After a month in Turkey and ten days on Borneo, I headed next to Denmark of all places. Friends of mine from Singapore would be starting a semester-long program as part of their MBA and I arranged to be there around the time of their arrival so we might have a few days in Copenhagen together. The changes were dramatic – in travel style, costs, the quality of public transport, and local reactions.
It turns out that spending two entire weeks only traveling around Denmark is unusual. Most people I have met are in transit between various European countries and Scandinavia and Denmark is a convenient little country to travel through. When people ask me, “Where else have you been in Europe?” and I answer “Just Denmark” (it’s difficult to explain the Turkey trip), I get some strange looks. “JUST DENMARK?” they ask incredulously. And when they ask “How long?” and I reply “two weeks,” the response is even more shocked. “TWO WEEKS JUST IN DENMARK??? But it’s so…. small.”
Denmark is a lovely little country. Until the final few days, when the weather turned a bit arctic, I had perfect weather. Sunny, warm, beautiful blue skies. I lucked out to be there during a European heatwave, ensuring I did not have to wear the same sweater and pants the entire two weeks. Denmark is full of historical sites from the Stone Age to the Viking Age, from the Medieval Period to the Renaissance. City and town centers are full of beautiful architecture and cobble stone streets. There are bicycle lanes in the cities and all over the country. There is also a lot of recycling and the use of alternative-natural means of electricity, evidenced by the many windmills in the countryside. Also, the handicapped are out and about. With ramps everywhere, it is one of the best countries I have seen with so much care for the physically handicapped in public places.
It is also very orderly and clean. The public transport is good, clean, and efficient. The standard train car made my Indonesian Super Deluxe Executive Coach look like it was some kind of battle ravaged vehicle. People form lines and stay in them!! There is no queue jumping or the kind of pushing and shoving I have seen so much of in Asia. I enjoy seeing the Danes out with their dogs, taking them to the museum, on walking tours, to the supermarket and so on.
Denmark certainly does not pose the same kind of travel challenges as other countries I have been. For instance, I have not had to run the gauntlet of tea-wooing would-be Lotharios. Not even a single pass! There are also no gigantic insects that instill fear in me like the particularly large cockroach, which ensured my last night in Malaysia was a sleepless one. There are no long overnight bus trips, or bus trips that have me praying to a higher power. I am not even immediately identifiable as a foreigner. I have had most people address me in Danish, even come up to me on the street to ask me for directions, thinking I am a local. I even managed to help somebody! Denmark is not all that hard to travel around, but it is not without its challenges. The greatest challenge is of course trying to survive on a budget.
But not all is perfect; there are some things rotten in the State of Denmark. For one I had expected the trains and buses to run on time. I have only had one train arrive on time. Then as soon as I got on and got comfortable, it underwent “technical difficulties.” We waited just long enough so that I missed my connecting train by six minutes. Tourist offices have seemed to me a little bit inept. They are helpful, but then give INCOMPLETE information. Thank you very much for the train and boat schedule to get to the island, but it would have been nice if you noticed the schedule was not good until SEPTEMBER. Also, thanks for telling me the canal boat stopped at the tourist village so I would walk all the way down there, only to find out it DID NOT.
There are also the store hours. Kind of drives me crazy that stores shut shop in the middle of Copenhagen at 5:30 in the evening. Only a few supermarkets might stay open until the wee hour of 8 pm! For someone from the States where we have 24-hour stores and restaurants, or even from Singapore where shopping reigns supreme, this is extremely hard to become accustomed to.
At any rate I arrived in Denmark at 2:30 PM, seven hours after originally scheduled to arrive. The flight from Bangkok had been cancelled due to “mechanical failure” and rescheduled for the following morning. So much for getting to Denmark bright and early. I managed to get out of immigration relatively quickly and headed directly to the transportation counter. As I would be meeting friends in Copenhagen at the tail end of the trip, I wanted to head out of the city as soon as possible. I picked a nice spot on the island of Zealand, Sørø, and headed to the train.
Sørø is supposed to be a lovely little historical town on the banks of a lake. I say supposed because although I did indeed go to Sørø, I saw almost nothing of the place. I arrived at 5:05 PM, just after the tourist office closed. That did not really matter as I was not in town but at the train station two kilometers away. I stop to ask a woman for directions so I can walk to town, but she points at a bus and tells me to run for it. And although I have never met this woman before in my life, when she tells me to run, I do. The bus took me to town, nowhere near the hostel. Not sure what to do, I went to the public library. I checked the hostel contact info and then asked the librarian if there were a public phone nearby. There wasn’t, but a man at the counter with his daughter said I could borrow his cell phone. Someone at the hostel answers and tells me they have beds available but the buses have stopped running and a taxi costs as much as a bed. The man asks me what happened, then offers to drive me.
Except the hostel is nearly deserted. There are a few guests in the kitchen, but no staff to be found. I leave my bag at the desk and search the place, but nope, nobody. I have no food and the hostel is in the middle of nowhere. No restaurants, no gas stations, no market. A young couple let me use THEIR cell phone to call some B&Bs; they are all full but one. It turns out to be eight kilometers north of town, while I am now at the deserted hostel eight kilometers south of town. The couple says they will drive me and even stop off at a petrol station on the way so I can buy some food. I arrive at the B&B and pay 250 kroner for a very nice room, just out of my budget but I am happy to have a place to stay. I must have looked hungry because an Italian family also staying there took one look at me and asked if I would like to join them for a homecooked meal. They shared their pasta, fruit, bread, cake, and ice cream. For my first day in Denmark I saw nothing my first day but with the kindness of some really amazing strangers managed to have a really wonderful day!
The following day the owner of the B&B dropped me off at the train station on the way to taking her daughter to daycare. From there I headed to Odense, Denmark’s third largest city. This time the hostel was located right next to the train station and was staffed! It was a good hostel and a really nice town, where I spent three days. First, I explored the town, through the historic center on a guidebook walking tour and then visited the Hans Christian Anderson Museum. The museum was fabulous, full of information about his life and times. H.C. Anderson was born in Odense and was told by a fortune teller at a young age that one day the city would light up the streets in his honor. At the age of 14 he went off to Copenhagen to seek his fortune and ended up writing some of the world’s most famous children’s tales.
On the second day I took a bus south to Egeskov Castle, where I spent nearly four hours. Had I children I could have spent longer as there are so many things to do there on the grounds. The castle interior is just a small part of the whole experience. There is also a maze to get lost and walkways through the trees some 15 meters off the ground. There was a cool museum full of antique cars and even a bizarre place called Dracula’s crypt, which seemed merely a dark tunnel where people walked through expecting any moment for something to jump out, but nothing does. It was a fun day.
On the third day I meant to go to the island of Ærø, but due to the incorrect train information from the tourist office that did not happen. Instead I spent another day in Odense.
My next stop was the small town of Ribe, located in the southern part of Jutland. Founded around 700 A.D., Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark. First a Viking town, then a medieval one, Ribe was an important port and market center between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. The old medieval houses are indicative of Ribe’s prime, when it was one of the largest and most important cities in Denmark. The town boasts the country’s oldest Cathedral and Scandinavia’s oldest school. On a fantastic free walking tour with a night watchman dressed in period clothes, I could stop in front of the house of the last woman in the town burned at the stake for witchcraft and also see the town’s smallest house. In the Middle Ages it was important to build one’s house close to the road and people wanted to maximize their house size as much as possible, and therefore if the road curved, so then did the house. Thus, there are lovely cobble stone streets closely hugged by crooked little half-timber houses. Though not very many of these old houses remain, the homes built around 1580 are not all that new either, and the town is full of those too. A number of disasters, a great fire in 1580 which wiped out 11 blocks or one third of the town, fifty-four years later a massive flood raises water six meters above normal levels, 25 years later the bubonic plague wipes out a third of the population, and the building of another port and the growing importance of the capital at Copenhagen, ended Ribe’s days as a major center of commerce, preserving it as it was at the end of the middle ages.
Then I headed north, to the Northern most part of Denmark, to the unpronounceable Hjorring. I stayed there two nights, heading one day to Hirtschalls and another to Skagen. In Hirtshalls the main thing I wanted to see was an aquarium. I am really keen on aquariums and had heard this one was good, and I was not disappointed. The second day I took a bus to Skagen, the northernmost point of Denmark and stood on a promontory where two seas crash together, the Kattegat and the Skagerrak. It was rather calm that day, but still standing just where they meet, in what was at first very cold water, I could feel the power of the water as they met and mixed at my feet. And it was such a lovely day, due to the heat wave everyone and their families and dogs were out enjoying the beach and the sun. I walked along the beach for hours back to the town, stopping at a lighthouse, and then cycling out to a buried church, buried by the shifting sands. The town too was lovely and historical, and a famous place for artists because of the “light.” Being the northern most point of Denmark, at 10 in the evening in August it was still light outside and this light reflecting off the sea and the sand has apparently drawn artists to the location for hundreds of years. All I know is that it was a beautiful little town and I immediately regretted staying only one day.