Copenhagen, Denmark

Photographing one of the most beautiful cities of Northern Europe

28 Jan 2020 by Andrey Omelyanchuk

I made my first trip to Copenhagen aware that it’s one of Europe’s design centers, full of chic boutiques and stylish locals famous for their effortless good looks. In recent years, the city has developed a reputation as a culinary center, with collection of Michelin starred restaurants one might expect to find in Paris or Rome. There is no question; Copenhagen is an almost impossibly beautiful city full of equally beautiful people, all of whom appear to have stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. But that isn’t what drew me to Copenhagen.

Aerial View of Roofs and Canals of Copenhagen in the Evening, Denmark

Aerial View of Roofs and Canals of Copenhagen in the Evening, Denmark

I was more interested in the city’s past, from its simple beginnings as a Viking fishing village to a political and cultural capital. It wasn’t so much the city’s present that interested me, although I admire the Danish and their progressive values. I wanted to explore the gilded history of the city in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Copenhagen grew to become one of the dominant cultural and military powers of the Continent.

I started with Rosenborg Castle, home of the bold young Christian IV. With its towers and elaborate ornamentation, it’s hard to believe that the castle began as a simple summer home for the king. I thought of the brash, ambitious Christian, for whom no ordinary castle could be sufficient, gradually enlarging the castle, making it grander and more ornate, over twenty-eight years. He reigned for fifty-nine years, and almost half of that time was spent working on the castle that would become his favorite. So dear to him was Rosenborg that on his deathbed, he asked that he be moved to the castle, so that he could take his last breaths in the home that he loved.

Panorama of Amagertorv Square and Stork Fountain in the Morning, Copenhagen, Denmark

Panorama of Amagertorv Square and Stork Fountain in the Morning, Copenhagen, Denmark

It was Christian who was responsible for turning Copenhagen into a world-class city, and his building projects are among the city’s treasures even today. Rosenborg Castle might be his most grandiose effort, but it isn’t his only work. Google Copenhagen or buy a travel guide to Denmark and it’s likely that one of the first images that will greet you is the brightly-colored buildings and boats along Nyhavn Pier, arguably one of Copenhagen’s most beloved sites. That, too, was built by Christian, over several years in the 1670s. The pier’s construction took place against the backdrop of the Dano-Swedish War, and Swedish prisoners of war had the unenviable task of digging out the area that would one day become one of the city’s most famous locations.

Nyhavn Pier in the Old Town of Copenhagen, Denmark

Nyhavn Pier in the Old Town of Copenhagen, Denmark

As the gateway from the open ocean to the old inner city, Nyhavn was once colorful in a metaphorical sense; it was the haunt of sailors, criminals, and women of questionable virtue. If Nyhavn attracted more than its share of dubious characters, it also attracted more than a few writers, including Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in the area for a number of years. He lived at various addresses in Nyhavn, and wrote some of his most well-known works there, including The Princess and the Pea and The Tinderbox, all while living at No. 20.

There is nothing remotely dubious about Nyhavn today. It’s one of the most popular spots in Copenhagen and on a sunny day, tourists and locals alike stroll along the colorful pier or enjoy drinks at one of its many restaurants and bars. It’s a remarkably picturesque part of the city, and one rich with history. As I often did in Copenhagen, I found myself thinking back to the city’s past, picturing the sketchy characters of Nyhavn, as well as the bookish young man with a head full of ideas creating stories that would become national treasures.

But there is an older, simpler Copenhagen that interests me as well. I was curious about its beginnings as a small fishing village, so I spent some time photographing Amagertorv Square, a central part of the city that dates to the Middle Ages and takes its name from the Amager farmers who came to the square to sell their produce. At the time, Copenhagen was known as Havn, and the square marked the central point between the village and the beach. In time, the square became the town’s primary marketplace, as well as the site of chivalrous tournaments. Watching twenty-first tourists wandering in and out of the high-end shops that line the square today, I have to laugh to myself as I think of humble farmers selling their wares and audacious young men fighting and boasting.

Amagertorv Square and Stork Fountain in the Old Town of Copenhagen, Denmark

Amagertorv Square and Stork Fountain in the Old Town of Copenhagen, Denmark

At the widest end of the square — which is actually more of a triangle — is the Stork Fountain. Though it appears that the fountain could have been a part of Amagertorv since its inception, it is actually comparatively new. The fountain was a gift from the city in 1894 to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Louise. The fountain is three-tiered, and water flows from the top of the fountain, down to the storks (and frogs) below, into the nine-sided basin. The storks which give the fountain its name are graceful, poised to take flight. During my time in Copenhagen, I learned that the birds have a long history among the Danes. In part, this dates to the story of babies being delivered by storks, a legend created, in part, by native son Hans Christian Andersen. They are also seen as harbingers of spring and good luck. For years, newly-graduated midwives have danced around the Stork Fountain to celebrate their accomplishment.

Performing Arts Theater in Copenhagen, Denmark

Performing Arts Theater in Copenhagen, Denmark

For all of the glory of Copenhagen’s history, it wasn’t without its tragedies. More than a quarter of the grand old medieval city was destroyed in the fire of 1728, which burned for three days and left thousands of people homeless. Much of the city had to be rebuilt following the fire, leaving few traces of the old town. One of those post-fire additions was Kultorvet Square. Built on a site where charcoal and peat were once traded, Kultorvet translates to “coal square,” and the black stones that make up the square are meant to be reminiscent of the site’s history. In the center of the square sits a large, circular fountain that sometimes doubles as a stage. Its placement was intentional; it redirects pedestrians to the sides of the square so that the shops on the calmer side streets benefit from the square’s bustling foot traffic.

Not far from Kultorvet, one of the city’s cultural treasures began. Though it was later moved and no longer occupies its location just off the square, the publishing house of Carl Andreas Reitzel was founded in 1819. The publisher would print works by some of the city’s most well-known literary voices, including Hans Christian Andersen and Johan Ludvig Heiberg. The book shop that Reitzel started was itself a Copenhagen institution, a place where the city’s literary and artistic elite gathered, among them Soren Kierkegaard, who would also be published by Reitzel. Walking along Kultorvet’s black stones, I’m amazed by the talent to come from one relatively small, beautiful city.

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