When the Boeing 747 lands at Frankfurt Am Main from Istanbul, my friend Sundar busses me on both cheeks, puts on his trench coat, slings his black leather bag on his shoulders and tells me to ‘Enjoy the weather!
‘Enjoy the weather my foot!’ I retort. He laughs as we walk toward our respective boarding gates. Earlier I squinted over the weather news of the International Herald Tribune that said the temperature in Copenhagen would be a low of -7C and a high of 4C.
I am flying into Denmark in the final days of March, anticipating the prospect of the end of a dark and long winter and the early start of spring. But when I set foot on the labyrinthine Kastrup Airport, my hands are numb from the biting cold.
Although many tourists are content to spend their entire visit to Denmark in Copenhagen, I choose a path less traveled and spend more time in Aarhus, its second largest city with a quarter million people at the time of my visit. It is nestled in the eastern coast of the Jutland peninsula and from Copenhagen, is 25 minutes by plane, two and a half hours by car or four hours by train.
Cruising the roads of Denmark with its near perfect highway system and tree lined streets is a delectable experience. There is no traffic to speak of. We are running at a speed of 140/KPH, sometimes even faster, leaving puffs of snow on the pavement. Once we stop for some candies at a Q8 and I only see three people – the store guy, my driver and me.
This time of year, the trees are bare, awaiting the promise of a reluctant spring.
” It’s not always like this” says my friend Catherine as we stuff groceries in my basket at Fotex. “Even I am puzzled by the weather”
I come out with my shadow from the mid-morning sun. As I trace my the cobblestone steps back to my place, there are specks of snow on my hair.
Unlike Old World European cities, Aarhus is not ‘touristy’. But it is attractive just the same. Its appeal lies not in what it has but in what it does not have – the pretenses, the frills and fussiness be it fashion or furnishing, the put-on manner and demeanor so commonplace in cosmopolitan cities being peddled in travel and tour packages. It is this quaintness that is Aarhus ‘strength. But it is this very strength that may as well be its weakness. To a weary urbanite seeking quietude, this could be nirvana. To a party animal, this could be indubitably ho-hum.
Still Aarhus is not entirely without thrills. It has a vibrant social life among locals in the evenings, free Danish language classes on Tuesdays for residents and expats and a dance club, most popular of which is the salsa club on Fridays. The restaurant row is a patch work of Asian, European, Scandinavian and Arabic cuisine, all within striking distance of one another.The White Elephant, a Thai restaurant across from Pustervig is a favorite. Evenings, in spite of the chill, the movie houses are almost always full.
In Badstuegade, where my apartment sits right smack in the middle of the commercial district, I awake to the chimes of the bells of the Cathedral of St. Clement, more popularly known as the Aarhus Cathedral and in itself is a tourist attraction.
The Romanesque cathedral is over 300 feet long and is richly adorned with ornate golden gate and stained glass windows that have survived a 300-year history of construction, destruction and restoration. Construction began in 1200, a few years after the art of building bricks was introduced in Denmark.
In Aarhus, it is not necessary to hop from one museum to another to imbibe a sense of the past. Surrounding the cathedral are red brick buildings – some flaking and peeling off, some caked in mud but resiliently withstanding the ravages of nature and the rampages of time. Old houses, perhaps once proud, have been converted to galleries, coffee and pottery houses.
On a weekend, the eponymous St. Clement’s Torv is bustling with people as merchants in makeshift stalls sell their wares on the side walk -mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, potted kalanchoe and mums, bundles of multicolored roses and tulips, dreadlocks and African bangles. The guys I buy my top-up for my phone from are from Congo.
On a clear day, in the same square, one sees a tourist guide craning her neck and straining to be heard by a pack of 30 or so young tourists – perhaps French, German or English, pleading with them ‘to be back here at exactly 4:15’. And the pack scampers in all directions. After all, the shops close at 4 or 5PM on a weekday.
Magasin is the biggest store I visited in Aarhus. But the whole stretch of the main road is lined by stores selling bric a brac (I found with almost juvenile delight an elderly couple doll in skimpy bikinis to add to my elderly doll collection), the customary Hans Christian Andersen books, porcelain plates, post cards, busts and other stuff that make for once in a lifetime memories.
Perhaps it is this lassitude during the weekday that compels many Danes, men and women alike to get a life during the weekend. This they do by downing (or drowning) in beer (Carlsberg, what else) which I see being carried in boxes from Fotex and are stuffed in the back of their cars on a Friday afternoon. Or they take long drives to the countryside. That is why when Emiliana from Trieste and Francesca from Rome come over for the rest of my stay, we decide to take the hour long drive to Billund to visit what else – wow – Legoland.
We slept late the night before, having spent much time catching up the story of our lives and equally sordid projects (Emiliana’s impact of age on exercise and Francesca effect of age on heart rate variability) and so we wake up late in the morning. It is a Sunday. It is April’s Fools Day. Pesci di Aprile. But we decide it is going to be a lovely day, the day we get ready for Legoland.
Federico, another Italian, a Danish couple with their kids and a sprinkling of Asians join our group. Perhaps worried that he will be distracted by our interminable chatter, he reminds us to make a right turn when we get to Vejle and then another to get to Billund.
On the way, we are presented with a panorama of cattle and barns, country houses, windmills, cloudy skies and more cloudy skies.
We arrive in Legoland shortly after noon and join the long queue and pay the 160 kroner entrance fee (USD20).
As a theme park, Legoland Billund (there are others in Carlsbad, California and Windsor, England), has many components. But it might as well be the ‘plastic city’, its main component being the Miniland. Using millions of standard Lego bricks and pieces, Legoland is a miniature mirror image of the real thing, just as meticulously detailed as it is complex. This windy afternoon the park is brimming with people from the toddlers to the tottery. They swarm around the charming miniature cities showcasing order, serenity and and accuracy amidst the prospect of geographical improbability or incongruity.
As I amble into its narrow, almost foot wide paths, I feel like a giant standing tall in my plastic kingdom. From a distance, Miniland is picture perfect. It is only when one looks closely that a mega-pixelized city in plastic and glue is revealed – the lovers locked in an embrace on a boat in dry dock by the waterfront, the signage, the tower in the airport of Munich, the lighthouse by the wharf of Copenhagen, the oil rig , the snow capped Mt. Fuji, the canals of Amsterdam and if I do the entire stretch, I’d be around the world in eighty minutes.
‘The lessons of Legoland are not about one particular architectural design over another’ writes Tom Vanderbilt. “What makes the miniature cities compelling is that they, like other reproductions, give an illusion of an entire city at a glance. To do this, they must collapse our ideas of what a city is into digestible pieces of information – one that adheres to our preconceptions – with significant buildings faithfully reproduced, time-honored urban districts included, and enduring notions of civil lives held intact.”
The welcome brochure tells one that ‘you are about to enter an enchanted world, where grown ups are transported back to childhood and children feel like giants. The park suddenly bubbles with life and anyone who may have lost a childhood can partially reclaim part of it in Legoland.
From Legotop, the rotating observation tower, one is accorded a bird’s eye view of the world. And this is perhaps the reason for its success. Why a stream of people continues to come since it opened in 1968. What many dream of probably doing in a lifetime becomes concrete in a day, in this plastic city.
The next weekend is also spent in the countryside, to visit the church in Ronde (Round Church), and another small church in Ebeltoft, quite an abbreviated ‘Visita Iglesia’ for the Holy Week. The following day we head to Grenaa, where the Kattegattecentret is found, its main attraction being the shark tunnel and the glimpse of life under the sea.
Ebeltoft is a small and quiet town that may well be an open air museum. Its old houses are said to date back to the Renaissance period – nothing higgledy-piggledy here, as the houses, some with red stucco roofs, are arranged in a neat fashion.
One finds in Ebeltoft the world’s smallest town hall also called ‘The Old Town Hall’ along with the world’s longest wooden vessel, Fregaten Jylland but that being a Sunday, both museums are closed.
Despite the weather, there are many things to like about Denmark – its history that retells the conquests of the Vikings, its people’s inordinate attention to environmental protection and its honesty. I must have been so overcome with excitement that I did not notice my wallet fall out of my back pack until I am home. A call to Legoland the following day confirms that the wallet has been found and returned with all the currencies and other documents intact. I take the train the following day to claim it from Rune, the information officer at the counter.
The I have constructed my memories of Denmark like tiny pieces and fragments of Lego that makes for a cohesive post card pretty picture of nostalgia. The kind that makes kids keep their Lego long after they have grown up because like the toys, you never throw these memories away. You put them in the box and they are there to stay. Long after I have said ‘Farvel’.
(Photos sourced from internet, Danish and Aaruhus tourism websites)