Scandinavia: Denmark & Southern Sweden
Text and Photos: Andreas Staab
Jutland - Gothenburg - Västra Götaland - Bornholm - Copenhagen
Around 1,400 miles / 2,300 km
Suggested Time Frame: 3 weeks
This is not your monumental tour that ticks off glacial fjords, gushing waterfalls, brooding mountains, vast wildernesses, all the capital cities or indeed the schlepp all the way up north to the Nordkapp. Instead, this is a gentler version, with much less driving, but still integrating an impressive metropolis (Copenhagen), beautiful seaside locations (Skagen, Marstrand), a gentle wilderness (Vastergotland), and an idyllic island (Bornholm). Hey, you can even take the kids along, with the promise of a stay in a dream-like tree house.
on the coast near Sæby
Getting to Denmark from the UK used to be straightforward with direct ferry links from Harwich or Newcastle to Esbjerg. Unfortunately, those services had discontinued by 2014, and so we packed up the car and drove for two days (and 1,500 km) through the lowlands and northern Germany before arriving (somewhat knackered) at our first stop on the eastern coast of Jutland. Our base for the first week was a rented holiday home (through Novasol) with direct access to a sheltered beach; very peaceful area with plenty of swimming opportunities and the lovely town of Sæby just a short walk away: old, low-built houses painted in bright yellow, stylish cafes, and a surprising range of restaurants. This was supposed to be the poorer, more backward part of Denmark, but certainly not on this evidence. My abiding memory is that of a trip to the lavishly-equipped and spotlessly clean local indoor public pool, which puts any facility in the UK to shame. Images came to my mind of the ubiquitous Aqua Splash in Hemel Hempstead, just north of London to which I foolishly had taken my kids once for some weekend fun, only to encounter hordes of shivering youngsters waiting for their turn at the overcrowded and slimy slides before rinsing off copious amount of chlorine under one of the sparse, under-pressured showers. If public facilities are a yardstick by which we measure the state of a country, Britain’s glory days are yet to come.
Skagen Harbour Front
The main draw of northern Jutland is the resort town of Skagen at the far-northern tip of the Jutland peninsula; famed for its unique light which has been attracting artists and photographers for centuries. Today, it is tourists (mainly Danish) who are following in their footsteps and the place was unsurprisingly crowded. But it is also undeniably pretty with a beautiful harbour front lined with excellent restaurants and bars, and a lively main drag selling fashionable designer ware. Walk north and a little beyond the town’s perimeters, and you end up at the spit of land, where the currents of the eastern Jutland shore (Kattegat) meet their western counterparts (Skagerrak). Certainly, a pleasant spot but not that spectacular as to justify the large throngs of people. But just before entering Skagen, there is a wonderful and massive dune around the Sankt Laurentii Church with hardly a soul in sight. The sun was out, the light was indeed quite unique in a soft, blueish sort of way, and the church with its sparse and white-washed exterior looked very picturesque.
Sankt Laurentii Church
We took the mid-morning ferry from Frederikshavn to Gothenburg in Sweden. As soon as the ship set sail, everyone on board seemed to rush to the all-you-can-eat buffet, us included. But we somehow did not master the mysterious booking and ticketing system, so we let the hordes do their thing and waited patiently for the queues to subside. Finally an opening, we loaded up our trays with tasty fare but could not find a cashier who would take our money. ‘Cashier is closed now’, was the sharp response of one of the stewards. So we ate and waited for the till to open once more. All of a sudden, a second wave of diners came forth, and I thought this was my chance to settle our account. This time the response was ’Second session diners only’. I tried to explain that we had eaten towards the end of the first session, but this might have just been too confusing for the dinner ladies, and no one was willing to take my money. I tried. Repeatedly. With growing guilt etched on my face. But to no avail. Maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch after all.
Our accommodation for the next nights was a funky and compact Ibis Hotel on a boat moored on the river Göta right next to Gothenburg’s central area. Sweden’s second biggest city (and fifth overall in Scandinavia) is home to major industries (chiefly amongst them Volvo cars) and the recovery from the financial crisis seemed swift with signs of prosperity all too evident: Shoppers filled the streets, a lively nightlife, well maintained parks – a pleasant place, although there are also sizeable migrant communities who so far had found it difficult to get their share of the town’s prosperity, with the populists of the Sweden Democrats having established a stronghold here. A script that seems to be written in so many places across Europe. But the geographical setting is simply stunning with the city nesting in between a coastline full of little rocky islands. We took a drive some one hour north to the small resort of Marstrand: very beautiful with wooden clapboard houses, coves, and little harbours, reminiscent of a location fit for an Astrid Lindgren story.
Coastline off Gothenburg
A two-hour drive northeast to Falköping; a sleepy, little place. We took a dip in the municipal lake; another testimony to the country’s emphasis on the public good. The facilities were spotlessly clean and free. I had expected nothing but trees, but the landscape was surprisingly diverse, stunning even in parts: white-yellow grain fields, dome-shaped silos, sparsely populated with red painted farms punctuating the skyline. It reminded me of maritime Canada.
Just north of the town, on Route 184 is the Treehouse Hotel (http://islanna.com/tradhushotell/); our home for the next three nights. It’s all the child in you ever wanted: a dream-like structure built with impressive and stylish attention to detail (although slightly wobbly, once the cows decide to scratch their backs against the steal wires that anchor the house to the ground). The first morning, we woke up to the sound of a breakfast basket being hoisted up, which contained fresh, delicious, and copious amounts of food – enough for lunch as well. We drove further north through glorious countryside towards Lake Vӓnern, past the quiet town of Lidköping and to Lӓckö Castle. Back at the treehouse, a flock of geese swooped narrowly over our roof top. This was almost too much Nils Holgerson to bare.
The downside of the treehouse were the somewhat compromised sanitary facilities. Yes, we had an ingenious toilet half-way up the stairs, but after a couple of nights, we were really craving for a shower. Back in Falköping, I had picked up a flyer from the Kyrkekvarn Kanot Centre, which amongst its camping and canoeing icons, included a promising one of a washbasin. So that’s where we were heading next, along Route 47, some 20 km southeast of town. The site was in an idyllic setting along the Tidan river, with many hardy outdoor types, often looking worse for wear after week-long trips in the wilderness, stocking up on supplies (and YES: taking a shower), before re-entering the waterways. We too rented a canoe and paddled along a beautiful, serene stretch of the river amidst lovely unspoilt nature. Back to the treehouse, where the owner’s friend and hobby cook dished up a passable meal. The next morning it was time to settle the bill. Ouch. Very ouch, actually. I think I had never paid more for a bowl of pasta than in this backwater corner of Sweden, and in just three days we had spent a budget that in more fortuitous circumstances should have lasted us more than a week. The proprietors certainly had the charming, laidback 1970’s appearance of hippy dropouts, but somehow along the way, they certainly had taken on board some profitable lessons of a market economy.
the Tree House, Islanna, near Falköping
A four-hour drive back to the bland port of Helsingborg. Kronborg Castle - immortalised in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (he called it Elsinore) - was looming in the distance on the other side of the Øresund straight, so we left the car and took the 25 minute ferry over to Helsingør in Denmark. We encountered a gem of a little town. Yes, lots of booze outlets for day trippers like us, coming over from Sweden, but also a cute and beautiful old town with cobbled streets, tidy-looking houses, tasteful street furniture and inviting squares. Stylish, friendly, well-dressed people, and an overall aura of prosperity. We were very impressed.
Back to Helsinborg for the 90-minute drive to Ystad, from where we were taking the 2-hour ferry to Bornholm, which - though on the same longitude as southern Sweden – is part of Denmark. The family of a classmate of mine had always spent their summer holidays on this island in the Baltic Sea. For a child, this had sounded positively exotic to me, in particular in light of the fact that practically everyone in my social circles preferred the warmer Mediterranean bathtub of the Adriatic in north-eastern Italy. But here was someone whose family went north: what rebels. But they were spot on. The island is exceptionally beautiful. A Danish friend of mine had scoffed at the place and said that it looked ‘too Swedish’ for his liking (I still don’t know what he meant), and that finding suitable accommodation might be a challenge. But we had booked into a perfectly suitable Holiday Inn in the ferry port of Rønne, from where we rented bikes to ride to the southernmost tip of the island at a marvellous and expansive beach called Dueodde. Touring the rest of Bornholm was a delight with beautiful harbour villages like Gudhjem, or Swaneke, and a beautiful interior of fields, pasture, and medieval round churches, such as the one in Østerlars. I can now fully comprehend why my classmate’s family returned to this island summer after summer. The place is serene, peaceful, pretty, and very, very relaxing.
Østerlars Round Church
Back on the ferry to Ystad, and across the mighty Øresund Bridge. Apart from being the famous backdrop of the namesake TV crime series (with detective Saga and her funky Porsche), the structure transformed the region by linking southern Sweden and the industrial port of Malmö with the Danish island of Zealand where Copenhagen is located, thereby creating a metropolitan region and commercial hub of over 4 million people, which is equivalent in numbers to Berlin. By the way, if you like bridges, Denmark is the place for you. The country’s longest is the one linking Zealand with the island of Funen, while a shorter one connects to the southern island of Lolland. Plans are even in store for a bridge to replace the ferry link between Rødbyhavn in the south and Fehmarn in Germany.
Copenhagen. Unlike my travel companions I have had the pleasure of visiting this fabulous city on several occasions. They wanted to do the full tourist experience which I did not mind one bit: A harbour cruise to take in all those fabulous buildings (chief among them the Opera) that have recently been constructed, the drop-out enclave of the Freetown of Kristiania, the Design Museum, the Amalienborg Palace, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the quays of Nyhavn; I was even persuaded to spend an evening at the Tivoli Gardens, which stands in such tasteful contrast (this is Denmark after all) to much tackier versions of other amusement parks. But I did say no to a visit to the Little Mermaid, and instead avoided the almost comical disappointment by waiting it out in a nearby café.
But I insisted on driving to Charlottenlund, in the northern part of town. How fantastic is this? A sandy beach with gently lapping waves, beach volleyball courts, miles of cycle lanes in a suburb that feels a little like a holiday resort. Before my levels of envy got too high, I had to remind myself that beach time in Copenhagen is greatly limited by a chilly Nordic climate, but on a bright, sunny summer day in early August, you would be hard pressed to find a better place to while away the hours. We stopped off at yet another café to sample more delicious cakes. The owner used to work in London; a co-incidence which she insisted we should cherish by sampling her latest concoction. Explain that to me: she was stereotypically blond, and slim with a fitness studio physique. Yet, she’s making and selling calorific stuff, which I am sure she samples on many occasions.
Is this all too good to be true? I have read articles and reports about the dark side of Denmark, of an emerging culture war between increasingly vocal nativists who would like to keep Denmark for the Danes and progressive types that are more at ease with the changes that a globalised economy brings. I also sensed similar tensions in Gothenburg, and a look at recent election results and the rise of populist parties further paints a picture that tells a different story from the Scandinavian idyll of old. But to look more into this narrative requires an altogether different journey than we had embarked upon; one that focuses on the challenges of integrating non-European communities, of absent social and cultural cohesion, of urban decay; but this what not the focus of this road trip. Instead, time and again we encountered an image of two rather confident and prosperous nations, and it is of little surprise that both counties have been in the top ten of the world’s happiness index for many years now. Things are not perfect (they never are), but Scandinavian countries must be doing something right.