Jutland is a domain of sweeping sand dunes, wobbly bikes and untrustworthy topography - making it an exciting destination for avid cyclists and hikers
I felt – now hear me out – like Charlton Heston. Extending into the waters before me was a narrow spit of sand; on either side, and stretching ahead as far as I could see, opposing banks of waves crashed into each other. I almost felt a commandment or two bubbling up. It was a curious sensation, coming over all Moses at the meeting of two seas.
My Biblical reverie was swiftly cut short as a couple asked me politely if I would mind moving so they could take a photo. And they weren’t alone; carriage-loads of Danes were being disgorged from the tractor-drawn ‘Sand Worm’, cameras in hand.
New low-cost flights to Aalborg provide a springboard for an alternative Denmark experience beyond the urban action of Copenhagen and Århus. Skagen, at the very tip of Jutland, has been hosting holidaying Danes since more than a century ago, when a group of artists set the trend for travel there, attracted by peace, amazing light and some truly odd goings-on with the landscape.
Here two seas – the Viking-sounding Kattegat and Skagerrak – clash, creating strange, unpredictable currents and waves. And I was presiding over both.
I turned to continue my natural history lesson with Villy Hansen, a nature interpreter or ‘dune cop’, as he described himself. Villy was filling me in on the intriguing tale of Grenen, where the landscape is still being crafted at almost time-lapse photography speeds. This very north-eastern tip of Jutland – a 35km-long ‘shark’s fin’ – has been created freakishly quickly, over just a few thousand years. Today, Grenen is as animated as ever, shifting around daily, or even hour by hour.
“The tip of the land wags like the tail of a dog, moved by the wind and currents,” chuckled Villy, pointing to a stick embedded in the dunes. “Two days ago that pole was 20m out to sea.”
The tricksiness of the sandbars and treacherous currents have made this area a crowded graveyard for ships. On calm days it’s possible to snorkel over some of the many wrecks, though swimming from the shore is forbidden. The glistening jellyfish swarming onto the sands didn’t make the prospect any more appealing.
It’s not just the jellyfish that like it here. “The narrowing tip of Grenen acts like a funnel, channelling the birds that migrate from Africa towards Norway, Sweden and Finland,” explained Villy as we strode through the sea rocket and dune roses behind the beach. “They gather here in spring, testing the winds before crossing to the Swedish coast. It’s a treat for birdwatchers, as seabirds, waders and raptors come here in huge numbers.”
Back in Skagen, I strolled the streets, admiring the traditional ‘Skagen yellow’ ochre-coloured houses and sailing ships at anchor in the harbour. In the 19th century the combination of extraordinary light, dramatic sea- and landscapes and the picturesque fishing community attracted founders of Denmark’s most famous creative movement – the Skagen Artists. Their paintings are exhibited at Skagens Museum, whose curator, Lisette vind Ebbesen, talked me through some of the finer pieces.
“It was common for the painters to work outside,” observed Lisette. “So in some paintings you can spot embedded grains of sand or blades of grass which blew onto the canvas during painting.” The Blue Hour, that time around sunset that doesn’t belong to either day or night, captivated artist PS Krøyer. In turn, I was fascinated by the museum’s most famous painting, Krøyer’s ‘Summer Night on the South Beach at Skagen’, depicting Anna Ancher and Krøyer’s wife Marie strolling through the dusk. Like many of the images, it exudes a dreamlike quality, a nostalgia that is part of Skagen’s charm.
The museum itself feeds that retrospection; one of its most impressive rooms was transplanted in its entirety – dark wood-panelled walls inset with portraits by and of the Skagen set, dining table and chairs – from nearby Brøndums Hotel, where it had hosted so many gatherings of the artists.
It was at the hotel, in 1859, that Hans Christian Andersen stayed, and today it seems little changed – no ensuite, no Wi-Fi, no rush. Instead, as manager Kresten Langvold told me over a herring platter, “Bring that book you’ve never got round to reading. There’s no TV, no one telling you what to do. It’s a place to escape from the modern world.”
My own method of escape was a little more prosaic. It might be true that you never forget how to ride a bike but, frankly, it’s not much help on a tandem, even in a land as flat as Denmark. From the moment I set off, with my girlfriend behind me, unexpected forces threatened to unseat us – just staying upright was a constant battle, while taking our first corner almost precipitated an early divorce.
Everything that comes instinctively on a bike – leaning into curves, turning the handlebars, braking – seemed to provoke an alarming, almost suicidal reaction on a two-seater. Tandems should always, I reflected, come with stabilisers, and the phone number of a relationship counsellor. By the time we reached the dunes of Skagen Klitplantage nature reserve, we were both thankful for Denmark’s excellent cycle path network and remarkably straight roads.
To a soundtrack of muttered bickering we pedalled on, to another of Denmark’s most photographed landmarks, miraculously arriving intact. Den Tilsandede Kirke – the ‘Buried Church’, built in 1375, was once the largest in the region but the famous ‘walking’ dunes of northern Jutland soon began to encroach. By the end of the 18th century parishioners had to abandon the building and today its tower cranes up between dunes, a striking testament to the fast-changing nature of the environment.
The sun was lingering just above the Skagerrak that evening as Villy and I reconvened at the massive dunes of Råbjerb Mile, 17km south-west of Skagen. Villy pulled a couple of bottles from his bag, and we nestled into the marram grass for a decidedly local sundowner: each of his potent snaps was made with a plant from the area. “This one is flavoured with tormentil – you might call it bloodroot,” he said, pouring a shot. “It’s medicinal, good for almost every type of disease.” Ah, how I admire traditional medicine.
While I sipped, Villy hopped up and grabbed a handful of a scrubby plant. “This is pors – it’s been used for 5,000 years, and it’s great in snaps.” I stuffed it in my pockets so I could experiment with vodka back home (all in the name of journalistic research).
Warmed by the firewater, we hauled ourselves up the sandhills; at one square kilometre, Råbjerg Mile is one of Europe’s largest dune systems. The symphony of croaking toads swelled; Villy picked out a nightjar’s whirr and curlews’ calls, while around us hopped their food – tiny insects named, appropriately, sandspringers.
At the top of the highest dune, we were at a breathless 40m altitude – lofty by local standards, and enough to afford sweeping views.
To our west was the Skagerrak coast, from where these dunes had marched just a few hundred years ago; to the east beckoned the Kattegat, Råbjerg Mile’s destination – within 50 years it may blow into the sea again.
In the north, a sweeping beam pinpointed Skagen’s newest lighthouse – at least for now. In Skagen, the landscape never stays the same for long. But it was this scene, or the equivalent 150 years ago, that impressed Hans Christian Andersen to describe “a desert between two roaring seas...an aspect of nature which will give you a picture of Africa’s desert, of the ash heaps of Pompeii and of the sandbanks in the great ocean above which birds soar.”
He took the words right out of my mouth.