Viking. Part én.

thumb_COLOURBOX5661662 - CopyIn an unlikely homage to public urination, there is a statue of a bloke relieving himself on the wall of Copenhagen University’s Dental School.

Its supposed poetry was lost on this wandering traveler. Instead it was a taunt. Already requiring the use of facilities, I’d wandered aimlessly into a neighbourhood seemingly lacking in public conveniences. Maybe I should have followed suit, holding steady and trying to pass off as a statue myself, alas, I’m not completely lacking in class. Not this time.

ImageMy theory to explain this monument to ‘toileting’ – and I know I could probably Google it and find out for sure – is that it symbolises this part of the city’s heritage. Working-class Nørrebro is synonymous with Copenhagen at its most rebellious, Rough Guides says. Slums filled with industrial workers sprung up here as the city started outgrowing its central area and by the close of the nineteenth century, it was established as one of the country’s most politicized areas.

According to the guide book, Nørrebro residents were instrumental in forming the Danish trade union movement and the Social Democratic Party, Denmark’s biggest political party. Its residents led the local resistance to the Nazis in World War II, later held protests opposing the war in Vietnam and only 30 years ago the neighbourhood was the stage for one of Europe’s most radical squatting movements, the BZ.

The main street running through the area is Nørrebrogade and it was the scene for clashes between the young militant squatters of the BZ and the Danish police in the 80s which saw Molotov cocktails being hurled at law officers. In 1993, a riot resulted from the Danish ‘yes’ vote to membership of the European Union. More than 100 people were injured as a result of this particular bout of civil disobedience, reports suggest. In 2006-07 there was more rioting as the authorities sought to evict squatters from The Youth House, a social centre. The cost of the damage ran into millions of Danish kroner.

Today, Nørrebro is a multi-cultural area and home to Arabs, Turks, Pakistanis, Bosnians, Somalians and Albanians to name a handful. On this drizzly and overcast Tuesday, one November afternoon, it was quiet as the light faded and street lamps shone into puddles in the gutters.

ImageWeary from getting lost all day and now acutely aware of my urgent need to stand in front of white porcelain, it was with some delight that I spied Café Plenum, a cosy street corner pub-cum-coffee house. Leaving my breath hanging in the cold late-afternoon air at the door, I ordered a filter coffee, took care of my need to relieve myself (indulge me, I’m painting a picture here), sat at one of the last untaken and rickety wooden tables, pulled off my woolly bobble hat and tightly wrapped scalf then rubbed my beard with numb fingers to shake off the fatigue.

Abroad, in a new city, there are always moments when you feel a little out of kilter with your surroundings. Foreign tongues issue unknown words, street and shop signs bear a collection of unfathomable proclamations and passing through this brave new world can leave you feeling isolated. But there are moments like those I was experiencing in this cool, unpretentious hangout in Nørrebro; moments when you relax after a long day on your feet and suddenly, all that was incomprehensible to you before – the sights and sounds that have assaulted your senses – envelope you in a warmth and snugness you didn’t see coming. This is one of the joys of travelling, when you stop for breath, take stock after a packed itinerary, and appreciate how much you’re enjoying the experience.

This was my kind of place. Simply decorated. Bare brick walls. Exposed floorboards. Young professionals and students filling the place with an atmospheric hum. Dim lighting with a solitary tea light glowing on each table, and then The Heavy, Short Change Hero, played out over the stereo system. That was one fine Tuesday on the road.

  • Here’s some really interesting footage and commentary, smuggled out of Denmark during WWII, that reveals how Copenhagen stood up to the Nazis. 
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