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Journey to the Center of Copenhagen (Indre By)

Danes, along with their fellow Scandinavians, are not the most stereotypically outgoing and friendly, but our experience that day overthrew whatever prejudices we had coming in. Or, at least made us less scared of talking to strangers here…

Very close to the DIS student hub, down the road of Vestergade, are two squares. To this day, I haven’t figured out why one is Nytorv (New Square) and the other Gammeltorv (Old Sqaure) when they’re literally right next to each other. In the middle of Gammeltorv, there is a large stone fountain, dry because it is winter right now, but a rather convenient meeting point for locals and DIS students. On a particularly grey day, four of us gathered by the foot of the fountain, prepared to embark on a mission for Danish Language and Culture Through Rhythm, Music, and Song.

Professor Camilla had given us a project in which groups were to explore and present different areas of Copenhagen, such as Vesterbro, Christianshavn, and (our) Indre By. Right in the center, Indre By is where all the traffic leads, for students, office workers, and tourists alike. As we walked from one square to the other taking .5 selfies, it became clear that none of us knew what we were doing or how we were supposed to go about exploring this part of the city.

“Do you speak English?”

The loud inquiry interrupted our selfie chatter. A man with a mane of white hair approached and gave us the brightest Einstein grin. He was wearing a shade of blue I had only ever seen on my own Colby merch. Jan introduced himself as a local married to an American, and explained he had overheard our very American accents. Part of our mission was also to interview a local, and we had not expected to be so lucky. As we got over our surprise, Jan added that as a hobby, he gave tours around Copenhagen twice a year. He followed that sentence with an earnest, “I have time.”

So our day suddenly brightened, as the kindness of a stranger presented us an unforgettable tour of Indre By. And we started right where we were standing, Gammeltorv and Nytorv.

  • Gammeltorv is the oldest square in Copenhagen. It was where witches and prostitutes were beheaded or burned at the stake back in the medieval ages.
  • Nytorv is where the old town hall used to be, which burned down twice in the course of less than 70 years.

We followed Jan away from Nytorv and down Rådhusstræde like the diligent ducklings we were, furiously scribbling down everything he said on little notebooks.

  • Many street corners are round and not straight (chamfered) because of the many fires that Copenhagen has gone through. The large corners make it easier for fire trucks to get through.
  • After each fire (there were three), houses were rebuilt in different styles, so when a row of buildings look the same, that means they were built after the same fire.
Chamfered corner on Rådhusstræde.
Row of houses that look the same.

Down Rådhusstræde, we came to a street called Vandkunsten on our left. It looked like a very normal Copenhagen street, a little busy with art exhibitions and restaurants. When Jan said that it used to be where the ocean was and has been filled up over the years, Cora exclaimed, “Where did the dirt come from?”

Jan replied, very matter of factly, “Well people need basements for their houses, don’t they?”

Before Copenhagen became the large city it is now, it used to be a tiny town surrounded by a three-sided moat right next to the sea. Because of it’s perfect geography, the city grew to become a large trading spot, giving it the name København, literally meaning “trade harbor”. Jan pointed out that the road we were walking on sloped downwards because it once lead right to the sea. In fact, Rådhusstræde used to be one side of the moat that protected the town.

To our right, next to Vandkunsten was Magstræde, a street with a fun fact that Jan was very willing to share.

“Do you know how people dealt with their shit back in the olden days?”

  • Magstræde translates from old Danish to “Toilet Street” because it used to be where people dumped all their waste.
  • On a side note, Magstræde also contains some of the oldest houses (16th century) in Copenhagen because it was untouched by the fires.

Turning right at the end of Magstræde, a great palace-like building across a strip of water came into our view. Continuing the story, there used to be two islands across the water. However, they gradually became one as waste was transported into the water and that space also got filled. As the palace-like building turned out to be Christiansborg, housing Denmark’s parliament, Jan joked that the government island is right next to “shit island”!

As we walked by Rådhuspladsen to Vestergade (the street DIS dominates), Jan explained that we have walked across the entirety of what used to be Copenhagen when it was surrounded by a moat.

  • Vestergade was built on the moat, and has since risen 3 meters from where it originally lay. It’s also why it’s so wiggly.

Vestergade led us back to Gammeltorv, and in front of the not-working fountain we decided to take a new picture, this time with Jan in it. Thank you for giving us such a wonderful experience!

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