Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Denmark

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With our friend Nicole on her way back to the US, we were back to hunter-gatherer mode of finding a place to sleep each night, and deciding where to go.  We had a flight to Copenhagen, but no firm plans yet, and we only booked a hotel for our first night there one day in advance.  However, we were renting a car, and we knew we could be a lot more flexible with arrangements.  We felt right at home in Denmark as soon as we stepped off the plane.  One of our first sights in the airport was the folded paper lamp we have hanging in our dining room at home; here it was in a small gift shop on the concourse.  When we reached the luggage carousel, our bags were already there, side-by-side.  It was definitely one of our best airport experiences.

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We couldn’t restrain a Beavis & Butthead snicker at one of the road signs.  We were also amazed by some truck art.

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That deserves some zooming in.  The truck (or maybe the art?) is named “Ladies of the wolfs.”  Danes have had a fascination with the American wild west for a long time; we’re not clear why, but it’s still quite strong.

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David had been in Denmark before, as a teenager (when he mentioned that he’d visited in 1986 to the friendly woman at the rental car desk, who had asked if we’d been here before, she admitted that she was only four at the time. Clearly, they have extremely flexible child labor laws in Denmark.).  His family had ridden bicycles through the country for three weeks, and he always wanted to return.  His maternal grandfather grew up in Denmark, and much of David’s childhood retained elements of Danish cooking, furniture and point-of-view.  Many of the specifics of where he’d visited were now foggy, but fortunately, his aunt Polly had been back visiting friends and relatives recently, and she emailed us a very detailed list of suggestions that was much more useful to us than any travel book or site.  We drove from the island of Zealand, across Funen, to Jutland, which is the western peninsula that borders on Germany to the south, and stayed in Horsens.  We picked Horsens for no other reason that it’s proximity to Legoland, Den Gamle By, and Ribe, the three places we wanted to go on Jutland. But it ended up being a nice quiet town, and the location served its purpose.

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Our first day trip was to Ribe, which is the oldest existing town in Denmark, dating from the 8th century.  Wandering aimlessly, we felt more relaxed and content than we had since leaving New Zealand.  Denmark has that same feeling of being home and on vacation at the same time.

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Danes prefer about six meals a day to the more pedestrian three, and restaurants and cafes proliferate to support this when Danes are out for the day.  You will not be surprised that we took great comfort from this.  We also noticed many examples of the Danish preference for bright, primary colors.  While we still had more than 15 hours of daylight when we were visiting, in the winter that drops to less than 7 hours.  Cheerful colors are everywhere.

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Polly told us to be sure and check out Ribe Cathedral, which in addition to being a beautiful old church, was the church where David’s maternal great-grandparents were married.  It also has a beautiful view of the whole area from its tower.

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One of the reasons the views are so good is that Denmark is very, very flat (it’s an excellent place to tour by bicycle!).  The other reason is that the guard rails on top of the tower are around waist height.  Danes expect people to behave reasonably, and they don’t go to extensive lengths to protect the public from foolish behavior. We appreciated different manifestations of that expectation throughout our stay.

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The countryside around Ribe was beautiful.  We didn’t see any signs of urban sprawl—there were small villages interspersed with wide areas of farms and dairy grazing, with the occasional farmhouse.  We drove to the west coast, and onto Rømø, one of the coastal islands at the very southern border of Denmark.  David’s grandfather had been born and raised on the island of Sylt, just to the south, which is now German.  Both islands are very popular with European tourists who flock to what David’s grandfather called the “poor beaches” (where you go if you can’t afford a swimsuit).  This is not always a pleasant experience, as the average age trends more towards the 80s than the 20s. So we visited the Rømø church instead, which is dedicated to St. Clement, the patron saint of sailors.

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Many Scandinavian churches have ship models, regardless of the patron saint.  They are usually incredibly detailed, as they’ve been built by sailors who know every inch of the ship they represent.

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The next day we drove north to Arhus, where David fondly remembered going to Den Gamle By as a teenager. Den Gamle By is a bit like Williamsburg, where you can wander around a period village, complete with people working at various crafts, from candlemaking to blacksmithing. In the summer they also have a sort of camp for kids, where they dress up in period clothing, perform various chores, and learn traditional songs and games. Unlike American children in that scenario, they actually looked like they were enjoying themselves, too.

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We enjoyed wandering around the village immensely--it was such a bucolic setting--as well as touring old buildings and enjoying some of the wares on sale at the traditional bakery.  This is how we discovered hindbærsnitter, a cookie that we can best describe as a the famous, remote ancestor of the poptart (in the way that Benjamin Franklin might be claimed as an ancestor by Jake Jabs).  It’s traditionally raspberry filling (hindbær is raspberry) sandwiched between two pieces of short dough, similar to shortbread that’s been rolled out thinly and baked. The resulting bar is topped with a sweet glaze.  It was so good we had it several more times throughout Denmark. The best hindbærsnitter, in our opinion, came from Lagkagehuset bakery in Copenhagen, where the glaze was topped with individual freeze-dried raspberry drupelets.  The one below, from Den Gamle By, was definitely in the running, though.

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After not much debate, we decided that a visit to Legoland was not in our budget. Lana’s not a big Lego fan, and while the models are quite neat, the bulk of the park is rides and food, and we’d be paying $80 each to see the models.  Given the choice between 6 days in Denmark or 4 days plus Legoland, we decided pretty quickly.  We headed back east to Odense, on the middle island of Funen.

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Odense's claim to fame is the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson, and while we were curious about him, we weren't especially dedicated to spending a good deal of time doing Hans Christian Anderson-type activities. However, while exploring Odense on foot, we found small touches of him all over.  The walk/don’t walk lights are profiles of Hans Christian Anderson with a walking stick.

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Though Odense is the third largest city in Denmark, it felt sleepy.  The older sections of town have a nice network of pedestrian streets that we strolled along.  Many of the homes have a periscope-like mirror assembly at a prime vantage point.  These give the inhabitants a great view of what’s going on in the street without having to leave the table where they are enjoying coffee and a little bit of something, between larger meals.

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The Danes have a term for the idea of comfort and coziness, or well-being: hygge. It's a term they use for any of a number of things that make you feel good--a meal with friends, a corner to curl up with a book and a cup of tea. It's an idea, a design aesthetic, and essentially a way to battle the long seasons of darkness that make up most of the year. After some thought, this is how Denmark felt to us; there wasn't one specific thing we could put our finger on to explain why we felt so happy there, despite the higher cost of living (it was more expensive than any country since Australia). We just experienced the reassuring comfort of a place that made us feel at home.  After several days of wandering around Denmark, we were headed to Cophenhagen to experience all the joys of exploring a new city.  And some of our luck, our karma, and our friendships made along our trip were about to give us a wonderful gift--a place to stay in the center of Copenhagen that wouldn't cost us anything.