What Happened to the Vikings

Aug 27, 2013

The city of Copenhagen has long suffered from the image created by a song sung by Danny Kaye in a 1952 movie about Hans Christian Andersen – “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen.” Old songs are not, on the whole, a reliable source of information about modern cities: consider “April in Paris,” for example, that gets the weather all wrong, or “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” that completely ignores the effects of traffic and air pollution on bird life in London. Copenhagen is a pretty nice place, but “wonderful, wonderful” is stretching the truth a bit.

We were there for a few days last week and had a thoroughly nice time, although it rained a lot. The architecture has the same massive, forbidding quality that you see in other Nordic capitals. But the people could not be more friendly and welcoming, and most of them speak English better than I do. We saw all the things that the guide book told us to see, or most of them, but what caught and held my attention were the cyclists. Copenhagen is a bicycle city, like Amsterdam, and bikes dominate the traffic.  At rush hours they form a huge, irresistible, intimidating mass, whirling and turning in unison like so many starlings. Pedestrians are at the bottom of the traffic hierarchy, and have to watch out. Bikes rule the road.

I love the way the Danes ride, bolt upright, straight backed, with no concessions to the Tour de France crouch, and fast. Blond and beautiful (I’m talking about both sexes) they rush along the cycle paths that border every street, often smiling to themselves, often phoning, but always strictly obeying the rules of the road that include special traffic signals for cyclists. It’s an impressive demonstration of effortless and apparently enjoyable discipline, a world away from the cycle anarchy of New York. Special cycling outfits in bright colors are not worn in Copenhagen. Everybody rides in their ordinary clothes, and they don’t seem to care about getting wet..

There is something wonderfully free about cycling, almost like flying but in silence and with both wheels firmly on the ground. Cyclists can start and stop wherever they like, which is exactly what they do. There are no parking problems, and no parking charges. They just lean their bikes (usually unlocked) against a wall or stack them in a heap with all the others.

I really wanted to rent a bike and try it myself. But apart from the fact that my wife wouldn’t let me I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace, or fit into the complicated flow, or follow the hand signals. I feared that I would be like a Volkswagen Beetle thrust into the middle of the Indianapolis 500, instantly run over and crushed.

So I contented myself with simply enjoying the spectacle, which was like seeing the ancient Norse gods brought to life and gifted with wheels. Or perhaps not gods, but something more down to earth. A thousand years ago the Vikings sailed out of Copenhagen in all weathers to plunder the rivers and coasts of Europe, closing in on their victims swiftly, silently, helmeted and relentless, grinning through their blond beards, wholly irresistible. That genetic inheritance must count for something. Viking/biking – coincidence?

Copyright: David Bouchier