Recently the OECD relaunched its ‘quality of life’ index – a survey across a range of criteria intended to reveal more about the success of a nation than its GDP, by taking into account the well-being and happiness of its population. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are all in the top 5. The UK is outside the top ten.
Now I know one mustn’t grumble. The UK (and especially London) is a wonderful place to live for many reasons. But on visiting any of the Scandinavian nations the well-being difference is utterly tangible, even to a tourist. And if I had to pick my favourite European city Copenhagen would take the prize: it’s just so goddamned civilised.
I’ve recently paid a second visit to the Danish capital. The first saw the ending of an ill-advised and short-lived dalliance. The second, thankfully, was altogether more agreeable. But it is to Copenhagen’s credit that I loved the place in spite of some rather awkward company first time around. The second visit was positively blissful. Despite being a capital city, with all the cultural, historical, political and royal baggage that entails, life here is uncluttered and unhurried. If London is sprinting, out of breath and never quite catching up with itself, Copenhagen is strolling at a stately pace. If London is leaning over its handlebars, weaving head down in thick noxious traffic, Copenhagen is sitting upright, looking all around, gliding along above gently turning spokes. My brisk pace is bred for London. The boy’s relaxed gait – which I normally poke fun at as ‘dawdling’ – found its home in Copenhagen’s cobbled streets.
Its human scale is of course to its advantage, with all the interest of an imperial power condensed into a walkable area. But in fact, it is a city as much of cyclists as pedestrians, which plays a significant role in humanising the urban environment. The traffic system gives preferential treatment to two wheels over four. There are more bicycles than cars, and seemingly even more than actual people, if the ranks along every street are any indication. Perhaps the apparent surplus is a clue to why they are so often seen standing solo, propped up and untethered. In London such an unlocked bike would be gone in an instant. And they come in every form imaginable, customised and hybridised for the easier transport of children, pets, luggage, shopping. The sit-up-and-beg model so associated with Amsterdam is the favourite though – by far the most comfortable ride.
And then there is the light. I remember my first visit – in late November – as almost entirely in the dark. The streets were shining wet and empty of people, although inside was all warmth and twinkling lights and cooking smells. By contrast, this second, midsummer, visit took place in endless hours of daylight – or that odd halflight that, filtering in through curtains, convinces you it’s nearly time to get up at 2.30am. The buildings are adept at bringing the scarce northern light – watery even in the middle of summer – inside. In the Glyptotek’s winter garden it falls through a high glass dome onto palm fronds and marble statuettes. In Thorvaldsen’s museum it makes the sapphire window reveals glow luminous, and catches on his ivory-limbed figures, lined up against dark walls like pearls dropped into mud.
This visual quality is not one that translates well through holiday snaps, or indeed postcards. It is an impression that, like the city, takes time to appreciate. But you soon come to suspect that the utmost care and humanity lies behind every design decision, or moment of urban planning. Things work seamlessly, from the trains to the always-excellent coffee. If it is possible for a city to have a personality, Copenhagen is measured and thoughtful. And neither afraid of new technology nor in awe of it. Rather it is put to use at the service of life being lived. Old rubs up easily against new. Students glued to their apple device of choice in a bookshop-coffeeshop-bar, and an offshore windfarm, are somehow not incongruous with the still delightful Victorian pleasure gardens at Tivoli.
The Danes seem to live as well outdoors during the lighter months as they do indoors – defining cosiness – in the winter. Pavement cafés are all equipped with heaters, soft blankets and even softer lighting. Their urban gardens are green and leafy havens, liberally spinkled throughout the city – like those of the Royal Library somehow hidden right next to the parliament. We sat on a bench and watched two politicians slowly circling the pond, deep in conversation of presumably some pressing matter of state, under the frowning gaze of a bronze Soren Kierkegaard.
I must admit as a tourist their healthy approach to work-life balance can catch you out. Most museums don’t open until 11am, frustrating when, in an attempt to see as much as possible in two days, you’ve dragged yourself from your hotel for a 9am start. But I found this easily forgivable. I’d start at 11am if I had the choice. The boy summed up Copenhagen’s attitude in his own way: in London pints are served in straight-sided buckets designed for the most efficient consumption of the largest quantity of beer. In Copenhagen they come (in metric quantities), cool and amber, in all manner of elegant vessels – flutes, stemmed chalices, behandled glass mugs. No, it’s not technically necessary, but it does make life so much nicer.