Into Denmark

Friday 4th May 2012, Broager, near Sønderborg, Denmark
This might be an appropriate moment for you to get your atlases out if you’ve not been systematically thumbing through the pages as you travel with us. We are now back in the land of the Vikings, of stylish modern furniture, lager, saunas, candles, Lego, Hans Christian Andersen and naked ladies amongst the sand dunes. This last was a fantasy of Ian’s during our last visit to Denmark that was finally fulfilled just as we were leaving. He’s hoping for similar luck this time but however liberal minded the Danes may be, it’s far too cold for cavorting in the waves today.

It was also far too overcast, cold and windy this morning to take the ferry across to Föhr and hire bikes. So we packed up and left our little corner of Germany with a sense of regret and the hope that one day we might return yet again, with our bikes, to cycle the dykes and explore the off shore islands. A few kilometres to the north lay Denmark, gateway to Scandinavia.

Several friends have expressed surprise at our decision to return to Denmark as we professed it to be possibly the most uninspiring country we have visited on our travels. With hindsight we felt that perhaps we had done it an injustice so this visit is intended to reassess our earlier opinion.

In no time we were over the border into Denmark where we arrived at the pretty town of Tønder. Immediately our misgivings seemed to be confirmed. The car parks were empty, all the shops were closed and the streets deserted. The only thing working in the town appeared to be the bankomat. With no idea of the value of the kroner against either the £ or the € we extracted a random amount. It didn’t look as if we’d be needing it anyway with nowhere to spend it! The bleeping of the automat’s keypad echoed loudly in the silence of the street. Crossing the deserted cobbled square in the town centre as quietly as we could we saw a young Viking striding off around the corner. We know he was a Viking. He wore a helmet with horns. Honest!

Main square, Tønder

Following at a safe distance we rounded the corner to find ourselves on the square outside the beautiful brick church, crowded with the entire town. They were flooding out of the church in their hundreds, accompanying smartly dressed teenagers, the girls looking beautiful in thin white dresses on this icy day while the young men were all wearing smart suits. Friends were there to cheer them on, flowers, gifts and kisses were exchanged and photos taken by the thousand.

Confirmation day, Tønder

Inside the now empty church, decorated with flowers, we asked a lady what was happening. It was confirmation day for the town - a special event in Denmark taking place on a national holiday. She referred us to the pastor wearing his black gown and a white ruff, still tidying up the altar. He spoke perfect English and explained that many confirmations in Denmark take place exactly four weeks after Good Friday and the celebrations last all weekend. There had been over 900 people attending the ceremony. No wonder the streets had been silent earlier. Almost the entire town was in church! He was a very friendly person and told us he’d spent considerable time working in Hull and eulogised about the splendours of Beverley Minster. His own church was very different but charming. There seem to be many decorative murals in old Danish churches as well as portraits and paintings. It’s difficult to decide what the architectural style is here. Subdued gothic with rococo embellishments I suppose. The ornately painted wooden pulpit, organ loft and altar screen were definitely rococo.

Brick church, Tønder

Church interior, Tønder

Church organ, Tønder

The town of Tønder was once on the coast but reclamation and silting meant that it is now ten kilometres back in land, the old harbour is used as a parking area but it has some lovely old harbour side houses around it.

Once a busy waterfront, Tønder

The town was once also famous as a centre of lace making. There is an art museum in the gatehouse of the 16th century castle. Also of interest is the old pharmacy building which is now a rambling old shop with countless rooms selling Danish design. It was a fascinating place to wander, full of recently distressed furniture, kitchen equipment, candles, toys and souvenirs.

Pharmacy doorway, Tønder

Knitted bike warmers, Tønder

Five kilometres west of Tønder lies the village of Møgeltønder with its castle. It was a former royal estate given to the national hero Hans Schack (1609-1676) by King Frederick III for prowess in defending Copenhagen during the Swedish Wars in 1659. Schackenborg Slot has now been reacquired by the crown and is the residence of Crown Prince Joachim. The Church was dedicated in 1200 and has the oldest surviving organ (1679) in Denmark.

Main street, Møgeltønder

Church, Møgeltønder

Murals inside he church, Møgeltønder

Monument to Hans Schack, Møgeltønder

Schackenborg Slot, Møgeltønder

Having explored the main street with its uncomfortable cobbles and pretty cottages we continued towards Sønderborg along straight, empty roads that occasionally passed through a silent roadside hamlet. More interesting was the village of Gråsten with its striking church with two decorated spires and its castle by the lake. Here we turned off down to the village of Broager beside the Flensborg Fjord to discover that our previous Scandinavian camping card is no longer valid and that the international one we recently purchased does not cover Denmark. We had to rejoin the Scandinavian camping club before we could stay here. This costs about the price of two nights camping. It will though be necessary at every campsite so we have to purchase it. On the plus side, everyone is very friendly and most speak English. There is a kitchen provided free of charge so we can hard boil our eggs and microwave our potatoes before we move on.

Saturday 5th May 2012, Broager, near Sønderborg, Denmark
Surprisingly we are still here. We didn’t mean to be but days sometimes don’t work out anything like you expect. It was bright and sunny today and we set off intending to visit a nearby tile museum this morning and then continue to Sønderborg, the regional town with 30,000 inhabitants just a little further around the Flensborg fjiord.

Nearly all the buildings in northern Germany and in this area of southern Denmark are built from brick. They look lovely in the landscape but we have wondered for some time where the bricks came from and where the raw materials were quarried. Seeing that there is a disused brick and tile factory nearby that has been operating since the 18th century right up until 1968 we determined to visit it.

Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

It was a brilliant morning though I’m not sure how much we learnt. The museum is run by volunteers and their main concern was to persuade us to use their little cafe. They spoke no English but a couple spoke German. The captions around the museum were mainly in Danish so we had to puzzle it out for ourselves supplemented by one of the volunteers who had once worked at the factory explaining a few things in German to us. It appears that the clay was dug out at the site, transferred on a tiny railway with special trucks to a kneading area where a machine that looked to be straight out of Wallace and Grommet trundled the clay up a revolving belt using wooden levers and all sorts of pulleys. The clay was pummelled and thumped and forced through a revolving screw. My mind’s eye could just see a wild-eyed Grommet running at full pelt away from the ever advancing blades that forced brick clay into moulds and cut the tiles into standard lengths with a sort of cheese wire, before they were automatically turned over and sent off into the kiln for firing at a high temperature for several days.

Brick display, Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

Brick kilns, Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

Trucks for transporting clay from the pit to the kneading machine, Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

Fully automated, state of the ark brickmaking machine, Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

Drying sheds for unfired bricks, Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

Damaged during firing, Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

We both really enjoyed our visit. Volunteers kept coming to chat – Danish people are very friendly even when we don’t have a common language and we really were almost the only visitors on this bank holiday Saturday. We felt so sorry for them. They were so happy to have us there. The ticket man told us we simply had to go to talk to his colleague in the cafe. She made cakes and spoke excellent German. So eventually we ended up in what had been the home of foreman of the brickworks, sitting at a table in a kitchen from the 1930s drinking coffee from a bone china flowery tea service and eating wedges of coffee sponge cake, chatting to a couple of Danish ladies in German. The rest of the house was from the early 1930s too with a low bulky sofa protected by crocheted antimacassars, dark wood furniture that really was rather ugly, a bakelite radio, old fashioned photos, a horrid faded carpet and all sorts of things that reminded me of my Gran’s parlour when I was very young.

Later we walked down to the jetty from where the bricks and tiles were shipped to towns and cities in the area, both in Denmark and across the border in Germany. The entire beach was made from waste bricks, broken by the sea into smaller and smaller pieces.

Beach of broken bricks, Cathrinesminde Brickworks Museum, Broager

Eventually we returned for a late lunch in Modestine looking out over the bright blue of the fjord. However, when we went to move on to explore Sønderborg, Modestine flatly refused to move. We tried everything from peering hopefully under her bonnet to prodding gingerly around her glow plugs. She just coughed and spluttered weakly leaving us with rising levels of panic. What to do in an isolated area, in a land we didn’t know when nearly all the elderly volunteers in the museum had given up and gone home for the bank holiday weekend? Attempts to contact our road rescue international insurance on my very rarely used mobile produced nothing but a cheery “no network” message! Back in the museum the remaining elderly lady on duty was mercifully one of those who spoke German. She had no idea what to do but rang her son for advice. The company he suggested quoted 700 Kroner (around £100 we think) just to come out to look. As we wondered what to do my phone sprang back into life with an irritating text message from Orange. At least it proved the network functioned at the museum if not back at Modestine.

The lady shut up shop and went home, leaving us to sort out rescue via our insurance in England. It took nearly two hours to be rescued and it meant hanging around in the wind with our phone in case the rescue company needed to contact us. Eventually a charming Dane arrived with a huge low loader – he’d been told we were a motor home. His investigation suggested she was sucking in air so the mixture was wrong. He fiddled a bit and, glory be, she was restored to health. I just pray she is still okay tomorrow.

So the day had gone and our best bet was to return here for another night. At least we have electricity, internet and hot water.

Monday 7th May 2012, Nustrup, Denmark
The last couple of days have been very worrying and complicated. As I had feared, Modestine would not start on Sunday morning. As it was a national holiday here the campsite lady told us nowhere would turn out to help us and even if we called the emergency services to get us started, no garage workshops would be working so once we stopped we’d be unable to start again.

So we left her where she was, gathered some provisions for expeditions and set off to explore the deserted but beautiful locality. We took in a wide arc of the tiny peninsula jutting out into the Flensborg fjord walking an estimated 18 kilometres! The countryside was completely deserted. We really do wonder what the Danes get up to on a national holiday weekend. We took a short cut along a disused railway track and eventually found ourselves in the little town of Broager where, to our relief and joy, we found somewhere for a coffee and a rest.

The town was really rather charming. Everywhere in Denmark seems so clean, tidy and well kempt. In the twin towered church someone was practising the organ as we explored, marvelling at its well preserved 13th century frescoes, its baroque pulpit and its really delightful, huge wooden statue of St. George on a larger than life horse defeating a helpless dragon. We felt so sorry for her – she was definitely female. The most important thing we discovered yesterday was that dragons were mammals!

Broager church

St. George and the Dragon, Broager church

Interior, Broager church

Outside in the beautifully tended churchyard was a war graves cemetery for both Prussian and Danish soldiers who died in the fighting of 1864. The history of this area is complex. Germany did not come into existence until 1870 and this area has belonged at different times to Prussia, Germany and Denmark.

Prussian war graves from 1864, Broager church yard

Monument to Danish fighters killed in the 1914-18 war, Broager church yard

We returned to the campsite following the Gendarmes’ path along the edge of the sea. The coasts of both Denmark and Germany open on to the fjord and the path was regularly patrolled by coastguards on the lookout for smugglers, raiders and, probably, naked blonde ladies in the sand dunes.

Gendarmes’ path along the edge of the Flensborg fjord, Broager

View of Flensborg fjord from the Gendarmes’ path along the cliff top, Broager

View across Flensborg fjord, Broager

We saw none of these on our walk but the scenery was sublime with spring flowers and blossoming trees right to the water’s edge. Flensborg is a typical fjord landscape that reminded us rather of the Salcombe estuary in Devon. The area is very flat but our path did rise to the acclaimed clifftops, a dizzying 30 metres above the sea! We were exhausted by the time we got back but have now fully recovered.

Of course Modestine still refused to move this morning so once again we rang for assistance. After a couple of hours the Danish road rescue service arrived and within seconds got us going, warning us that our glow plugs needed replacing immediately. We were escorted to the nearest garage in Broager. They said they couldn’t help so we were given a GPS reference for a Citroen garage 15 Km away in Sønderborg and told to head there. We don’t have GPS! However, we located the garage, way out of town on a trading estate. It looked very plush with Scandinavian office furnishings and smart young men at computers. There was no sign of anyone actually getting their hands dirty. Our plea for help was shrugged off. They couldn’t do anything for a couple of days as most of the garage staff were off sick after the holiday! Eventually they told us of another garage nearby. Same ambiance, same response. We explained we had nowhere to sleep if they kept Modestine and if we took her away she wouldn’t start for us to return when they would eventually be free to look at her. They told us there was nothing they could do as their glow plug specialist was off sick! A glow plug specialist! Was there nobody else capable of doing a simple job? He replied that in any case it wasn’t the glow plugs it was the fuel injection that was flooding the system. Nobody had even looked at Modestine, they were all stuck behind their shiny desks!! Eventually, to get rid of us, he rang several garages to see if anyone could help. There was nowhere in Sønderborg or even Aabenraa but eventually a garage some sixty miles away said they’d have a look. I’m not kidding you! Can you believe we’ve been sent right across the Jutland Peninsula to get our glow plugs changed!

The garage here is also an immaculate Citroen place but it’s on the edge of a village out in the countryside. The people working here are very different, being kind, friendly and sympathetic. We’d already had three completely different opinions as to what was the matter and they then did all sorts of diagnostic tests of their own. Eventually they declared that they couldn’t really find anything wrong and she was now starting okay. We said we didn’t think she would tomorrow and we’d be stuck again. So they have suggested we sleep in Modestine on the garage forecourt so they can be on hand in the morning if she plays up! They have hooked us up to electricity and left the staff room kitchen and toilet unlocked overnight for us to use. Just how kind and helpful is that after the snooty Citroen dealers earlier? I’m still very worried about Modestine but we can see this is something of an interesting experience and an opportunity to see how nice people can be to foreigners travelling through their land.

As there were still several hours of daylight we drove off to explore the area. There is very little here in fact. Denmark seems mostly to be clean, tidy, empty and rather boring. However, we drove to Haderslev on the east coast. It is a pleasant little town with some lovely old houses, a park with a lake, a gothic brick church and a modern shopping area. It also has a port but we never reached that far. It was an agreeable place to while away an hour or so.

Gothic brick church, Haderslev

Main square, Haderslev

Prices in Denmark are expensive compared to England, France and Germany. My perception is based mainly on food prices where similar products can easily cost three times more here than back home. Fuel is the only thing that doesn’t seem dearer. Diesel costs around 11 kroner per litre whereas a half litre bottle of water can cost between 15 and 19 kroner! (8 kroner to the £) So far we are living on our cheap German supplies, just purchasing fruit, bread and vegetables when we need to. Everything appears affluent, clean, safe and tidy. A lady I spoke to however says there are unemployment problems here too with many young people seeking work. She used to work in an office but was made redundant. She is now retraining to work in a care home as that is where the demand is. She says it is possible to refuse a job but, if you do, the financial consequences are severe, so she took the job and is glad to have something.

Well, time for an early night. We need to be up before they all arrive for work at seven in the morning. Here’s hoping Modestine will be okay.

Tuesday 8th May 2012, Copenhagen
By the time we were up and sorted this morning all the garage staff had arrived for work. Their first job of the day was to sit around a large communal table in the staff room and share a large bowl of fruit! Wiping sticky banana fingers on an oily rag, the second job this morning was to gather around Modestine’s open bonnet while the boss started the ignition. To a chuckle of delight all round Modestine sprang immediately into life, ready and eager to be on her way! We were told the problem was none of the things previously diagnosed, it was a loose and dirty electrical connection. For all their work and kindness, plus a free night’s accommodation, they charged us 200 kroner - about £25! I still have misgivings but she has certainly behaved impeccably today, carrying us two hundred miles along excellent motorways to reach Copenhagen by mid afternoon.