A lot of cities have canals. There are, of course, the canals of Venice, but Northern Europe has a wealth of wonderful canals, too. Flemish cities are crisscrossed with all kinds of canals, such as those of Amsterdam, Bruges, and even Utrecht (great canals, the ones in Utrecht). Paris has the Canal St. Martin, which Americans only learned about when Amélie Poulin skipped stones across it, and a number of German cities have canals lined with beer gardens that shouldn’t be missed. None, though, have canals that are themselves as full of life as the canals of Copenhagen, which actually pulse.
Now, the reason Copenhagen’s canals pulse is that they are full of jellyfish. On some days, there are so many jellyfish that it almost seems you could walk across the canals by stepping on them. (Beware! This is just an illusion.) I noticed them for the first time when I returned to Copenhagen recently after several years of absence and was drawn to the canal near the Christiansborg Palace, by the sound of thousands of chanting voices and a bad rock band.
Neither the voices nor the music was produced by the jellyfish; they were instead produced by a host of unhappy students who were demonstrating against the government’s unwillingness to provide sufficient funds for their education.
They say that the government has cut spending, even though the government denies this. “Here, read this,” said one very enthusiastic student to me, in his inevitably perfect English, after I asked about the demonstration. “It’s in Danish,” I pointed out. “Oh yeah,” he said. But then I assured him that I would be able to get it translated by my Pregnant Blond Danish Friend (more on her later) and he perked up. I took advantage of this to ask him and his numerous friends about the jellyfish.
“Oh yeah, the jellyfish!” he said, glancing over the side of the bridge upon which we were standing. “They’re nice. I think it’s mostly around this time of the year. There are almost as many jellyfish in the canal as there are rusted bikes,” he said, as his friends concurred. “It’s kind of a tradition to throw your old bicycles into the canal. You do a kind of funeral thing.” Another student interrupted: “It’s also a good place to ditch a bicycle you’ve stolen. Not that I’ve ever stolen any myself, of course.”
The jellyfish all seem to be of the same species. They are white, with a pinkish hue, and they have four little circles in their bell. They just float along amid the leaves and the bobbing bottles of Tuborg, pulsating from time to time. They apparently lead relatively tranquil lives in the canals, probably because there are no sea turtles down there to bother them.
There are, however, sculptures. Farther along on the same canal is what must be the only maritime sign of its kind, stating: “Attention, sunken sculpture,” evidently for the sake of any boaters who might be taking an excursion. Near this sign is a buoy, and from the side of the canal, if you look into the water near the buoy, you can see the vague forms of a sculpture entitled Merman With Seven Sons. The merman and his sons seem to be having a parley of sorts, down there among the gently pulsating jellyfish.
The canal in question is not too far from the Stroget (names are, as usual, lacking the local squiggles and slashes—use your imagination), Copenhagen’s fashionable shopping street. Along with their canals, many cities also have fashionable shopping streets, but Copenhagen’s manages to retain a particularly Danish charm, with pleasant pastel-colored buildings fronting a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, where you can buy pralined almonds sold in rolled-up paper, and you can dip into a store for salty licorice.
A moment here on salty licorice. Danes love licorice (always black—they’ve never heard of red licorice). This is not particularly unusual. Many European cultures retain a particularly honored spot for licorice, including the French, who call it “réglisse” and suck on horrid little black licorice pastilles. Anyway, the difference in Denmark is that they put salt on the stuff. (I believe they do this in Sweden, too.) They make little fish out of black licorice, roll them in salt, then ask you to try it in the same sinister way that a Brit will give you bread with marmite. It is very, very nasty. Be warned.
Back to the Stroget. You can stroll down the Stroget for hours, unless you’re as pregnant as my Pregnant Blond Danish Friend, who gets tired from all that strolling and, periodically, has to stop in a shoe shop. Since I am nowhere near as fond of shoe shops as is she, this caused a degree of strain, so I did give in a couple of times and stood around while she looked at a special kind of boots, which I think were called something like “ooks.” At least Danish stores on the Stroget have a charming habit of sometimes serving champagne and salty licorice in the evening. You can skip the licorice.
The Stroget boasts the Guinness World Record Museum, which I somehow suspect is not the only Guinness World Record Museum, nor, for that matter, even the flagship one, but which looks interesting enough from the outside. It certainly drew the attention of my Pregnant Blond Danish Friend, primarily because the display window features what it claims to be the world’s most expensive pair of shoes (or a copy of them). My Pregnant Blond Danish Friend immediately disputed this, saying that the £13,500 cited in the display was nothing, and that Jimmy Choo has undoubtedly made more expensive shoes than that. I don’t know who Jimmy Choo is, but I do know that I’ll never be wearing any of his shoes.
Not too far from the Guinness World Record Museum is the Museum Erotica, which also has some shoes, I suppose. I didn’t go in (not out of any puritanism, believe me, but rather because I had other things to do), but I did take a close look at their pamphlet. The Museum Erotica has Chinese silk screens, Indian etchings, a whole room dedicated to Marilyn Monroe, extremely lifelike rubber women, a large golden phallus, and pictures of people who probably could have qualified for inclusion at the Guinness World Record Museum down the street.
After a hard day of cultural enlightenment at Copenhagen’s museums (there are others that are undoubtedly more cultural, although perhaps not as enlightening, but for those, just read a guidebook), you can relax at any one of the trendy cafés that line the Stroget or its tributaries. Danish cafés are cool. Most things in Denmark are cool, for that matter. It must be faced: Danes are among the coolest people around, and any place full of Danes sipping coffee—or even hydeblumst, a very Danish thing made of elderflowers—is bound to be relatively trendy, just because it’s full of Danes sipping stuff. You can even sit outside on the terrace in October, since Danish cafés are kind enough to provide little blankets on every chair. I think that’s just spiffy.
I can’t proclaim with any certainty that the rest of Copenhagen’s canals, inlets, and bays are also full of jellyfish, because I didn’t do a thorough census. However, they’re worth a visit even if they’re jellyfish-free. For that matter, even if you stay away from the water entirely, Copenhagen is worth a visit. You can dye your hair blond, hang out in a trendy café with a little blanket over your shoulders, sip hot spiced wine … in summary, pretend you’re Danish, and be really, really cool.