A couple of years ago, Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. There was a lot of pomp and ceremony and interesting events – from my point of view, we got two bank holidays in the same week which meant a four day weekend. Well, I wasn’t going to spend that sitting at home watching the royal flotilla on TV. I decided to go backpacking in Denmark. I had a 45 litre backpack, I filled it with basics and a few too many books, found a few places I wanted to visit and worked out an itinerary based on trains. In deference to the Jubilee, I did paint my nails red, white and blue but because I didn’t have white I used silver and because of the precise shade of blue I used, the end effect was more Captain America than Union Jack. All the same, they looked nice and I was proud of them.
Well, I overnighted at Gatwick, in one of their “pods” – that, is the Yotel. I’m a big fan of the Yotel. You get a teeny-tiny cabin, inspired by aircraft cabins, which you pay for by the hour rather than the night. They’re always just a bit too hot and the lighting does tend towards the purple but they’re comfortable, once you’ve manoeuvred your luggage through the door, they’re pretty quiet and they’re perfectly located for visiting the gastronomic paradise that is the international airport. I dislike getting up at 3am for an early morning flight. I’d much rather have a pleasant evening drive through the English countryside, sleep in the pod and get up at a reasonable hour.
I flew into Copenhagen and took a train into the city centre. I’d planned hotel bookings by what was closest to the station in the three cities I planned to visit – not such a good plan.
My Copenhagen hotel had gold sequins outside, the sort of reception that looks like you’re in a building site and then an overly elaborate bedroom. I’m telling you, this place has been used for filming purposes, and not the sort of movies you’d watch with your grandparents.
I don’t know why I didn’t entirely take to Copenhagen. There was plenty to like about it. I walked down to the old harbour, I saw the Little Mermaid (was astonished by the crowds around her – don’t be fooled, this thing is like the Mona Lisa), spent an enjoyable time in the Kastellet, a star-shaped fortress which is now a lovely bit of quiet green space. I saw a big sailing ship, a sandcastle competition, a lot of waterfowl. There’s a lot to like in Copenhagen, and I didn’t scratch the surface – didn’t make it to Christiania or into the Tivoli, for a start. Perhaps I didn’t like it because I was in the red light district or because drunk people staggered past my window bellowing half the night or because there were huge roadworks around the main station – none of these things worth overriding all the nice things but somehow I just didn’t love Copenhagen.
I’d been reading the Prose Edda, one of the major books of Norse myth, on the plane and I stood in front of this statue staring at it, thinking “I recognise her. But it can’t be. It can’t be. It is her!”
King Gylfi ruled over the lands now called Sweden. It is said that he offered a travelling woman, in return for the pleasure of her company, a piece of ploughland in his kingdom as large as four oxen could plough in a day and a night. But this woman, named Gefjun, was of the Æsir. She took four oxen from Jotunheim in the north. They were her own sons by a giant, and she yoked them to the plough, which dug so hard and so deep that it cut the land loose. The oxen dragged this land westward out to sea, stopping finally at a certain channel. There Gefjun fastened the land and gave it the name Sjaelland.
Sjaelland being the biggest island in Denmark, the very place I was standing. This was amazing. One minute it’s a book, the next minute it’s larger than life right in front of me.
I had two days in Copenhagen, taking in the sights, before I moved on. In retrospect, I’d have swapped my time in Copenhagen for my time in Odense, which is a glorious, lovely place. A smooth, perfectly punctual train delivered me to Odense, pronounced something like Errn-say because Danish pronunciation seems to have very little correlation to its spelling. I had approximately 24 hours there.
Odense has a lovely modern station-slash-shopping centre, where you can arrive in the town centre, get some food and then cross the tracks to go to the national rail museum. I enjoyed it – I’m not a trainspotter but maybe I have the soul of a small child and small children love steam trains.
This is me with the biggest loco in the place. Yes, I look hideous. I am never tying that fleece around me again. Yes, my dad is a trainspotter. I know better than to call it a train before I could even walk.
I went down to the seafront – well, to where the town meets the fjord, enjoyed the water and the blue sky and some chocolate.
Outside of Iceland, I think Odense is my favourite place so far. It’s a small town (well, it’s Denmark’s third biggest city but it feels like a small town), it’s quiet, there’s nothing particular to see or do, other than the railway museum and the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen but it’s nice and it’s pleasant and I enjoyed wandering by the river and just not doing much. Except that I went to see Avengers, because I wanted to and because it was nice that Thor and Loki should yell at each other with proper Scandinavian subtitles. The other great thing about Odense, believe it or not, is the drain covers. I’m a great believer in taking a glance at drain covers abroad and Odense has some great ones:
I was sorry to leave Odense. I got on the train and headed off. This was not such a smooth and easy journey. I got the train to Vejle and then a rail replacement bus to Horsens. And I didn’t enjoy it. An unexpected bus journey is a bit emetophobe-inducing and then I was packed onto an overcrowded train from Horsens to Aarhus. At Aarhus I dived off the train and almost sprinted through the station in desperate need to find a door and get outside on my own to calm down. The final stage was ok – the train to Aalborg, my final destination. This hotel was right opposite the station and while it was nice enough, it had apparently been built without a spirit level, so it could make you feel a bit seasick.
I soon established that there wasn’t much in Aalborg, other than this hilarious shop:
I took a train (rail replacement bus) to Frederikshavn, where I came across a magnificent beastie indeed, the RRS Ernest Shackleton, an Antarctic research ship and serious bit of kit. I wish I could work here. I would love to be an Antarctic scientist, who wasn’t terrified to travel the entire length of the planet by boat to do Something Serious in the Antarctic (and maybe even see the Southern Lights)
But I wasn’t at Frederikshavn for its pleasures. I’d considered taking the ferry out to an island where you could hunt for amber on the beach but I rejected that for assorted reasons, mostly lack of time. I was there instead to get a train up to Skagen, where the light is supposed to be curiously yellow and from where you can walk to the northernmost point in Denmark. The short train ride is interesting because it passes by some enormous sand dunes, which walk. One had already walked across the main road to the east side of the peninsula and other is due to block the main road by 2020. I was expecting two colossal heaps of sand. Instead, all I got was a sandy bit of land topped with the usual prickly scrubby-type stuff that grows on sand.
I walked through Skagen (pronounced Skane – the g seems to be pronounced in your head but not out loud, if that makes sense) and found the beach. Very nice! A long, long beach, with blue sea and regular little horseshoe shaped mini bays. I took off boots and socks and paddled.
It took a little while before I realised that walking the two or so miles to the point was going to be almost impossible on shingle and sand. I crossed through the dunes (leapt into the air with an embarrassing shriek at the sight of a snake slithering across my path – in my memory, it’s as thick as my forearm and at least four feet long. I suspect in reality it was little bigger than a slowworm).
There was no better day to spend walking along a beach. I wished I’d taken my sandals rather than my proper shoes.
At the end of the sandbar is the point where the Skagerrak (part of the North Sea) and the Kattegat seas meet, resulting in turbulence and waves and danger to swimmers and shipping alike. I paddled a tiny bit – well, I let the waves run up to my feet. I wasn’t stupid enough to try paddling when I could see how quickly the waves dropped away from the beach. This was nature, if not at her most violent, then certainly not at her most peaceful.
It’s one thing to walk up to something interesting. It was another thing to walk back, particularly as the first part, back to the visitor centre, is entirely on sand. At one point, I fell into it, wanting to beat it with my fists and yell at the sky that I can’t walk on sand any longer. I didn’t follow the beach back to town, I followed the road. And by the time I’d walked back to yellow Skagen (yellow because the buildings are yellow, not because there’s some kind of localised sunlight magic there) and then taken two trains back to Aalborg, I was quite tired.
On my last day in Aalborg, I wandered around the shops, went up to the river, saw the lido, the icebreaker-restaurant, went in a park and then went to the airport a bit early and had my own private display of the Danish version of the Red Arrows. At least, I assume that’s what they are. I’ve never managed to identify them. I think there was an air display on the next day and this was a rehearsal.
And then I was done. I had to come home. I know it’s not real backpacking but I quite enjoyed carrying only what I had on my back and never staying put longer than two nights, even in such a small and tame country as Denmark.