Monday, 26 November 2007

Odense, Denmark

Trust the Danes to come up with an innovative solution to global warming and obesity: slap a 180% tax on cars, so everyone has to ride bikes instead of driving everywhere.

I'm in Odense, the third-largest city in Denmark, birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and a nice compact city to explore on foot (if you can avoid being run down by bicycles). November is not the best time to be here – grey skies, the constant threat of rain and coolish temperatures. But it's not as cold as I'd expected. Odense is on an island close to the Gulf Stream, which warms it considerably compared with similar latitudes in North America.

Why would you want to visit here in winter? For one thing, you don't exactly have to fight off hoards of tourists. For another, you can also observe first-hand another Danish innovative solution to an Australian problem: skin cancer. They don't have a sun here. At least, I don't think so. I didn't see one. And since it only gets light around 8am, and starts to get dark just when the day is getting into its stride at about 4pm, I'm not totally convinced there's actually a sun up there beyond the clouds.

Danish innovation aside, what's to do in Odense? Eat, for a start. Having invented a cure for obesity, the Danes put it to the test by having some of the best food on the planet on offer. Forget stodgy creations with a plonk of sugary slime on top labelled as a "Danish" in the Anglo-Saxon world. Danes have mastered the art of pastries. Then there's cheese – not only the local varieties, but also a huge range from the rest of the world. There are two markets, each run twice a week, where you can buy such delicacies, as well as local and imported produce. Not only that, there's another benefit to the Danes' disdain of the car: shopping is not dominated by malls. You can wander the city streets with a wide variety of shops in various shapes and sizes. Speciality shoe shops, cheese shops, an impressive selection of wine shops (covering the range from everything European, through South African, Australian and South American) … and did I mention? … you need to keep watching for bicycles.

The Danes have a funny attitude to personal safety: helmets are not compulsory for riding bikes. The theory goes, biking is healthier than not exercising. If some people may be put off riding by wearing a helmet, they will be less healthy. This is more of an impact on society than the odd person getting brain damaged. But they are proud of their cycle-friendly streets: there's even a counter near the centre of Odense, showing how many bikes pass that point.

I shrug off this piece of local knowledge and walk. The city centre has several cobbled streets; recreations of the old style, not ancient. Buildings have a charming variance – other than row houses, there is very little repetition. Bright colours distinguish units in row houses, breaking the little monotony there is. Every now and then, there's a giant arch in a building, leading to a courtyard, square or even a fresh group of roads. There are little surprises around each corner.

For the keen tourist there are sights not to be missed: Hans Christian Anderson's house (sorry the picture's a bit grainy: the low light defeated my camera), the museum dedicated to the famous story teller, monumental churches, concerts, the fairytale old buildings … but for me the most fun aspect of Odense is being able to stroll around in a place so exotic compared with any I've lived in, yet one which makes strangers feel totally at home.

Some practicalities … the written language looks reasonably easy if you know another Germanic language but if you are only visiting for a few days and have thoughts of working up a conversational vocabulary, forget it. Like English, Danish has a maddening tendency to break its phonetics rules at random: syllables disappear in the transition for written to spoken, with no obvious rules. Most Danes speak passable to excellent English; the worst I encounter is having to use gestures to work out how to pay in a supermarket. Go to a bookstore and you will find out why: many of the titles are in English. Denmark is a small country, and there's a limit to how much original literature and translated literature is available. So Danes make do with English.

Denmark, along with the UK, did not adopt the euro. An Australian dollar buys you about 4.5 krone. Divide prices by 5 and you won't be far off. Most things are more expensive than in Australia by virtue of high taxes (not just on cars – 25% VAT for example).

If your budget is tight, get a hotel which includes breakfast, and eat out for lunch when menus are cheaper. Ubiquitous Maccas aside, I didn't encounter any bad food in Odense – so be prepared to try the less flash looking restaurants. For example: Mama's Pizzeria, totally unpretentious looking, has really great pasta. I had panzerotti filled with porcini mushrooms and pine nuts. Incredible. I'll have to make it at home.

Getting there … There's an airport in Odense, but train connections from Copenhagen are easy, with a round-trip ticket starting from 458 krone (with an option of another 20 krone each way if you want to reserve a seat). The fastest train takes under an hour and a half.

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