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Beyond Copenhagen - Denmark's Historic Cities: Demented in Denmark on the Looney Front - Part 3

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Think of Denmark, and you immediately think of 'Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen,' Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid statue - the 'friendly old girl of a town... salty old queen of the sea' celebrated in song by Danny Kaye in the 1952 eponymous film about the great story teller.

As Denmark's capital since 1416 Copenhagen is indeed wonderful with its green copper spires and gables, its royal palaces and government buildings, its scenic canals and parks, its world-famed Tivoli Gardens funfair, and much, much more.

But there are other wonderful, wonderful cities beyond Copenhagen, too.

Roskilde

Wonderful, wonderful Roskilde, just 20 miles to the west, capital before the move to Copenhagen, has much to offer beyond the five millennium-old Viking ships recovered from its fjord.

The massive cathedral, final resting place of Danish monarchs, may not possess the lacey stone grace and fancy filigrees of say, Chartres, but its red brick bulk and three tall spires are remarkably impressive, gaunt atop its green hill.

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Its oldest parts date from 1170, although the first church on the site was built in 985. Its lofty interior is taken up by the tombs of 38 kings and one queen, Margrethe I, whose sarcophagus holds pride of place behind the high altar.

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Grandiose chapels leading off from the nave hold the remains of nearly every king and his queen, except for a couple of early monarchs and current Queen Margrethe II's father Frederick IX, who had been a sailor much of his life and wanted to be buried in the open, where he lies with his wife, Queen Ingrid, in an open-roofed octagon, just outside the main door.

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High on an inside wall is a clock dating from the 1400s. Above it are St. George and the Dragon, and each hour the saint raises his sword and the dragon let's out an agonised wail, produced by air being pumped into three out-of-tune organ pipes. It's not much of a show, nothing like Liberty's Department store in London where St. George and the Dragon chase each other round frenziedly like blue arsed flies.

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I shall be avoiding another claim to fame, the annual Roskilde Festival held in late June and early July, Denmark's Woodstock or Glastonbury, the largest musical festival of its kind in northern Europe - a week-long lollapalooza beginning with a nude race around the campsite on the Saturday, with free tickets for the winners.

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Over 150,000 revellers are expected in town, countless numbers will be getting sloshed out of their minds, the Red Hot Chili Pepper, New Order and Wiz Khalifa will be belting out their numbers and more than 180 other bands will perform.

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Previous years have welcomed the likes of Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Sha Na Na, Aerosmith, Nirvana, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and Megadeath. And talking about death, in 2000 nine people were killed and 26 injured in a stampede.

Anyway, not that I'm agoraphobic, but I loathe, detest and abominate the agora.

Odense

Wonderful, wonderful Odense, Denmark's third largest city, on the island of Funen west of Roskilde, affords you the opportunity of passing through the delightfully named town of Middelfart, whose denizens, I assume, must be Middelfarters.

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Beyond being Hans Christian Andersen's home town and its proximity to Ladby, site of the Viking ship tomb, the thousand-year-old town has delightful old quarters of narrow cobble-stoned lanes and pastel-shaded cottages.

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The tall narrow steeple of its 14th century cathedral, Sankt Knuds, final resting place of King Canute IV, dominates the town-hall and the rather out-of-place statue of an obese reclining nude lady.

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One place I won't be visiting is Odense's famed zoo, which last year killed a perfectly healthy lion because it had too many, then publicly dissected it for schoolkids. But I do visit Egeskov castle, a 25-minute train ride and couple of miles walk south of Odense.

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Built in 1554 on a little lake, it's considered Europe's best preserved renaissance water castle and contains a huge banqueting hall, walls covered in the trophy heads of hunted wildlife.

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If you're into the mechanics of defecation and kindred studies, a great collection of chamber pots, lovely floral bidets, and a mobile wooden commode awaits you.

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Aarhus

Wonderful, wonderful Aarhus on the Jutland peninsula, Denmark's second city, is dubbed by Lonely Planet 'always the bridesmaid, never the bride, [that] stands in the shadow of its bigger, brasher sibling.'

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But it's a lovely university town in its own right, with a magnificent cobbled Latin Quarter, quaint centuries-old mansions in various colours, a large brick cathedral with lofty green spires dating from the 12th century, and the equally old Vor Frue Kirk (Church of Our Lady).

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A model ship hangs from the cathedral's ceiling, as in many Danish churches, in memory of those lost at sea. Dated 1720, this one is apparently a model sent to Russia's Peter the Great by Dutch shipbuilders in connection with an upcoming order. The transport carrying it sank in a storm off Denmark but the model reached shore almost intact, where fishermen found it. Denmark's very own Boaty McBoatface.

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Lively restaurants and bars line the canalised Aarhus River running in from the port

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Aalborg

Wonderful, wonderful Aalborg, a university town further north on the banks of Linholmfjord, also possesses the centuries-old buildings with steep triangular arched roofs that so enhance Nordic towns.

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There's a cathedral, originally from the 12th century, with a tall ornate steeple, the large five-story Stone House built by a rich merchant in 1624, and a castle fortress.

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For a change of time and pace, it's also home to the Utzon Centre, the last work designed by Jørn Utzon, architect of the iconic Sydney Opera House with its parabolic shells or flying sails. Well, this effort is distinctly inferior, more like a collection of distorted steel shoe boxes.

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There's also Synagogue Street, but no synagogue. The Germans blew up the century-old building in 1945. By then the Danes had spirited their Jewish community to neutral Sweden.

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At the many terrace cafes in the squares near the cathedral large seagulls are effecting daredevil dives as they steal French fries from an unattended table, strafing nearby eaters within a hair's breadth of contact.

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Or you can sup in more sedate surroundings - the cellar restaurant in the Old Stone House.

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The quaint cobbled streets are full of fairs and several buildings have giant murals from the figurative, realist and many other schools mustered in a municipal street art project.

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The students ensure that Jomfru Ane Gade and a couple of other streets are both lively and drunken; wall-to-wall bars, 100-krone ($15) beer walks, and port calls at six participating dens fuel much jolly elbow hoisting.

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Ribe

Wonderful, wonderful Ribe, billed as Denmark's oldest town, was founded in the early 8th century in the fens near the North Sea coast of Jutland.

It celebrated its 1,300 anniversary in 2010, and is wonderfully evocative, with winding cobbled lanes bordered by 400-year-old red-roofed houses painted in yellows, reds and whites, some with outer wooden beams, all dominated by another massive brick and stone cathedral, the oldest in Denmark.

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Built around 948, it was rebuilt after a fire in 1150 with many later additions, resulting in a hulking brick confection of eclectic design that is anything but in harmony with itself. At the entrance door, the north-east tower has a so-called Rhenish helmet of angular facets with a narrow spire. A similar north-west tower collapsed and was replaced with a bulky square monolith 170-feet high with a flat top.

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A spindly green spire tops the green roof over the rounded apse at the other end and several adjunct chapels project out from the walls. Within, it is light, adorned with a series of Moorish-style windows. The apse was redecorated, controversially, with modern almost Chagall-like frescoes and paintings 30 years ago. Whatever, the whole is still a very impressive sight.

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What's more you can climb the 248 steps, 63 spiraling stone, then 185 steep wooden stairs, to the top of the brick tower for superb views, passing by the large bell from 1436. With my naturally expert timing I pass by on the way down at the exact half hour. My ears are still ringing. Lucky it wasn't the carillon playing 'Queen Dagmar is ill in Ribe,' as it does at noon and 3 p.m.

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Outside, newly graduated high school seniors in white sailor captain hats are marching through the town square behind a fire truck playing 'Yes sir, that's my baby/No sir, I don't mean maybe/ Yes sir, that's my baby now.'

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[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Aarhus - a tale of two museums]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.