Denmark can be characterised by its anthem, Der er et yndigt land (There is a lovely land). For while the country covers a landmass of only 16,562 square miles — 72,182 less than Great Britain — it is pure pastoral backdrop, a shifting image of sea and sand; flat and arable with few built-up metropolitan areas.
Its linchpin, Copenhagen, is apparently the best city in the world to live in. But while it holds the status as the world’s happy valley, in the north there’s a quieter and truer representation of Denmark and the Danes.
Jutland is a pointy-peninsula which, as its name suggests, “juts” out to the North Sea towards Norway and Sweden, where the land consists of long beaches and high-rise dunes like monstrous sandcastles. It has long been a holiday spot for southern Danes and is a associated with fishing and a thriving art scene. It’s the kind of stark and barren landscape painters and murderers enjoy, as shown in the TV series The Killing and The Bridge.
I flew into Aalborg and drove an hour north to Skagen, Denmark’s northernmost town. It’s warm in September but many of the locals still dressing for winter: the theme seems to be tightly-buttoned parkas and woolly hats.
The sun shines, but there’s a fierce, skirt-lifting wind threatening the modesty of the unprepared. Unwelcome and unannounced, it blows through the region, flapping flags from poles and dismantling umbrellas.
It doesn’t take long to walk around Skagen. The town is a maze of picturesque lanes and offshoot alleys, with seaside houses painted monochrome yellow, some apricot. The paint is a symbol of wealth, having started in the 19th century with the use of ochre transported from France. With the town’s difficult and distant position, the powder-mix proved rare and of high-value. Today, nearly every house, hotel and boutique is daubed in a shade of yellow. In his foreword to the book Skagens Huse, poet Klaus Rifbjerg writes: “You could call the town a mishmash, but actually because the houses in Vesterby and Østerby are — despite certain common characteristics —different, there’s a harmony that lies a long way from the suffocating and conformist.”
There is a harmony. A feeling of history and merry locals; morning walks on the beach, tea and smørrebrød in the afternoons, and old, lonely painters flicking a paintbrush across a canvas in an attempt to recreate the scene from their kitchen window.
Half-an-hour south in Lønstrup, on the coast of Skagerrak, is an example of Mother Nature at her most unique — and savage.
A gigantic migrating dune has almost buried the Rubjerg Knude Fyr lighthouse. Built in 1900 on the highest point, and 60 metres above sea level, it seems its fate is now forlorn, and within the next few years it will either be submerged entirely or fall into the sea. Similarly, only minutes away from Rubjerg Knude Fyr, is Mårup Church, also threatened with collapse. Ever since its assembly in the 13th century, erosion has inexorably gnawed away at the cliff, and now there are only six-metres between the ancient church and its doom. The churchyard is said to contain the 226 sailors lost when the English frigate The Crescent sank off the coast of Mårup in 1808.
Aalborg is the capital of North Jutland and Denmark’s fourth largest city. It dates back to the Middle Ages (circa AD 700) and with its natural harbour and thriving herring fishing industry, contributed to the town’s growth.
Today it continues to expand as an industrial and university city, with a strong tourism influx. Overlooking the city is a Viking burial site and former settlement called Lindholm Høje.
It’s here that I meet Jesper Lynge; historian, cook and professional Viking. This much is evident just by looking at him. He’s a roly-poly Viking rather than the Kirk Douglas type, with wide shoulders, a bulging belly and thistle beard.
Lynge runs the cafe at Lindholm Høje and knowledgeably runs me through the site’s history, with knee-slapping humour. You have to be funny to serve food in a graveyard. He and wife Ulla produce such delights as homemade bread and butter and apples poached in mead; and I drink too much Søgaards Bryghus beer than is recommended at breakfast.
The rustic ingredients differ from my meal at Morten Nielsen’s restaurant the previous evening, in which ingredients — those locally picked, plucked and foraged — are redeveloped along with the modern evolution of the Nordic Cuisine Movement.
Ever since Noma was declared the best restaurant in the world, Denmark’s food renaissance has continued to advance, from meals of the Vikings, to the complexities of gastronomy, Aalborg is no different.
FLY: Norwegian fly direct from Gatwick to Aalborg from £47.50
SAIL: DFDS Seaways run an overnight service between Harwich and Esbjerg. www.dfdsseaways.co.uk
STAY: Skagen, from £179 pp b&b
Aalborg -from £92 pp b&b
MORE INFO: www.skagen-tourist.dk