For the first time in some years, we are actually crossing into a European country we haven’t yet been to!
But first things first. Saving Denmark’s best for last, we spend the day before boarding the ferry in and around Skagen – Denmark’s northernmost, and possibly most beautiful (remember, always check our Flickr photostream to the right of this post), town.
There is an abundance of tourist attractions at the tip of this narrow peninsula. First is the Rabjerg Mile – a wandering dune, the only one left unperturbed in Denmark, both for tourists and scientists to ponder her marvels. Moving at neck-breaking 20m/year, it is a tiny stretch, but just large enough to find a place, near the top, where all you can see in all directions is an expanse of pure, golden sand. I put on the soundtrack from Lawrence of Arabia and feel for a moment as if we’re truly out in the desert.
From the top of the dune, we can see Denmark’s both seas: this is the true marvel of this region. More on this later.
Just before the town proper, we take another side-turn, to the Tilsandede Kirke – the Sand-Covered Church, swallowed by another wandering dune; only the tower remains, sticking out of the sand – the rest of the building is destroyed. The altar itself is still buried somewhere beneath the dunes.
Skagen is Denmark’s St. Ives, it’s little corner of Provence; in the late 19th century, when all of Europe’s hipsters were making themselves look like Van Gogh, and wandered the land in search of “Mediterranean light”, Scandinavian painters discovered Skagen and made it their base. The light here is indeed fantastic – helped by the warm oranges and reds of the houses, which are all painted in the same set of colours; the smell, however, isn’t. The Danes are far too practical people to let a good harbour like this go to waste, and set up a massive fish factory (Denmark’s largest, in fact) smack in the middle of the town.
Luckily, the smell disappears once you enter the narrow, cobbled streets in search of artistic inspiration, designer watches and houses of the locally famous artists such as the Ancher family. This place is possibly the farthest from the idea of “Scandinavia” yet, especially in the middle of the heat wave we’re having.
North of Skagen lies the Grenen – a long sandbar formed by the turbulent waters of Skagerrak and Kattegat, or, more broadly, Baltic and North Sea. It is a fairly inconspicuous feature nowadays, but one look on the massive queue of ships waiting for passage one way, and a row of consequently built lighthouses (beginning with Denmark’s eldest, in the shape of a lever light), betray its importance. The place has been famous for so long, it’s even mentioned by Pliny the Elder:
“Promenturium Cimbrorum excurrens in maria longe paeninsulam efficit quae Tastris appellatur”
In Europe’s maritime history, it is perhaps the third most important crossing, after Gibraltar and the English Channel. Just imagine: every single ship from the dawn of sailing to the building of the Kiel Canal that wanted to cross from or to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Baltic States, Poland and most of Germany, all the goods from their landlocked neighbours, all the furs, timbers, wheat, Hungarian wines and Lithuanian amber, had to cross past this tip at some point in its journey.
We make one last stop at the Skagen Odde Nature Centre: a building straight out of an architects’ journal, a gallery-cum-natural museum housed in a building designed by Jorn Utzon (of Sydney Opera fame) in literal middle of nowhere, out on the dunes. It looks fantastic from the outside, and inside the architecture shines through – but the exhibition itself is somewhat lacking; you come here to see the building, not what’s inside.
And then it’s off to Hirtshals harbour. Being us, we couldn’t possibly do everything right and on time: our van is about an inch too tall for the ticket we had bought. There’s no arguing: we need to pay the adjustment fee and get to the end of the waiting line.
We do get on board, eventually; the journey is calm, if somewhat sleepless (we skimped on comfort – Norway is expensive enough as it is) and in the morning we are awakened by the sight of NORWAY – on both sides of the ship (mainland on one side, countless narrow islands on the other).
Too tired to do anything else this day, we drive quickly past the wonders of Bergen to the nearest campsite. We pay an exorbitant fee for the night – welcome to Norway! – and try to go to sleep despite the fact that the sun doesn’t really seem to set that far north in June.
On that note, I don’t expect we’ll see much of the night sky this summer. Since our arrival in Denmark, we go to sleep and wake by daylight; the official sunsets in Denmark were well past 10pm – with the twilight extending past midnight – but Norway is even more ridiculous. With the sunrise at 4am, it simply doesn’t get dark up here.
A final, less enthusiastic note on Denmark and Danes: the country is beautiful and well worth visiting, but by God, they are among the rudest, most impolite people we’ve ever met. Now, as a seasoned traveller, I know that perceived rudeness often means simply different rules of politeness, (and that everyone thinks other people are either racist or rude) but in Denmark, that just doesn’t seem to be the case; one common rule I managed to pinpoint was “don’t acknowledge others – unless you’re customer service”. They have no knowledge of the rules of queuing, and they fail to respond to polite prompts. Their behaviour on the road is appalling – we’ve never been honked on so much as in Denmark! It’s almost as if in the uber-egalitarian Danish society politeness was considered an outdated superstition.
Outside Copenhagen it gets a bit better, and in the tourist resorts it returns somewhat to international norm, but the bad taste, unfortunately, does remain. Hopefully Norwegians prove a nicer lot.