Wonderful Denmark; Copenhagen Combines Liberalism and history.(TRAVEL)

Article excerpt

Byline: Bruce Hamilton, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Hanging out near the harbor at the Mojo Blues Bar, you can hear the '50s-style sound of the Instigators as they barrel through Floyd Dickson's "Hey Bartender." For a moment, the cramped, smoky dive seems somewhere near the Mississippi.

But the patrons are drinking Tuborg, the waterway is the Inderhavnen, and the singer finishes tunes by telling the audience, "Tak." It is the only Danish word I know and is, not coincidentally, simple to pronounce: Thanks.

After a week in Copenhagen, you won't feel the blues. It's 4,015 miles away from Washington, but the city only feels foreign when you see its stupefying architecture, hear the melodic, garbled consonants of Danish or taste the bitter black gelatin candies that local children love.

Like other European capitals, Copenhagen is an intriguing blend of modern sensibilities and Old World ethos. Its progressive culture easily absorbs technology: Attendants at Copenhagen's Kastrup airport ride Segway Human Transporters. It seems most Danish children have cellular phones.

Scandinavia's largest city is considered one of the world's most liberal societies. Same-sex unions are legally recognized, and police tolerate a 20-year-old illegal commune where drugs are sold openly. A growing tide of nationalism and the government's recent tilt to the right, however, have yielded strictures on marriage to immigrants.

Copenhagen may be the seat of the world's oldest kingdom, but it is far from stodgy. With a bustling night life, myriad museums, scenic landmarks and fantastic attractions, it easily earns its "wonderful" reputation. It's tourist-friendly, with an efficient, extensive bus system. Downtown is easily navigable on foot, and bicyclists are omnipresent, riding in wide, separate street lanes. The Danes I met were proud but kind and obliging.

Danes apparently have an affinity for Americans; on one island, they celebrate July Fourth. My hosts explained that more Danes live in the United States than in any other nation. Everyone I talked with in the city of about 1.7 million (nearly a third of the country's population) spoke English .

Walking around

Walking tours downtown begin best with Radhuspladsen in the old city's center. The forbidding town hall towers over a bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen, beloved as a touristy photo op, and a column topped by two vikings playing ancient horns called lurs. At night, reflections from the multicolored neon surrounding the square suffused the often rain-wet streets.

Nearby, crowds flocked to and from the mouth of the Stroget, an area that's strictly for strolling. The pedestrian-only mall winds nearly a mile through Copenhagen's core and comprises five streets. Clubs, cafes, stores and specialty shops line the cobblestone promenade. It's a great place to lose track of time.

Large, curvaceous Fernando Botero sculptures from a traveling exhibition made the streetscape near Nytorv square seem whimsical in February. Despite its bustle, the mall often felt intimate, with couples striding past the pungent wreaths of a vendor's nut-roasting smoke.

The Stroget concludes with Kongens Nytorv, or King's New Market, the city's largest square. At its center stands a bronze statue of Christian IV on horseback. Even in a drizzling rain, children come out to circle the statue on the surrounding ice rink.

Kongens Nytorv is something of an architectural showcase. It is bounded by the French Embassy, also known as Thott's Mansion, built for a naval hero in 1685. The baroque Danish Academy of Fine Arts, formerly Charlottenbourg Palace, dominates the southeastern arc with the neo-Renaissance Royal Theater, built in 1874.

A slight detour to Gammel Strand affords a sweeping waterfront view of Christiansborg Palace, which sits on its own small island. …