The harbor at Dragør, Denmark, less than five kilometers from Scandinavia’s biggest airport, CPH.
I was up early Monday, September 21, and out the door, headed to the airport and Copenhagen to see long friends Susan and Michael Beckmann and their swell kids Niklas and Annika. Before leaving Germany (I would be back in four days) just a few indicators of how (well) the Germans are managing the COVID crisis:
- Guests are required to register (name, address, contact info) at restaurants
- Disinfectant dispensers are everywhere
- Temporary sinks with running water, soap, and paper towels at entry to busy subway stations
- Bins for unused and used pens at hotel reception desks
At the airport I breezed through security, bought a big cup of Starbucks, and ate a sandwich and fruit the hotel had prepared in lieu of the buffet breakfast. Hopped on Eurowings north to Denmark, right on time, landing at 9:25. No border controls, zipped right through. I debated getting cash, (the Danes are not in the Eurozone), but opted for an experiment, cashless in Denmark, using my cool new tap-and-pay debit card. Zipped onto a suburban train one stop, then a mile walk to the Beckmanns’ house (I know that neighborhood well). Nice to be back in Scandinavia, not least because the Danes I saw on the street that day – and the next two – looked a lot like people I grew up with in Minnesota!
More proof of capable pandemic management: left, orderly Eurowings exit from the Copenhagen flight, right, CPH airport signs indicating which toilet stalls are free. “Welcome to the toilet facilities” indeed!
Michael Beckmann, friend for more than 20 years, welcomed me with a hug, the first embrace from a non-family member in six months. Felt so good. He has a big job with the DSB, the Danish State Railways, so he went back to work and I did a bit, too. He thawed a homemade quiche for lunch, and dessert was a sample of apples from their four backyard trees.
Took a nap. Niklas, now 11, came home from school (by himself, on a city bus, normal in Europe, but likely to get an American parent reported to the child-protection authorities). Another hug. He had stopped at a fine bakery near school for some pastries (well, yes, what Americans call Danish!), and we ate those. His dad was hard at work, but paused to get bikes out of their backyard shed. Niklas had planned a nice ride, around the airport, stopping briefly at a little village called Dragør. Since I last saw him 18 months earlier, he became much more confident with his English, and jabbered as we rode along. A nice ride, flat and entirely on the separate bike lanes that are everywhere in Denmark.
We paused at Dragør. Niklas ate a little snack, and we set off. A block on, I looked behind and didn’t see him, so I circled back. “Something is wrong with my bike,” he said. “Yep,” I replied, “a flat tire in the back.” Well, shit. I asked a woman about my age if there was a bike shop in the village. No, it was two kilometers out of town. She gave Nikki directions in Danish, then called the shop; they were open until five, 30 minutes away. We walked briskly, and then some more. I asked another person, and she said, “next traffic light, to the right.” We got there; no bike shop. Asked a jogger, who pointed the way to Troels Cykler. A young guy appeared, and I explained the predicament. He had time to fix it. “We’re in deep shit, and you, my friend, have the shovel,” I said as he wheeled the bike into the repair area. Eight minutes and the equivalent of $23 and we were back on the road. Quite an adventure!
Separate bike lanes are a way of life, all the way to the airport. At right, the helpful Dane phoning to make sure the bike shop would still be open.
Back home, Annika appeared, another hug, then Susan from her new job, a fourth hug. Michael grilled chicken outside, with French fries and salad, a nice dinner. I read the kids a bedtime story (it’s a long tradition for “Onkel Rob”). Annika’s English is improving, too, and the parents were delighted with how comfy the kids were speaking my language. Nice!
After the kids were in bed, we sat at the table and yakked, with a glass of schnapps. Lots of interesting discussion, learning more about Susan’s new job with a start-up that makes a wearable electrocardiogram monitor, way cool. We got onto the topic of food, and I remembered that Michael’s grandmother was resourceful and self-sufficient. That led to Michael telling me that she had been living in the eastern part of the country during World War II, and when it was over she fled west in the summer of 1945 (her husband, Michael’s grandfather, was a prisoner of war in France until the early 1950s) in part because Russian soldiers were raping woman indiscriminately. At one point, she handed Michael’s dad to a German fellow, and the two adults swam across a river. They ate weeds, and were cold that winter. Let’s not go back to that, I thought. Whew.
Up Tuesday morning, see the kids off to school, Susan leaves for work (she’s in an office two or three ways a week and home the rest; Michael is home the whole time). I scoop up a bowl of muesli and hop on Michael’s bike to the post office branch in a nearby supermarket. Doing ordinary things overseas is fun, so mailing travel receipts to Germany was a small adventure. Unlike Germany, Denmark did not require masks in stores, which seemed dumb. About 4 bucks to mail 1 ounce 300 miles, welcome to Denmark! Hopped back on the bike and rode in bike rush hour (smaller than on previous visits) into the city, around some familiar areas, then over to the sea, the district called Amager (but pronounced “A-ma,” no “ger”).
Above left, rush hour, Tuesday morning; right, a nice bit of friendly push-back on e-bikes (“100% Pedal Power”). Below, scenes in central Copenhagen. At bottom left, an anchor as street furniture, and right, my Beckmann-backyard reward for a good bike ride.
From 11:15 to 12:45 I delivered a lecture to MBA students at the University of St. Gallen, another talk that was supposed to be in the classroom. Ate a nice sandwich lunch with Michael, took a nap, then a short bike ride, and from 4:00 to 5:30 did another talk at St. Gallen, to grad students in international management. Michael and I hopped on the bikes and rode a couple of kilometers to the Speed Rugby Club, oldest in Denmark, where Nikki is learning the sport. The little clubhouse had beer, and we grabbed a couple of glasses, then headed out to the field. Enjoyed a long chat with one of the coaches, had another beer, and rode home. A simple dinner of pasta and salad, more bedtime stories (two that night), some conversation with my hosts.
After breakfast Wednesday morning, Michael and I biked to Taarnby station, hopped on the train, then another train, west to Roskilde, a freestanding historic city 20 miles west of Copenhagen. Michael left me and rode back two stops to his office to get some IT stuff sorted in person, agreeing to meet up at five that afternoon at an agreeable little bar/café right by the train station. Susan loaned me a thorough tourist guide with a Roskilde walking tour, and off I went. It was another sunny day, warm but not hot, perfect for touring. Ambled through the old town, past an abbey, to the enormous Dom, Denmark’s biggest cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built 1280. As you’d expect, it was spotless and very well preserved. It also held the tombs of most of Denmark’s monarchs, and most of those were in elaborate vaults above the floor. In 1536 it changed from Catholic to Lutheran, the result of a short civil war that the monarch, Christian 3, won (his elaborate crypt is below, next to the carved angel).
Next stop was the Viking ship museum, a smaller version of the one in Oslo, but still pretty cool; much of the collection was outside, and free to view.
Above left, a big warship; right, smaller commercial vessels based on Viking designs from as recently as a 110 years ago. Below left, the Helge Ask, reconstruction of a smaller 11th Century warship; crew of 30, max speed 14 knots with sails, 5.5 with oars (“harder, Knut, row harder . . .”). At right, an outdoor workshop with boatbuilder slicing wood for a hull.
I ambled on, through a very pleasant residential area, many houses with thatched roofs. I had hoped to go up into the bell tower of the Catholic church for a view around town, but the pandemic closed it. Found the Brugsen supermarket, bought fixings for a picnic lunch, and ate on the grounds of the Roskilde Abbey. I needed to connect for a client call in mid-afternoon, so ambled back to a small cafe in the railway station, bought a Faxe Kondi, popular Danish soft drink, and linked to a strong wireless signal.
Met Michael at 5:00 at Skänk, a little cafe a few hundred feet from the station. Danes love lager from Carlsberg and another big brewery group, but craft brews are rising, and the bar had six great ones on tap. We sampled a couple, and tucked into an enormous meat and cheese platter. Yum! Hopped two trains back to Taarnby, arriving in time to read Nikki and Annika a bedtime story. After finishing the book, Niklas gave me a little present, a snegel (Danish cinammon pastry) in a bag. “Uncle Rob, this is for your trip tomorrow morning. Thank you for fixing my bike.” I thanked him, but added that I didn’t fix the flat. After he went to bed, Michael told me it was all Nikki’s idea to stop at the bakery after school and buy me the treat. A sweet boy, raised right!
Your scribe and host; another COVID still life; and salmon from the Faeroe Islands — in a can, but still seriously good.
Woke at 5:00 Thursday morning, 20 minutes before the alarm. Feeling right at home, brewed a pot of coffee, showered, dressed. At 5:40, Michael appeared with bad news: the Germans had declared the Copenhagen metropolitan area a “risk zone” and would impose border controls. I was headed back to Germany for three days of touring before heading home. Would I get in? We discussed alternatives, and I built Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Michael expressed doubt that the border control people would have their act together overnight, so Plan A was keep to plan, train to Hamburg, then east to an interesting town, Wismar, for a couple of hours, then on to Rostock for two nights. If the authorities said no to Plan A, but allowed me to enter, Plan B was to take an afternoon train from Hamburg to Frankfurt, stay overnight at the airport, and fly home Thursday. If they denied entry, Plan C was to return to Copenhagen and fly home, either via Frankfurt or standby Sunday on SAS nonstop to Washington Dulles. So a bit of stress to start the day.
I hugged Michael, hopped in the car, and Susan drove me to the Taarnby station for the short ride to Copenhagen central station. Hugged her, promised updates, and rode into the city. As the crow flies, Rostock, on the Baltic, is 100 miles, but I went the long way (there’s a ferry from south of Copenhagen, but Michael said it’s hard to reach, and actually quicker to make a big arc). By rail, it was 325 miles to Rostock.
Bought a big cup of 7-Eleven coffee for the equivalent of $5 and waited for the 6:45 express to Hamburg. The train was fairly full, with two friendly Danish women facing me and the adjacent seat open. I was counting on wi-fi, to send some client emails, but it was not working. Sigh. We left late but made up time, rolling through a rain storm, across the water to the island of Fyn, then across another bridge into Jutland, the peninsular part of Denmark. We stopped in Odense, on Fyn, for about 10 minutes (the train divided there), and I was able to hitchhike on a wi-fi signal from a train on an adjacent platform, sending emails and downloading a bunch. At least that problem was fixed.
My gift from Niklas!
At the last Danish station before Germany, the two Danes (headed for a long weekend in Berlin) and I thought officials would board the train, and perhaps make us all get off when we reached the first German station, Flensburg. Nope. No police, no passport inspection, nothing. Woo hoo! Plan A rocks! As I often do when I arrive in Germany, I cued their national anthem, “Deutschlandlied.” I was glad to be back. We rolled through pleasant country in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, a place that once belonged to the Danes. Lots of renewable energy, both wind turbines and solar farms. And, of course, the black-and-white cows that are called Holsteins worldwide. Nice!
At Hamburg, bought lunch, changed to a local train and headed east. Not long after leaving Hamburg, we rolled into the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the 14th German state I’ve visited (only two to go, and #15 would come in two days). This was the former East Germany, evident in the huge fields that were once collective farms.
Above, the big fields that were collective farms from 1945 to about 1990. Below left, a piece of the marvelous polychrome brick railway station in Schwerin, and a nice jog to my memory: the upper deck of the Schwerin-Wismar train reminded my of the glass-topped “Vista-Dome” cars on the Zephyr fast train we took in the 1950s and ’60s to visit grandparents in Chicago. I thought of how much brother Jim and I loved sitting up there.
Changed trains again in Schwerin, and at 2:37 was in Wismar, a former member of the Hanseatic League, the group of cities that began trading in the 12th Century and dominated Baltic commerce (and a bit beyond – there were affiliates in Amsterdam and London) for more than 300 years. I’ve visited a bunch of these Hansestädte, most recently the league’s capital, Lübeck, in 2018, and they are always fascinating, prosperity evident in the houses, commercial buildings, and churches. There were no lockers in the small station, so I dragged my suitcase and backpack around town. Wismar belonged to Sweden from 1648 to 1803.
Wismar was teeming with tourists. I was a bit surprised, but happy that things seemed sort of normal. The place was seriously interesting, especially the many buildings with gable facades. Wandered the center, around the main square, and made fast for St. George, a brick church built 1404 and mostly destroyed just a month before the end of World War II. The church tower was open, woo hoo. The kind cashier let me put my stuff behind his desk, and up I went; I was expecting stairs, but they had an elevator. Woo hoo! Great views from the top, and floating in the harbor was a cruise ship, the source of all the visitors. Wismar was photogenic on steroids, half-timbered houses, stately buildings with step gables and bell gables, whew:
Wandered around for another hour, and at 4:42 hopped on the train to Rostock, another Hanseatic city. The ride was pleasant, on a small branch line, announcements in German and Polish – I didn’t think we were that close to Poland, but I later learned that the language was programmed into the trains, and that one often rolled east from Rostock to Polski.
Arrived on time, got a tram, and was in my Airbnb on Dobener Strasse by 6:15. Christine the host was friendly. It was, like so many other places around the world, renovated (last year) expressly for Airbnb business; it was really more like a boarding house (without a plump cook serving meals!). The place was spotless and my room large and well-appointed. I worked a bit, soon discovering that I could receive but not send emails. I encountered this problem in the past in Germany, and tried the remedies I recalled. Nope.
Headed out for a much-needed hot meal at a place I found a few weeks earlier, Zum Alten Fritz, right on the River Warnow (more an estuary of the Baltic at Rostow). Tucked into a plate of zander, a farmed freshwater fish similar to my beloved Minnesota walleye. Yum. Walked back along the water, admiring the many sailboats and some big yachts that were clear indicators of prosperity – I suspect in the bad old days of the GDR, East Germany, there were only a couple of little dinghies. Clocked out just after nine, a long day that started badly but ended well. Hooray for that!
The forecast was rain, and it was coming down steadily Friday morning. I opted not to bring my Gore-Tex jacket or coat, oops, but I did have a good, new travel umbrella. Bought a day ticket for the local trams and trains, and hopped on the #5 streetcar into the center. Ambled around the Neuer Markt (new market, a square lined with gabled buildings), then into the old town. At St. Nikolai Church, had a nice T-t-S with a young mother who lived in the church. Back in the GDR, the anticlerical Commies appropriated parts or all of churches to alleviate local housing shortages – “all for the workers,” as she said auf Deutsch.
Above, in the shopping part of the center, where colonnades like the one at right provided respite from morning rain. Below, in the old town.
The Lonely Planet travel guide wrote, “Rostock will never win a beauty contest and for good reason – the town was devastated in WWII and later pummeled by socialist architectural ‘ideals.’” But much war damage had been rebuilt, wiederaufbau, and 30 years after the collapse of East Germany the only vestiges of their goofy styles were some clumsy attempts at downtown office buildings that combined new and old, and drab high-rise apartments away from the center. Moreover, there were lots of new buildings along the water and on the edges of the center, signs of vitality.
I needed coffee and breakfast, and to get out of the rain. Found a little café, dry and warm, and sat for an hour with coffee and a big sweet roll. At ten I bought a little more, a big tub of yogurt, drained it in the supermarket parking ramp, and headed up the hill to St. Peter’s Church, then up steps and steps to the bell tower and great views of the city, even in the rain. Took the elevator down (better on the knees!), wandered around the sanctuary a bit, and headed back to the main station.
Above, St. Peter’s and part of the ancient wall surrounding the city. Below, views from the church bell tower. Bottom, another section of the wall, and socially-distanced chairs in St. Peter’s.
Next stop, Warnemünde, a beach resort town eight miles north, right on the Baltic. The rain had stopped, woo hoo, and I ambled along the piers. Working fishing boats were docked, fishers cleaning and sorting their catch, gulls jockeying to snag morsels. On a whim, hopped on a tour boat, and once underway was delighted with impulse: a way-cool loop around the inner harbor, past shipyards (they’re still building, which is good), industrial facilities, and the ferry terminal (boats to Poland, Sweden, and Denmark). Stood the whole hour on the top deck and snapped lots of pictures. Scenes from the harbor and cruise:
Bought a herring sandwich (more on that below), walked back to the station, and headed south to Rostock. Walked the center some more, past the old university buildings, an abbey, and more, then back to my room. Chilled for a couple of hours, and at 5:45 headed out for a walk, then dinner. It had cleared, and the late-afternoon light was superb. Saw more cool old buildings, and at 6:30 walked down a flight of stairs to the Ratskeller (most town halls in Germany have a basement restaurant and beer hall). Super-friendly staff, way cool room, a nice dark beer from the local brewery, then another plate of matjes and roast potatoes. Asleep again about nine. Another day that started hard and ended happily.
Above, before the cruise, I noticed the local gulls were not shy, as in this bird grabbing remains from a recent catch; after the cruise, as I was eating my herring sandwich, a gull crashed into the back of my head while aiming for the morsel in my hand! Below, attractive redevelopment of former industrial land in Warnemünde.
Above, tower gates to the old city. Below left, the old main building of the University of Rostock, and the city library. At bottom, signs of fall, wild and cultivated.
Above and below, scenes from the Marienkirche, including the astonishing astronomical clock.
Above, law courts; below, as noted, not much of the old East German landscape remains, save for some freshly painted apartments in inner suburbs.
Above, the Rathaus in splendid early-evening light; below, the griffon, symbol of the city, above the entrance to the building.
Up Saturday morning at 5:15 for the last day of European touring, hopped the tram to the main station, bought a coffee and a huge poppyseed sweet roll, as big as my head, and climbed onto the 6:25 fast train to Schwerin, where I had changed trains two days earlier. I had 45 minutes to my next train, and went for a little walk. Was glad I did. One of Schwerin’s seven lakes was a block away, with great views. I spotted a sign for Landtag, German for a state parliament. A man was walking along, so in true T-t-S fashion I bade him Guten morgen and asked if he spoke English. “A little,” the standard reply, so I asked him if Schwerin was the capital of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Yes, he replied, and the Landtag was a couple of kilometers away, in the castle. I said I didn’t have time to visit, and we chatted a bit more. Like many Germans who are not fluent, he moved to German, and I caught most of what he told me, about Schwerin being a popular leisure destination for people from Hamburg, an hour west by car or train. The walk was a nice reminder of what for years I’ve told Americans: Europe’s charm and beauty is at its best in smaller places, not in Paris and Rome.
The Pfaffenteich, one of seven lakes in and around Schwerin, capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
Ambled back to the station. On the way in, found a 10-Euro bill on the floor, woo hoo. Bought a coffee and got on a local train, south an hour to Wittenberge on the Elbe River, then yet another local east Magdeburg, capital of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, my 15th German state (one more to go!). Rain was again in the forecast, and it was drippy on arrival. Stowed my stuff in a locker, closed the door, and, doh, forgot the umbrella. Plunked another 3 Euros in the coin slot, got the umbrella, and headed out.
It was not raining hard, good, and I ambled off to see some sights. First one was Austrian artist and architect Hundertwasser’s last work of whimsy, the Green Citadelle, completed in 2005 (he died five years earlier). I had seen his stuff in Vienna, Switzerland, and Plotzingen, Germany, but this was by far his coolest and most eccentric work. You just had to smile at it all. Next stop was the big cathedral, the Dom. It was relatively plain inside, but the high point was what seemed to be an audition session, two women singing short pieces from opera and sacred music. Their voices reverberated to the ceiling far up, just lovely. Walked across a large plaza and admired the state parliament (Landtag), then doubled back to Qilin, an Asian restaurant I spotted earlier, for a big and much-needed lunch of spring rolls and Thai curry. So good.
Above left, Soviet-style office buildings in central Magdeburg; right, an East German-era apartment block made whimsical (clearly the people and ladders went up after the Wall came down; impossible to imagine humorless Party officials approving such creativity!). Below and bottom, Hundertwasser’s last building design.
Fortified, I walked south, past wonderful, large apartment buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially on the broad Hegelstrasse. The rain was getting heavier, ugh. Ambled along the Elbe River a mile or so north, to the Johanniskirche, oldest in Magdeburg (started in the 12th Century and mostly completed a couple hundred years later); Allied bombers destroyed it in January 1945 and it was rubble until wiederaufbau in 1996 – but as a cultural center, not a church. A block on, the stately 17th Century town hall. It was about 2:45, and my train was not until 5:00, but I was cold and little wet, so headed back to a warm waiting room in the station, reading and chilling.
Above, the Magdeburg Dom; below, one of the auditioners. At bottom, the State Parliament of Saxony-Anhalt.
Above, the former Magdeburg post office, repurposed as law courts; below, stately buildings south of the centre and (right) along Hegelstrasse.
Above, Magdeburg’s city hall; below, famous Magdeburgers from the past rendered on the entry doors to the building, a scientist and a composer. At bottom, reminders of the horrors of war in front of the Johanniskirche: “Mother with Child” and “Rubble Woman” (both 1982).
Hopped on a fast train to Braunschweig, then a faster one (ICE) south to Frankfurt. I had planned on dinner in the dining car, but COVID closed it. No food, no beer, drat (happily, a fellow with drinks and snacks on a cart passed an hour into the trip, with cold beer). Arrived Frankfurt on time at 8:45, and walked through the rain – and seriously shady blocks – to a very nice Holiday Inn for a last night in Europe for awhile. I had squirreled a big bag of snack mix from the Admirals Club in DFW before departing 12 days earlier, and that was my dinner; I was too tired to head out on a rainy night to forage for a meal.
Up Sunday morning, back out in the rain, train to Frankfurt Airport, a backtrack flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, then east to Washington. Linda and the two terriers greeted me at the airport. It was so great to be overseas again!
Finally, a few snaps for fellow Transport Geeks: vintage VW microbus serving as a wedding limousine in Magdeburg; containers from China that arrived in Europe not on a ship, but on the now-completed “New Silk Road” railway link; and the scourge of e-scooters, completely blocking a sidewalk in downtown Frankfurt. Grrrrrr.