Copenhagen's Comfort Zone

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2001

Word passed quickly that I had boarded the wrong bus and taken it a long way in the wrong direction. Soon, nearly every passenger on Copenhagen's 650S joined an animated discussion of which transfers would get me within steps of the planetarium.

The next day, a fellow passenger advised me to get off at the stop after his. But he skipped his own and walked me to the doorstep of the address I had mentioned.

A waiter one evening took me outside to point the way toward a good shopping district, then offered to drive me when he finished his shift.

I had often wondered what kind of people were both descended from vikings and once led by a king who, when invading Nazis ordered Jews to wear the Star of David, appeared himself in the streets wearing the six-sided yellow star. A three-day visit to Denmark's capital city suggested that they are a people with the clean, orderly efficiency of Germans, the warmth of Italians and the joie de vivre of the French.

This trip was to be my first abroad, and the first by air, since Sept. 11. I chose my destination with caution. What, I asked myself, could anyone have against the tiny, virtually defenseless land of Denmark?

I began my trip by breezing through Dulles International, allowing three hours, concerned that I had about 2 1/2 to spare. Maybe there are security improvements behind the scenes. Maybe that woman with a baby was really a spy, her child a sky marshal in disguise.

But I chose my destination well in terms of my security meter, wandering the streets of central Copenhagen even late at night with comfort. Of course, a sense of security isn't everything, and it isn't the only thing Copenhagen has to offer. In fact, I came away wondering why the city doesn't register higher in the consciousness of American travelers. Most U.S. visitors to Denmark are cruise passengers making brief stops. The number of those visitors is likely to grow: Cruise lines are increasingly substituting Scandinavian ports for those in the Mediterranean in the wake of Sept. 11.

But Copenhagen deserves to be considered a destination in its own right: a beautiful, friendly, walkable European city of great history, well established as an arts and cultural center by the 1500s. The Danes are fiercely proud of their architecture and have preserved hundreds of splendid old buildings.

My hotel, Nyhavn 71, was built 200 years ago along the harbor that leads to the Baltic Sea. Outside are tall sailing ships, a water taxi and ferry boats. The cobblestone street is lined with brightly colored buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, most now restaurants and bars.

If led there blindfolded, your best guess would be that you were in Amsterdam, but you'd be confused that the water was so clean, the streets so scrubbed. A few blocks away, you'd swear you were in Vienna.

And everyday at noon when the royal family is in town, people gather in front of the palace complex to see the changing of red-coated guards with fuzzy black hats. But you'd know you weren't at Buckingham Palace, because the residences of the royal family are not set back and heavily fenced, but are built around a cul de sac that admits both pedestrians and cars.

Three days is not enough in and around Copenhagen, but if that's all the time you have, here's the scoop. Upon arrival, don't be snobby about tours, and book one. It will allow you to get your bearings and help you decide -- better than a tour book -- what your priorities should be.

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