The sixth in a series of light-hearted columns about life as a foreigner living in the Danish capital.
Written for IceNews by Simon Cooper
Roskilde, more famous nowadays for its gargantuan annual rock festival, used to be the centre of Denmark’s Viking universe. The ancient settlement lies in central Zealand and, from a bird’s eye view, clings to the bottom of the south-streaming, 40 kilometre long icy incision that is Roskilde fjord. The fjord is the channel down which the trade of goods, audacious attacks and the inception of bold explorative voyages used to take place; the length of tamed water whose hilly banks would flare with flaming beacons, lit to alert the defensive guard of incoming danger.
The town was actually Denmark’s capital city until 1443. After that and over the next 150 years, the ambitious King Christian, aided by the Reformation and a shed load of gold, helped tip the scales towards the seaport and new capital of Copenhagen.
Where painstakingly-built longboats used to ship outlanders into Roskilde, nowadays it’s a mere 20-minute ride west on a sleek, double-decker train. Yet 20 minutes is all it takes for a transformation. Not of weather, language or architecture, but of feel and fashion.
Almost immediately I saw two men in loose-fitting jeans. Nothing odd about that you might think, but in Copenhagen most denim hugs people’s legs as tightly as vacuum-packed salami. People seem generally more Germanic in dress, although not quite in the socks and sandals bracket. The place may be a notch down in perceived style, but it’s a notch up in how relaxed it is, as you might expect with a provincial waterside town.
We walked along the toy town pavements, down slender streets of both coloured and sturdy low houses and higher terraced ones which looked like they could have come from the provincial north of England. A lengthy shopping street made way for a town square, complete with midday market. The cathedral, a gothic-roman brick chandelier with spires like Narwhal tusks, overlooked the lot.
A short journey through a park down the hill eventually brought us out by the southern tip of the fjord, and the Vikingeskibmuseet, or the Viking Ship Museum. From the outside the building resembles a 1970s British school Science block; inside though the place is grand and light with huge windows which stoop down to meet the licking waves of the water. The blackened, restored skeletons of excavated, five hundred year –old long boats stand like dinosaur skeletons against the backdrop.
I won’t go into detail, but the museum is well-sized and stocked – a highlight being the kids’ section where you can don Viking costumes and write in the ancient Runic alphabet – and is totally worth a visit. Although you’re probably better off going in the summer months when you can weave, hammer, colour or sail outside by the docks without a tribal wind thrashing at your head.