In Copenhagen, I Dreamt of a Harbor and Such

Copenhagen beckons with its towering spires, colorful houses by the quay, and gilded palaces that bring back fanciful memories of childhood

In the third paragraph, I wrote:

The image of Copenhagen’s pastel-colored townhouses along Nyhavn Harbor has served as the most striking image of Europe in my mind. I still vividly remember, as a child, seeing the colorful line of structures in an old encyclopedia many years ago. For some reason, I have long associated that spot with the charm of Europe and have been wanting to visit it ever since to experience its many treasures myself.

This is what I told the Consul of Denmark when I, like many Filipino travelers, applied for a visa to gain entry to the Schengen area.

As a Filipino, I had to prove my capability to travel to their land, never mind the fact that I had to indulge the official a little too much on paper just to get a taste of sweet approval.

Looking back at what I wrote now, I smirk at myself for revealing too much of a memory that was too vivid and personal. Yet, I feel no regret and I am moved by its evocation because, at the end of the day, what I wrote down was the truth.

More than the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris, the mighty Coliseum in Rome, and the majestic Buckingham Palace in London, Nyhavn Harbor in Copenhagen has remained my most memorable gateway to Europe ever since.

I must have been seven years old back then. I recall lying face down on the living room floor and flipping through the coated pages of an encyclopedia that revealed the picturesque houses lining the harbor front on a clear day.

There was something about that image that stirred a dreamlike sensation in me, one that would linger in the recesses of my mind and serve as the foundation of my desire to wander off and go far away.

So, when the time finally came—a good 25 years or so later—to visit Copenhagen, I was faced with the prospect of returning to the harbor to relive that childhood memory that once graced the glossy pages of an old encyclopedia. 

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A kingdom by the sea

I arrived at Copenhagen Central Station close to midnight. The streets were freezing cold and dotted with bikers navigating the quiet roadways, while pubs and restaurants were dimly lit, abuzz with a small late-night crowd dispersing into the night.

This was the scene that warmly welcomed me to the quaint Danish capital. From that evening on, the city would gradually reveal itself to me, unfolding an intimate narrative spanning centuries, blending Old-World Charm with contemporary allure.

Nestled on the eastern shores of Zealand, Copenhagen's story began over a thousand years ago when it was founded as a Viking fishing village. Over time, it evolved into a flourishing medieval trading hub, eventually emerging as the vibrant and cosmopolitan city we know today.

Often referred to as the “City of Spires,” Copenhagen's skyline is adorned with numerous spires and centuries-old church towers that rise above its historic buildings, including Vor Frelsers Kirke and the Church of St. Nicholas.

The morning after my arrival was overcast and windy, allowing me to immerse myself in the remnants of a kingdom, including the Christiansborg Palace, a symbol of Danish political power and architectural heritage.

I wandered through its gilded chambers, such as the Queen’s Library and the Royal Reception Rooms, acquainting myself with the country’s history and craftsmanship etched into the high walls, defining the regal masterpiece.

Royalty exuded from the opulent rooms of every palace in the city, to the extent that when I visited the 17th-century Renaissance palace of Rosenborg Castle in Øster Voldgade, I recognized the resemblance of the royal treasures adorning its hallways and chambers, including the Danish Crown Jewels. 

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An imposing presence enveloped me in the expansive grounds of Amalienborg Palace, the official residence of the Danish monarch. The palace comprises four matching buildings surrounding a cobblestone courtyard, creating a captivating ensemble.

I followed the flow of people converging at the edges of the courtyard. Moments later, the royal guards, dressed in their red gala uniforms with black bearskin hats, stood at attention with their bayonets and rifles. The ceremony, marked by precise choreography and military precision, unfolded as the guards marched with measured steps and intricate formations.

It was a marvel to witness these cultural symbols of regality, offering a glimpse into the history of a country that I knew little about as a mighty kingdom by the sea. 

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There’s a whisper among residents that nudges the curious individual to experience Copenhagen through its canals and waterways. They say that through this manner, the vibrant city comes alive, allowing one to leisurely glide past picturesque waterfront architecture, historic landmarks, and lush green parks.

But I came to the city with a mission to explore it on foot. Instead, I traversed the city through winding pathways and rows of boutique shops near the City Hall Square, following the waterways that emerged from nearly every other corner. 

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As a tourist, I had eagerly anticipated seeing the iconic Little Mermaid statue. Upon arriving at Langelinie Pier, I sensed an excitement mirrored by the growing crowd.
The brisk sea breeze filled the air as I joined the throngs of fellow visitors, all drawn to the iconic sculpture inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's familiar fairytale.

As I strolled along the waterside promenade, I spotted a sign, and with one small turn, I knew I had found her. There she was, perched on her rock, gazing out to the sea with yearning in her eyes.

The promenade bustled with people, gathering near the statue to snap a photo with her. Some took selfies, others stood in contemplation, and a few children excitedly pointed to the sea as if expecting the waves to reclaim the bronze statue at any moment.

The Little Mermaid revealed intricate details—the delicate features of the mermaid's face, the gracefully flowing hair, and an indecipherable mystery in her eyes. Her posture, with her gaze fixed on the nearby horizon, seemed to harbor a dream of a distant place. 

Continuing from the waterways, I proceeded with my journey while savoring a traditional Danish smørrebrød, an open-faced sandwich garnished with fish and vegetables, a culinary staple and gateway to local flavors. The city’s bustling food markets, like Torvehallerne, offered an abundance of fresh produce, artisanal cheeses, and mouthwatering pastries that tempted at every turn.

One cannot leave Copenhagen without indulging in Danish pastries, known as wienerbrød. These flaky delights filled with cinnamon, custard, or fruit are a sweet symphony. Pairing them with a cup of rich, aromatic hot chocolate at one of the city’s stalls became a personal ritual as I retraced my steps along one of the city’s jetties.

The city’s proximity to the sea meant that seafood was an integral part of Danish cuisine. Danish fish dishes, fresh and expertly prepared, provided a taste of the sea’s bounty. The city’s commitment to sustainable fishing practices added depth to the experience, highlighting Denmark’s dedication to responsible and innovative dining. 

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To come full circle

One afternoon, I returned to the heart of the city, where the Tivoli Gardens are located. Considered the world’s second-oldest amusement park, the Tivoli Gardens are a whimsical place, featuring cobbled pathways and expansive gardens adorned with vibrant lights and fragrant blossoms.

Within its confines, I felt like a child once more, amidst the chatter of visitors and the sounds of the park rides. Amidst the playful commotion, I pondered whether the dreamlike state that the Tivoli Gardens invoked could ever find a place in a city as contemporary as Copenhagen.

I had no answer to my own question, but I realized that my visit to the city would not be complete without indulging in a distant memory. 

Nyhavn Harbor had already existed vividly in my mind.

So, after savoring some iconic Danish pastries outside the Tivoli Gardens, I went to the Kongens Nytorv station and walked toward the famed harbor, feeling a sense of nostalgic reverie washing over me.

The rows of 17th-century townhouses, each painted in bright hues, stood like sentinels along the canal. The tranquil waters in front of them mirrored their colorful reflections, creating a dazzling kaleidoscope of blue, orange, and red.

I strolled along the quayside, absorbing the bustling and lively atmosphere. Music, laughter, and conversation spilled from the cafes, where locals and tourists savored Danish cuisine and drank hot chocolate from their white mugs. Small boats gently bobbed on the water, their sails billowing in the breeze.

As I sat by the waterfront, I couldn’t help but feel a connection to the past, reminiscent of the cold living room floor of our house where I lay down, perusing that old encyclopedia and beholding the image of Nyhavn Harbor for the first time.

It was precisely as I had imagined it.

And as I spent the rest of the afternoon in that particular area, observing locals going about their daily lives and visitors exploring the Indre By neighborhood, I wondered if any of them held similar dreams or memories of waterways and harbors that would transport them to distant, happier places. 

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