DENMARK 2007 - Weeks 2~3

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WEEKS 2~3 NEWS - South Funen, Langeland and
Central Zealand:

Our journey to South Funen, Denmark's central island, took us past Egeskov Slot (Castle) which with its embrasures and turrets looked more like a French chateau, surrounded by moat and formally laid-out gardens (Photo 1). Entry is expensive but the grounds are magnificent and the beautifully preserved collections of horse-carriages, vintage cars, motorcycles and aircraft displayed in the museums make it a most worthwhile visit. One outbuilding showing the development of the Falck organisation, Denmark's emergency fire, rescue and ambulance service was particularly interesting.
                                                   Click on map for details 
And so on to Faaborg, an unpretentious but delightful small town in SW Funen. Here we stayed at Svanninge Camping set in a green valley, a beautiful spot especially with a full moon rising above the surrounding low wooded hills of Svanninge Bakker where despite the leaden skies and rain, we enjoyed an excellent day's walking along the way-marked trails. All Danish campsites had been good but this was the best so far: excellent facilities (including an internet wi-fi hotspot), good value at 160 DKK and a warm and friendly welcome from the family Lone and Rasmus Kjæruff.

A word here about the practicalities of Danish supermarkets: Brugsen and Kvickly offer the best choice and value; Føtex, despite all the glitziness, are poorly stocked, ultra-pricey and refuse to accept non-Danish credit cards - to be avoided, as of course are the German Lidl and Netto.

Our next port of call was Svendborg where tall-masted wooden sailing boats are moored along the harbour front next to the ferries which ply back and forth to the islands of Skarø, Drejø and Hjortø. Nearby the elegant bridge over to the large islands of Tåsinge and Langeland sweeps high above the Svendborg Sund. We spent an excellent day visiting low-lying Drejø; the island rises mere inches above the sea with just a low dyke protecting the farmland and thatched cottages. Six pairs of Marsh Harriers breed on Drejø and we were fortunate to get sighting of one as it harried mallards and coots on the marshes of Nørresø. As the ferry crossed back over the Sound, we passed the large 3-masted schooner Fylla in full sail out of Svendborg, a magnificent sight (Photo 2).

We crossed the causeway and bridge to Langeland, the slender 60 km long island off South Funen, to stay at Lohals a pleasant harbour village at the island's northern tip. From here binoculars gave us another sighting of the lengthy sweep of the elegant Store Bælt Bridge which we should cross to Zealand in a couple of days. Lohals Camping also deserved a 'best of trip' accolade both for its facilities (chips with our supper and another wi-fi hotspot) and the welcome received from the owners, Vilseke and Jørgen Rasmussen. At Langeland's southern tip, beyond the village of Humble with its characteristic white-washed Lutheran church set on a grassy knoll, we spent a day walking the coastal paths and sandy cliffs of Dovns Kilnt (Photo 3); the constantly blowing brisk wind whipped up a vigorous swell leaving the cliff-top trees permanently bent, and along the shore-side meres, we sighted a lone Sea Eagle soaring over the water; its proximity emphasised its huge size. That afternoon we walked the cliff path around Ristinge into the teeth of the westerly wind with the spectacular sweep of Ristinge Strande arcing away southwards. The gales had kept the trawler-men from nearby Bagenkop in port 'with nothing to do but eat and drink all day' as we were told; even so we were able to buy locally caught and smoked salmon fillets (røget lokke) from the Fiski Kiosk down by the unprettified functional fishing harbour (Photo 4).

The gales continued through the clearest of nights yet, with myriads of stars and the Milky Way clearly visible. Just inland was Langeland Fort, formerly a secret military installation built in 1953 for NATO to observe Soviet ships making the passage through the Store Bælt from the Baltic to North Atlantic. At the height of the Cold War, observers at Langeland Fort first spotted the Warsaw Pact ships carrying suspicious cigar-shaped cargoes on deck, and alerted Kennedy to the gravity of the Soviet threat of installing ballistic missiles on Cuba. With the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the world hovered on the brink of nuclear war until Khrushchev backed down. Langeland Fort remained operational until early 1990s and is now open as a museum to that critical period of east-west relations; looking at the map, you see how closely the massive Soviet bloc sat on Denmark's doorstep. The displays included radar bunkers and anti-aircraft defences and hangars housing opposing jet fighters of that period, a Soviet Mig 23 and Royal Danish Air Force Draken F35. It's all worth seeing, not so much for all the military hardware, but more as a symbolic reminder of that desperately critical period of 20th century history which somehow we all survived.

On the journey northwards back across Funen, it occurred to us just how relaxing driving is in Denmark compared with the rest of Europe and certainly with loutish UK. Danish drivers generally behave with courtesy and tolerance (we had been overtaken only twice in 3 weeks!) and observe the 50 mph speed limit not out of grudging compliance with the law but simply a sense of social responsibility.

Before crossing to Zealand, Denmark's eastern large island, we camped at Nyborg alongside the Store Bælt shoreline, and again NE gales whipped up the waves of the straits into a turbulent fury. But even more impressive than the pounding surf was the grandstand view of the Store Bælt Bridge, disappearing in a graceful cure towards its central suspension bridge on the misty horizon. A rainbow further enlivened the already dramatic dark sky across the straits separating Funen from Zealand (Photo 5).

The storm blew itself out overnight and the following morning in bright sunshine, we joined the motorway for the impressive drive across the 18 km long bridge spanning the Store Bælt. Road and rail run side by side across the initial 6.6 km long piered bridge to the midway island of Sprogø. Trains continue from there into an 8 km undersea tunnel, while the motorway passes over the 6.8 km east bridge to the Zealand coast; this includes Europe's longest suspension bridge at 1.6 km, the 254m high pylons of which constitute ironically Denmark's highest point above sea level overtopping all the county's natural features. A 65m high shipping channel passes beneath. The bridge was opened in 1998, having cost 31.6 billion DKK at 2005 prices; 10 million vehicles now cross the bridge each year. Someone has to pay for this, and the tolls are expensive at 205 DKK for a one-way crossing. To learn more, visit the Store Bælt Bridge official web site on  www.storebaelt.dk   From the Zealand coastline, this elegant feat of engineering towered above us and faded away into the distance back towards Funen (Photo 6), while nearby the small Ice Museum tells the story of pre-bridge winter crossings of the Store Bælt when the ice-bound straits were blocked to the ferries which used to be the only means of crossing between 2 parts of Denmark. How much we take bridges for granted these days!

Out first stop in Zealand was at one of Scandinavia's most important historical sites: the Viking ring-fortress at Trelleborg was built around 980 AD by Harold Bluetooth as part of a network of defensive strongholds to protect the newly unified kingdom. Not only did Harold unite the formerly disparate Viking tribes, it was he who converted them from worship of the pagan Norse gods and 'made the Danes Christian' as the rune stone at Jelling records. The ring fortress and trading centre, some 200m in diameter, was enclosed within massive timber-reinforced turf ramparts and housed a garrison of 500 warriors. Graves in the nearby burial ground suggest that the fortress came under attack probably from counter claimants to the king's leadership such as his rebellious son Sven Forkbeard, and was abandoned early in the 11th century. Today sheep graze peacefully where once each quadrant of the fortress was occupied by 4 Viking long-houses. A reconstructed staved and thatched long-house stands nearby showing the primitive and murky living conditions with central hearth and only a roof hole to allow smoke to escape (Photo 7). Set amid the Zealand countryside, Trelleborg is significant not just for what it was, but for what it represents - a crucial stage in the Vikings' turbulent evolution from barbaric pillaging tribal society to early Christian royal-led medieval statehood.

We took an ecclesiastical tour ourselves across the breadth of central Zealand, camping at the pleasant market town of Sorø. The immediate post-Viking era of the 11~12th centuries was a great church building period as the early monarchy consolidated its control over the Danish kingdom, aided and abetted by the Catholic church. The earliest churches were built of wood but the art of brick-making, introduced around this time by Italian craftsmen, allowed for much larger scale construction in the lofty Romanesque and Gothic styles. The most powerful warrior-bishop, Absalon (it was he who fortified København) founded wealthily endowed abbey-churches at Sorø and Ringsted in the late 12th century as sepulchral chapels for the early Danish monarchs. Absalon himself was buried at Sorø. After the 1536 Reformation however, when the Danish monarchy asserted its power over the Catholic church (as in England under Henry VIII), church and monastic lands and wealth were sequestered by the crown and the Lutheran church established as state religion with the king as its head. Sorø church became part of the Academy of Knights, an elite school for the sons of nobility and is still Denmark's most exclusive school. Sankt Bendts church at Ringsted, Absalon's other foundation, was a royal burial place for 150 years, its nave floor lined with tombs of the Valdemar dynasty kings and their queens. One of these was Dagmar who died in 1212 and was revered by Danes as a kind and goodly lady. A small gold cross was discovered in the tomb; of Byzantine origin and dating from 1000 AD, a copy is displayed at Ringsted and it is still reproduced as a pendent for brides marrying at Sankt Bendts.

Our visits to Sorø and Ringsted churches gave fascinating insight into Denmark's medieval political history; the picture was building up. In contrast to the grandeur of Absalon's 2 abbey-churches, we also visited 2 smaller but beautiful rural churches. In a delightful setting at the village of Bjernede, we found the 12th century rotunda church (Photo 8), unique in Zealand, its interior supported by 4 sturdy pillars topped with rounded Romanesque arches. At Vigersted, the interior walls and vaulting of the village church were covered with beautifully preserved frescoes, straightforward rustic artwork in pastel colours, with floral motif patterning and bible scenes and St George skewering his dragon taking pride of place.

Across on the eastern coast on Zealand at Køge (pronounced something like 'Kerr' with the Danish habit of glossing over consonants), we stayed at Vallø Camping, another excellent site set among heath land with tall pines and oak trees. It was here that by serendipitous good fortune we discovered that the campsite shop stocked beers from the local Braunstein Brewery, advertised appropriately as 'another good reason to visit Køge'. We arranged to visit Bryghuset Braunstein and were welcomed with regal hospitality by Mr Michael Braunstein. The family company is the largest of Denmark's micro-breweries which have blossomed in recent years in reaction to the insipid output of the commercial near-monopolies of Carlsberg and Tuborg. The Braunstein business strategy is determined not simply by profit motive but by quality of life and a passion for quality brewing, summed up by Michael with the words 'Here at Bryghuset Braunstein, we brew beer, we drink beer, and what is left we sell!' And such is the company success that sales exceed their brewing capacity. We toured the brewery, contrasting brewing techniques for English ales and lager-style beers, and in the sampling room Michael generously offered us the chance to taste their range of excellent products: Amber Lager a slightly sweet but wonderfully rounded beer (4.9% abv), Pilsner a light in colour but heavy in gravity (5.3% abv) traditional hoppy bitter lager, Viking IPA a darker beer with fullsome bitter taste and fearfully heavy at 7.0% abv, and Dark Lager a magnificently hoppy beer balanced with a beautiful roasted barley tang (5.4% abv). There was no disputing the Braunstein promotional slogan: 'En stor øl fra et lille Danske brygeri' - a Great Beer from the Little Danish Brewery. For his hospitality and wonderful beers, we say to Michael 'Tak for sidst'. He can be justifiably proud of his successful business, quality of life for his family, and for connoisseurs of quality beers a superlative range of products. If you come to Denmark, be sure to drink Braunstein beers; visit their excellent web site on  www.braunstein.dk    And we did also visit the lovely town of Køge which had many other attractions on top of being home to Bryghuset Braunstein.

As you can doubtless tell, we are so enjoying our time living in Danish society and relishing the companionship of Danish people.  It is time now for us to head for Denmark's capital city København, so follow along with our travels via the web site.

Sheila and Paul                                                                              Published: Sunday 16 September

Music this week: Carl Nielsen
Chaconne for Piano Op32

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