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Copenhagen, a city to look up to

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — To appreciate this city, look up. Otherwise the very buildings that close in to create the Old World appeal may be too close to yield their secrets.

So take a few steps back from the curb, or look across the street, to admire the pale pastels of the stuccoed exteriors and the rust-colored brick walls. Glancing up, you see how many church spires poke above the four- and five-story apartment blocks, notice the many domes and slanting roofs with their sea-foam-green patina, enjoy the gilded accents on the wrought iron, see the flower boxes.

The Stroget (STROY-ett) is the name for more than a mile of pedestrian thoroughfare that is actually five connecting streets. The Stroget is lined with some of Denmark's finest stores, such as silversmith Georg Jensen and Royal Copenhagen Porcelain.

But there also are enough souvenir shops, department stores, restaurants, squares and fountains to lure throngs of strollers and street entertainers, no matter the weather.

Beckoning the curious passers-by in old Copenhagen are arcades: arched passageways that occasionally interrupt the facade of storefronts.

Arcades are wide enough for one car, which probably suits the residents and employees who live or work within these passageways. Statuary, picnic tables or flowering planters placed by those who spend their days here individualize each arcade.

While the Stroget is reserved for pedestrians, the occasional bicyclist flits among them. Cyclists are more common on other streets, and everyone from cabdrivers to strollers knows to look for bicycles before turning a corner or stepping from a sidewalk.

The city provides free bicycles for anyone to use: It takes just a 20-kroner coin (about $3.25) to unlock a cycle from its sidewalk rack; you can return the cycle to any other rack and when you relock it, you get the money back.

The wedding of Crown Prince Frederik and his fiancee, Mary Donaldson, was held at Vor Fure Kirken (Church of Our Lady), where the austere interior, with its off-white walls, serves as a fine backdrop for the statues of Christ and the Apostles by Denmark's most-noted sculptor, 19th-century great Bertel Thorvaldsen.

Like his younger brother, Frederik married a commoner. They reportedly met at a bar in Sydney, her home, when he attended the Summer Olympics there four years ago.

Not that Queen Margrethe II and her husband, Henrik (the son of a French count), rise too far above the crowd themselves: This is a constitutional monarchy, meaning that the sovereign is largely a ruler in name only. Margrethe is paid an annual fee of several million kroner, from which she must hire her staff, maintain the various royal residences and even buy the groceries. She also is a recognized artist who has illustrated an edition of Lord of the Rings.

The Danes like to note that theirs is Europe's oldest monarchy, dating 1,000 years. A wall-sized family portrait in one of the city's several palaces shows one of the kings of the second half of the 19th century surrounded by his children and grandchildren. This is notable because the children married into about a half-dozen other royal families on the continent, from England to Russia.

The newest architectural jewel of this country that celebrates design is the Black Diamond, a name that certainly must be unique among national libraries. The minister of culture at the time, Jitte Hylden, headed the committee charged with modernizing Denmark's Royal Library. This storehouse of precious works held illuminated books from 1000 A.D., journals of the Vikings' expeditions to North America and Greenland, and original manuscripts by Hans Christian Anderson, his contemporary, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and novelist Isak Dinesen (who used the pen name Karen Blixen).

But the old Royal Library had a reading room with just 93 chairs and no computer terminals. "It was very closed, very quiet, really just for professors and scholars," recalled Hylden.

"Ten years ago, this was a lousy area — it was the back yard of old Copenhagen," Hylden said. Now it is more like the busy living room of a popular family, living in a building that cost more than $57-million by the time it opened in September 1999.

Sheathed in polished black granite, the Black Diamond seems to slant on one side over a wide canal — a visual reminder of the nation's maritime history. On the opposite side, it bridges a busy road to link with the old library.

Inside, there are now more than 400 seats for visitors to several reading rooms, a 408-seat theater for musical or dramatic performances; both a casual grill and a gourmet restaurant and meeting rooms that can hold up to 100.

Attention to design is everywhere. Floors are blond wood alternating with pale gray sandstone. The walls of the interior balconies that look onto the 90-foot-high atrium are curving, to resemble the Northern Lights, which are visible over parts of Denmark and its possession, Greenland. The ceiling of the bridge between the old and new buildings is a 144-piece stone mosaic.

If the Black Diamond is Danish Modern, the various palaces, or slots, in Copenhagen are Danish Heritage. Each has its own special lure for visitors.

The most-important is the Christianborg Slot, now a complex of national government buildings on its own island. Here are grand rooms used for royal functions, the Parliament, the High Court, the prime minister's offices and the royal stables rain.

One large, ornate room holds a display unique among palaces worldwide: imaginative tapestries representing Denmark's long history.

Originally planned as a gift to Margrethe on her 50th birthday, the colorful and clever tapestries wound up taking 12 years to weave, and they were not hung in the royal reception chambers until just before her 60th birthday.

They were designed by Bjorn Norgaard and display icons of people and events. Most accessible to the non-Dane is the hanging that portrays the 20th century. It includes caricatures of Hitler (giving a Nazi salute), Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, Churchill, Mao, Groucho Marx, Bob Dylan, Donald Duck, Lenin, Charlie Chaplin and the Beatles.

Representing Denmark are Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and King Christian X, in a famous image of him continuing his daily horseback rides through Copenhagen to rally the spirits of his subjects during the German occupation of World War II.

The Amalienborg Slot, several connecting buildings that are the Copenhagen residences of the queen and her children, is protected by the Royal Guard, in red tunics and tall fur busby hats. They walk as sentries within the plaza of the palaces, and the noontime changing of the guard takes place with a military band.

The public can tour a wing of a palace that is rich in the actual furnishings of the royal occupants from 1863 to 1947. Every piece of furniture seems to have tassels hanging down.

The walls of another room bristle with hunting rifles. Still another room has a beautiful Meissen chandelier with porcelain figurines. There are gilded plaster floral designs on the ceilings.

The Rosenborg Slot draws visitors to its charming gardens as well as its museum displays inside. Each of two dozen rooms on an upper floor is filled with period pieces — the royal drinking glasses and swords — and portraits of their owners, while the lower floor displays Denmark's crown jewels.

While palaces and centuries-old streets embody the capital city's past, and a couple of exhibition centers proudly showcase trend-setting design elements, one small museum displays a somber side, when Denmark yielded to Hitler's war machine but its citizens staged a resistance movement.

Their efforts are chronicled, in detail and with astounding artifacts, in the Frihedsmuseet, the Resistance Museum. Signs in Danish and English explain that the Danish government realized it could not withstand the German army and air force, so it signed a neutrality agreement in April 1940. Leaflets dropped from German planes offered military occupation as protection; in truth, the Germans wanted to establish naval and air bases in Denmark and Norway to better control the North Atlantic.

Because Denmark's largest land mass, the Jutland Peninsula, adjoins Germany, many Danes were familiar with Germany and also spoke that language. A Danish Nazi party existed before the war but their German military commanders preferred to let the existing Danish civilian government maintain administration of the country.

But the Germans sent more than 30,000 Danes to perform industrial work in Germany. And 6,000 Danes volunteered to fight on behalf of the Germans — they were sent to the dreaded Eastern Front, to battle the Russians. The Germans' arresting of leading Danish communists set off the first major protests against the government's policy of accommodation.

The museum displays all manner of resistance: red, white and blue lapel pins or skullcaps like those of Britain's Royal Air Force in defiance of a Nazi order not to show such colors, slogans such as "God Save the King" and "Down With Hitler" stamped into the aluminum coins that had been put into circulation, illegal newspapers printed on ingenious homemade presses, brochures that were supposed to show fitness exercises but actually taught map-reading and marksmanship skills, and matchboxes encouraging sabotage.

One case holds the actual wrenches used to derail a German ammunition train in 1942; a photo of the train wreck is next to it. Other cases hold everything from weapons to forged ID papers.

Both the very large British-supplied radio transmitters for sending coded messages and the much smaller Danish version are displayed.

Resistance fighters often paid with their lives, and one case holds the bullet-riddled sweater and hat of one killed in April 1945, just days before Germany surrendered.

A display recounts the heroic efforts to help an estimated 7,000 Jewish Danes to rapidly escape to neutral Sweden when it was learned the Germans planned to intern them. The Jews were taken by boat or bought round-trip train tickets, lest a one-way ticket might draw attention.

In a final irony, the museum notes that as Germany ultimately collapsed, an estimated 250,000 German refugees moved to Denmark.

The resistance museum is adjacent to a lovely waterside park that surrounds a star-shaped fort named Kastellet (Citadel), which the occupying Germans had used as their military headquarters.