05/24/2011 10:31 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2011

It's Different in Denmark


That describes the filling in this morning's Danish pastry from a well-known coffee chain in America.

"America's wrong about pastry filling," claimed my Danish host just a few days ago, and today's breakfast proves him right.

On a revisit to Denmark for its Free Press Society conference this May, fluffy cream filling and flaky crust were not the only pleasant differences from our daily grind on this side of the Atlantic. Here are a few more.

MONEY: Denmark's expensive. I'll say that now to get it out of the way, so inspect your budget before you leave. But for a simple souvenir you can't beat threading a 5 krone coin onto a necklace through its central hole.

TRANSPORTATION: With limited parking and lacking an underground system, Danes bike around Copenhagen as if it were UC Davis or Peking. This means less traffic, clean air and a fit population. Photo buffs will find the collections of bikes parked everywhere make for innumerable quaint photo vignettes.

WEATHER: Enjoy the Nordic summer days or cozy up on a long winter night. Danes bike regardless of the weather. Like other hardy and athletic peoples, they embrace the cold. On a day like January in California, Danes complain of the heat. One told me he can scarcely wait until winter returns.

EATING OUTSIDE: In the restaurants along the Nyhavn Canal you will find two distinct differences from al fresco dining in America: one -- big fluffy blankets provided for thin-blooded customers, and two -- yellow "remoulade" which is nothing like the pink New Orleans variety popular in America. It tastes like pickle relish creamed up in mayonnaise and seasoned with curry rather than paprika. An acquired taste to my way of thinking, but one which drives some Danes crazy and is spreading beyond their borders.

ENTERTAINMENT: Having Tivoli smack dab in the town center is a real plus. Since my first visit decades ago, I've considered it the world's classiest amusement park, and I've found no reason to change my mind. Where else can you mix symphony concerts with thrill rides, charming architecture and top-rated restaurants?

ARCHITECTURE: I adore Danish roofs. The verdigris copper domes atop spires give Danish castles an exotic Eastern flavor, like Vienna, or even Turkey. And black and white fans -- can you picture a perfect building? Try a white plaster face contrasting with an angulated black-tile roof. Ingenious. Not only pretty but functional too. In winter, the tiles are like low-tech solar panels, absorbing heat during the short northern days. Yet on bright, sunny days the high glaze acts like a polished obsidian mirror, reflecting light so well a black roof shines white in snapshots. And you can still find the occasional thatched cottage.

ENGLISH: Danes speak it and don't even expect you to try Danish. "Why would you want to?" they ask. In an ironic twist, because of their strong and early emphasis on learning languages, workers in the tourist industry here speak better English than they do in England itself, where hotel and restaurant workers tend to come from EU countries with less exposure to English.

RECREATION: Copenhagen's scattered parks attract young and old into the green as do Central Park or Hyde Park. But choose wisely: in one city park gays cavort naked in the bushes; whereas a particular seaside park has become the verbal battleground of conservatively-clad Muslim families and scantily-clad Danish sun-bathers.

BEYOND COPENHAGEN: The classic ride up the east coast to where Denmark kisses Sweden is more than worth the trip. Catch glimpses of the sea between Scandinavian estates. In Hamlet's castle at Elsinore remember his life-probing words, as granted to him by Shakespeare and so cherished by Angela in my novel The Topkapi Secret.

SOCIAL ISSUES: Yup, taxes are high and free speech is under fire. Analysis of such quotidian affairs belongs in another article but if you like discussing politics and the reshaping of society, there's great meat for it here.

SOUVENIRS: If your family has a slipper-fan, like mine does, you can find the most unique clog-shaped red ones with Danish heraldry at the airport. Forget about Flora Danica china unless you have 1500 Euros for a demitasse!

VIKING HOSPITALITY: When excitement slacks for a moment, imagine those around you Viking-clad and holding a bloody spear. But this century, courtesy rules. I was pleased to receive hospitality of nearly Middle Eastern dimensions. If you really want to taste the Viking life, you can ride in a reconstructed Viking vessel out of the museum town of Roskilde. On such ships all the violent Vikings must certainly have emigrated eons ago, leaving behind the peaceful ones and their beautiful, visitor-inviting land.

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