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A Visit to Tivoli

Smack dab in the center of Copenhagen is an amusement park called Tivoli. First opened in 1843, it's a special place. I always found Disneyland agitating, garish, and strangely disturbing – big and sprawling and fake and always insanely crowded, not just an amusement park but something more like a would-be alternate reality where you're condemned to the hell of spending eternity queued up for some two-minute diversion surrounded by shrieking, ill-mannered children. (I've so far managed to avoid visiting Disney World.)

Tivoli's not like that. It's like a Japanese garden, modest and charming and meticulously put together. There's a perfect mix of outdoor bars and cafes and fine eateries – a steak place here, a seafood place there, and charming restaurants with different architectures and atmospheres offering, variously, Spanish and Italian and German and Danish cuisine. There are rides for kids and rides for adults. There's an arcade where you can throw a ball and knock things over and win outsized teddy bears and giant chocolate bars. There's the smell of cotton candy and popcorn.

There's a tree-shaded pond that's lit up at night by multicolored bulbs You can have a world-class Wienerschnitzel with horseradish and baked carrots at a sumptuous restaurant overlooking the pond, then walk a few steps down a path and see a mother duck, on the small strip of grass between the path and pond, sleeping peacefully with her ducklings. You can put a five-kroner piece in a little machine by the pond and buy food to feed the fish in the pond. It's sweet, not spectacular – compact and low-key, like Denmark itself. I'm exceedingly fond of it, and so are the Danes, for whom it's nothing less than a national symbol not unlike the Eiffel Tower in France, the Colosseum in Italy, and Big Ben in Britain.

The travel writer Jan Morris doesn't approve of Tivoli's key role in the Danish psyche, saying that she finds it “childishly demeaning” that such a frivolous place “should stand at the very center of Denmark's life and reputation.” That opinion appears in Morris's 1997 book Fifty Years of Europe, and I remembered it when I first visited Tivoli many years ago. After experiencing the park for myself, I thought her criticism was unfair: for me, Tivoli seemed the perfect national symbol for a small, flat, pretty country inhabited by quiet, decent, pretty people who ride bicycles to work, whose most famous invention is Lego toys, and whose great author was a teller of children's tales.

To be sure, even when I first visited Tivoli I knew there was a dark cloud over Hans Christian Andersen's sunny little land. I had wandered through Nørrebro, the once-hip, Greenwich Village-type neighborhood of Copenhagen that was already becoming Islamized – this was in 2004 – and that will soon, I suspect, be a full-fledged no-go zone. (Copenhagen's annual gay pride march used to go through Nørrebro; this year the organizers opted to re-route it, and insisted their decision had nothing to do with aggressive Muslim demands that the sodomites stay off “their” turf.)