21 October 2012

Age-Old Amusements

When you first arrive in Copenhagen, emerging from Central Station, you may hear blood-curdling screams.  It's not exactly a sound you like to hear in a metropolis.  But just look up above the trees and you'll realize you have nothing to fear.  Gleeful shrieks have been emanating from Tivoli Gardens since 1843 - it's the second oldest running amusement park in the world.  Above newly-bare branches, over and under sagging power lines, between the buildings, you glimpse people secured into chairs of all kinds.  Soaring, dropping, spinning, swinging, screaming, flying past. 
Tivoli Gardens doesn't really hold a strong torch for the second word in its name at the end of October.  All of the spring/summer flowers are long gone and pounds upon pounds of pumpkins have been brought in to take their place.  Halloween at Tivoli is an event, a "Halloween" that feels truest to the American sense of the word.  We're talking faux cobwebs, ghosts, festivities, excess.  The cotton candy is orange, as were the sprinkles on my ice cream cone.  It is gorgeous at night, lit with orange jack-o-lanterns and white twinkling lights.  We picked up two plastic cups of hot apple cider, homemade with spices and love.  This being Europe and not America, it was hard cider and there was an option to add a shot of rum, gin or port (we declined).  There was also a machine at every big intersection that allowed you to deposit your cup and get a 5 krone coin back.  It was like a slot machine where you always won.
Tivoli Garden's original name was Tivoli & Vauxhall, after a Parisian garden (that was named after the place in Rome) and the Vauxhall Gardens in London.  One of the oldest buildings there today pays homage to other international locations.  The "Chinese-style" Pantomime Theater was built in 1874 and has always featured Italian pantomime productions.  I'm not really sure why it was designed to look Chinese, but do wish I could have seen the mechanical peacock's feather that serves as the stage's curtain.   Surrounding the park are its restaurants,  The Hercegovina (billed as "a bit of Croatia," which is baffling), wagamama (an Asian food chain) and Hard Rock Cafe (USA, born and bred).
But the truest inspiration for Tivoli probably came from very close to home.  10 kilometers north of Copenhagen is Dyrehavsbakken, the only working amusement park in the world older than Tivoli.  There's no doubt that founder Georg Carstensen got his idea from there.  One of the throwbacks to that era still around today is the Tivoli Boys Guard.  The troupe, about 100 boys aged 8 -16, perform songs, march around and 'guard' the buildings.  I'm sorry to put 'guard' in quotes, but their intimidation factor is similar to that of the Vatican's Swiss Guards.  In the good ole days, they were paid with beer.  Best gig ever.
For all the Buckingham-esque uniforms and international tastes, Tivoli Gardens still struck us as decidedly Danish.  It's Denmark's biggest tourist attraction, but Danes themselves pile through the gates along with us foreigners.  We were actually visiting during a school holiday and generations of families who'd all grown up coming here walked around the place like it was second nature.  No maps are given at the door.  Wood was piled neatly in places, a windmill turned, vendors sold pork hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches (Denmark is the highest consumer of pork per capita in the world).  Tivoli doesn't feel like a carnival, a sensory onslaught.  The manic, loud, cartoonish feeling so many amusement parks have isn't present here.  As Walt Disney remarked after visiting, there is a "happy and unbuttoned air of relaxed fun."  It's something that he is said to have tried to emulate in his own creation, Disneyland.
We didn't go on any rides, because we're embarrassingly impatient on most lines, but we did visit the in-house aquarium.  A fish feeding was going on, a shark feeding had just been missed, and the tanks were filled with exotic fish.  It's impossible to move quickly in an aquarium and it's amazing to see people stop, sit and gaze hypnotically at the fish.  All the powers a flickering movie or television screen has to hold your attention plus the fascination and awe inherent in the natural world make for a captivating experience.  Children hurdled downstairs in the midst of a sugar rush only to be lulled into awe by the aquarium.
"Tivoli will never, so to speak, be finished" - Georg Cartsensen, 1843.  
One of the world's oldest roller coasters, the wooden Rutschebanen built in 1914, is at Tivoli, as is the awesome Star Flyer, a 260+ foot 'swing ride' that spins 24 people at a time around a watchtower high above the city.   The newest ride, Vertigo, was absolutely mesmerizing to us.  We stood, rapt, frightened, watching for a good ten minutes.  These four-seater planes are controlled by the riders, so you can hit 'turbo' and zoom so fast the people underneath you may squeal.  You can also flip and spin as you'd like.
I may have been even more impressed by this, though.  Bumper boats.  Why don't they have this in America? There was this feeling of giddiness in the air at Tivoli and the lack of a care in the world.  When Georg Carstensen decided he wanted to build the park, he appealed to King Christian VIII himself.  It's not every day someone wanted a chunk of land in a city center for what may be seen as frivolous purposes.  "When the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics,"  he apparently told the king to sway him.  Music to a politician's ears.

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