Shifting Sands and a Rare Light in Denmark
Walking the "migrating dunes" of the Rabjerg Mile, near Skagen, North Jutland.
THERE is enough to see in Copenhagen - the canals, the Italianate piazzas, the breadth of architectural detail - to fully occupy the traveler. But nudging yourself to get out to the countryside brings you to an equally rich Denmark, one somewhat less known to Americans but fully appreciated by other Scandinavians and European tourists.
With the highest hill a mere 568 feet, Denmark encourages bicycle travel and long walks. Adding to the pleasure are the Danish trains - frequent and punctual, with spacious, well-equipped cabins designed for travel, not mere transportation.
Last July, my son, Daniel, then 13, and I met up with our former Danish exchange student, Thea, in Copenhagen, where she is a university student. We were going to the northern area of Jutland - the main peninsula - for a three-day visit with her parents, who hadn't been able to visit her when she lived with us in rural New Hampshire. They were eager to meet at least half their daughter's American family and show us some of their favorite places at the tip of Jutland.
From Copenhagen, the train quickly passed into the countryside of Zealand, the island on whose northeast coast the capital sits. After an hour's ride, the grand 11.5-mile Great Belt suspension bridge and tunnel brought us onto the island of Fyn (or Funen), marked by farms, small towns and the city of Odense, home to Hans Christian Andersen. Farmhouses were whitewashed; roofs were red tile or occasionally thatch. Fields were thick with corn.
Crossing Fyn in another hour, the train turned north up Jutland. We got off just south of Alborg, a major city that straddles the Limfjord, the broad waterway that nearly severs the tip of Denmark. Thea's mother, Nina, piled us into her small car and drove us west to their spacious home with views of farmland and meadows near the town of Nibe.
Thea's father, Jens, a scientist, was waiting, and he stopped his work renovating the old long, stone barn to greet us. We talked until late that evening over a fine dinner that included the new potatoes then in season.
Our plan the next day took us to Alborg, an ancient town founded by the Vikings that developed by the Middle Ages into a thriving commercial center. Alborg offers an immense variety of things to do: historic walks, coastal bus tours, and rail and boat excursions. Cultural highlights include a Viking festival in June and summer open-air concerts ranging from jazz to opera.
There's much to see in Alborg, but there are two places that shouldn't be missed. The Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, or North Jutland Museum of Modern Art, is located in a quiet corner of the city. Aside from its very fine permanent collection of mostly 20th-century Danish painting, the building itself is a masterpiece, the only structure in Denmark designed by the eminent Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
The rooms, stepped like an asymmetrical ziggurat, are long and spacious, with multiple skylights and rows of windows. Yet even on the brightest summer day, there's no glare. Room-length installations hung from the ceiling are sculptured into concavities - like cliffs exposed to the tide - so that sunlight is scooped back onto its side of entry, rather than being thrown harshly across the room.
One emerges stimulated by the unusual collection and soothed by the ambience.
The other site is at the opposite end of the timeline. Lindholm Hoje, in Norresundby on the northern bank of the Limfjord, is one of Denmark's major Viking landmarks, its cemetery and artifacts dating from around A.D. 400 to 1000.
Archaeological interest was piqued in the 1880's, when the probing of a curious investigator indicated that rocks lay deep under the drifting dunes of sand that had buried the area 1,000 years ago. Those rocks turned out to be an extensive Viking cemetery, hundreds of graves scattered over the grassy hillside, some outlined in stone to represent Viking boats.
In the 1950's, excavations also revealed a newly plowed field, the furrows still discernible, and part of a village, all well preserved by the sand. Quiet prevails, and we felt invited to stroll unhurriedly among the stones, sit on the outline of a house, and reflect on this North Sea culture that is so significant a part of Denmark's past. A new museum displays the unearthed relics in vivid reconstructions of village life.
It was late by then, though the light suggested otherwise, and we drove home to throw together a satisfying meal of salads, cheese and Jens's famous rolls.
There had been bursts of hard rain, but the next day was blue and sunny, and we set out toward Skagen, at the northernmost tip of the Danish peninsula. Ten miles before the town, we pulled off the road and confronted one of the most unexpected geographical features I have come across.
Suddenly, we were in a desert landscape, with sand dunes pushing skyward. These are Denmark's "migrating dunes," a phenomenon created by overgrazing and deforestation in the 17th century. West winds push the dunes about 30 feet east each year, and this so-called Rabjerg Mile (pronounced MEE-lay, meaning sand dune) is now a national preserve.
Like kids at the beach, we all pulled off our shoes and clambered to the top of a dune, where more rolling hills cascaded down and up again. With the breeze blowing lightly, the dunes spilling into each other, and the sand so cool underfoot, we could have stayed for hours.
"Migrating dunes" has the unlikely ring of the Macbeth Birnam Wood prophecy, but the skeptic has only to go a few miles farther on for proof: a 15th-century church, Tilsandede Kirke, or the Sand-Covered Church.
Encroaching sands had buried a good portion of the neighboring village and farms when St. Lawrence Church, its doors already obstructed, was closed in 1795. The church floor now rests under 15 feet of sand, and 10-foot-high walls are intact underneath.
The belfry was preserved as a lighthouse after the church was buried, and my son, always on the lookout for a tower to climb, led the way up the narrow staircase over the huge bell. The view of the fjord was majestic, and the ascent revealed the inner workings of the original construction, with massive beams open and within hand's reach.
The long hours of daylight meant that we were never in a hurry, but it was lunchtime, so we hopped over to Skagen, a lively port city with an array of sailboats and commercial ships jostling in the harbor. The town is lovely, with red-tile roofs painted white along the perimeter in the signature style of the region.
Simple fish restaurants crowd each other snugly along the harbor, each offering the same fare, each filled to capacity with Scandinavian tourists who arrive by boat from Norway and Sweden. We ate delicious fish cakes at Skagen Fiskerestaurant, on the pier, then snacked later on long-podded peas, the seasonal treat in early July, sold in small paper bags by vendors along the quay.
Just north of town is the celebrated point where the seas meet. We walked far across the beach, bent into a strong wind, to a sliver of a sandbar. There we stood calf-deep in the waters of at least two seas that were thrust together in a wild confluence of currents that forbids bathing but exhilarates windblown walkers like ourselves.
Technically, it hardly matters that the Kattegat is meeting the Skagerrak, the Danish straits linking the North and Baltic Seas, but I admit that something about the phenomenon stirs the imagination. The tip of Denmark felt like the tip of the world.
Skagen is known for the special quality of its light, and at the end of the 19th century, the shore drew many Danish painters whose work became known for depicting the coast's famed luminosity. Recently, wind-resistant grasses have been planted, and the light is said to be less dramatic as a result. That may mean something to the Danes of North Jutland, but such distinctions hardly occur to those of us toeing the sand here for the first time.
Thoroughly wind-tousled, we left the shore and walked a bit inland, where another surprise, this one with a less benign past, awaited us. Exploring ahead of us, Dan came upon an immense cement structure, then many others. They were German bunkers, and thousands of them were dug into the sand along this coast.
Massive and ugly, they are reminders that just over half a century ago, Denmark was occupied, and the Germans looked out across this same sea in expectation of an Allied assault. It never came, of course, but one is reminded of the courage and fortitude of a small nation.
The day was still fully lighted, but it was after 8 p.m. It was time to head back. There was still one more thing I looked forward to, and that was taking a long walk on my friends' empty road.
So that's what I did when we got home, while Dan mowed the lawn, Jens worked on barn renovation and Nina and Thea laughed as they made traditional beer-bread soup, which they promised was better than it sounded.
Walking is irresistible once you take the first steps on the long curling pavement that is a Danish country road. There are no shoulder, no lane markings or any painted lines; just a two-lane-wide band winding through the fields.
Farmland slowly unrolls, gently sloped, wavy without whitecaps. Hay, where cut, is combed into long windrows waiting to be baled. The wheat fields are winnowed by the fine, constant breeze.
When I turned and headed back, my friends' land came into view, blended into the neighbor's farm; the horizon was as far off as the edge of the sea. But the near view unfurled in shades of green and brown and eventually sloped and tilted toward farmhouse and barn, as if the road knew the way home.
The showers of the day before had left everything fresh, and around 11 that night, we watched the sun set in a wash of pink shades that they insisted was rare and obviously meant for us. It was hard to think otherwise.
Alborg and Skagen are the principal tourist centers in North Jutland. Information on lodging and restaurants is available online at visitnord.dk and www.skagen-tourist.dk as well as from tourist offices.
In Alborg, the tourist office is at Osteragade 8, telephone (45-98) 12-60-22 and www.visitaalborg.com; in Skagen, it is at the train station, (45-98) 44-13-77.
The Danish Tourist Board, 655 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017, can be reached at (212) 885-9700; www.visitdenmark.com.
DSB (the state railway) trains from Copenhagen to Alborg cost $49 one way for a reserved regular seat, which we found extremely comfortable, or $70 for first class, at the rate of 6.6 kroner to the dollar. Reserving is important since the trains can be crowded. Information: (45-70) 13-14-15 or www.dsb.dk.
Scandinavian Airlines System, (800) 221-2350 in the United States, (45-32) 32-68-00 in Denmark, www.scandinavian.net, flies from Copenhagen to Alborg. Round-trip tickets are typically about $90.
Where to Eat
We had a very good lunch of typical fish cakes in the Skagen Fiskerestaurant, (45-98) 44-35-44, on the pier, for about $12 a person with beer and soft drinks. The restaurant, which is open daily from June 1 to Sept. 1 for breakfast, lunch and dinner, was one of a series serving similar fare along the waterfront.
What to See and Do
The Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), Kong Christians Alle 50, Alborg, (45-98) 13-80-88, www.nordjyllandskunstmuseum.dk, is open Tuesday to Sunday; general admission is $6. The museum has a restaurant, where we a lunch of sandwiches and drinks cost about $15 to $20 for two.
Lindholme Hoje, the late Iron Age and Viking Village, is at Vendilavej 11, Norresundby, on the north side of the Limfjord across from Alborg. The burial grounds are open free dawn to dusk. The museum, (45-96) 31-04-28, is open daily in spring and summer, Tuesday and Sunday only November through March. Admission is $4.50, half price for ages 12 to 18, free under 12. There is a lovely small cafe with a deck overlooking the Limfjord.
The tip of Jutland is easily accessible by car, bicycle or bus, but the bus leaves a walk of about a half-mile to the migrating dunes. The trip to Skagen from Alborg (about 70 miles) is about an hour by car, and the flat terrain is perfect for bicycles.
The Rabjerg Mile, the migrating dunes, are off Route 40 about 10 miles south of Skagen. They are accessible by bicycle or car as well as by bus from Skagen.
The Sand-Covered Church, Tilsandede Kirke, is part of a large nature preserve three miles south of Skagen, also off Route 40. The way is well marked, and easy to reach by bicycle or car.
Skagen itself is a lovely fishing port, fine for strolling, and bicycles may be rented every day at Skagen Cykel, (45-98) 44-10-70, starting at about $11.50 a day.
Denmark's northern tip is about a mile and a half from the town center to the parking area. From there, you either walk a half-hour across the sands or hop aboard a Sandormen, or tractor bus, that runs back and forth to the tip.
BARBARA KREIGER teaches at Dartmouth College