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