Archive for January, 2017

19 Jan 2017

By Train to Denmark

No Comments Blog, Cities, Tours

Getting to Denmark by train is a breeze, especially if you are the kind of traveller who makes the journey as much a part of your holiday as the destination.  In addition, it provides an ideal excuse for a couple of city stop-offs en route. And, you don’t need to live in or around London to consider it; although I live over 400 miles away, I made this into an advantage as it gave me the excuse to recreate one of my favourite childhood experiences and journey to and from the capital by sleeper.

As with any proposed European rail journey, make your first port of call Mark Smith’s indispensable Seat61   Here you’ll find all you need to know, and more, on routes, fares, tickets, connections, as well as a wealth of additional information on major locations.

Loco2  sells tickets for destinations across Europe.  You can book online, or by phone. Finalising my dates in late February for a departure in late April and return in early May, gave me just enough time to take advantage of cheaper advance fares.  Although this is not always ideal and does conspire against last minute decisions, many European rail providers now work on the same basis as those in Britain and offer bargain fares when the ticketing window opens, usually three months before date of departure. This, of course, is also how most airline ticketing operates.

 

Step 1: Getting to London

As international rail travel from the UK begins and ends with Eurostar, your initial journey will be to St Pancras International, or Ebbsfleet/Ashford if you live in the south east.

But if you don’t, no problem.  A little-known option is to buy a ticket direct from your local station that covers your entire journey through to Paris, Brussels, and other major destinations in the Netherlands and western Europe.

You can, of course, by-pass London and Eurostar completely and travel to the continent by ferry.

You can find full details of all these options here.

 

The Caledonian Sleeper:

Although, sadly, European sleeper trains have been cut back recently, in the UK  overnight services still operate between  London and five destinations in Scotland, six nights a week.  Now living near Glasgow, I jumped at the chance to travel once again on a journey I remember fondly from my childhood.

The Caledonian Sleeper arrives at Euston

The Caledonian Sleeper arrives at Euston

The Caledonian Sleeper service is now operated by a new franchise and, hopefully, the upgraded rolling stock promised for 2018 will improve the current fittings, which, although clean, are rather dated and shabby in places. However, both my outward and return journeys were quiet, comfortable, on time with attentive and helpful staff.

The big advantage of taking the sleeper – apart from its environmental and romantic attractions (think Robert Donat in the original 1935 version of the 39 Steps ) –  is the flexibility it affords in travelling while asleep, leaving late evening and arriving fresh and relaxed early morning.

It also does not necessarily need to be expensive.  I travelled alone and did not want to share a compartment. Even so, booking in advance, I secured tickets for around £80 each way.  Given that single compartments are first class and, the fare also includes overnight accommodation, this did not seem at all excessive.

If you travel as a couple, or a family, or in a group, fares can be much cheaper – and great fun for children.

Find out all you need to know about the Caledonian Sleeper here.

 

Step 2: Eurostar; St Pancras to Brussels

I chose to leave London around 11am, arriving Brussels in less than two hours,  as it was the most convenient and affordable service  for me.  There are several other options

Arriving Brussels Midi just after 14.00, my connection left 20 minutes later.  This was potentially the only stressful element of the journey because of security restrictions at Midi, but using Mark Smith’s useful advice there was no problem.

 

Step 3: Brussels to Cologne

Travelling first class in a state-of-the-art ICE train in less than two hours, was one of the highlights of my holiday.

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Sitting comfortably at a spacious seat, with table service for meals and refreshments as we sped through pleasant countryside at about 180 mph, what was not to like?

I chose to spend a couple of nights in Cologne before continuing to Hamburg, but it is perfectly possible to reach Hamburg just after 21.00 the same evening.

Further details of services and timings are here.

 

Step 4: Cologne to Hamburg

There is plenty of choice as frequent trains run between the two cities.  However, study timetables carefully as some trains are much quicker than others. Most are InterCity but some are the faster and better-equipped ICEs.

Hamburg and Cologne are both  ideal destinations for a city break. Read about my visits to both cities on my outward and return journeys.

 

Step 5: Hamburg into Denmark:

From Hamburg you have several options, depending on where in Denmark you are heading to.

The most exciting option is to take the Danish IC3 train  where the train itself actually goes into a ferry to cross from Germany into Denmark.

As I was heading for Jutland I changed at Flensburg (just before the border), travelled on to Kolding, before taking a regional train to Ribe .

More details of connections through southern Jutland are here.

There are plenty of options, so check timetables carefully.

Trains on these services also serve Aarhus (European Capital of Culture 2017), Odense (birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen) and Legoland.

 

Conclusion:

So, getting to Denmark by train is easy, can be very affordable and is probably a great deal quicker than you imagine. Like all long distance rail travel, it is way more environmentally friendly than flying. But for me, the raison d’être of travelling by train is that it is far more interesting, makes the journey an integral part of the holiday and is an ideal way to incorporate some city/regional stop-offs en route.

 

Links:

Read more about southern Jutland; Denmark’s hidden corner.

And find out how much you really understand about hygge.

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11 Jan 2017

Christmas in Denmark: Ultimate Hygge?

No Comments Blog, Tours

Before the tsunami of Brexisms, Remoaners and post-truths of the second half of 2016, the most beguiling, as well as over/ misused ‘new’ word of recent years had to be hygge.

New, of course, only in terms of the English language, where the word has become an integral part of the  21st century invasion of all things Scandi. And, although, apparently originally imported from Norway, hygge is now is as indelibly Danish as smorrebrod and minimalist design.

But while grisly crimies and woolly jumpers transcend language barriers (with a little help from sub-titles), the unique and unpronounceable hygge has become something of an enigma: depending on your reading and shopping habits, you may well not be able to avoid it, but can anyone actually define it?

Christmas, Denmark, knitting: Julehygge!

Christmas, Denmark, knitting: Julehygge!

Candles, cosy nights knitting socks around a blazing fire sipping mugs of glogg take us so far, but with hygge being interpreted as everything from a state of mind to the ultimate manifestation of Danish happiness, equality and good welfare provision, is it more than a sum of its parts, or just another trendy Scandi import insulating remoaning Guardianistas from the chill wind of Brexit?

A kind invitation to spend Christmas with friends in southern Jutland seemed the ideal way to find out, not least because I would be experiencing Julehygge: hygge with bells on, in almost every respect. Furthermore, with my Danish/British hosts annually enjoying  a traditional Danish celebration on the 24th, a day of rest on the 25th, before welcoming an extended family gathering for a typical British Christmas dinner on the 26th, what wouldn’t be to like?

Copenhagen’s Central Station on the Friday before Christmas resembled febrile chaos, but with an helpful additive routinely absent from its counterparts in today’s British rail terminals: visible, knowledgeable staff eager to help passengers find the right platform and aid the more confused in and out of trains. Although I have  experienced some delays and disruption on Danish Railways (DSB) in the past, this journey, with  spacious seating, a ‘Quiet’ compartment with no audible mobile phones, and fellow passengers willingly vacating their seats to the people who reserved them, might well qualify as train hygge.

Christmas decorations in the medieval streets around RIbe Cathedral

Christmas decorations in the medieval streets around RIbe Cathedral

First impressions confirmed that Denmark, like much of northern Europe, tends to make the most of its midwinter, with small-scale Christmas markets, traditionally-dressed trees and minimalist outdoor lighting evident in most towns and villages.

Again, as elsewhere on the continent, festivities centre on December 24th and provide a more simple and time-honoured contrast with what is now the norm in the UK.  Celebrations begin with family attendance at church and, yet again, I was fortunate that my friends live in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town.  Generally regarded as the best-preserved medieval town in the country, and famously chronicled by, arguably its most famous son, the photographer Jacob Riis, Ribe’s centrepiece is its magnificent cathedral, the Domkirke. The first Christian church in Denmark, founded in the ninth century, the present building dates from 1150. Extensively renovated in the 19th century, it remains a striking landmark clearly visible across Jutland’s flat, and often bleak, landscape, as well as a worthy monument to the town’s importance in Viking times and the early Middle Ages.

Sunrise on Christmas morning with Ribe Cathedral visible across the flat Jutland heathlands

Sunrise on Christmas morning with Ribe Cathedral visible across the flat Jutland heathlands

The evening then provides the high point of Yuletide celebrations and a clear example of the continuing importance of tradition and family in Danish society. A deliciously tasty Christmas Eve dinner – slow-cooked duck, caramelised potatoes and red cabbage, followed by cold rice pudding, with the latter containing the obligatory hidden almond – was prepared by my host to a recipe handed down from previous generations of his family, before we gathered round the candlelit tree to sing a selection of favourite Christmas songs. Only then was it time to open presents and this too followed a well-established pattern, with the person receiving the most recent present then handing out the next.

Family and friends together, taking pleasure in giving and receiving small, practical gifts (most of the presents were thoughtful, understated items, such as carefully chosen clothes, and yes, did include the obligatory knitted socks and gloves!) candles, a blazing fire, slow-cooked simple food and drink; surely this has to be hygge?

Christmas Eve dinner, Danish style

Christmas Eve dinner, Danish style

Although, rather than trying to find a situation to fit a definition, I am happier with my memory of people at ease with themselves, celebrating modestly and unaffectedly in a way that seems to have changed little over generations.

Certainly, having a day of rest on the 25th was a novel and rewarding experience for me and perhaps the contrast with the commercialised excess that now increasingly defines Christmas in the UK is the best way to sum up Julehygge. I was struck, particularly, by the pride taken in continuing long-held customs  and the lack of any desire to modernise or ‘improve’ the experience by importing bits and pieces from elsewhere. Indeed, while my hosts’ extended family thoroughly enjoyed their British Christmas dinner on the 26th, they appeared slightly bemused as to why we Brits seem to have been keen to absorb so many ‘foreign’ Yuletide habits, from turkey to cranberries, over the years.

Whatever the season, whatever the weather, the ubiquitous Danish sit-up-and-beg: cycling hygge!

Whatever the season, whatever the weather, the ubiquitous, comfortable, familiar Danish sit-up-and-beg: bike hygge!

However, this is not to suggest that the Danes are immune to enjoying some of the our better Christmas  institutions . Pantomime is not generally a staple of their Yuletide, but in recent years, London Toast under the direction of ex-pat (or should that be British immigrant?) Vivienne McKee has successfully introduced the genre to Danish audiences. Now one of the most successful English theatre groups in Europe, its Crazy Christmas Cabarets play to sell-out audiences and I was lucky enough to catch their last Copenhagen performance of the season. Loosely based on Robin Hood and featuring  Sheriff Trump of Nottingham, it was topical and edgy and, in these crazy times, very agreeable to be part of a European audience laughing with us Brits, as opposed to at us.

So, with the holiday over and Twelfth Night past, did I find the key to understanding hygge? Is it a state of mind, or merely a clever marking ploy? A model for our time, or just a trendy, foreign fad? Is it possible, or even desirable, to define? Maybe both hygge’s strength and weakness lie in its very ambiguity: all things to all people, perhaps, or even just whatever you want it to be.

Icy swim, then coffee round the campfire: winter hygge!

Icy swim, then coffee round the campfire: winter hygge!

And, it’s certainly not just about getting through the winter with some cosy, candle-lit nights round the fire.  Even in late December many people were out and about, round the lakes, in the woods, walking, cycling, and even swimming, making the most of what little  daylight there was.  But what made these scenes particularly Danish were the picnic hampers and ubiquitous coffee flasks: yes, even in the depths of winter hygge was alive and kicking: friends and families getting together round the campfire in the middle of the forest, or edge of the lake, eating, drinking, chatting.

Already hijacked by the populist right in Denmark as representing true ‘Danish’ values, in clear contrast to the ideal of hygge as an expression of Danish liberalism, inclusion and equality, it could well become a word singularly appropriate for our polarised age.  Fifty shades of hygge anyone?

 

Christmas morning, Ribe

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Further Information:

Read more about southern Jutland  including how to travel there by train, where to go  and what to see,

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11 Jan 2017

Southern Jutland: Denmark’s Hidden Corner

No Comments Blog, Tours, Uncategorized
Sand dunes along Jutland's wild, west coast

Sand dunes along Jutland’s wild, west coast

Battered by North Sea squalls and any left-over weather from the UK, the wild west coast of southern Jutland is not immediately recognisable as one of Denmark’s main tourist attractions, certainly as far as British visitors are concerned.

All the more reason to go then, particularly as Jutland, the only part of Danish territory connected to the mainland, is easily accessible by rail, thereby providing the ideal excuse for a train journey through Germany, with city stop-offs in Cologne and Hamburg.

In truth, the decision to visit Jutland had been a no-brainer for the previous six months, since I met up with my best friend from schooldays who has lived there since her marriage to a Jutlander. We lost touch after leaving university but, thanks to the glories of the internet, seamlessly took up much as we left off too many years previously.

Birthplace of Jacob Riis in RIbe

Birthplace of Jacob Riis in RIbe

Until then my knowledge of the region began and ended with the Schleswig-Holstein question and the defeat of the Danes by the Prussian army in 1864; the first step to the unification of Germany by 1870. My initial awakening to the attractions of the region only emerged with a gift from my friend of a book by the famous journalist/photographer, Jacob Riis.  Although best known for his exposure of slum conditions in New York in the late 19th century, Riis was born in Ribe, the  main centre in southern Jutland. Ribe is also where my friend and her family live.

The medieval streets around Ribe Cathedral

The medieval streets around Ribe Cathedral

Fortuitously, Ribe is the oldest town in Denmark and the best-preserved medieval settlement in the country. Founded in Viking times, its river access to the sea made it the most important trading centre between the Frankish empire and the Scandinavian states to the north.  The town’s hegemony lasted until the end of the 16th century when the combination of a devastating fire, the silting up of the harbour and the relocation of the royal family to Copenhagen, resulted in a steep decline in Ribe’s fortunes.

But medieval misfortune has become 21st century advantage. Because there was little subsequent investment in Ribe, there was almost no rebuilding and it remained virtually unscathed  by industrialisation. As early as 1899 a conservation organisation was established and today the old town appears practically untouched since its medieval heyday: a honeypot of cobbled streets and half timbered houses.

Downtown Ribe: a honeypot of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses

Downtown Ribe: a honeypot of cobbled streets and half-timbered houses

Designated a preservation zone, the centre is blissfully devoid of chain stores and franchises, so the shops and cafes retain a considerable degree of individuality and character.  And, as this is Denmark, there are knitting shops (much fewer, sadly, in recent years) with wooden shelves stacked with yarn, needles and patterns, noticeably reminiscent of a 1960s British high street.

Sand dunes along Jutland's wild west coast

It’s Denmark, so there must be knitting!

 

 

Bicycles, the ubiquitous Danish sit-up-and-begs clatter over the cobbles, their baskets piled with everything from delicious pastries, to dogs, babies and almost every type of household implement. Their riders are every bit as eclectic in age and dress code; clad for the weather and everyday activities with no need to be uber-visible in gaudy lycra and flashing lights. Even in a small rural town there are cycle lanes and traffic etiquette based on equality of all road users.  Nirvana indeed.

View from the cathedral tower: originally also a look-out for floods

View from the cathedral tower: originally also a look-out for floods

Towering over the town is Ribe Cathedral, the Domkirke. A church, generally accepted as being the first  Christian place of worship in Denmark,  was first established here in the ninth century and became a major staging post for pilgrims travelling to Rome. The present cathedral, with its distinctive Romanesque architecture, was built from around 1150 and is visible across the pancake-flat water meadows for miles around. Climb the 248 steps of the tower and it’s clear why it used to double as a look-out tower for flooding.

The landscape, a smorgasbord of heathland, drainage ditches and a few brave trees, is so uniformly flat it looks to have been signed off by spirit level. The huge surround skies envelop the horizon and can transform from brilliant blue to gunmetal grey in minutes as storms roar in from the North Sea. It’s bleak and barren, but with a stark, brutal kind of beauty that also is a inescapable reminder of the raw power of nature.

Surround skies and pancake-flat terrain

Surround skies and pancake-flat terrain

Approximately on the latitude of Newcastle-on-Tyne, southern Jutland tends to share the same kind of temperatures, but when the sun does shine in mid summer the nearby coast is a magnet for visitors, particularly from Germany. The shared history and geography of this area ensures there is a common culture and German is still spoken in places.

The Wadden Sea, a haven for migratory birds

The Wadden Sea, a haven for migratory birds

 

 

Endless stretches of sandy beaches are ideal for bracing coastal walks when the weather is not so kind and also as a haven for birds.  The Wadden Sea, one of Denmark’s five national parks, stretches from just west of Esbjerg (around 30km north of Ribe) south to the German border and provides ideal conditions for millions of migratory birds.

Within the park are the islands of Fano and Mando, both easily accessible from the mainland – the latter by a tractor bus or by bike, along a 10km causeway and adjacent cycle path.  The islands are popular as summer retreats, both for their sandy beaches and their cute, historic charm, with thatched cottages, original lighthouses and interesting churches containing images of boats and other links to the sea.

Causeway to Mando

Causeway to Mando

Overlooked and undiscovered (certainly as far as British tourists are concerned) southern Jutland tends to be somewhere merely en route north to Legoland, or on to Copenhagen. But its water meadows and peat lands contain much history – Tollund Man, remember, lies not too far away in Silkeborg and the Battle of Jutland was fought off the shores of the nearby North Sea in 1916 – ancient and modern. Its settlements and people retain an authentic individuality,  increasingly scarce in our rapidly homogenised world, and a unique fusion of modest charm and Danish style.

Visit and you won’t be disappointed.

And that tractor bus

And that tractor bus

 

 

HELPFUL INFO:

 Further details on Ribe and surrounding area

Information on  activities in the Wadden Sea National Park

Where to find Tolland Man

 

 

Other nearby places of interest:

The old lace-making town of Tonder:

 

 

 The spectacular Koldinghus:

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Windmill on Mando:

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Getting there: travelling to Jutland from the UK by train is easy, relaxing and much better for the environment. Find out how to go

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