As it turned out, according to the Tourist Information Center, it was Fashion Week in the Danish capital and all the hotels were fully booked for the next couple of days.
A bit of a dilemma, but we were not discouraged. Why not seize the day - carpe diem - and go somewhere else. We were on the small island of Zealand, where even the farthest point was only an hour or so away. As we consulted a map and discussed possibilities, the name Gilleleje popped up.
Not long ago, a friend of mine had raved about Gilleleje, a picturesque fishing village and holiday resort on the northern tip of Zealand. The Danes, of course, are famous for their "smørrebrød," open-faced sandwiches, and what my friend remembered best about his visit was the most delicious shrimp sandwich he had ever eaten. That settled it. Gilleleje it would have to be.
A thirty-five minute train ride first took us to Helsingør. From there we continued on the local train to Gilleleje - the end of the line, and surely at a safe distance from any crowded fashion scene.
The weather, meanwhile, which had been glorious for several weeks, showed signs of deterioration. Black clouds scudded across the sky, and a light drizzle began to fall as we pulled into the station. A quick walk and, once again, we were at a Tourist Information Center inquiring about a room.
The lady behind the counter viewed us with concern, explaining that a town the size of Gilleleje had only so many rooms available, and that this happened to be the week of the Jazz Festival. A tense moment followed, then relief as she managed to locate a not-yet-taken B&B. "Is it close to the harbor and the town center?" I asked. "Oh yes," she said, "only three minutes."
So off we went, carrying and rolling our luggage through the rain-soaked streets of Gilleleje. Three minutes, and we were nowhere near the address given to us. She must have assumed we were traveling by car.
Actually, when we arrived at the B&B, twenty-five minutes later, a bit damp, we were not altogether displeased. This temporary home away from home of ours was in a classical Danish farmstead: four white-painted buildings with steep gables, built around a stone-paved courtyard.
Our hostess, hearing of our prolonged walk, immediately suggested that we borrow a couple of bicycles. Said and done. An hour later, under a brightening sky, we biked to town, feeling very much in tune with not only the immediate neighborhood but with the country at large.
Bicycling, of course, is what you do in Denmark. Three-quarters of the population own bikes. Cyclists are ubiquitous, and special lanes are provided for them throughout the country. Following such a lane, we reached the Gillleleje Harbor in less than ten minutes.
Gilleleje is North Zealand`s largest industrial port. Fishing boats and pleasure craft of all sizes crowded the docks; a fish auction hall could be seen a short distance away; and, lining the quay, were several snack bars and outdoor restaurants. I noticed a couple of smokehouses of the kind that I had previously seen only in Bornholm - the mecca of smoked herring. From the other side of the harbor rose a commodious tent, presumably raised to house the jazz concert. As if to confirm this notion, the plaintive notes of a lone saxophone wafted across the water. This we wanted to investigate, but first we must eat. Sitting down at one of the tables on the quay, we opted for - what else - shrimp sandwiches.
The sandwiches, as expected, were delicious. Having polished them off with some white wine, we were ready for some musical entertainment.
The tent was packed - a multigenerational crowd, swirling on an improvised dance floor or sitting around long tables, listening, eating, and drinking beer. Playing at the time of our arrival was an English band called T J Johnson, one of the five groups participating in this event, the name of which was Jazz på¦ Havnen, Harbor Jazz. "This sounds more like jazzed-up old American rock," Roxie commented. I could tell she liked it and wanted to dance.
And so we did, having a wonderfully relaxed time before pedaling back to the B&B in the dark of night.
The next day we explored Gilleleje, particularly the old quarters, with its pretty houses with thatched roofs, and flowery little gardens. In the middle, amidst green trees, stood the church, a reminder of a story I`d just heard, and which was linked to the saving of Jews during World War II.
Of the approximately 8,000 Jews living in Denmark at the beginning of the German occupation, all but 481 were smuggled safely to Sweden. A large pecentage of those who managed to escape left from Gilleleje. The townspeople, who hated the oppression, did an admirable job assisting the Jews, often hiding them in their homes until local fishermen, at great risk to their own lives, could take them across the sound to Sweden. But once, on October 6th, 1943, things went dreadfully wrong. A foolish teenager, wanting to ingratiate herself with a handsome German soldier, let him know that Jews were hiding in the Church attic. This resulted in a Nazi capture of 80 refugees. The Gilleleje Museum, I was told, features several documents concerning these dramatic events. It even displays a reconstructed fishing boat - with a secret compartment reserved for human cargo.
Walking around in the old quarters, we noticed that almost all the houses bore the names of their respective owners. For instance, there would be a sign on the wall reading LARS BODKER HUS (the Lars Bodker House).
A bench on one the sidewalks was pointed out to us as the "gossip bench," Sladrebaenken, where we were invited to rest and spread gossip. But by then we were more interested in lunch
The B&B lady, who lent us bicycles, had also been helpful in recommending a good restaurant. It was called Brasseriet, and, like most eating places in Gilleleje, was located next to the harbor.
It was great. Though newly opened, Brasseriet showed all the hallmarks of a classic. This was Danish food at its traditional best. Unable to resist (once again) those tiny, succulent shrimp indigenous to the North Sea, we started with GR¯NLANDSKE REJER I PYRAMIDE, Greenland shrimp with lemon mayonnaise. From there we went on to SOL OVER GUDHJEM, smoked herring with grated radish, chive and - supposedly representing the sun over the Bornholm town of Gudhjem - an egg yolk. I then indulged in yet another house specialty: H. C. ANDERSEN, a down-home dish consisting of liver paste, bacon, tomato and horse radish.
Before leaving Gillieleje, we managed a visit to Fyrkroen, another well-recommended restaurant, next to an old lighthouse built in 1772, and with a panoramic view of the faraway coast of Sweden. I especially recall the ride back to town on a newly discovered bicycle path that followed the coast closely. Lush with vegetation on both sides, it gave you the sense of traveling through a green tunnel.
Whenever in the neighborhood, I tend to make a beeline for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Now, as we took the train back to Copenhagen, we got off at Humlebaeck station, about 20 miles north of the capital. A short stroll and, suddenly, we were in a beautiful old park overlooking the ¯resund, surrounded by the works of artists such as Picasso, Henry Moore, Arp, and Giacometti. Multifunctional, the Louisiana boasts large exhibition rooms, a concert hall, and an auditorium. Up to eight world-class exhibitions are held here each year.
The Louisiana opened in 1958. Its aim was "to establish an interplay between visual art, architecture and landscape and in so doing create an unmistakable Danish setting and a haven for people with a serious interest in contemporary art." Succeeding beyond expectation, the museum is now one of the top five attractions in all of Denmark - in popularity slightly below Legoland and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.
Currently, there is a retrospective by the Danish furniture artist Poul Kjaerholm, and an exhibition featuring the works of the Canadian artist couple Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller - installations requiring earphones for special sound effects. "So, what`s next," I wondered, and was told that in a month or two there would be show called "Starlight - 100 Years of Film Stills." On display will be a large number of the images that have appeared on movie posters and in magazines throughout the past century, some of which have become iconic, often reflecting in our mind`s eye not only a particular film but the ambiance of a certain time.
Fashion week was over, so we had no problem securing a room for for one last night in Copenhagen. It appears that the next onslaught of visitors to this popular and vibrant city is expected on November 2nd, when Copenhagen hosts the MTV Europe Music Awards. Known as the music "Oscars," this annual event, now into its 13th year, has been described as an international celebration of music and pop culture from a distinctly European point of view. Performers from last year`s award event in Lisbon included Madonna, Coldplay, Gorillaz and Robbie Williams. Equal star power is expected here, in addition to huge audiences.
Speaking of a vibrant Copenhagen, we spent most of the time in Nyhavn, as our hotel was nearby. With its colorful houses, tattoo parlors, outdoor café®s and restaurants lying neck in neck, this inner city harbor was just as thriving and picturesque as we remembered, if not more so. In the large square next to it, Kongens Nytorv, we found a truly exceptional outdoor exhibit by nature photographer Steve Bloom, and a long walk in the neighborhood introduced us to some new, rather exciting architecture.
Soon, in a project named Copenhagen X, the Danish Architecture Center will spotlight the most thought-provoking new buildings in Copenhagen. A guide book will be provided, as well as tours on foot or by bike.
If we get back to Denmark while this project is still around, we will definitely go for the bike. Biking may not have been our chosen mode of transportation in the first place, but we are now converts. On a bike, you travel slowly and close to the ground. What could be a better way to explore new places. Besides, bicycling is what you do in this country ....they make it easy, safe, and fun.
Text and photography: Bo Zaunders
Traveling in Zealand is easy. Not only are the roads good and everything at a convenient distance, public transportation is just what you would expect in a West European country, with trains and buses running smoothly and frequently.
Traveling by car from Copenhagen, you can take either the Motorway E47/E55, or the coast road Strandvejen along the Sound north. Trains, leaving every 20 minutes from Hovdebanegå¦rden (Central Station), will get you to the village Humlebaek in 35 minutes. The museum is then a 10-minute walk from Humlebaek train station.
From the Central Station, Copenhagen, go to Helsing¿r (Elsinor), then change to the local train to Gilleleje. Travel time: approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes.
www.dt.dk (the official travel guide to Denmark)
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