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Copenhagen, perhaps Europe’s most civilised great city


“Hey baby, how are you?”

Her words dripped like liquid gold. Or was it liquid puss (it depends on how you regard such things). From her voluminous, smiling lips, without pausing she continued to purr in my direction.

Women of the street proposition potential clients in English on Istegade, Copenhagen’s red light hub. This thoroughfare is where lingerie and instruments of thrust are displayed in shop windows and sex clubs jostle for attention with trendy wine bars and restaurants. It’s also a place where imposing six-storey hotels with impressive facades compete for space with block after block of solid looking apartment buildings.

Traffic light sign

The Vesterbro area of the city lies just behind the main railway station. It may play host to prostitution and illicit drug selling, but it is also an up and coming residential location. It’s a place on the rise.

Like any city, Copenhagen has its problems, but this area’s are not on the same scale as similar districts in most other cities in terms of deprivation. This is after all well-heeled Copenhagen.

Copenhagen was awarded the world’s most liveable city for the past two years out of four according to a prestigious travel and lifestyle magazine. As the ‘seedy’ parts of some cities go, Istegade is by comparison positively ‘des res’.

Vesterbro also houses the ‘meat packing’ district, the name being a throwback to the area’s former industry. What was once a ‘workers’ area’ is now a cluster for ‘creative industries’ and art showrooms, as well as small businesses, restaurants, bars and the usual types of enterprises that you can see in many cities across the world that have invented a new purpose for districts previously centred on long gone manufacturing industries.

A ten-minute walk away is the city centre itself, where well-groomed, good-looking Danes cycle by in their droves. Here, the bicycle is king. Many cities could learn a thing or two from Copenhagen in this respect. When not cycling, throngs of people sit in cafes and restaurants conversing to the backdrop of jingle-jangle spoons in cups, spurting coffee making machines and the click-clack of cups on saucers.

Beneath the veneer of European café-culture sophistication, the conversations tend to be quite ‘liberal’ minded affairs: sometimes liberal in the sense of not being very liberal at all. A party next to me was discussing Putin and pussy riot.

How awful it is that those young women were imprisoned by a self-aggrandising ‘dictator’. How terrible they are discriminating against gays there too. Everyone has a ‘human right’ to be who they want to be. Those awful Russians. They don’t care about humans or rights.

Simulating a sex act in front of the altar at Westminister Abbey in the UK. I wonder how the government or the people, egged on by the tabloids, would have responded. Not much talk on the next table of discrimination towards gays or women or minorities or workers in Saudi or any other number of Western-backed dictatorships in West Asia. But Putin has become the target of the trendy liberal coffee table set; not just here in Copenhagen, but in many ‘liberal-minded’ dinner party circles from London to New York.

Bicycle, Copenhagen

It’s symptomatic of a wider malaise that seeks to once again demonise Russia. Decent, ‘well-educated’ people are not immune to the lies; they too often perpetuate them. And therein lies the sadness in this ‘happy’ nation, indeed of any nation or strata of society cocooned in its protective cotton wool view of the world.

Enter Copenhagen via its airport and you will encounter a sign in the baggage collection area that welcomes you to the ‘happiest place in the world’. That’s because Denmark consistently comes at the top or near the top of various well-being/happiness surveys.

“People perhaps have it too easy here.”

That was the conclusion of Juan from Argentina who had been living in the city for a couple of years.

“Back home, you have to struggle for things. People here do not,” he told me.

But there’s nothing wrong with ‘easy’ is there?

Stroget is said to be the longest pedestrianised shopping street in the world and is famous because it features prominently in the tourist office blurb and the guidebooks. Of course, you will get many locals shopping there, but also, many tourists too. And you will also see what I thought was a thing of the past in many affluent European cities: men holding up boards that advertise where to eat or shop; not the sandwich board old man of yesteryear, but young immigrant men scraping a living. It’s a small hint, here on Stroget, that not everyone is ‘living it large’ in the world’s most liveable city. It’s an indication that people still have to struggle here, much like they did in their country of origin.

Oh yes, Copenhagen does have hardship and blemishes.

In recent years, the city has had one or two ‘incidents’ that have rocked the place. In Christiania ‘free town’, born out of the ‘peace and love’ sentiments of the late 60s, any notions of peace and love were trampled underfoot as Hell Angels and other gangs attempted to corner part of the hash selling market. Copenhagen was in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Even happy places have sad faces. For some, even ‘liveability’ can be almost unliveable.

Stroget, Copenhagen

Despite this, Copenhagen epitomises the best that the West has to offer in terms of infrastructure, equality, urban planning, open attitudes (despite the ‘cotton wool’) and quality of life. It is what many cities across the world aspire to be like: youthful, vibrant and creative; clean, pleasant and green.

If people ever look back on Western civilisation, let’s hope they will remember today’s Copenhagen. And when they do, they might say it was one of its finest moments.

Pictures courtesy of Shutterstock.

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