Life is not complex.
We are complex.
Life is simple, and the simple thing
is the right thing.
– Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900
Disembarking from the 30-minute flight from Copenhagen to Aalborg airport in North Jutland, I saw a wiry gent with white hair holding a sign with my name. I had splurged on the services of a driver for four hours each of the two days I was at this northernmost tip of Denmark. Kaj (pronounced “Ki”) proved an able ambassador, despite, or maybe because of, the initial rocky start to our journey to Skagen, about 50 miles north.
Kaj, 75, was hard of hearing, and clearly flustered as to how to diplomatically draw the boundary for me between tour guide and driver. Many Europeans are scornful of the “drive-by American vacation,” but Kaj was actually relieved to find a true blue U.S. Type A riding shotgun with him; one who had done her homework and had a host of specific sights lined up to see.
However, as we amiably shouted at each other while navigating these waters, Kaj got off course. His hands shaking, he pulled over to re-program the disembodied female voice emanating from his GPS, who sounded tense even to ears that couldn’t comprehend Danish. “She hates me,” he moaned. “God hates me.” Boy, I knew just the feeling and, much to both our surprise, I burst out in a long, hearty gale of hilarity, tears eventually streaming down my cheeks. And then, we smiled at each other.
With directions from one of the many cyclists cruising the Danish countryside, we arrived at the first attraction on my checklist, Rabjerg Mile—a huge expanse of undulating sand dunes 12 stories high and about a square kilometer. Far from practically being under glass as the case might be here at home, Northern Denmark’s answer to the Sahara is easily accessible and open to the curious to wade in.
We turned into the virtually empty parking lot, steps from the bottom of the hills. It was Kaj’s turn to surprise me, and he launched into Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking” as up we went, and I joined in at “Start walking boots!” We laughed together as we battled the strong wind that had been slowly moving this patch of earth for the past 700-plus years. It was an exhilarating climb to the top of the huge pile of sand and as we caught our breath, Kaj pointed for me to look back at the path of our ascent—the long trail of our footsteps was already being erased by the whipping wind.
The projection of land known as the “Skaw” first formed during the Ice Age, as melting glaciers elevated the sea bottom around north Denmark. The dunes on the west coast of this promontory were initially covered with vegetation, but the effects of the “Little Ice Age” of the 1500s, combined with over-grazing by livestock, stripped the dunes of the binding plant life that anchored them in place in this last where Hans Christian Anderson crafted his sweet stories.
Thus began a massive migration by the dunes that covered 1,000 meters between the 1300s, when the area was first settled, and the late 1700s. While other sandy areas of the Skaw have been planted since the 1830s to prevent such drifting, the Rabjerg Mile is allowed to go where the breeze takes it. It is heading ever eastward toward the Baltic Sea at an annual rate of 15 – 20 meters.
Kaj then deposited me in Skagen and I took my pick of the myriad seafood restaurants housed in the red former fish warehouses rimming the harbor. After a delicious lunch alongside hordes of sun-burned Danes, I made my way to Tilsandede Kirke, or “the buried church,” depicted above, which is located in the nearby nature reserve of Skagen Klitplantage. I walked through the heather and pines to the church, feeling content in this serene and mysterious place. I photographed the white-washed tower protruding from a rolling hill, the lines of its roof ascending like steps to its peak.
In the 1790s, Ste. Laurentius, as the church is officially named, was all but swallowed by the great sand drift that created Rabjerg Mile. The parishioners gave up digging themselves in and out of worshipping here and now only the tower remains as a place of pilgrimage for tourists.
Ste. Laurentius was once one of the largest churches in Northern Europe. The first recorded reference to it was in a priest’s papers in 1387, when he wrote of 20 kilometers of expensive cloth being brought to it for safekeeping after being salvaged from a ship stranded off Skagen’s west coast. Salvage and life-saving operations were long part of the everyday fabric of life in Skagen. From 1860 – 1889, 506 ships ran aground on the sands off this tip of Denmark.
Michael Ax, director of Skagen Local History Museum, observed: “I am sure that a ship in trouble would be met with mixed feelings by the citizens in Skagen. They were much aware that fellow humans were in deep distress and that they themselves had to put their lives at stake to save the sailors. But on the other hand, they were also very much aware that a new wreck meant a possible good income, or at least a chance to get hold of some luxury goods like cloth, ceramics, building material and so on.”
Another goldmine on the area’s history is the Skagen Museum, which owns more than 1,800 paintings. I took in its centenary exhibit, which featured the heroic fishermen, a frequent subject of the artists’ colony that took root in the area’s sandy soil during painting’s Golden Age in the mid-late 1800s. With the advent of en pleun air and the first broad brush strokes of Impressionism, painters such as Holger Drachmann and Michael Ancher were drawn to this “Land of Light,” as Northern Denmark is known, to capture its luminous essence for posterity.
Or so I thought. Mette Bogh Jensen, curator of the Skagen Museum, says it is a myth that painters congregated in Skagen because of the light. She acknowledges that there is more hours of sunlight here in the summer than many places in the world, but attributes the artists’ attraction to the area more to adventure, economics and its emblematic motifs, such as the local fisherman .
“The artists came to Skagen because they were fascinated by the exoticness of the place, that it was far from the cities, difficult to get to, cheap to live in, and the fact there were other artists coming as well, and they could be a part of a community,” she said.