Denmark Diaries: The Word of the Day is “Beer”

Monday, April 16, 2018

We woke up feeling the effects of our impromptu bar crawl, and a hefty breakfast was in order. Luckily, a delicious brunch place, Sokkelund, was in easy walking distance–and even better, they served coffee refills. I had scrambled eggs with salmon and avocado.

After fueling up properly, we were ready to start our day. The Carlsberg Brewery was a 20-minute walk away, most of it through a scenic park. One of the many things I loved about Copenhagen was the amount of green public spaces. The path wound its way past ponds filled with swans and a tree onto which dozens of people had tied handwritten cards and pacifiers with ribbons. In Scandinavian traditional folklore, once a baby gave up their pacifier  they would write a note thanking it for its service and tie to a tree in remembrance.

tree covered in handwritten notes with pacifiers tied to branches on ribbons

pacifier tree

The area where the Carlsberg brewery is located is currently being developed into a whole village complete with apartments, restaurants, and shops. We arrived at the brewery just in time to miss the tour, so instead, we bellied up to the bar for some samples. Our bartender told us that Chicago was his favorite U.S. city (second time in two days!) and it reminded him a lot of his hometown Glasgow.

plate of oysters

We ate most of these oysters before we took a photo

For dinner, we went to an area called Kødbyen Meatpacking District, or “Meat City.” As the sun slowly set, we sat outside and ate oysters from Kødbyens Fiskebar, then crossed the plaza to check out Warpigs  Brewpub and their BBQ selection. As soon as we walked into Warpigs, I felt like I was in a Chicago bar (which makes sense, given Mikkeller’s partnership with Three Floyds). We got a few different beers, the pork shoulder, pork and beans, and pecan pie, and everything was fantastic.

plate of BBQ pork and beans

We also ate most of this pork before we took a photo

After two back-to-back meals (don’t judge, we’re on vacay), walking to our next destination sounded heavenly. Too bad we stumbled onto the next place we wanted to check out within 400 meters: Fermentoren Beer Bar. We descended the steps into the small, packed bar and knew that we’d struck gold yet again. The bar had an excellent selection of craft beers on tap, so we found an open table where we could squeeze ourselves and camp out for a while.

beer

beer

On the last leg of our walk home, we made one final stop at a bar that totally intrigued us from the outside with its Western-themed motifs and obscured windows, a place called HH Ranch. As we stepped inside, I could swear we just transported to rural kitschy America. The bar was decked out in wood paneling and log cabin decor, and the barstools were made out of western saddles. There was even a Johnny Mnemonic-themed pinball machine(!!).  The place was a total trip. We had one final lager and then called it a night; we had big plans for the next day.

 

Denmark Diaries: Towers, Roller Coasters, and Beer

Sunday, April 14, 2018

I woke up around 3:30 a.m. local time to the sound of chirping birds (apparently, the title of Happiest Country on Earth includes wildlife because those birds sounded chipper all night long). After tossing and turning for a bit, I managed to fall back asleep until…11:30 a.m. Oops! Kurt and I didn’t want to sleep away half of our first full day, but so it goes. We rose and showered, then met up with our friends. The kids were ready for lunch and Kurt and I for breakfast, so we took the Metro two stops over to Nørreport, in the heart of the city. Right by the train stop, we went to Torvehallerne, which is a large market with indoor and outdoor vendors and tons of food stalls, booths, and wares. I went for a traditional porridge breakfast made with fresh organic ingredients from Grød along with my morning (noon) coffee, and Kurt got a Danish sandwich, coffee, and a beer (a.k.a. vacation mode). After lunch, we said goodbye to our friends who had family errands to take care of, and Kurt I headed out to sightsee on our own.

Our first stop was Rundetaarn, or Round Tower, an architectural project of Christian IV built in the 17th century. The tower consists of a 209-meter long spiral ramp, built because the King wanted to be able to ride his horse all the way to the top. I love horses and tales of extreme hubris, so we needed to check it out. About halfway up the tower there’s a coffee shop and art exhibit, and then on the observation deck, you get a fantastic 360-degree view of Copenhagen. Selfies were taken.

skyline view of Copenhagen

Not a selfie.

We wandered around the shops of Strøget for a bit, then found a sidewalk cafe to rest and enjoy a beer. The table seated next to us consisted of two British men around our age, so we ended up chatting with them for a bit, commiserating on the rough state of our countries. When we told them where we were from, they got really excited and told us that Chicago is their favorite U.S. city, which is always nice to hear.

We did a bit more walking until we saw the top of the swing ride at Tivoli Gardens, so we headed in that direction. Tivoli is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world and our friends mentioned that it was a ‘must’ for our trip. We bought entrance tickets, then strolled the grounds and checked out the incredible gardens and classic rides and games. We saw the swing ride that lured us to the park like a beacon, and I couldn’t get over how high up it went. Definitely put the dinky swings at Six Flags to shame.

swing ride at amusement park

a hard nope for me as an acrophobic

There’s an extensive food court adjacent to the fairgrounds, so we got some desserts and hung out inside until a light rain passed through. As the evening grew later, the lights throughout the park turned on, revealing colorful lanterns. I tried getting a picture of Kurt under the lights using his fancy camera, but struggled with the shutter for so long that a random passerby approached and said to me “I can’t take it anymore; go stand next to him and I’ll take the photo.”

couple stands on walkway under colorful lanterns

photo taken by a man tortured by witnessing my ineptness

After leaving Tivoli, we continued our walking streak, burning off the calories from the schnitzel and chocolate mousse I’d consumed. We realized two key facts: we were less than 2 miles from our friends’ house, and there was a Mikkeller bar located on our direct route home. Wins all around! Our nighttime stroll turned into a lowkey pub crawl as we stopped for pints at Mikkeller, followed by a German bar, and ending at a neighborhood bistro.

man sits at small bar table attached to wall

Table for two

We returned home by midnight, the pints helping lull us to sleep (and onto a closer proximation to local time).

 

Denmark Diaries: Arriving in Copenhagen

Friday, April 13/Saturday, April 14, 2018

On a lovely Friday the 13th evening, Kurt and I embarked on a trip to Denmark to visit some friends living abroad and explore Copenhagen. We wrapped up a hectic work week, then took a quick Uber to O’Hare Airport where we’d be departing from on IcelandAir. On the plane, I watched The Greatest Showman  and tried to nap, then we had an hour-long layover in Reykjavík (oh hai Iceland!) before landing in Copenhagen around 12:40 pm the next day.

At the airport, we ran into some confusion when, after picking up our bags and reaching the exit doors to outside, we thought we missed Customs entirely and accidentally snuck into Denmark. (Later, we learned that since we went through Customs in Reykjavík during our layover, we didn’t need to show our passports again in Denmark because both countries are in the Schengen Area.)

We bought train tickets at the billeter machine, then took the Metro to Fredericksberg, a residential area within Copenhagen where our friends live. Once we arrived at the correct Metro stop, we ducked into a Starbucks to get some free wifi and find the directions for the 5-minute walk to our friends’ home.

image of Copenhagen street and a bicycle parking area

Copenhagen!

After settling in and then catching up a bit in our friends’ living room, we all took a walk together around the neighborhood for a tour of some local food, coffee, and bar options. With their two young kids in tow, we grabbed a hot dog and coffees and sat in a park where the kids could play and draw for a bit. I observed two young girls taking turns rollerblading on a 4×8′ apartment building balcony.

For a late lunch/early dinner/whatever meal was closest to mine and Kurt’s whacked-out internal clocks, we went to the Laundromat Cafe. Kurt and I instantly recognized it because we had had a drink at their Iceland location a year earlier. The great thing about visiting friends with kids is that everyone’s up for getting ice cream after a meal, so we followed lunch with a trip to Social Foodies, a dessert shop with philanthropic interests in helping marginalized communities in Africa. (Even more of a reason to eat ice cream every day!)

IMG_9437

Fredericksberg, Copenhagen

The sun was setting by the time we got back to the house, and Kurt and I said goodnight to our friends who began their bedtime routine for the kids. We did some light unpacking, then passed out pretty quickly ourselves after a long day and night of traveling into a time zone 7 hours ahead of Chicago.

Iceland Diaries: Homeward Bound, Final Thoughts

Sunday, Feb. 19

The morning was spent packing our bags and cleaning up the Airbnb. We finished exactly at checkout time, 11 a.m., then made the 10-minute walk with our bags to the bus terminal, where we had 40 minutes or so to kill before our Flybus departed. As I was sitting and enjoying my coffee, one of my friends pointed out a girl walking through the station to me: “She’s got the same bag as you.” Sure enough, she also had a bright blue Deuter pack. I noticed her briefly before turning back to my phone and coffee. When we eventually boarded the Flybus, it was packed, with every last seat taken.

At the airport, we climbed off the bus and went to pick up our bags. We were near the back so most of the passengers had already grabbed their belongings. Kurt got his bag and pointed at the blue Deuter bag left in the cargo hold. As I picked it up, I spotted two Nalgenes tucked into the front pockets. I didn’t have two Nalgenes. My heart leapt into my throat and I froze in panic. “Wait, this isn’t my bag!”

“You better find her fast!” Kurt said, snapping out of my shock. Wearing the stranger’s backpack, I sprinted inside the airport and scanned the crowd for my pack. Finally, I spotted her in line at the WOW Airline counter, just about to check in. I ran over and tapped her on the shoulder, saying breathlessly “I think you’ve my bag.” She looked at my pack and hers.

“Oh my God! I am so, so sorry. Wow, that would have been terrible!” she said. We traded backpacks back.

“No worries! I’m just glad I found you!” I said. My heartbeat began to slow back down as I made my way back to my friends, relieved. If my friend hadn’t pointed out the duplicate bag back at the bus terminal, I might not have looked as closely when I picked up the bag and wouldn’t have realized until we got back home.

view of Greenland from our plane

Major bag crisis averted. We checked in, did some final shopping, got some food, and made our way to the gate. It was the beginning of the end of our smooth, uneventful journey back to Chicago. I stayed awake for the return flight, and took advantage of IcelandAir’s movie selection. After considering Frozen, I stuck with the Arctic theme and watched The Golden Compass, followed by the musical Chicago to bring it on home. I was sad that our amazing vacation was over, but was eager to get home and be reunited with our dog and two cats.

A few closing thoughts on our trip: Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country. The people are friendly. It’s expensive as hell, but an easy trip to make (only a 6-hour flight from Chicago, no language barrier, etc.). The country has a population of 323,000 and tourism is on the rise, with an estimated 1.5 visitors in 2016. That same year also saw the first time that American tourists outnumbered Icelandic residents. The people of Iceland were nothing but hospitable to us during our trip, and have talked of the economic growth and job boom due to the surge in tourism. But on the other hand, there’s the common complaint that Iceland is turning into ‘Disneyland’ for American tourists. Another local talked to us about the rising cost of food and nightlife; prices increase because tourists will pay it, but it is pushing out the locals who are finding it harder to go out to dinner that often. And then there’s always the issue of tourists who behave poorly (thankfully we didn’t witness any of this, except for a table full of British women who dine-and-ditched at a restaurant in Hella). Hearing and seeing these things is a bummer because it is a fantastic destination and I’d hate to see it change too much. I can’t imagine the solitude of the southern coast overrun by a rash of brand new hotels popping up and down the beach to accommodate the masses.

All that being said, I’m definitely glad we went, and I would still encourage others to visit. It was like living in a beautiful storybook illustration for a week. Here’s a few tips I’ll share:

  • Don’t be scared off of traveling during the winter; the crowds will be smaller and there’s still so much to do and see! But you will need to maximize the daylight hours so schedule your days smartly, or plan for a longer trip in order to pack everything in.
  • Don’t get your hopes up too much about seeing the Northern Lights, especially if you only have a week or less. You need a combination of the right conditions (a moderate or strong Aurora forecast and a clear night sky). It’s a matter of luck.
  • If you’re planning to drink, load up on booze at the Duty Free store at the airport as soon as you land in Iceland. It’s time to revisit the pregaming days of your twenties, because drinks at bars and restaurants are $$$.
  • Get out of the city. Reykjavík is a fun place to visit and you’ll surely enjoy the restaurants and bars, but at the end of the day, it’s a small town and you’ll get the feel for it quickly. Rent a car or book a seat on a tour bus and drive out of town for as much of your trip as possible to view the stunning sights and geographical wonders.
  • If you rent a vehicle, don’t mess around and get the gravel insurance.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle. All of the tap water is safe to drink and tastes great (just let the tap run for a minute if the hot water has been on recently, and the sulfur smell will disappear).
  • You can use credit cards everywhere, so don’t worry about converting USD into ISK. I didn’t touch cash once for our entire trip, and used my credit card for everything from taxis to beers to a single cup of coffee. And don’t look at your credit card bill until you get home; you’ll have more fun that way.
  • We turned off our cellular data on our phones and got by easily just using wifi, as it’s found in pretty much every hotel, restaurant, tour bus, bus terminal, horse farm, you name it.
  • Hang onto your shopping receipts because you can get VAT (value added taxes) refunds when purchasing goods for 6,000 ISK or more.
  • Bring your own towels and flip flops to the swimming pools to save some money (or in case they don’t have any). Consider a waterproof phone case or electronics bag if you want to take a lot of photos at the pool or in Blue Lagoon.
  • Wear layers and make sure the top ones are waterproof, especially on days when you’re hiking around waterfalls.
  • Don’t be afraid of Harpa; she’s a good horse. Rub her neck just under her mane; she loves it.

Skál!