Chalkmarks: On the rocks: Pacific oysters from the Wadden Sea in Denmark

THERE’S more to Denmark than Copenhagen and The Killing. It has more than 400 islands offering world-class beaches and a neat green landscape. It has given the world Danish pastries, crispy bacon, Lego, fine furniture and (probably) the best lager. But in 1864 it changed the course of history. This forgotten story is best told in South Jutland, the historic border land.

HISTORY

If you’ve been watching the BBC4 hit series 1864 (aired in 2014), you’ll know that South Jutland has been fought over by many powers. And the latest invaders are the British fans of the TV drama. First stop for many is Dybbøl in the southeast corner – a three-hour drive from Copenhagen, or you can fly direct to Billund Airport.

A Segway tour takes you through the battlefields and past the trenches which featured in the show. There are huge stones engraved with the names of the fallen. The full story of the battle is told at the Dybbøl Banke History Centre. It’s like going back to 18 April 1864 – a date etched on the mind of Danes. The guides are dressed in full period costume retelling soldiers stories as they walk you around a reconstructed fortification complete with trenches and barracks, with background sounds of canon firing and screaming from the wounded. The Mill outside marks the site where the soldiers were defeated and Denmark lost its world power status.

CYCLING

The Danes are famous for their cycling monarchy. While I don’t have any royal blood I still want to enjoy their cycle paths, which stretch across 600 islands. Bikes are king of the road, so an adventure is never far away. And the best thing for non-cyclists like me is that the country is mostly flat, so I don’t have to worry about working up a sweat. Setting off from my base on the mainland at Aarøsund Badehotel, it’s just an eight-minute ferry ride to the small island of Årø. It’s peaceful and tranquil with just one shop Brummers Gaard originally built in 1866. Today it’s a pub, café and bike hire. Here they have “shopper” bikes, with a big basket on the handlebars for my camera. I pedal along in slow gear but if you’re feeling energetic you could make it all the way around in around an hour.

There’s no hurry though with better views popping up around each corner – worthy of another photo. When it comes to lunch the owner takes us foraging for fresh herbs, and the sea vegetable samphire, found along the coastline, which she blanches for a salad.

Chalkmarks: Queen of the road: Natalie with her shopper bike at Brummers Gaard
Queen of the road: Natalie with her shopper bike at Brummers Gaard

RESTAURANTS

While Noma in Copenhagen frequently ranks as the world’s top restaurant, gastronomic delights are spread right across the country. In South Jutland alone I visit four, which would hold their own with any Copenhagen rival. Kislings Café in Sønderborg makes great coffee, but also tapas with specialty cured sausages, fresh cheeses and warm crusty bread.

A short drive through the countryside for a taste of life 150 years ago, I come to Gram Castle which serves Sunday afternoon tea with 21 varieties of cake – seven soft, seven dry and seven hard. The custom began when local groups came together after the war to celebrate their Danish traditions. The restaurant at Schackenborg Slotskro in Tønder is a magnet because not only is it situated on the pretty cobbled street but also they serve a sweet venison dinner perfect after an evening out bird watching. For fine dining I eat at Hotel Baltic in Høruphav, which plates up tender beef carpaccio, followed by roast pork and a velvety chocolate tart to finish.

OYSTER SAFARI

Rømø island on the wild west coast is overrun by oysters. They grow the fastest here than anywhere on earth, yielding one tonne per hectare. Some measure six inches long and live up to 30 years. If you’re prepared to get up early, a guide will take you out at low tide. That’s what I do. I pull on a pair of green waders for an hour’s oyster picking. We walk through the sandy flats learning about these shellfish as we go along filling up two buckets. Then it’s back to the beach for some alfresco dining and a glass of Champagne. The guide hinges the oysters open pouring away some of the liquid. I swallow one whole and chew the second with a squeeze of lemon to get the full flavour. I only manage to eat two of these creamy-coloured, salty delicacies. With such a lovely setting who needs these aphrodisiacs – the unspoiled views are enough to make me swoon.

Chalkmarks: Unspoiled views: The sand flats on the holiday island Rømø, on Denmark’s wild west coast
Unspoiled views: The sand flats on the holiday island Rømø, on Denmark’s wild west coast
Chalkmarks: Oyster safari: Natalie on Rømø island
Oyster safari: Natalie on Rømø island

DESIGN

Scandinavian furniture design has been at the cutting edge of interiors since the 1950s. Forget Ikea, the Hans Wegner Exhibition is in a whole different class. Wegner turned the humble chair into classic works of art with his craftsmanship that soon made him internationally popular. Stardom began with the Wishbone chair – a light and simple dining chair with a Y-shaped back. Then came a piece that became known as “the chair” used by Richard Nixon and J F Kennedy during US presidential debates in the 60s. American Interiors Magazine called it “the world’s most beautiful chair”. Tønder is rightly proud of this homegrown hero. On show are 37 of his most impressive wooden designs to relax in as you wind your way to the top of the old water tower in the centre of town. Many are still design classics on sale today.

BLACK SUN

Another group of visitors that flock to South Jutland each year are bird watchers. For two months each year the area is home to migrating starlings heading south for the winter. From the beginning of September to the end of October it’s as popular as an African safari with 25,000 visitors over the season. These small black birds with their noisy whistles like to fly in big groups for safety.

They arrive in Tønder to roost for the night but they wait until dusk to swoop to avoid birds of prey. If a predator does enter the flock, they create fantastic formations like dark clouds  – a phenomena coined as the black sun.

I wrap up warm and take a guided coach tour that drops us at the location, which changes every evening. The guides are essential because they have been out all day working out the best sighting locations. It’s a short drive to the wetlands where I collect a cushion, bottle of wine and a sandwich before sitting among the long reeds waiting an hour for sunset with the group of twitchers. At twilight, far into the distance the guides spot the birds. They appear as small specks in the sky and if you are lucky, half a million or more fill the sky overhead. We watch the spectacular show for about an hour until they had finally settle down for the night.

Chalkmarks: The black sun: Bird watching at dusk in Tønder
The black sun: Bird watching at dusk in Tønder
Chalkmarks: Evening out: Our group sits in the marshes waiting for thousands of migrating starlings to arrive
Evening out: Our group sits in the marshes waiting for thousands of migrating starlings to arrive

WINE

The Danes probably make the best lager in the world and many are surprised to find they make decent wine too. The vineyard on Årø island grows the only grapes that can withstand the ruthless winters.

An enthusiast began the winery as a hobby with a few vines 10 years ago last year he made 8,000 bottles, which quickly sold out. And interest keeps growing with already 20,000 visitors in 2015 wanting to taste their red, white, rose and fruity sparkling wines. There’s also already a waiting list of volunteer pickers for next year’s harvest. But there’s one unusual offering unique from this vineyard – seaweed wine. They claim to be the world’s only producers of this golden liquid, which tastes and smells of the sea. Even when Queen Margrethe II visited she could only describe the flavour as “interesting”. Very diplomatic.

Chalkmarks: Forget grapes: Bottles of seaweed wine held by the owners of Årø vineyard
Forget grapes: These are bottles of seaweed wine held by the owners of Årø vineyard
Chalkmarks: Beach bubbly: Champagne and oysters on Rømø island
Beach bubbly: Champagne and oysters on Rømø island

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