by Lee Foster
Denmark presents the visitor with an intriguing mix of civilized pleasures in Copenhagen and grand castles in a green countryside outside the metropolis, both north in Zealand and west on the island of Funen.
In one week a traveler can glimpse the essential Danish character in this country of manageable size. May, June, and July are the choice months for a visit because the sun may be out, the days may be warm, and the hours of light are plentiful.
Begin in central Copenhagen, a walk-able and safe city, no small modern accomplishment. You can walk day and night in Copenhagen with less anxiety than most other world capitals. The prosperity of the Danes is so universal and egalitarian that the country lacks a desperate class of the dispossessed inclined toward theft.
Begin with the story of Danish royalty and their fabulous wealth, starting around 1500 A.D. The places to visit are the Rosenborg Palace and the Amalienborg Square. Gold paraphernalia of crowns and jewelry at Rosenborg, plus the silver lions of the throne room, find a parallel in the architectural grandeur of Amalienborg. The kings of note here tend to be named Christian or Frederik. Equestrian statues of great leaders abound.
The kings’ wealth was based on the agricultural surplus produced in the fertile countryside since the time of Viking prominence, roughly 1000 A.D., plus the tolls that the Danes were able to extract from ships passing through the Baltic where the sea narrows to only four kilometers between Denmark and Sweden, at Helsingor. Denmark dominated Sweden and Norway for long periods of history.
For the commoner not on a royal budget, travel in this region can be expensive. But if you arrange a reasonable advance package of air and hotel for a week’s stay, you’ll have your major costs under control.
Within the central district of Copenhagen several aspects of the modern Danish sensibility can be sampled.
Danish modern design in furniture can be seen at a store titled Nyt-i-bo. The simplicity of line in typical Danish design can be viewed at this store, which has everything in furniture from chairs to cabinets. A parallel kitchen/dining Danish design emphasis, from glassware to cutlery, can be seen at other nearby shops.
The special food delight of open sandwiches can be savored at any number of restaurants. Danish beers, Tuborg and Carlsberg especially, are available to wash down these sandwiches at countless small taverns and cafes. The shop called Kransekagehuset epitomizes the finest in Danish pastry. Tage Andersen is a florist shop showing striking use of flowering and leafy plants in exquisite designs.
Beyond food and flowers, an icon of modern Copenhagen, a statue called the Little Mermaid, requires a twenty-minute walk or a short taxi ride from the downtown along the harbor. The mermaid was a character in one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, so be sure to see also the statue to the writer, located on the street bearing his name.
Appropriately, Andersen’s statue is only a block from the entrance to an ongoing fantasy venue, Tivoli Gardens, which has been diverting the Danes since 1843. At this particularly Danish style of amusement park, a businessmen arrives for lunch and kids enter for the rides, senior citizens relax on the benches and lovers stroll under the beech trees. Among the restaurants, try Groften for an open-face sandwich lunch or the Balkonen for a more formal dinner. The rationale that the developer proposed to the king in seeking a permit to build Tivoli Gardens, in the 1840s, was that when people are having fun, they don’t think of politics. Tivoli, the king agreed, was a way to ease the population through the tensions of the times.
Copenhagen is a congenial place to stroll, partly because it is so clean and neat. High-rise buildings have been banned to preserve the castle-high skyline of the past. Most of the 1.2 million inhabitants seem to be riding around on their bicycles, some of which can be rented. Ride a bike here without fear because automobile drivers understand bicyclist rights. There is even a “public” bicycle system with bikes at numerous locations.
During summer, if the sun is out, you’ll find outdoor cafes along the Nyhavn jammed with patrons enjoying their beer. The setting includes colorful canal houses painted yellow to red, historic wooden boats from the era of commercial sailing craft, and, especially in July, jazz music emanating from a tent at the end of the canal. The annual July Jazz Festival can be considered one of the choicest times of the year to visit.
North from Copenhagen
After enjoying the city, head north along the sea and plan three intriguing stops.
Pause first at the house of Karen Blixen (1885-1962), the noted author of Out of Africa, an autobiographical portrait of the Danish fascination with exotic Africa, namely Kenya, where Blixen and her husband went bankrupt trying to grow coffee. Blixen’s house at Rungstedlund opened in 1991 as a museum to the author’s legacy. The portrayal of Karen Blixen’s life is particularly effective because at this aristocratic country place she was born, lived much of her life (after her Kenya adventures), did all her writing, and died.
Farther up the road is an art museum that one might mistakenly assume showed some influence from America. Designated Louisiana, the name does not echo the American state, but resulted because the wealthy Danish person who built it had three wives, each called Louise, so Louisiana was a name that would please all of them.
Devoted to the display of modern sculpture and painting, Louisiana is also a family-friendly place where kids are encouraged to crawl over the Henry Moore sculptures. Many families arrive with picnic baskets to enjoy the wide lawns on a terrace over the sea. Louisiana is the most-visited museum in the country.
Finally, the trip north from Copenhagen would be incomplete without a stop at Kronborg Castle, imposing in itself, but rendered immortal by Shakespeare. This is the famous Elsinor Castle inhabited by the melancholy Dane, Hamlet. The actual creator of the castle was the great builder king, Christian IV, who was prolific in so many ways, from his many constructions around the country to his known 23 offspring.
The drive north includes some undeveloped landscape, preserved to show what the grassy plains and beech-tree forests looked like for the 7,000 years that people have inhabited this shoreline. Proto-Danes of long ago were burying their dead here in animal skins. One child in an early grave was found resting on the wing of a swan, which is today the national bird.
Some pieces in the puzzle of history fall into place as you make this drive. For example, the Danes saved most of the Danish Jews from Hitler. When you visit this coast and see how small fishing boats could sail quickly over to neutral Sweden with this precious human cargo, the story becomes poignant.
West to Funen
Although most travelers will spend their time in Copenhagen and the nearby attractions to the north, the adventurer who also goes west to the island of Funen will be especially rewarded.
One way to make this trip from Copenhagen is with a rental car, which can be transported between the islands on ferries. However, the ferries can be expensive for cars and availability of space on the ferry to transport your car can be problematic. The merits of train, ferry, bike, and local taxi transportation or local car rental should be considered carefully.
Funen takes you to a lush green area of castles and the borthplace of mythical Hans Christian Andersen, who had a tormented personal life, but whose fantasy tales have a beguiling resonance.
Andersen’s museum in Odense has numerous frescoes depicting his life. The father of Andersen (1805-1875) was a humble shoemaker. Even as a boy, Andersen believed he would be famous, though he was from the lowest class in society and his half-sister was a Copenhagen prostitute. At age 14 he left Odense for the big city, Copenhagen, with hopes for a career as an actor. A family named Collins befriended him and financed his education. Eventually, Andersen became famous for his tales and won a state grant to handle his everyday expenses. Subsequently, he made 31 major trips in the next 10 years. One of many quirky aspects of his character is that he carried a rope on all his trips and hung it from his hotel balcony at night, ready to escape should a fire break out.
Funen offers an engaging landscape of rolling hills, especially at Svannige, presenting some of the most compelling views in Denmark. Blazing yellow fields of rape seed, whose oil is used in Danish pastry, plus patches of barley and rye, are interspersed with forests of beech trees, the national tree of Denmark.
In this bucolic setting you can find baronial places to stay, such as stately Steensgaard Manor House, from 1310, or more modest rooms in private homes. Steensgaard is also noted for its restaurant.
The main attractions of the region are the castles and manor houses, which developed here historically because Funen has the richest agricultural soil in Denmark. The agricultural surplus was sufficient to support grand houses.
Before Copenhagen rose to prominence in the 1400s, the noble families of Funen were the center of power. Here the Danish monarchy originated. The town of Nyborg has the oldest Danish castle, from 1190, but the most satisfying castle visit, by far, is at Egeskov, which is open early May to early October.
Egeskov has all the major fantasy castle elements–an imposing towered structure, surrounded by a moat (here actually a lake), amidst lavish country grounds. Egeskov even has a spell cast over it, by a wooden doll, which rests high in the rafters. If the doll is ever removed, legend says, the castle will crumble and fall into the lake. The marvel of Egeskov is that the owners have managed to restore fully the castle and grounds, turning the place into a popular destination.
Egeskov could easily occupy a half day’s time as you tour the furnished castle rooms, with their African hunting trophies, wander the green and bewildering castle maze, marvel at the five gardens, especially the fuchsia garden, and view the castle owners’ extensive antique car collection.
Beyond Egeskov, prominent manor houses can be viewed from the road and, in some cases, their grounds can be strolled.
Holckenhavn Castle has appealing lawns that can be walked.
At Glorup manor house Hans Christian Andersen was sometimes a guest, offering evening storytelling entertainment. At Glorup the fairytale writer penned his “The Happy Family” tale.
Hesselagergaard is a Funen property owned by the family of author Karen Blixen. The red-walled manor buildings and brick house show handsomely from the road.
Overall, Funen epitomizes the Danish version of the good life, where the largesse of a meal becomes a metaphor for wellbeing. It is said, somewhat in jest, that Danes have killed more people with a fork and knife than with guns. The success of a social event, such as a dinner party, is measured by how late the guests stay. At some point in your visit, order a full Danish smorgasbord lunch, which consists of a parade of courses accompanied by an assortment of breads. The meal may start with fish (herring, pickled or in curry, plus salmon, followed by fried sole), moves on to meats (cold cuts, then meatballs, known as frikadella, with red cabbage), and concludes with cheese (probably a Brie-type and a yellow cheese). Each course may be eaten on a separate plate.
Funen is also a restful place where, as one Dane put it, “you can catch up with your soul.”
South from Funen, the meandering visitor might explore the popular resort island of Aero, accessible by ferries, which take both passengers and cars.
Aero mesmerizes with gentle hills rolling down to the sea. The island is popular with bicyclists, who can ride the small roads around the perimeter of the island. Aero pleases with many views, such as daisy or wheat fields. Rental bikes are readily available.
The countryside and small towns of Aero have many discoveries to share.
A whitewashed church at Bregninge preserves an ornate 15th-century Catholic altarpiece, which survived the wrath of the Reformation engulfing Denmark in 1536. A model ship hanging in the nave of the church served as solace for the families of sailors who went to their death in the sea.
In the town of Marstal a ship museum recalls the long seafaring tradition of the island, where many Danish seamen housed their families while away for long periods.
Aeroskobing is a town of multi-colored houses with red-tile roofs. Walk the cobblestone streets to see the oldest houses (from 1645 and 1690), the Jette Andersen ceramic shop, the Peter Jacobsen ship-in-a-bottle museum, and the Bente Johansen gallery, with her work in several media, from weavings to collage.
Whether you choose to concentrate on Copenhagen or explore also the countryside, a week’s visit will reveal elements of the Danish character and landscape. It was Hans Christian Andersen himself who made the famous remark, “To travel is to live.”
Denmark: If You Go
For further information, contact the Danish Tourist Board, www.visitdenmark.com.