It’s a good time to visit Europe’s quietened capitals. Copenhagen, Nice and London delight Tim Magee
If Europe’s cities had launched a campaign back in 2019 claiming that, for one year only, they were going local, stopping most cruise ships, slashing hotel rates, blocking long-haul travel and opening access to their museums and galleries, I’d have visited them all. Now those cities are in flux, transitioning from being local-only to welcoming tourists, while the whole continent keeps its fingers crossed for next year. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see our postcard cities without the masses. Just a couple of hours on a plane can launch you back in time. I’ve rarely wanted to be a tourist but when the shutters came down last year, I dreamed of welltrodden paths, not getting off the beaten track.
Copenhagen has long felt like a crystal ball to a hopeful future but never more so than this year when tourism had just reopened and, for the first time in an age, I saw the faces of the people who work in restaurants. Free controlled testing – antigen and PCR – is part of everyday life for Danes. You don’t need to walk far to find a ventilated testing tent and a platoon of hazmatted peeps keeping outbreaks in check. I was working but when I wasn’t I was walking. Haring through Copenhagen on its famous whizzing superhighway of bike lanes isn’t actually the best way to be a tourist. I am not sure how often I have visited the Danish capital but on this trip I walked down past Ofelia beach to see the Little Mermaid for the first time. The tide was flooding beside me and a breezy private armada was heading out to sea. I tried every food stall at Broens Gadekøkken, took my time around Torvehallerne, lunched on smørrebrød, at the brilliant Selma and had the same, with a kick of akvavit, at Sankt Annæ Gade. I even waited up for the Tivoli Garden fireworks not knowing – not used to being a tourist – that they sounded like a replay of Desert Storm. The maskless yet careful Danes, with their ever-changing outstanding food and preternatural disposition towards good service, meant I felt that I could breathe more freely than any time since March last year. Visit to get a feel for best-in-class sustainable outdoor culture that’s in our future and for the lovely feeling of being poolside at the new Villa Copenhagen.
From there I flew to Nice, where the lanes of the old town were wall-to-wall plein air dining, jammers with French. My age group – the middle one – was near absent, instead it was all 18-25-year-olds and grannies. I saw few phones on tables. Talking, like walking, seems very trendy now. I heard just one native English speaker, few Italians and the only Russian I saw was anchored off the headland at Antibes in what looked like the Chrysler Building at sea – Sailing Yacht 1. Not the usual oversized Bond villain speedboat but a three-masted equal feat of engineering and ignorance, brutal but beautiful. Fortunately that kind of tourist and those dreaming of being like him were elsewhere, as was Nice’s prom parade of stencilled facial hair-heads crawling around in gaudy Lambos. Not having nor wanting a boat, I moored myself in balmy narrow backstreets in each of Armand Crespo’s gaffs – lunch at Bistro d’Antoine, dinner at Le Comptoir du Marché and the beautiful Bar des Oiseaux – trying to lean into the accent enough to order pastis and pissaladière without breaking the locals-only spell.
London’s restaurants and hotels have really been through the wars, only dreaming of the supports we’ve had. I was there just after restaurants reopened but before batshit Freedom Day, aka the F Variant, was announced. It’s more realistic to view London as a city state – a city that didn’t vote for Brexit but is almost uniquely at risk from the combo punch of it, plus the pandemic. Working from home, with no tourists, Brexit shortages and staff shortages, and a kamikaze government forcing a US travel ban, made this usually reliable neighbour impossible to call. Nowhere was busy. My first couple of stops, including a well-known and beloved seafood icon, were all disasterpants. I was saved by catching up with some of the best minds in food at the beloved Clipstone (W1) and the new Soho sister of Noble Rot (on Greek Street). I chanced the Nero exhibition at the British Museum. The show was only ok and failed at persuading anyone that Nero was actually a good guy but I enjoyed the novelty of grabbing a ticket an hour beforehand (unthinkable pre-pandemic). I love big, bold London busy or quiet, and I’ll be back shortly for the opening of the new Château Denmark hotel and probably revisiting the genius of Paula Rego at Tate Britain. My sometimes-base The Standard’s rates are way lower than usual, which means a bath on my balcony overlooking St Pancras. The building from Harry Potter still has a magical platform that tethers London to Europe, despite what any flag-wavers think.
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