Strøget, Copenhagen’s famous street, just turned 50. And it charmed us right out of our walking shoes

“Are you watching closely?” an old immigrant Slav asked, as he deftly manipulated a small ball between three purpose-built plastic cups. The game goes like this: the Slav moves the ball between the covers and is deliberately slow to make sure you notice where the ball went when he stops.

I placed my bet. The cup I had held under my gaze was upturned… there was no ball inside.

Old women tourists and Asians are particularly vulnerable, the Slav would confide later. I was his last game, so he accompanied me to a side lane to sip bootleg absinthe, which he bought from a Romanian beggar. He sipped with a sense of calm, and I with a sense of loss.

Such chance encounters are frequent on the most glamorous street of Copenhagen, the Strøget. On a normal summer day, this flush street receives more than 200,000 visitors. Strøget is the vein pumping heaps of tourists, white-shirted businessmen, pinched students, and window shoppers from the town centre Radhusplatsen to the up-market Nyhaven — the old part of Copenhagen lined with open-roof restaurants, expensive boats and the Danish Opera House.

Tourist season in this part of the world lasts a couple of months, though Wonderful Copenhagen, Denmark’s tourism organisation, is trying to make it a year-long destination centred on certain themes including food and biking (smartly branded as ‘Copenhagenization’). Copenhagen already hosts one of the best recognised fashion shows in the world (Copenhagen Fashion Week) and aims to be among the top three fashion destination of the world. Strøget makes a sincere contribution to this end. Sometimes, soccer stars step on this street while heading to the Guccis and Versaces. Streetwalking here calls for rich clothes and leather shoes that should make the right noise while striking the stones.

Cobblestones, coalesced into chance patterns of half circles and curves, surface the street. The surrounding buildings get older as Nyhavn approaches, but till then the street is more like a cozy alley. Take a few steps and the street transforms into a fair, much like the Cirque Du Soleil. Performers bristle along the pavement. In one corner there’s a jazz band playing well enough to appeal to a small crowd. A few flings further are con artists suspended in mid-air by a pole, who command a larger crowd. The scrupled crowd walks around to decipher the trick behind the couple sitting in meditation, but logic is defeated by what the eyes see — the couple has managed to pull it off. These tricks and games live for long, circling across all famous European streets from Stockholm to Spain, to appear again in a recycled form to seduce new tourists.

Strøget seems to be hung in the past, not in a disregarded way, but out of choice, out of wanting to retain the charm. This street of Copenhagen is a rather new invention after all. It was only in the early 1960s that roughly 1,500 square metres of this area was reserved for Christmas markets, allowing only pedestrians and cyclists. The experiment was successful and the reserved space grew in multiples till it became the intricate network of traffic-free lanes and by-lanes we see today. The Christmas markets continue too. Come winter, and shops sprout up in Nyhavn, selling spicy wines, plum cakes and sweaters.

The only oddity punctuating this absurdly fashionable street is a small population of beggars. Some Dane friends explain later that the beggars in Copenhagen, or for that matter across European streets, are not locals. They come from Romania, Moldova and other Baltic countries and tour across Europe, making more money from a few months of begging than from the jobs back home. In winters they go back to their villages. The begging, as seasonal as monsoon in our part of the world, is just another after-effect of the relaxed travel within the EU; and the Danes, I would discover later, get worked up when asked about the penury witnessed in this otherwise rich nation.

It’s past nine and the con tricks intensify as darkness is inked in. The Slav, who was sipping silently, decides on one last punt. He pats me as we part, hoping to meet again but well, friendships made on streets are like flirting at traffic signals — there’s little promise it will leave you with anything more than a moment’s high.

Later, sitting in an open café, I watch the street in secrecy. Next to me is an elderly Danish couple sharing a chocolate muffin and sipping manufactured espresso. Around us, a larger, demographically varied crowd provides a perfect setting for an anthropologist’s experiment, if he were interested in learning what makes streets pull crowds. It suddenly occurs to me that the couple next to me would have seen the transformation of this place firsthand. We get talking and over bitter espressos, I hear about the extraordinariness of Jan Gehl, the Dane architect who propagated ‘Copenhagenization’ as a lifestyle choice.

Strøget is Jan Gehl’s masterpiece, a successful prototype of a larger vision he had in mind when he recommended a gradual evolution towards living, breathing cities.

Quick Facts

Strøget is approximately 1 km long and is for pedestrians only

It houses some of the oldest and biggest design shops and boutiques, all rather pricey.

Best time to visit is between June and September


Tête-à-tête with CharlemagneSeptember 14, 2012