steakhouse therefore benefits quite nicely by being one of the very first restaurants you come across when heading up Strøget, and also by having a few Danish-looking things on its menu - since I normally insist on trying to eat and drink local specialities wherever I go. This policy has previously seen me eating snails, horse, kangaroo, reindeer and 13 different kinds of Indian pickles and chutneys, sour milk and curd, amongst many other oddities - and yet somehow I still haven't learned my lesson.

I decide against the "2 Slags Potato with 2 Slags sauce", for some reason.

So up the stairs we go, above a baker's shop (of which more later), and opposite a dentist's office where we're able to watch a poor woman getting some fillings done while we wait for our food. It looks closed from the outside, despite the giant sign saying "Vi er åbne!" (We are open!), but on pushing the door at the top of the stairs which looks like it could contain anything from a firm of solicitors to a Soho "Model", we discover that they're just trying to keep warm, the sensible people.

The food is pretty good - Karin and Helen go for slightly less local fare with a chicken burger and a jacket potato respectively, but my regional food fetish lands me with the Danish Sandwich Platter - a deceptively filling plate of various popular sandwich fillings ranging from crispy pork rib to fried plaice, and a somewhat overgenerous portion of the local pickled herring, together with a red cabbage salad, a cucumber pickle and a basket of rye bread upon which to stack it all. Oh, and some cheese and grapes, in case that wasn't enough (it was.)

It's not even too expensive (for Copenhagen), at around 120Kr (£13), and the others' food is even better value. The same sadly can't be said for our 3 glasses of Pepsi Max, which come to 126Kr between them (nearly a whopping £5 a glass.) Seems Helen's boss wasn't joking after all. If Pepsi Denmark made beer, it'd probably be the most expensive beer in the world.

Suitably filled up, we head back downstairs, upon which we're immediately hit by that cinnamon waft again and can't resist popping into the Lagkagehuset  (one of Copenhagen's most popular bakery chains) to see what we can get with our remaining coins - no Pepsi, that's for sure. We pick up a variety of Danish pastries, which as I'm sure you all know, aren't called Danish pastries in Denmark, but rather Wienerbrød  (Vienna bread). Mine is a variety of snegl  (literally 'snail'), called a Direktør snegl - a curled cinnamon pastry topped with chocolate (hence the name I guess, since Direktør means 'Boss', and everyone knows that the chocolate variety of anything is always top dog).

Our trip to the bakery turns out to be last thing we have time for in Copenhagen, as it's definitely time now to head back to the station, retrieve our luggage from my new best friend and make our way down to the platform for the train to Malmö. Sitting down in the spacious carriage, I release my Direktør snegl from its papery prison (now worryingly see-through with grease) and take a bite. It's completely delicious.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the hot drink I've picked up at the 7-Eleven on the way through the station- a kind of chai tea which is supposed to be flavoured with cinnamon and licquorice but tastes suspiciously like it's been filtered through the underpants of the friendly local tramp, as revenge for not stopping earlier. It makes me pull this face. (What do you mean, that's just my face?)

Never mind, we've had a great few hours in Copenhagen, and we're on our way across the border to continue our mammoth journey; a trip which will take us another 300km North before the day is out. And it's still only just turned 2pm.

The last thing we see of Denmark, as the train speeds off towards Malmö, is a workman standing on the platform at the airport, scratching his head, trying to figure out what the heck happened to the sliding doors.

Next time... Oh, just wait and see - whatever I say will be next time invevitably won't be...


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