I dreamed of swimming last night – in Copenhagen, a place denied to me in this year of coronavirus. I have been coming to Copenhagen regularly for the past decade and I have a work life and swim life here – the swimming allows me to connect with some local people outside of the work context, and to learn more about how this amazing city has come to be what it is – not so big in scale, but big-hearted; traditional and cutting-edge all at once. Modern, but with bicycles and not cars; urban but with lots of blue places to swim. I know Anne Katrine from work – a genuine and lovely New-Copenhagener (which is to say she came to Copenhagen University to study history, and she stayed, and she stayed. And stayed. She is a life-long swimmer, originally from the (very) lowlands around Esbjerg, Denmark, north of the border with Germany, Schleswig-Holstein. Historically disputed land and the site of two wars in the nineteenth century over who should have control over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, Denmark or Prussia. The differences pretty well settled now, there is a lot of water to swim in, with big sand beaches that seem to stretch forever. So how to swim in Copenhagen, when you come from such a lovely area?
Copenhagen is dense with young people, migrants from outlying lands in a decolonialised Denmark, stripped of its former grandeur. It has a particular way of being, both young and old (or elders as they call them here, and not the elderly). Anne Katrine, and many other New Copenhageners have brought their swimming sensibility to the city, and the city has responded, a place with a weird mix of old-school charm and radical thinking. Sometimes radical thinking involves rejecting mainstream thinking, such as the free-way and high-rise modernism that ripped out the heart of many cities in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the UK. Sometimes old-school charm and radicalism come together - and so it was that little old Copenhagen and its grown-up Copenhageners said no to the wrong kind of modernism, while reading Hans Cristian Andersen’s tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ to their children at bedtime. Hans Christian Andersen remains important, a sort of moral rudder that crosses the generations. Anne Katrine took me on a tour of her local cemetery, the Assistens Cemetery, where Andersen is buried, where on a summers day Copenhageners will sunbathe on the very neat grass among their dead elders. I found the sight of women in bikinis in the burial ground disturbing at first, but maybe it is just an acceptance of life never really being far away from death. Anyway, Anne Katrine assured me that this was not being disrespectful, to the Danish way of thinking. The grave-yard attendant didn’t think so either, offering recommendations for where to get the best coffee in Copenhagen (which values its coffee drinking to the level of high science, in the service of hygge).
Hans Cristian Andersen Town is another way of thinking of Copenhagen. Andersen lives on, in the magic of some of the architecture, old and new, its quirkiness and why-not?-ness, its old harbour and its little mermaid. The Little Mermaid, to give it its Proper name, is a statue on the harbour-front close to the old fort and is, well, little. And why would it be big, in Little Copenhagen? She may be little, but she is rich in meaning, like Little Copenhagen itself, old and new. She reminds us to dream our dreams; to grow up and live our own lives; to not take the dreams of others as our own. In my case, to dream of swimming and to see that dream as a form of freedom, to free my mind, to allow it to take me places when I can’t physically travel right now. Anne Katrine came to Copenhagen and grew up and became a Copenhagener, who dreams her own dreams not those of others. Some dreams are dreams of swimming, in a city where there is plenty of swimming to be had in everyday life, in everyday little Copenhagen.
For me, the starting point for any conversation about swimming in Copenhagen is at Islands Brygge, where a lovely harbour outdoor bathing facility is lively in both summer and winter, in different mood and temper. Islands Brygge (literally Iceland Wharf) was the industrial docklands of the city before the 1950s, urban regeneration having changed its demography and its source of vitality since then. No longer dockers and other industrial workers, but students and young professionals, fill the nineteenth century quarter of workers’ apartments which are mostly renovated and design-stylish (at least the ones I have seen, have been in). I have been coming to Islands Brygge across many years. I am a member of Vinterbad Bryggen, or Winter Bathing Wharf, the winter swimming club here. Its bathing platform was the first to be built in central Copenhagen in 2003. Vinterbad Bryggen has over 2,500 members and a waiting list. Its two large saunas overlook the canal, and a platform structure on the other side called The Wave – Kalbebod Bolge – which is funky-curvy, with activity sculpture, ladders into the water for kayaking and for swimming. The towers of Parliament House and City Hall fill out the skyline in the distance. I joined this club because I need to swim in winter and it was close to work. Across summer, it is a go-to place for many people, when Copenhagen becomes a very outdoorsy city. Winter or summer, swimming at Islands Brygge is very gratifying – just being able to be in togs and in the water in the centre of the city makes it so.
The harbour, the central canal, is absolutely central to the history of the city. The heritage goes back nearly a thousand years. With industrialisation and the growth of international trade, the harbour at Islands Brygge became central to commercial shipping between the 1880s and the 1980s. After that, the serious and seriously up-scaled shipping moved to Nordhavn (North Harbour), where the global Maersk shipping container empire has its headquarters. Urban regeneration at Islands Brygge followed the environmental clean-up after a century or so of industry. In 2001, the harbour was declared clean enough to swim in – by very high Danish standards. This was the green light for the birth of Copenhagen the Blue, with its face toward the water and not away from it. The harbour bath at Islands Brygge is not just a bathing platform but an ikon of a new ecologically-aware Copenhagen, as well as being serious architecture, designed by serious architects Julien de Smet and Bjarke Ingels, and a central part of the Harbour Park that was simultaneously developed here.
Anne Katrine swims at the Harbour Baths at Islands Brygge, is a member of Vinterbad Bryggen. She also swims at La Banchina, in Refshaleoen, at the upper end of the canal, close to the Royal Danish Opera House. This is a very lively and interesting place to swim, to hang out, to eat and talk, and just be. This area of Copenhagen, Refshaleoen, is a post-industrial brown-field site currently undergoing rapid regeneration. It has its own hipster vibe, and if this were London, it would be easy to imagine La Banchina and its Shoreditch twin-city hipsters being moved on by top-end development. But I am optimistic that here it won’t happen here so readily. Noma, the restaurant accredited several times as the top in the world, moved to this area in 2018, as have a number of top-end restaurants and contemporary art galleries since, creating a kind of brown-field chic. More than a restaurant, Noma has its own urban farm and food fermentation kitchens in and around its renovated factory home. This area is also the home of the incinerator plant cum ski slope, Amager Bakke, the architect being the very same Bjarke Ingels who designed the bathing platform at Islands Brygge. The ski-slope incinerator plant opened in 2017, but has one flaw to my mind - it doesn’t go all the way to the nearby ocean front, but if it did, it would be both perfectly flawlessly crazy, and perfectly, perfectly, perfect. Perhaps Bjarke Ingels already has a plan to make it perfectly perfectly perfect…
La Banchina is a shed-café with an out-house kitchen and some small greenhouses for growing fresh salad leaves across the year. It is on the canal front, with a small barrel sauna again looking out across the water, and braziers on the water front for wood-burning fires in winter. It is very popular indeed among the younger adults who are fuelling the growth of winter swimming in this city. The food at La Banchina – everything the serve that is traditional tastes like it should, and everything they serve that is new makes something good happen in your mouth and in your brain. The staff are intelligent and keep things simple. Ponytails, piercings and tattoos, tee-shirts and dry humour, all making you welcome. You order your place in the sauna as you arrive, then go to the café, where they have some simple instructions to new-comers. “There is a sign saying no swimming, but – as you can see…”, says Multiple-Silver Ear-Piercings, pointing to people swimming. “No, you can’t swim in the canal, but as you see…”, agrees Viking-Tattoo on Bare Shoulder, pointing to the jetty and the ladder down into the December water. “It is against the law to swim naked, but as you see…”, states Pony-Tail and Ripped Denim, pointing to naked men cooked lobster-pink, just out of the water. This trio proudly did a pop-up in London last year, and have their own Copenhagen dream of good food and good living, which people here love.
La Banchina is all the buzz words in one - organic, biodynamic, locally sourced, farm to table, no meat, local fish, organic wine, candles, baggy jumpers, bicycles, bobble hats, warm cinnamon buns and hot chocolate. Open outdoor fires, sauna, intimate chat and cosy sensations. Hygge piled high and deep like the winter-swimming style of multiple layers of clothing and scarves, which is also a signature of Copenhagen dress-style.
Not far from here is another place where Anne Katrine - Kastrup Sea Bath. This opened in 2005, another fine and ikonic structure on the ocean-front, looking out across Oresund, the 15 kilometer ocean sound that divides Denmark from Sweden. Kastrup Sea Bath is just two metro stops from the airport, twenty minutes from the city centre, and in summer it buzzes with activity from day-break to night fall (which in Scandinavia is the vast majority of all the hours of the day). This beautiful wooden bathing platform is architecture and sculpture in one. It is substantial in size and fine in quality - you to just want to be there, looking out across the ocean, gazing upon the Oresund Bridge, the very fine bridge which opened in the year of the millennium, and which connects the two countries and the now twin-cities of Copenhagen and Malmo. In winter, Kastrup Sea Bath is quiet, but active in a different way from the full-on in summer. There is a sign saying that the bathing platform is closed in winter, which swimmers tend to ignore and the authorities know will be ignored. The sign is the municipality doing its duty by health and safety – in short they are saying ‘swim at your own risk’ - which most do. There are usually wet footprints showing where the recent previous swimmers got in and got out. In deeper winter you follow the footprints in the snow, sometimes to find someone there already, to exchange pleasanteries, to pass a moment, then to swim. In winter, regulars meet before seven in the morning to swim naked and take post-swim coffee from their own flasks. There are cafes you can cycle to from Kastrup Sea Bath, but why would you prefer to drink coffee in a café when you can sit on the fine hard-wood benches on the bathing platform and look across the ocean, snug in your many layers and scarves, to the Oresund Bridge and on a good day, watch a beautiful sun-rise?
Anne Katrine knows these places, knows things about swimming Copenhagen-style, and all the things that go with that style. In her podcast, she speaks of her passion for swimming, where she swims, why she swims, and how she swims. She loves vegetarian food, coffee, organic wine and the occasional beer. Listen to her podcast, and make her your Copenhagen swimming friend, just for the evening. Light a candle, drink some beer or wine or tea or cocoa. There is a lot more to be said about swimming in Copenhagen, but, as Hans Christian Andersen might have said, “Dear children, that is a story for another night”. So after listening, dear listener, sleep snuggly-hyggelig and dream of swimming.
Swimming Copenhagen-style podcast here