Much has been written recently about the Danish sense of coziness and balance in life, called ‘hygge’ (pronounced hue-gah). If you Google the word, you will get more than 16 million hits. Two British writers, Helen Russell and Michael Booth, have both commented on hygge in their books about “Scandi life,” A Year of Living Danishly and The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Also the Danes have been ranked among the happiest people in the world. Denmark retook top spot in the 4th annual United Nations World Happiness Report (March 2016; Canada was 6th). Actually, the tiny Scandinavian country has placed first three times and third once. What makes the Danes so happy and well-balanced? To try to find out, my wife and I took a slow ride through Denmark last June.
We have our own sense of what makes a happy and well-balanced trip – a road trip to explore and walk, an urban experience to wander, and a more exerted activity component such as cycling – and we organized a trip to Denmark on that recipe. We would experience some, but not all, of an area of the islands Funen and Mons, plus the southern part of the Jutland peninsula in leisurely fashion; a mandatory sampling of Copenhagen for a few days, and a cycling route known as the Danish Riviera of northern Zealand, all in early June to avoid the summertime high season. A year later, we are still living off the hygge high.
Interestingly, Denmark is not one of the smallest countries in the world, land size or population-wise, as it is often perceived. It has slightly more people than Finland or Norway, its Scandinavian neighbours. If including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, it is twelfth in area in the world but far less (134/257) for its European portion, of course. However, Denmark is a very easy country to travel. Most Danes are no further than 60 kilometres from the sea; although there are over 76 inhabited islands out of 443, they are connected easily by bridges or ferries. Copenhagen has a million fewer people than Vancouver and has recently (November 2016) recorded more bicycles in the heart of the city than cars on a daily basis. When one factors that Vancouver Island is about three-quarters the size of Denmark, everything in that country is very available indeed. Whether it is culture, castles, cuisine, cycling, coziness, or just being copacetic, Denmark is entirely see-able.
The first surprise about Denmark is its Englishness: the quaint cobblestone streets of towns like royal Roskilde and Viking Ribe; the narrow side roads, thatched houses, and poppies in wheat fields of Funen; and the deep history of moated castles including Hamlet at Elsinore were a revelation. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised given that Denmark had a great influence on England. The Vikings controlled most of England, except for Alfred’s Wessex and added to the language with words such as cozy, maelstrom, rug, iceberg, skoal and street. A thousand Norse place names in Britain can be identified to this day by the suffixes -by, thorp, -beck, -dale. And the Norman Invasion in 1066 was really the Second Danish Invasion, since the Normans were descendants of Norsemen. Any Anglophile could feel at home in Denmark.
The distances in Denmark are short. For instance, we drove the ring road around Copenhagen to have lunch in Roskilde at a restaurant alongside a Viking long ship, then on to the southwest corner of Funen to rolling meadows around Faaborg via the 18-kilometre Storabaelt or Great Bridge. It took less than three hours to cover the 200 kilometres including our smørrebrød repast, the famous open-faced Danish sandwich.
By ferry and road to the west coast of Jutland was 225 kilometres and took less than four hours, a leisurely pace and scenic. We spent multi-nights in thatched accommodations and it allowed us to stay and explore our chosen venues, from the bucolic farmland and churches of Funen to hiking the long sandy strands and wild rose-covered dunes of the North Sea or have coffee and a Danish pastry in the nooks of Blavand. Our longest day trip across Jutland to the university city of Aarhus, Denmark’s second biggest town on Jutland’s east coast, was less than 200 kilometres, and we got to see the Iron Age Bog Man at Silkeborg and Lego Man, the modern age brick toy at Billund, on the same day. Even a longer drive (Blavand to the island of Mons south of Zealand and Copenhagen) was only four hours and we re-entered more idyllic countryside, gardens and follies dedicated to a loving wife (Liselund), medieval wall paintings (11th century Elmelunde Kirke), and chalk cliffs near the sea.
Only an hour from Mons, urban Copenhagen was our interlude between the road trip and the cycling. It provided a romantic ambience of canal-side restaurants, summer solstice strolls after an aquavit or espresso, boat tours of Copenhagen’s many canals and endless walks whilst staying in a central apartment of Scandinavian design in Nyhavn, within easy access to anything of note. Whether it was sampling Danishness such as Georg Jensen and Lego stores, along the car-free, one-kilometre pedestrian-friendly shopping street, Strøget. Or strolling by the gauntlet of pot sellers in the haven of Christianhavn. Or leisurely wandering the public and open grounds of King’s Garden and the Rosenberg Castle. Or merely marveling at the plethora of cyclists and bicycle parking on boulevards. Or Tivoli Gardens, Christianaborg (parliament of Borgen fame), the Little Mermaid, the Danish Architecture Centre, or the foodie fête of the waterside Street Food Market. The sites and sights were nearby. The result was both new and renewing.
But we were keen to go on a four-day cycling tour of northern Zealand, the former playground of Denmark’s royalty. Danish cycling is very organized and facilitated with over 11,000 kilometres of cycle routes, like a spider-web, well signed and with a variety of paved and gravel roads, country lanes, and woods/beach paths. We opted for a self-guided route called Danish Castles and Coast, from the woods around Snekkersten, to the world heritage site of Helsingor, and to the fishing village and cliffside town of Gilleleje. Our days of biking followed parts of a national route and two regional routes, about 120 kilometres but never more than 40 kilometres of cycling in a day.
It was easy cycling, like our holiday, meant to allow for several stops to “smell the roses,” to experience the balance of vista varieties, cuisine and culture along the way, and to practice candlelit hygge at our stays. Some highlights included a picnic in the gardens of the Renaissance castle, Frederiksborg, the eponymous modern art gallery, Louisiana (three of his wives were named Louise); meeting actors from *Hamlet* being re-enacted at Kronborg (Elsinore) Castle; eating a monk’s lunch at the 10th century abbey, Esrum; and trudging past a sentinel of colourful beach huts on a wild strand at Rageleje.
There was more too. Even cozy hygge must be balanced. In the warm fireside, the owner of a restaurant in a fishing village told us that her grandfather helped transport Jews to Sweden in World War II, but for a price, and directed us to a church loft past thatched cottages and rose gardens where refugees were betrayed to the Nazis. But not before she proudly showed us her Royal Copenhagen china dishes and local crab cakes. She also admitted that in the cold wind off the North Sea in winter, the hygge candles might reveal a grimace rather than a smile.
It was a perfectly balanced holiday in Denmark and the auras of hygge and happiness have lasted a long time.
For more information, visit https://www.inntravel.co.uk/holidays/cycling-holidays/denmark#