Sunday, November 24, 2019

Cycling Across Southern Denmark - Part 1

We left off our last blog episode at the border of Denmark on August 8 (yes, we've been a bit neglectful about getting back to finish this year's episodes).  We found ourselves here because in reading up on cycling in Europe over the years, we kept seeing Denmark consistently ranked, together with the Netherlands and Germany, as one of the most bike-friendly countries in the world. It was time to see for ourselves.

Denmark is a country of modest size.  It's 8% bigger than the Netherlands, but only 1/8 as large as its neighbor Germany.  If you combine New Hampshire and Vermont, then take away a county or two, you've got the area of Denmark.  As for population, its 5.8 million people are almost 3 times as many folks as you'd find in New Hampshire and Vermont combined, but less than a third the number of inhabitants of the Netherlands.

About 60% of Denmark's land area is on the large peninsula that connects Denmark and Germany, called Jutland in English or Jylland in Danish.  Except for the first 40 km of our travels in Denmark, we were not in Jutland but rather on 9 large and 3 small  islands in the southeastern part of the country.  Indeed, all of Denmark except for the Jutland peninsula is on islands, 422 named ones and another 1,000 unnamed ones 100 square meters or larger (about the size of a school classroom).  Although advances in technology have enabled the Danes to connect many of these by impressively long bridges, there are nonetheless many large gaps that can only be 'bridged' by ferry, and we ended up taking ten of them in our month there.

In today's blog entry we'll cover the mostly eastward part of our trip, from the German border across that corner of Jutland, then the islands of Als, Funen, Aero, Tåsinge, Langeland and Lolland.  This was precisely half of our 880 km / 550 mi. in Denmark. We'll head north in the next blog and do the other half.

Denmark has a national network of bike routes, and we mostly followed Route 8 as we headed east and 9 for the northward part of our trip, supplemented at times by regional routes marked by numbers from 20 to 99.  We also had a map showing these, but two problems arose.  First, the route had been shifted in at least 3 instances we encountered between the printing of the map and our arrival.  Each time we followed the map rather than the signs.  Second, while the map did distinguish between paved and unpaved roads, it did so only for those which were not part of a bike route.  We were never sure what we would find.  Our first 4 km in Denmark were a rude shock when we biked into a protected forest area at the Danish-German border in order to connect with Route 8, and found ourselves off pavement, not on packed limestone but on dirt.  It would have been no problem for a single mountain bike, but our road tandem with luggage was not up to it (or more precisely its passengers -- us).  We ended up walking half of the 4 km each time it went uphill or downhill.  Hmmm, this is not an auspicious start!

When we exited the forest preserve, we next found that Route 8 had become not a bike path but rather the shoulder of a highway.  It was not a major highway, but the shoulder was only about 2 feet / 60 cm wide. Again, not what we've encountered in Germany and the Netherlands, where bike lanes on the side of a road are less common and much wider when they do occur.  However .  .  .  halfway to our destination of Sønderborg we had a surprise that was as pleasant as the first two had been disappointing.  We were on a section of a quiet side road when a cyclist approached us with a mobile visitor info bureau.

Her summer job is to bike along National Bike Route 8 and other bike routes leading into Sønderborg to welcome cyclists to Denmark and to provide maps, brochures and advice.  We were actually adequately supplied with maps and had done enough research to know which tourist destinations we wanted to visit in that area, but she did provide us other useful advice such as how best to find lodging in Denmark, and she reassured us that we would find Denmark more credit-card friendly than most countries in Europe. In fact it was.  Unlike almost every other European country we've biked in, Denmark does not use the euro but rather the Danish Krone.  So we had to stop at the first ATM we encountered once we crossed the border to get a supply of them.  We usually find it necessary to get cash from ATMs every 2-3 weeks in the countries we've visited so far in Europe, but here the cash we took out at that first ATM was still mostly in our wallet at the end of our time in Denmark, and we had to find creative ways to spend it in the last two days.  In any event, it was nice to have such a personal welcome to cycling in Denmark.

Our route was mostly along the shore, and we stopped once to photograph a pair of city-block-sized islands.  It seems so romantic to have a house on your own private island, but we wonder how the residents feel about the trip home on dark and stormy nights?

There aren't quite as many castles and manor houses in Denmark as islands, but the number of them is still impressively large. We encountered our first one only 40 km in, Sønderborg Castle.  The oldest part of it dates to 1158, with major expansions in the 14th and 16th centuries.  It was the prison home of King Christian II of Denmark for 17 years in the 1500's after he was deposed.

Today the castle is a museum of local culture and history, mainly focusing on the complex history of the area known as Schleswig-Holstein.  As in many parts of Europe, Schleswig and Holstein were inhabited for centuries by people from multiple language groups, here largely Danish and German.  In the mid-1800s the area was considered the property of the Danish king but not part of the nation of Denmark.  In the 1860s there were two wars fought over these lands between Denmark and Prussia.  In the first, the Prussians were the aggressors, and England, France and Russia forced Prussia to back down.  That emboldened the Danish king who, 2 years later, announced that the area was in fact part of his nation.  Prussia went to war again to protect the German-speaking inhabitants from this Danish "aggression," and the rest of Europe this time stayed out of the dispute.  Prussia easily defeated the Danes and annexed the whole area in 1864, even though there were relatively few German-speaking inhabitants in the northern part of Schleswig.  Jump forward to WW I and the defeat of Germany, of which Prussia was a major part.  The victorious Allies let Germany keep Holstein in the south, which was heavily Germanic, but held a plebiscite for north Schleswig and south Schleswig.  The northern part voted to return to Denmark, the southern to stay German, and the border has not changed in the 99 years since then.  But in Sønderborg (marked with a red dot on the map), feelings about this 56-year period of being involuntarily part of Germany are still intense.  Many Danes have mixed emotions about Germany because of its 5-year occupation of Denmark during WW II, but here in north Schleswig the feelings seem definitely more pronounced.

We saw many homes, especially in smaller communities, that were wonderfully old and quaint, but Denmark also has a modernist streak as well -- just think of 'Danish Modern' furniture.  Our first night in Denmark was in the decidedly modern Steigenberger Alsik Hotel and Spa on Als Island, across the narrow estuary that separates it from Jutland.  The tall black box is the hotel, the lower area to the left the spa complex.  From the viewpoint on the next-to-top floor we had a spectacular view of the city and surrounding countryside, including the modern campus of the Suddansk Universitet across the water to the west, and then to the south for a different perspective on Sønderborg Castle than our first view of it.

We visited the castle the next day and learned much about Schleswig-Holstein history but also saw the castle's medieval chapel that was redecorated soon after Lutheranism came to Denmark.  One of Luther's main accomplishments was to publish the Bible in the vernacular, making it accessible to common folks for the first time, and there were panels all around the chapel with famous excepts from his German Bible.  The first words of this one are "The Lord is my shepherd," and many of you can probably recite the rest of this verse even if you can't read Old German.  In another room there were two samplers done by girls who were probably 12-15 years old when they stitched them.  This one dates from 1870.  Since our meeting 11 years ago with Stephen and Carol Huber, Connecticut antique dealers extraordinaire who specialize in this art form, we always perk up when we see a sampler anywhere.

We had gotten to Als Island on a fairly short drawbridge, but the gap from Als to Funen, our next island, was kilometers, not meters, so we had our first Danish ferry ride.  This ferry like many others we took had a curious feature.  The furthest lane is for tall vehicles such as the trailer you see, or tall trucks.  The other lanes have a movable second level.  It lowers somewhat then has a ramp that comes down to the car deck at the tip of the deck.  Cars drive up the ramp onto this movable deck until it's filled, then the ramp retracts and the entire deck lifts up.  Finally, cars drive in to the spaces underneath it, on the main deck.  The headroom getting out of your car is not great but it's adequate, and this tight packing keeps the weight of vehicles in the ferry lower, giving the boat better stability.

We had a pleasant ride eastward with a tailwind still coming from the SW, as it had been doing for the past 2 weeks.  We saw the small city of Faaborg well before we arrived for what we thought would be a 2-night stay in an apartment.  It turned out to be very comfortable and right in the heart of the city, with a very nice supermarket only 4 minutes away by foot, and when the weather turned wet at the end of those 2 days we decided to stay on for 3 more nights.  We enjoyed the whole stay.

The next morning we took a ferry to the small island of Bjørnø and explored the small village, the size of about 3 or 4 city blocks, and then took a walk 2 km along the south shore and back on the north shore.  Here 's the Faaborg harbor as we left and then looking back from the island, plus various scenes on our walk.

That tall tower in Faaborg is known as the Belfry and is over 750 years old.  In the reformation the church it was attached to was torn down, but the tower stayed since it was such a good landmark for sailors.  On our return to town we climbed to the top of the Belfry, which still calls out the time four times an hour, then walked about Faaborg.  It is quite a charming town.

The following day promised rain all day and our place was available so we stayed in except for a short trip to the grocery store.  In the evening the rain let up in time for us to walk to the town museum where we heard a concert of music performed by a clarinet trio.  It's always so nice to hear live music, one of the things we don't seem to be able to find in time most summers.

The rain let up for a day and we took a different ferry off to two more islands that were large enough to explore by bike, Lyø and Avernakø.  The ferry does a triangular route, and the schedule allowed us to both see Lyø and have a great wood-fired pizza at the only place in this small town that serves food.

Besides the many quaint homes we passed, we also saw a windmill that was missing some important parts, an attractive village church and churchyard, a lost hedgehog, and a dolmen.  This is the word in English for a prehistoric stone burial structure.  We've seen others in the Netherlands, where they are called hunnebeden.  This one is almost certainly older than Stonehenge, though a tad less impressive.

On Avernakø we saw more wonderful scenery, including this lonesome home looking out at the Baltic Sea.  Nearby was one of the last roses of summer, with rose hips that looked like ripe tomatoes!

After one more rainy day that saw us catching up on reading and trip planning all day, we finally got back to biking and rode to our next destination, Svendborg, another small city on the south coast of Funen Island.  And here we stayed for three nights as still more rain came in -- a total of 4 out of 6 days where the rain kept us in the better part of the day.  But not totally inside -- during breaks in the rain we got out for a few walks, none more interesting than our walk through another cemetery.  We have never seen cemeteries as well kept as we saw all along our route through Denmark, but this one was particularly attractive and lush with vegetation.  Indeed, in some places we have no idea whether there are even any bodies below, it seems so much like a garden.  Here are a few photos.

 Two spots were particularly poignant.  In the photo to the left, all the graves were those of Danish soldiers who died at the hands of the Germans during WW II.  The death toll for the country was not large since the country saw that resistance by tiny Denmark to the Nazi juggernaut was pointless and surrendered quickly.  But it was far from bloodless.  The photo on the right is of one of the graves in a group of 7.  All were Brits and Aussies, the entire crew of an RAF bomber shot down over Denmark as it headed toward naval facilities on Germany's Baltic coast.

 Here are a few shots from our walk about the town, including a very dapper fox in one of the shop windows.

With all that rain delay, we were anxious to get moving again.  We hopped on the ferry to Aerø Island and it looked like we were about to have another dismal day.  The rain did come down in buckets, but only for a few minutes while we were on the ferry.  We had an Airbnb apartment rented on the island for two nights and were anxious to see as much of Aerø as we could, since guidebook after guidebook described it as one of the best places to bike in Denmark.  It was indeed scenic and bike-friendly.

We'll start with a shot of our ferry, now headed back, and then some very colorful shacks along the water.  Danish homes tend to be quite colorful, but the palette is rarely this bold.  In town we took photos of several streets with colorful homes in more of the usual colors.

Those bricks were rather bouncy to ride on, but not impossible.  Outside the town the route was mostly on quiet paved roads, but bicycle route 8 did send us down one section of unpaved road for about 3 km.  At the west end of Aerø we came to a small lighthouse which, for a few Krone, we were able to climb.  A look back east shows some of the rolling terrain typical of Denmark.

On Aerø the challenge was the wind more than the hills.  Luckily our Airbnb hosts, Janice and Nils, had been at home when we came by early, and we dropped off our panniers before going out onto the exposed point where the lighthouse was.  The panniers are about 14 lbs / 6 kg each, but they also catch a bit of the wind, and it is much more fun to ride without them, when we can manage.

Our hostess Janice is a New Zealander, and it was fun to hear a Kiwi accent again, something we haven't heard much since our visit there in 2008-09.  Their home here on Aerø dates to the late 1700s, and was something of a wreck before they renovated it.  It's stunning now, and it was oh, so comfortable!

Although our place was in a tiny village with no stores, there was a supermarket a few km away where we were able to get fixings for supper each night.  We had seen roughly half of the 90-km circular bike route around the island on day 1, so for day 2 we of course completed the loop.  As we left our lodgings we paused to take a shot of one of the neighboring homes, and then a few km down the highway photographed a home that represents a style of older (as in a few centuries old) home that we have seen frequently, one long axis and two shorter axes at right angles, enclosing a central courtyard area.

Our guidebook strongly suggested we stop to see the Bregninge Kirke, the Lutheran church in the village of that name.  It was worth doing so.  And, of course, the churchyard had exceedingly well-tended gravesites.

By comparing a few maps we identified a few sections of bike route 8 that were unpaved, and avoided them.  This was no problem, there really is not much traffic on Aerø.  We once again had no luggage, so things looked great until we noticed an ominous cloud gaining on us from behind.  We picked up the pace, to no avail.  Since this is a very rural place, our refuge was underneath a tree.  Luckily the storm, though intense, was brief, and the rain was just beginning to drip through the many layers of leaves above us when we were able to come out and resume our biking, mostly dry.  Later in the ride we did have a section of gravel path but it was underlain by packed limestone and it was level, so the only challenge was for Jeff to navigate the fairly narrow route it cut along the shore.

The next morning we were back on the ferry.  As it approached the bow section lifted up, a common feature of ferries we've seen on the Baltic.  Inside the suspended second level was in place, here only a narrow one to one side.

Leaving Aerø we passed by the spit with all those colorful shacks.  Our ferry's destination was Svendborg, with its scenic harbor, but we had already spent three nights here and from the ferry we circled back to the bridge we had just passed under on the ferry, and rode across to our fourth island, Tåsinge.   Once again you can see that Denmark is not flat, but our route took us along the shore so we did not have to cycle up that hill in the distance.  By the way, just over that hill is a church with the graves of Elvira Madigan and her tragic lover, Sixten Sparre.  But we haven't seen the film, so weren't inspired enough to go see it.

Instead, we followed our guidebook's suggestion to explore the town of Troense, and in particular a street called Badstuen.  Good call.  Here are some handsome thatched homes, another one in the process of being rethatched, and a more modern home with an impressive garden.

 On the edge of town is Valdemar's Castle (Valdemars Slot), built by King Christian IV for his son Valdemar.  Unfortunately, Valdemar died in battle in Poland, and never saw his new digs.  A later king eventually gifted it to a naval hero, and the 11th generation of that family still lives there, though parts of the castle and grounds are open for public tours, which we skipped.  Besides the main house and what appear to be stables and a seaside guest house perhaps, there is an impressive gatehouse that the bicycle route passes right through.

After only 15 km of riding, we were already on the far side of Tåsinge and onto another bridge to our fifth large island, Langeland.  As the name implies, it's long and narrow, roughly 50 x 10 km.  We stopped briefly in the island's largest settlement, the small city of Rudekøbing, and took one photo on a street our guidebook thought was worth seeing, then dropped in at the tourist office to get a map of the island to supplement our bike map.  Then it was off to yet another castle, Tranekaer Slot

We didn't sleep at the castle but rather in an apartment a km. away, where we cooked our own dinner with groceries picked up an hour earlier -- the closest source.  But breakfast was provided as part of the deal. and it was served in the castle's former stables!  We had the stall previously reserved for the horse named Munne.  Hey, it was a good meal.

Behind the castle is an unusual garden called TICKON, the Tranekaer International Center for Art (Kunst) and Nature.  It consists currently of 20 installations that are a "gift to nature," as the guide puts it.  They must be made with natural materials and left to change as nature alters them over time.  Here are four: "Organic Highway" to the right, then "Between the Copper Beech and the Oak," "Moss Tumulus" and "Diamond Mines" (the low walls roughly define diamond shapes).

We were staying a second night in the same apartment so were able to do another ride without our panniers, but between strong winds, some fairly rolling terrain and a few unpaved portions of road that didn't thrill us, we cut the ride a little short after reaching a nice cafe for lunch and a small grocery store for dinner supplies.  Having had a bad fall in May when the tandem hit a patch of spilled transmission fluid in Seattle, we are jittery about any road surface that looks like it could cause us to lose traction, and we're finding more dirt roads in Denmark than we expected.

Finally our last island for today's blog entry, Lolland, after an hour-long ferry ride from Langeland.  The unpaved road in the first photo proved firm, and fairly soon we were on solid asphalt.  Incidentally, good pheasant country, this.

Because Lolland is quite rural, it was hard to find lodgings.  At last through Airbnb we found a bed and breakfast in an old farm on the edge of a nature preserve, and a grocery store not too far off our route where we could find supplies for a cold dinner salad.  That's our go-to solution whenever our lodgings don't have a stove and there's no restaurant in walking distance.  Our hosts were charming, and in the morning they showed us the editorial cartoon from their morning paper.  Trump had just said he wanted to buy Greenland from Denmark, even though it's not for sale, an idea the Danish Prime Minister had called "Absurd."  Trump's reaction was of course to label her a "nasty woman" (vaemmelige Dame).  The cartoon pretty well sums up the view of Trump from every Dane we spoke to for the rest of our time there.

Our final destination on Lolland was the small city of Sundby and its Medieval Center (Middelaldercentret).  On the way there we passed yet another castle, though these days it calls itself simply the Krenkerup Estate.  Alas we did not know it at the time, but it is now a brewery!  The same family has owned the estate since 1367, but the brew pub it's now known for seems to be a recent addition.  We didn't time-travel quite as far at the Medieval Center,  where we were transported "only" back to the year 1402. 

We quite enjoyed our 5 hour visit here.  As the sign indicated, some locations had crafts people doing or making things, at other times we could infer from the exhibits and buildings how shoes were made or multi-story houses put together.

Some of the pleasure was simply walking about, admiring the work that was done to create a believable medieval village, and the work still done each day to bring it to life.

We arrived just a little too late for the trebuchet demonstration, a type of catapult used before gunpowder came to Europe.  It was capable of hurling moderately heavy rocks 100 m / 100 yds. or more, or of tossing burning material over the walls of a fortified town in the hope of catching the thatched roofs on fire.  We did catch the archery demonstration, however, and watched several youngsters get rudimentary training on how to use a bow and arrow.   Nearby in what they called their medieval 'Technology Park,' there were examples of an easily constructed bridge designed by Galileo, and of a scouting tower that could be raised up by cranking that wheel, both created for military use.

By far, the liveliest part of the visit was the daily joust.  Much of it was a competition between our two knights at skills such as catching small rings on their lances as their horses galloped full tilt down the dirt track of our stadium.  The climax was when the two knights ran at each other at full speed, the aim being to hit the opponent's shield in a way that the lance would shatter.  As in a so-called professional wrestling match, there appeared to be great mayhem but both participants emerged unscathed.

After all this exposure to the Middle Ages, Jeff thought he ought to see how a jousting helmet works as a substitute for his bike helmet.  The answer is, not well.

On our walk back to our hotel we looked across the water at the city of Nykøbing on Falster Island.  That's where we'll head to in our next blog entry.