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The True Face of Copenhagen: beyond the Little Mermaid

By Iñaki Makazaga from Piedra de Toque

The most visited figure in Denmark and the main tourist attraction in the city of Copenhagen sits totally oblivious to the world at the end of a pier in the port (Langelinie). The Little Mermaid avoids all eye contact as she looks out to sea, almost with her back turned to her visitors. Perhaps this is because only she knows the true price of her fame (decapitated twice, mutilated three times and thrown out to sea several times) and the real story behind her own history. We decided to get on our bikes in search of answers and found the true face of Copenhagen: a city with a barbaric past that has now become a haven for peace.

We began our journey on the banks of the Sankt Jorgens Canal overlooked by the mansions reflected in its waters as we ventured out among the families, people enjoying sport and ducks picking at the grass. We pedalled along on the bicycles we rented from one of the 110 locations dotted around the city – one of the measures aimed at obtaining the title of ‘capital city with the best environmental quality’ in 2015. Every turn of our wheels left behind yet another tree as we travelled along the green corridor created by the canal. We took in the sights and decided to turn right at the third bridge to eventually arrive at the Botanical Garden and Museum (Botanisk Have) at 128 Gothesgade.

More than 20,000 different species of plant life now thrive in the grounds of these old city fortifications. The walls contain spacious gardens and the moat is full of aquatic and wetland plants, each with its own little information sign stuck in the ground nearby. We parked up the bikes at the entrance and walked in. It was March and there was a hint of change about everything as the snowy season began to loosen its grip. The earth was all churned up, the trees were leafless and the sky was grey. An enormous three-story greenhouse with four glass pavilions appeared in the distance where 1,000 varieties of cactus, coffee plants, pineapples and even palm trees are incubated and studied. We were overcome by temptation and bought two bags of seeds from the shop on the way out: one of Asian bonsais and another of red orchids. Maybe we thought we could take away our own part of the peace that reigns in this park and whose roots still soak up the blood of the people who fought to defend the city from enemy invasion.

We returned to our trail. We left behind the garden and the botanical museum to pedal our way through the areas surrounding Roseborg Slot, the royal palace built by Christian IV in 1606 as a summer residence that now also serves as a large museum. It houses thousands of objects related to the oldest monarchy in Europe and is full of paintings, furniture, weapons and jewels. The traffic light turned from amber to green and so we pedalled on.

The peace of the botanical gardens now changes to the hustle and bustle of central Copenhagen. The cars give way to cyclists between the buildings from which emerge the strong>spires of the Marmorkirken, a church inspired by Saint Paul’s in Rome and which was originally planned to be built using Norwegian marble. They soon realised there was a far simpler way to celebrate the 300-year reign of the family of Frederik V and the Norwegian marble was switched for Danish marble a century later in order to get the place finished. However, no expense was spared on the steps: 260 to reach the bell tower. The views of the city make the exhausting climb well worth it. We took the opportunity to check our map. We felt the call of the thriving city centre, with the pedestrianised Strøget street full of shops and terraces filling the cobbled medieval squares of Kongens Nytorv and Radhuspladsen. We left those for nightfall and continued towards the port where the Little Mermaid sat waiting for our visit.

We dismounted and walked the bikes for a while. We were in Nyhavn, the New Port, which was opened by soldiers between 1671 and 1673 so that ships could unload their goods in the city centre. It became the darkest part of Copenhagen for years, inhabited by sailors and ladies of ill repute. Cheap rooms, dark taverns, tattoo parlours and brothels. Nyhavn has emerged from its murky past and now offers one of the most attractive faces of the capital along the 300-metre stretch of port-front properties with narrow, colourful houses and pavements full of terraces. No matter how cold the weather is, a blanket, a heater and a candle embrace all visitors. Around the edge of the port can be found evidence of that era in the form of wooden ships such as the 19th Century lighthouse ship that has been converted into a restaurant. An anchor that belonged to a Danish frigate also recalls the maritime past and pays tribute to all those who lost their lives during World War II. We took photos of the brightly-coloured houses. Maybe Hans Christian Andersen himself looked out from one of them to look at the sky while penning his tales. The truth is that even the walls whisper their stories in this part of town.

Now back on our bikes we pedalled along the canal towards the sea with the humid wind blowing in our faces. The tide greeted us at the shore, together with a number of new pavilions. We entered the Citadel (Kastellet), another great fortification to protect against attack from the Swedes. The five-pointed star-shaped fort has also witnessed great swathes of history in this country. Used by Nazi troops as a main headquarters during World War II, it now belongs to the Danish army although the gardens and walls are open to the public. In the 19th Century, it was also used as a prison and small sculptures now speak of the horrors of war. A museum depicts the activity and names of the people who led the resistance against the Nazis. And the Little Mermaid, nowhere to be seen.

We kept on pedalling. It started to snow and a hoard of tourists announced we had reached another point of interest. At the end of the pier, resting on a rock and with her back to the tourists we finally met the star of one of the most famous stories written by Hans Christian Andersen. The very one who fell in love with a prince and who now waits for him to return looking out to sea. The snow continued to fall. The grey sky opened as if in slow motion: rain, snow, more rain.

Walt Disney tells us of a happy mermaid surrounded by seafaring friends who struggles to make her dreams come true. The reality proved to be much different. The colour of copper, alone, her nakedness constantly illuminated by camera flashes from the tourists. Yet she doesn’t smile. The thing is, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a different ending. The prince she gave up being a mermaid for ended up marrying another. The Little Mermaid died alone, without breaking the spell that would let her return to the sea without killing the prince. She preferred to wait, convinced that another ending would find her sooner or later. Like the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen has preferred to keep every palace, every fortification that speaks of its Viking and Barbarian past in order to convert them into gardens and museums that grow a new history of peace and tolerance. We joined the Little Mermaid and gazed out at the horizon in silence.


Time: 2 hours

Route: Sankt Jorgens Canal in Norrebro, Botanical Museum, Roseborg Slot, Marmorkirken, Nyhavn, Kastellet, The Little Mermaid.


- Visit the museums mentioned: open from 10:00 to 16:00.
- Get a Copenhagen Card.
- Explore the city by bike and have lunch in the New Port after finishing the tour.


By Iñaki Makazaga from Piedra de Toque

Picture by Henrik Jessen

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