Something’s Radiant in the State of Denmark

Posted on May 1, 2016

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Gammel_Skagen,_Old_Skagen,_Sunset

Skagen (Courtesy of VisitDenmark)

Something’s Radiant in the State of Denmark
by AnneLise Sorensen

The fishing town of Skagen roosts under luminous skies in northern Jutland, a windswept wedge that has, for centuries, been bullied by nature. The Baltic confronts you at every turn: At Grenen, Denmark’s northernmost point, you can walk along a pale finger of sand to plant your feet in the frothy coupling of the Skagerrak and Kattegat seas. Because of the high winds, Denmark’s sandy tip actually extends up to ten meters a year. And, just south of Skagen lies the largest migrating sand dune in Northern Europe. The Råbjerg Mile moves eastward at the rate of about fifteen meters a year, collecting all the loose debris in its path, like a giant mop.

Survival on the coast is about knowing when to gracefully retreat. All that’s visible of what was once the country’s largest medieval church is its whitewashed tower protruding from dunes; the rest is buried under sand. The villagers closed Den Tilsandede Kirke (Sand-buried church) in 1795, opting to worship further inland rather than burrow through sand to do so.

SandChurch

Den Tilsandede Kirke (Sand-buried church); courtesy of VisitDenmark

Great Danes

It was the Skagen painters, including Anna Ancher, Michael Ancher, Viggo Johansen, and P.S. Krøyer, who immortalized remote Skagen in the late 1800s. The “Danish Impressionists” were lured by the region’s ethereal light and wild nature. Except for Skagen-born Anna, most were escaping Copenhagen to chronicle a gentler, rural Denmark that they feared would soon disappear. Their timing was spot-on, as the arrival of the rail line in the 1890s opened up the region.

The Skagens Museum, founded in 1908, features the world’s largest collection of works by these great Danes, who focused on everyday coastal existence – burly fishermen unloading the day’s catch, women in high-necked gowns with parasols strolling the beach – amid milky white sand dunes and rolling heath. The well-designed museum maximizes the region’s natural light with large windows and skylights, so you can admire the painters’ portrayals of Skagen’s northern glow in a room that’s bathed in it, and then look skyward out the window to see the real thing.

Skagen itself could have been ripped from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The cobblestone streets are lined with the same yellow half-timber houses painted by the Skagen artists over a hundred years ago. White borders outline the roofs, a distinctive feature that evokes the icing of gingerbread houses and serves a similar purpose: The white tiled edges, painted with reinforced cement on both sides, prevent the roof from lifting off in storms.

SkagenHouses

(Courtesy of Knudsen)

Next to the museum is the whitewashed, country-style Brøndum’s Hotel, a favorite hangout of the bohemian artists (Anna Ancher was the daughter of the proprietor) and still the social center of town. The painters gathered here for long, loose luncheons, which in themselves inspired paintings. In P.S. Krøyer’s “Hip, hip, hurra,” a group of artists and friends at a garden party toast each other with glasses held high in a garden, the upturned leaves reflecting the northern skies.

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“Hip, hip, hurra” by P.S. Krøyer

Hip, Hip, Hurra

A little over a century later, I was holding my own glass up high, joining in “Hurrah, hurrah, hurraaahhh” – drawing out the last syllable, as the Danes do – at my cousin’s summer wedding. We were sipping champagne in the warm afternoon sun in Brøndum’s courtyard and greeting the newlyweds, Britt and Thomas, as they arrived from the Skagen Kirke (church), waving to us from the open top of their 1930s-style French Citroën 2CV.

My father is Danish, born and raised in Fredericia on Jutland, and I grew up visiting my Farmor and Farfar (grandmother and grandfather, literally translated as father’s mother and father’s father) and the rest of my family every summer. My aunt and uncle have a home in Skagen, and I had arrived to celebrate Britt’s wedding. If Denmark has a national word, it’s hyggelig, which roughly translates as “cozy and warm.” This defined the night: Dinner was served in Brøndum’s high-ceilinged dining annex, formerly the stables. Round tables held flickering candles ­– ever present for every sit-down meal in Denmark, no matter what time of year – and platters of friske fisk, from kampmussling (white mussels) and pan-fried rødspætte (plaice) to grilled torsk (cod) hauled in from the nearby Northern seas, where Denmark gets most of its seafood.

It’s said that skål, the bottoms-up toast being roared across the tables, came from the Vikings, who used to drink from skulls. And while the Vikings’ table manners likely raised a few eyebrows – they didn’t use plates or utensils except for the knives they pulled from their sheathes – these days, or so the saying goes, the only time you’ll see a Dane with a knife in hand is when he has a fork in the other.

And then there was the selskabsang, or party song, usually sung to traditional Danish tunes with words especially written for the occasion, and presented in a sangskjuller, a song box, which on this evening was a canoe. If you’re not feeling creative, you can hire a songwriter to pen it for you. Often it’s older, wiser women who offer these services; just choose a melody and supply the details.

Tryst and Shout

Later, another Scandinavian tradition unfolded: From the head table, the groom excused himself to go to the bathroom, a cue for the male guests to put down their napkins and line up to enjoy a last tryst with the bride – or as much as they could in front of her brother, parents, and nearly a hundred rapt guests. Britt was game, laughing and tilting her head up as the suitors leaned in for a kiss and to whisper in her ear. Later, Britt disappeared and Thomas enjoyed his kys from the female guests.

After a dessert of chocolate and wild berries, Thomas was given a final favel (goodbye): the men picked him up, and cut off the tips of his socks with scissors, a good-luck send-off.

The next day, we cracked open bottles of Tuborg at the harbour, surrounded by Norwegians and Swedes doing the same. It seems that these days, Skagen’s allure isn’t just that it gets more days of sun than anywhere else in the country or that you can walk stretches of shoreline without seeing anyone else. It’s cheap beer. On summer weekends, neighboring Scandinavians dodge the tough alcohol restrictions and prohibitive prices of home by sailing to Skagen to load up and get loaded, and you can actually walk on water across the harbour stepping from one floating boat to the next, enjoying a beer or two (or three) along the way. “Skål!”

This article by AnneLise Sorensen originally appeared on RoughGuides.com.

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Posted in: Denmark