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 South Jutland in the south east is the historic border land.
If you’ve been watching the BBC4 hit series 1864, 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 south east corner – a three-hour drive from Copenhagen or you can fly direct to Billund Airport. There is a Segway tour through the battlefields and past the trenches which featured in the show. There are also 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 through a reconstructed fortification complete with trenches and barracks with background sounds of firing canon and screaming from the wounded. The Mill outside marks the site where the soldiers were defeated and Denmark lost its world power status.
The Danes are famous for their bicycling monarchy. While I don’t have any royal blood I still want to enjoy the cycle paths, which stretches into their 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 that combines as the pub, café and bike hire. These are “shopper” bikes with a big basket 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 for another photo. When it came for lunch the owner took us to forage for fresh herbs and the sea vegetable samphire which she cooked up for lunch.
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 visited four, which would hold their own with any Copenhagen rival. Kislings Café in Sønderborg makes great coffee but also tapas with speciality cured sausages, fresh cheeses and warm crusty bread. A short drive through the countryside for a taste of life 150 years ago, I came 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 ate at Hotel Baltic in Høruphav, which plated up tender beef carpaccio, followed by roast pork and a velvety chocolate tart to finish.
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 when the tide is out. That’s what I did. I pulled on a pair of green waders for an hour’s oyster picking. We walked through the sandy flats learning about these shellfish as we went along filling up two buckets. Then it was back to the beach for some alfresco dining and a glass of champagne. The guide hinged them open pouring away some of the liquid. I swallowed one whole and chewed the second with a squeeze of lemon to get the full flavour. I only managed to eat two of these creamy- coloured salty delicacies though. With such a lovely setting who needs these aphrodisiacs – the unspoiled view was enough to make me swoon.
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. He 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”. The town 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 Tønder. Many are still design classics on sale today.
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 here as the black sun.
I wrapped up warm and took a guided coach tour that drops you at the location, which changes every evening. The guides are essential because they have been out all day working out the best sighting location. It was a short drive to the wetlands where I collected 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 spotted the birds. They appeared as small specks in the sky and if you are lucky half a million or more fill the sky overhead. We watched the spectacular show for about an hour until they had finally settled down for the night.
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.
Flights are available from London Stansted to Billund with Ryanair.
Aarosund Badehotel offers suites with a view of the sea from £148 and £124 without per night with breakfast
Sort Safari Oyster picking costs £20 per person
Årø Vineyard Wine Tasting costs £12 per person.
Sort Safari Black Sun experience costs £20 per person
Hans Wegner Exhibition costs £6 per person
Comwell Sonderborg offers a double room for two people from £100 per night with breakfast
Outdoor Tours 1864 Guided Segway package (www.outdoor-tours.dk) offers a one-hour tour from £28 per adult
Dybbøl Banke History Centre is £8 per adult.
Årø Ferry return crossing costs from £4 without a car and 6k with a car. (No website)
Bike hire from Brummers Gaard
Denmark tourism www.visitdenmark.co.uk
(September 2015 prices)