Friday, June 02, 2017

Travelogue 756 – June 2
City Steeples
Part Two


The most recognizable landmark in Copenhagen’s Latin Quarter might be the round tower. Another project by the great Danish king Christian IV, the tower was built to be an astronomical observatory. It was completed in 1642, and serve as an observatory until the nineteenth century. It’s squeezed in among the busy streets and university buildings, a beautiful specimen of the glory years of old King Christian.

I admired the tower during my meandering tour of the district, but I didn’t know I could make the climb. It was a nice bit of good fortune that I found the tower open one evening, after the climbing theme had clearly emerged for this trip.

I’m cycling across town, and I’m circling under the tower, when I see the door open for a group of uncertain tourists. I shrug and stop. Their uncertainty works to galvanize me. I pay for the ticket, and it’s not much. It’s a worthy stop, after all, ascending one more height in steeple-happy Copenhagen. It’s a worthy stop, if only for the fun of running up the circling ramp that takes you up to the top, best done on a summer evening with a pint of good beer rising to your head and feeding an exhilarating dizziness.

Memorable are several stops on the way up. There is the window niche near the top, where you look out over the peak of the tiled roof of the old church that adjoins the tower, and over the city beyond that. Nearby, there is the small chamber with a floor of glass, in which you can look down the entire depth of the central core of the tower, the central column you’ve been circling on the ramp. The tower is an observatory, but I never saw any stars, even the cartoon stars of exertion. The tower isn’t really so high. The view from the top was enjoyable was not overwhelming.

A better view of Copenhagen comes with the spontaneous climb up another tower. This one is over in Christianshavn, the neighbourhood I visited on my first day, the city’s settlement on the other island in the harbour, in the waters between the big islands of Zealand and Amager. Here, not far from the cafĂ© where I stopped for warmth on my first day, the Church of Our Saviour rises above the neighbourhood of canals built to mimic Amsterdam. This church (and the neighbourhood) also date back to the busy reign of Christian IV, though the majority of the construction happened after his passing. The steeple I climbed wasn’t finished until the middle of the next century. The steeple was built to a daring helix design, with an external staircase turning anticlockwise. The direction of the stairway apparently fueled speculation about the orthodoxy of the architect. The seventeenth century was fond of its demons, and artists seem as vulnerable as children in the lore of the times.

It’s a beautiful day, and there is a line to climb the stairs. We have to climb all the way from ground level, a total of four hundred steps. Initially, we are climbing up a tight internal staircase, steep wooden steps originally the territory of lonely sacristans. We pass by caged little niches like small neighbourhood attics, where pieces lie in positions of neglect, plaster angels and church bells.

Then we are outside, climbing the final hundred fifty steps, steps that narrow as we approach the gilded globe at the top. The winds are blowing, and all that stands between us and flight is the small gilded railing. We stand close to that railing to let people pass on their way down. I’m surprised by the nonchalance of parents letting their children run ahead up the tight spiral.

It’s exhilarating. There’s a wonderful view of the city and harbor. I stand a while at each corner of the compass, letting people squeeze past. Fortunately, the temperatures have risen considerably since my first day. Finally, I pull out the camera. I ask someone to take my picture, profiled against the free sky and Copenhagen’s horizon, my hair blowing in the persistent wind.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Travelogue 755 – June 1
City Steeples
Part One


The spokes are turning, and I’m still humming the song from ‘Joshua Tree’. I can’t remember where I picked it up, but I haven’t been able to let it go. And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. The refrain seems appropriate somehow to long bicycle journeys in new cities. I’m perpetually on the lookout for something, a pleasant cafe, the perfect photo, a bathroom. It’s a restless profession, tourism. Human and on vacation: biology, curiosity and the appetites all vie for attention, and none are set aside with complacency.

‘Can’t get no satisfaction,’ the 60s generation famously sang. It was a call to action. By the 80s, the anthem had softened into a wistful and wise ‘still haven’t found’. Relate this to travel – and life is travel: we never quite recover from our first trips, the highs and the disappointments. Some of us perennially chase the highs. Some of us give up travel, in pouting surrender to the disappointments.

I’m still cycling. Even after the cold start on my first day, I’m still on the bike. Cycling really is the best way to see a new city. You are free to meander and stop anywhere, which is especially useful when the guide books or sites recommend an area of the city, as opposed to single sights. There is the Latin Quarter in Copenhagen, for example, ‘Latin’ for its association with the medieval university. It’s fabled to be colourful and eclectic, medieval and modern, full of cute cafes and shops. Fabled and true: general recommendations leave one unsure how to capture the place. Have I seen the most colourful and chic cafe, or is that hidden over on the next block? Shall I check? When do I know I’ve seen it all?

I have seen a good slice of it. I’ve pedalled along a number of quiet streets adorned with colourful old houses. I’ve stopped in a few cafes with character. I’ve found a bar-in-bookstore that feels like a university study hall. I’ve stopped in the fifteenth-century St. Peter’s church, a pretty church in a picturesque, walled-off compound. The original church interior was lost in a fire, but interesting is the old Dutch painting of the sixteenth-century leaders of the Protestant movement. The church became German Lutheran during the seventeenth century, and was a centre for the Germans in the city until the nineteenth century, when a unified Germany became a threat to Denmark.

The church building has a striking steeple. Church towers in Copenhagen are unique. They spiral and they rise in intriguing elaborated sections, sometimes incorporating gilded spheres like shiny ball bearings set in a ring and holding up the rest.

The church-steeple tour of Copenhagen will eventually lead you to Slotsholmen, the privileged little island in the harbour, separated from the city only by canals now, the site of the city’s first fortress, and where the centre of Danish government has resided for centuries. Christiansborg Palace has another distinctive steeple, with three crowns and a set of those ubiquitous revolving golden spheres. Slotsholmen has another, far more intriguing tower, within sight of the palace. This one rises above the seventeenth-century Danish bourse, a steeple made of the intertwining tails of four dragons.

It’s an occasion for climbing heights and plumbing the depths, this trip to the flat capital of a flat land. My hosts have recommended climbing the tower at the Christiansborg Palace for a magnificent view of the city. I stand in a line a while, but I lose patience. Instead, I go the other direction. Underneath the palace, as it happens, are ruins form the first two fortresses built on this site, discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century. The first was built by the warrior bishop Absalon in the twelfth century. The second was built several centuries later, after the jealous lords of the Hanseatic League torched the first one. Soon afterward, in the fifteenth century, the castle became the principal residence of Danish kings.

So there in the basement of the kings, tourists can amble among the remains of the stone walls of the city’s first buildings -- essentially, remains of the city’s emergence from nature and from the forgotten quarrels of local tribes. Absalon was a steely character, the type who, if he survives his own aggressive exploits, leaves his stamp on the map. And this Absalon did. It takes a bit of imagination to interpret the broken walls, dull stones abandoned in the dark under the palace. That’s the challenge posed by all ruins. But here was the birth of the city. These are the traces of history. It’s humbling and inspiring both.