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Whitsuntide: The Friendly Carnival, Danish Style

April 05, 1987|JOE SKOLE | Skole is a Long Beach free-lance writer.

COPENHAGEN — It's like taking a deep, courage-bolstering breath before plunging into water you just know is going to be icy cold, and the sigh of relief when the water turns out to be warm and pleasant.

From afar, the huge Town Hall Square here is a maelstrom of color and noise. A youthful mob, clad in bizarre costumes, painted with weird makeup, churns in a writhing mass.

But once you plunge in, trepidations quickly dissipate. The atmosphere is warm and friendly and the attitude is hospitable.

"Hello!" shouts a young man, his fingers splayed on the keys of a pulsating accordion while he deftly clutches a bottle of beer. "Do you speak English?"

This is spring; the flower beds in the nearby Tivoli, perhaps the world's first theme amusement park, are in full bloom, a lush rampage of color, and the young people of Copenhagen are celebrating Whitsuntide Carnival.

"Where are you from?" calls a girl in a blue chiffon cape, with sunflower-yellow paper petals sprouting from the top of her head, one side of her face painted maroon, the other a garish green.

"The U.S.," I reply.

"Welcome to Copenhagen." She grins. "Come enjoy a good Danish beer."

What seems like a mindless mob has a vaguely discernible pattern. Groups of young people of high school and college age mill about, seeming from time to time to congregate loosely around standards and banners. Here and there, musical groups valiantly try to outdo each other--if not melodically, at least in volume. Omnipresent throughout the square are cases upon cases of green bottles of beer.

Along one side of the square, arm-banded individuals good-naturedly struggle to clear a path for sweaty runners, more than 3,000 of whom are in the 42-kilometer (about 26 miles) Wonderful Copenhagen Marathon that wends on a tortuous route throughout the city. Clearly, the toughest part is finding running room through the mass of humanity gathered in Town Hall Square.

Whitsuntide, the Pentecost observance traditionally held 50 days after Easter Sunday, has long been a legal holiday in Scandinavia and Great Britain, and is observed in other countries. Six years ago it was decided in Copenhagen to create a three-day carnival in conjunction with the observance.

But unlike carnivals in Rio, New Orleans and other cities, the one here is marked by a lack of rowdy behavior and vandalism. The costumes are really quite demure.

World-famous Tivoli amusement park, only about half the size of the 70-acre Disneyland and a fraction of the size of Florida's Walt Disney World, is open from May 1 to early September, attracting more than 5 million visitors a year.

Despite its small size, it is so artfully designed that within the grounds in the heart of the city are 25 major rides, more than two dozen restaurants, a fairly large boat-filled lake that is part of the old moat that once surrounded the city, an outdoor theater, a bandstand, and the spectacularly colorful gardens that have earned world fame.

At night, although neon lights are forbidden, more than 110,000 colored bulbs illuminate the park in a fairyland glow that would make Hans Christian Andersen proud. Four times a week--on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday--a massive fireworks display heralds the close of the park at midnight.

Tivoli was created by a 31-year-old newspaper publisher named Georg Carstensen, a former army officer and the son of a former governor of Algeria, where he was born.

He convinced the Danish king to permit him to use a military training area just outside what was then the city's west gate to build what he called the Copenhagen Tivoli and Vauxhall. The doors opened on Aug. 15, 1843, and it has been a monumental success ever since.

None of the rides are gut-wrenching thrillers of the type usually found in North American amusement parks. Crowds of wide-eyed youngsters tugging at helium-filled balloons--and their wide-eyed parents tugging at eager children--line up to ride the roller coaster. Built on a gentle scale, with easy slopes instead of sharp drops, and nary a gravity-defying loop-the-loop, it's designed to resemble an antique steam locomotive and train. But the shrieks of joy and delight are just as loud.

Also unlike those at theme parks in North America, many of the restaurants are designed to accommodate adults rather than cater to the snack-food mania of youngsters. Tivoli restaurants serve alcoholic beverages, something Walt Disney never permitted in his parks during his lifetime. Several of the restaurants offer excellent, almost gourmet-quality food.

Some of the cuisine is international, including American. Per F. Sorensen, who owns and operates the Promenaden restaurant, serves delicious barbecued spareribs and rib-eye steaks, which he learned to make in San Antonio, Tex., where he managed a private club on the grounds of HemisFair, the 1968 world's fair staged in that city.

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