Great Danes: the Denmark of Hamlet and Karen Blixen

The second leg of our Scandi tour visits the woods, palaces and beaches of north Sealand, including a new national park, following in the footsteps of real and fictional characters

I get off the train in Snekkersten, a small coastal town 50 km north of Copenhagen. The conductor has already advised me there will be nothing open: no food , no drink , no taxis. She is right. It is late at night. Truly late. Close to midnight. I walk past the sleeping houses and along the beach. It is quiet down there. At my hotel, the Villa Brinkly, I find my room key inside an envelope pinned to the front door. A bicycle is waiting for me out there too, the key securely stored- in the bike’s lock.

Denmark is a safe country, consistently in the world’s top 10, with high levels of trust, rather than distrust. It’s amazing how quickly you are able to relax into that- and wish the whole planet could be the same.


I am on the second week of my Scandinavian summer , now cycling around the coasts of Sealand( aka Zealand ), where there is a new national park to explore.

In the morning, after a superb and much-needed breakfast in the hotel’s sunny morning room, I load up my bicycle and set out from the back of the hotel, directly into the forest. Today is intended to be a gentle warm-up, aiming back at the same hotel. I am immediately launched on to a well-made trail through a shady beech forest, where deer stand in patches of sunlight and red squirrels stare down from above.

A long way from Africa … Karen Blixen’s house at Rungsted. Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

The trail is lovely: a rolling route that skirts fields of wheat, dives through patches of woodland, and passes a palace, eventually emerging on the coast. I take a detour to see the house of Karen Blixen in Rungsted. The desk where Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast were written is there, as are Blixen’s travelling trunk and letters. It’s a remarkable place, well worth a visit, with a good coffeehouse too.

So too, reportedly, is the nearby Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, but in the hot I prefer the grassland by the beach dotted with picnicking families, and go for a much-needed swim.

That evening I eat fish and chips sitting on the harbour wall in Espergaerde, a short walk from my hotel. There is a fish kiosk there, and these offer a simple way to save money in what is the most affordable of the Scandinavian countries.

Slings and arrows … Kronborg Castle, Helsingborg( Elsinore to W. Shakespeare Esq ). Photograph: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

Next day I ride north up the coast, passing strings of thatched cottages, all of which manage to look gorgeous without being in the least bit twee. There is no attempt to ramp up the idyllic here , no gaudy hanging flower baskets or fake wishing wells. After a short time I reach Helsingor, a grand township hedged by castles and harbours. On a spew of land beyond the port is the enforcing palace of Kronborg, a great square bastion with copper-clad towers, the castle where William Shakespeare defined Hamlet. I cycle over and enter.

The bard never visited Elsinore( the anglicised name ), but his friend and colleague Will Kempe surely did, probably arriving in 1585, when King Frederick II was celebrating the complete transformation of his medieval fortress into a Renaissance palace. These days there are no ghosts on the battlements, just great views and a lively casting of actors.

The Maritime Museum next door is less gratify: the building is a bold conversion of an old dry dock, but the thematic showings are thin on content. The best part, fortunately, is free: positions of heritage boats assembled in front of a cafe. The township itself is worth exploring, with narrow streets packed with fascinating and colorful buildings.

Ride in time … Helsingborg’s old streets and colorful builds. Photo: Kevin Rushby for the Guardian

Back on the road, I turn west along the coast, which is lined with fine beaches backed by woodlands and meadows. I stop for another swim, then track down my digs, Badehotel, standing in clifftop splendour close to the town of Gilleleje. In typically understated manner, it has no sign. Fortunately my cycling notes point out to me that it” has an anchor outside “.

Next day I head inland into the new national park, Royal North Sealand, which is really the former hunting grounds of another great palace, Frederiksborg. The route results through deep woods of beech and oak, a glorious ride reputedly haunted by trolls. I do get a shock a few minutes in, but it’s only a goshawk, sweeping imperiously up the trail.

The North Sealand coast has quiet beaches perfect for cycling

The park encompass 323 sq km and is so new( inaugurated this spring) that as yet it has no signage, but I’m not sure the Danes would go in for them anyway. In places, I abandon the main road to explore side routes, detecting groves of twisted ancient trees, and then emerge suddenly into the magnificent gardens of Frederiksborg Castle.

Here the ornate intricacies of the formal gardens are replicated in the interior designs, a reminder that Denmark was once both a great monarchy and a colonial power( at various days it held, among other places: Greenland, Iceland, the Shetlands, as well as parts of modern-day Ghana, Latvia, Estonia, India and the US Virgin Islands ).

Frederiksborg palace, in the new North Sealand national park. Photograph: Alamy

A royal castle is a curious spot at which to objective my time in Denmark, a country that seems so defiantly against all privilege, hierarchy and pomposity. Some might find the Danish countryside a bit lacking in drama: there are no soaring mountains or dizzying gorges , nothing raucous or spectacular. What it offers is an opportunity to travel in a happy country, or at least one that is significantly more content than most.

The pleasure of that leaves a lasting impression, and raises all sorts of intriguing questions to while away my onward ferry journey to Sweden.

What is Denmark’s secret ingredient? Is it the lack of garish advertising and the quiet insisting on self-reliance? Or maybe it is nothing more than the gentle, good-natured buzz of their commonsensical society.

The memories of those things are, I reckon, better than anything from a touristy gift shop- which is handy, because now I think about it, I never assured a single keepsake on sale , not even a tiny gift bottle of liquefied hygge .

* The journey was provided by Inntravel, wh ose four-night cycling tour of North Sealand costs from PS715( including four nights’ accommodation, two dinners, four breakfasts, cycle hire, road maps, connections and back-up assistance ). There are flights to Copenhagen with budget airlines from several UK airports

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