It never occurred to me that Copenhagen (Københavns) was a royal city until I stumbled across the changing of the guard at the Amalienborg Palace. I knew something was up by the large crowd of people gathered in the square. The minutes ticked by. I felt the tension grow. Finally, a group of soldiers came marching into the square from one end, and another group came from another corner. The sounds of the captain shouting orders and the clicking of boots carried throughout the square.
Before I knew it the event was over. The two squads had changed places and exited the courtyard to their respective places. I hung around for a few minutes and then rather aimlessly continued my sightseeing on foot.
Nearby, I found the busy harbor area and the much photographed Little Mermaid statue. This highly over-rated tourist attraction didn't interest me much, but fortunately, just around the corner, the Museum of Danish Resistance (Frihedsmuseet) was a great place to visit. Also, entrance was free.
In fact Copenhagen abounds with all sorts of museums. The Statens Museum of Art, the National Museum, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek art museum are all located downtown.
Also of interest are two castles, the Rosenborg and Christiansborg. The Christiansborg houses the Danish government, when in session, and the Rosenborg has great gardens surrounding the old edifice.
Wandering around all day gawking and taking in the grandeur of castles and churches, I kept forgetting about the bicycle lanes filled with cyclists and nearly got run over more than once.
As dusk fell, I was in Nyhavn (new harbor), a picturesque district where one can enjoy an ice-cream cone or a full course dinner at one of the many restaurants lining the waterfront. I bought a polse (Danish sausage) from a street vendor and headed back to my evening repose, the Bellahoj hostel. This modern and clean hospitality center is located away from the city center in suburban Copenhagen.
As I was leaving for Berlin early the next morning, I inquired if a wake-up call was possible at 5am so I could make my transportation connections. The desk attendant said a night security guard would either knock on my door or perhaps enter the room and quietly wake me. That sounded good, but as I fell asleep that night, I wondered if there really would be a knock on the door.
Towards the wee hours of the morning, I was awakened by two roommates who were just returning from a night of visiting Copenhagen's drinking establishments. They quickly fell asleep and soon began snoring while I lay there staring at the ceiling listening to their syncopated serenade. I remember seriously contemplating as to whether I should wait for the night watchman to knock, or just get out of bed right then and there and get a jump on the new day.
The next thing I knew, someone was gently shaking my shoulder. This was not a dream; it was five in the morning, the security guard was at my bedside, and it was time to get going.
Excitement for the day's journey propelled me out of bed, and within no time I was showered, shaved, and walking down the quiet lane towards the city bus stop. Overhead, a few stars twinkled in the darkness of a chilly October morning. I hoped this was a clear signal that cloudy and showery days were gone with the past.
After about a half an hour of standing alone at the bus shelter with my backpack, I began wondering if I had read the bus schedule correctly. But before I got too anxious my doubts were eliminated when a fashionably dressed couple with two toddlers arrived at the bus stop. They reassured me in almost perfect English, that the first bus would arrive at 6am, just barely enough time to get to the main station for my connection to Berlin.
The bus soon arrived, and as we all boarded I was surprised to find it practically full. When we got to the main station, I had to hustle over one bridge, down a couple of flights of stairs and along two city blocks to the sidewalk curb from where the international buses depart.
Within minutes the Euroline Express arrived, and soon we were riding in the Danish countryside. The black curtain of night slowly lifted, revealing a beautiful, green rural landscape. Fertile farms dominate this corner of Denmark, and each little plot of land seems to support a huge wind turbine with an equally large set of propellers that slowly turn in the breeze.
At Nykobing, there is a ferry crossing to Germany, and, to my surprise, the bus pulled right onto the ferry for the two-hour trip across the Baltic Sea. All the passengers disembarked onto the lower deck, which was full of trucks, cars, and buses packed tight as sardines.
I joined the crowd of people moving towards the stairs to the spacious upper decks complete with a cafeteria, snack bar, lounge, and duty-free shop. I spent most of the trip relaxing in a chair on the outer deck, sipping a cup of coffee, munching on a smorrebrod (a Danish fish sandwich), and staring out to sea at the wind generators dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see. The sunshine was intense, the air fresh and balmy and laden with the smell of sea salt. Sometimes a boat passed headed in the other direction.
Our arrival in Roostock, and the subsequent customs check, was uneventful, and soon the bus was rolling down the Autobahn, which looked exactly like any American interstate, except all the signs were in German.
On the south side of the Baltic the landscape looked a bit hillier, more wooded but still sprinkled with an occasional wind generator. Before long, the bus was negotiating the streets of one of Europe's largest cities Berlin, which has a population of about three million.
Unlike Copenhagen, this bus terminal was off by itself on the east side of the city. I saw no place to change money and no one seemed to understand English. From the German I studied many years ago in college, I managed to inquire about the whereabouts of an ATM machine. The guy behind the counter gave me a long explanation and pointed down the street. Since I didn't understand a word he said, I simply walked in the direction of his pointed finger but, unfortunately, found only bank machines inside closed banks.
A few more badly understood inquiries had me heading for the zoo. Turned out, the Zoo is the local name for the central train station. I learned later that the Zoo is also the inspiration for an album by the Irish rockers U2 who happened to have lived in Berlin for a while.
Finally, after an hour, I found a bank machine on the street and a place to get small change. It took a while to find a phone that worked and was unoccupied so I could call the Circus, a Berlin hostel reported to be one of the finest in Germany. I was relieved that the desk clerk spoke English and reassured that there was space available. With instructions to take the U-2 metro line, I was soon settled in at the hostel. The next few days more than confirmed the excellent reputation that this place has. Besides all the firsthand information provided by the staff, I was able to buy a ticket for an excellent walking tour, purchase a discounted museum pass, book a private room in Prague my next destination and obtain a bus ticket to the popular Czech capital.
With my short stay in Berlin, I learned a little about the differences between the East and West and how I first landed in what was once East Berlin. A walking tour of Berlin is highly recommended for any first-time visitor. I thoroughly enjoyed mine, which lasted four hours as we skipped around the city center on the fast and efficient Metro system. It gave me a rough idea of where many of the key sites were located along with a glimpse into the turbulent saga of German history. Berlin, in 1900, was among the world's most prosperous cities. Two world wars and the Iron Curtain era changed all that, but ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, this city has been thriving.
One amusing tidbit I learned was that John Kennedy's famous line spoken at a large public gathering in West Berlin was a classic double entendre:
"Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner) said JFK in a show of solidarity with the citizens. Later, linguistic wags sniggered that by using "ein" before "Berliner," Kennedy had unwittingly exclaimed, "I am a jelly donut."
Grammatical jokes aside, the speech was warmly received, and JFK is credited with having greatly enhanced the morale and also the chances of survival for the tiny enclave of West Berlin.
I hadn't time for more than a passing glimpse of Berlin's many noteworthy museums. The most memorable and impressionable sight for me was the Reichstag and the immense assembly ground that lies in front of it. It gave me a chilling reminder of how a strong central government can run amuck. Another site that struck a poignant chord was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche). Badly damaged in a bombing raid in 1943, it has been left partly unrestored.
Getting to the station for my journey to Prague was a piece of cake this time. I elected to take an overnight bus, so I didn't get to see the scenery in between. There were only five passengers on the bus, all English-speaking. Fortunately, the driver also had some knowledge of English. One woman had paid for a sleeper, a cot-like device that attached to the seat and appeared to be very comfortable, for she fell right to sleep.
We had a smooth ride to the Czech border where there was a passport check and a half-hour break at an all-night truck stop. Our group of bus passengers were the only customers. This was my first exposure to a Slavic language; I understood not a word.
The bus arrived, about an hour early, at an antiquated bus station in Prague (Praha). I was glad to see that the place did have a money machine and that it was connected to the city's modern underground metro system.
In the pre-dawn hours I made my way on to the metro and then, according to my map, I needed to transfer to a tram to get to my final destination. Figuring where to go in this strange new country with an even stranger language was a challenge. The first ride took me across the river opposite to where I wanted to be. The next ride got me back across the river but turned right instead of left. After a couple of hours riding the rails, I finally arrived at Sir Toby's, my place to stay in Prague.
My frustration with the language and the transportation soon turned into a growing fascination with this gothic and baroque city.
For some reason, Prague's buildings have survived, almost completely intact, the ravages of the twentieth century. The place seems made for wandering around aimlessly and getting lost. Each new bend in the river or twist in the street opens a striking new view of architectural wonders. To take in some of the finest of the old structures, I headed first to the Karluv most (Charles Bridge). Spanning the Vlata River, this pedestrian-only bridge was built around 1400 and connects to Old Town (Staré Mesto) and Prague Castle (Hradcany). I climbed the bridge tower for a view of the "city of a thousand spires." This, in itself, was worth the price of a trip across the Atlantic.
Other architectural treasures include St Vitus' Cathedral, a genuine flying-buttress type church, located on top of Castle Hill. The Old Town Square, though jammed with tourists, was still worth the visit to see the late Gothic twin towers of the Church of our Lady before Týn, and the astronomical clock that sits on the exterior of the Town Hall. Architectural activity in this Bohemian city has not been dormant during the twentieth century. Newer styles are evident in constructions such as the "dancing house," a modern building designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry and dedicated to the memory of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
In the years since the lifting of the Iron Curtain, Prague has developed into a commercial and banking center for Eastern Europe as well as a lively, tourist-friendly city. I ended my journey here, in the place where West meets East, glad to be among throngs of visitors enjoying the marvelous sights.