I had recently returned from a week in Kerala and got my hands on a copy of Tales of a Female Nomad. Immersed in the familiarity of travelling alone, I lived the book vicariously through the woman behind it — Rita Golden Gelman. I must admit, it was only the one time that a fan mail might have left my inbox. To my delight and shock, Rita replied — a warm and emboldening message without a trace of sanitised response that reeks of celebrityhood. Naturally, I’ve been a devotee since. For years now, she has spearheaded the Gap Year Movement in the US. I have fervently followed the cause, but always wondered how it would be practical for an Indian, given our currency disparity with the West.
Many years later, the thoughts stirred up again in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. It was a summer afternoon and a group of us were watching youngsters summersault into the water at Islands Brygge Harbour Bath, a public swimming pool. A colourful patch of sunbathers reclined on the green grass in front. Our local expert contributed to our admiration for this public entertainment. “Island Brygge is free, despite offering a robust facility of a 75m swimming pool, a diving pool, a children’s pool and a paddling pool. Barbeques and impromptu gigs fill the lawns at nights,” he bragged. What more could one want?
So, despite being Scandinavia’s most avant garde destination, Copenhagen seemed to have things that would not leave the wallet lighter. “Hmm, a gap year here. Or even a month,” the thought left a wistful smile, as I spent the next two days scouring for free or budget things to do in the city, to whet my case for a possible case for an Indian gap-year initiative. And there was plenty that one can do.
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It’s impossible to speak of Copenhagen and not bring up its cycling culture. The city launched its free public bikes scheme in 1995, after which more than 100 bike racks dot the city. One can simply drop in 20DKK to unlock a set of wheels and retrieve the coin on depositing it back at any designated location. The fact that Copenhagen is in one of the happiest nations in the world is testified by absolutely no exasperation from the locals, when frequent cycling mishaps are caused by slightly baffled newbies.
The city boasts of Danhostel — Europe’s largest hostel that rooms more than thousand curious travellers — an address that is music to every budget traveller. But more mellifluous are names such as couchsurfing.com, globalfreeloaders.com and homeexchange.com. These are economising ideas where you crash at a host’s couch, shamelessly “freeload” with someone or simply swap your pad back home.
A generous dose of free culture is a big win for travellers — the National Museum, National Gallery and Danish Resistance Museum, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the Hirschsprung Collection are free for one day during the week (usually Fridays). Other iconic experiences like the Little Mermaid statue and the change-of-guard ceremony (Vagtparage in Danish) at the Amalienborg Castle also don’t make one any poorer. Little Mermaid apart, fairy tales author Hans Christen Anderson’s legacy is proudly shared by students who conduct free walks close to the City Hall Square. Other generous groups offer free tours that cover all the key parts of the city like Christiania, the churches, palaces and even a pub crawl. Of these, the alternative Freetown Christiania is my favourite, as one can choose to look for work in the restaurants, bars and organic shops to earn a buck and get a peek into the autonomous world of a community that has renounced the Danish government and wants to live in a self governing society.
The more I walked around and spoke to people, the easier it was to imagine a krone-free time in Copenhagen. Of course, this is with the exception of the harbour of Nyhavn, where one cannot resist having a beer while dangling one’s legs from the ledge onto the canals that flow along. With a smorgasbord of activities and sights that one can see for free, it isn’t too outlandish to think that an Indian could manage a soul-searching gap period here. There is one more exception: you have to steer clear from spending on a smørrebrød (an open Danish sandwich) at Noma, the two star Michelin restaurant that Copenhagen is extremely proud of.