Almost half a century ago I was in a new high school and held in my hand a mimeographed sheet inviting all and sundry to apply to be exchange students with the American Field Service. I thought about it all night long, then applied with an essay about how I really wanted to go to Japan and learn Japanese, as I was so taken with Japanese culture. To my surprise, I was selected as the school’s exchange student, and sent to Denmark.
Once embarked on this early adventure, I was transported to the Island of Funen. It was late June. We were supposed to spend a couple of weeks at an agricultural college there, doubling for the moment as a language school for our gaggle of exchange students. We were to acquire some language skills before meeting the families we would eventually spend the year with, but I was derelict in my studies as the Island was a gorgeous green paradise of small farms and roadside honor stands of strawberries. Oh, those strawberries! I borrowed one of the old fat tired bikes the farmers left lying about and toured the storybook land of straw-thatched farm houses, beautiful summer days and rolling hills for much of the time I was supposed to be studying the language. At least, that’s how I remember it.
And that’s how I sold it to Ann, my wife. Warm sun, a light breeze, rolling hills, and strawberries. The plan was to go back to Denmark, to the lovely rural land of Funen and the southern peninsula of Jutland, on an unsupported tour of the Danish countryside. Camping was never an option for Ann, but there are hotels and inns all over the countryside, and we found an extremely helpful fellow, Michael Andersen (www.danishbiking.com), who arranged for a taxi to bring our light luggage from place to place while we sauntered about. I was still in contact with the family I stayed with so long ago, and they sent me the latest in large scale bicycle maps, minutely documented. We spent time researching a route and ultimately Michael arranged for a couple of hybrids to be dropped off for us at a small hotel in Odense, on Funen, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. Who needs support?
We flew in, got right off the plane onto a train, and chugged over from Copenhagen to Odense, where we collapsed in a heap on the hotel beds that evening. I had one nagging suspicion that I was beginning to harbor, though, as the entire train ride was engulfed in a rain storm. Now to the Danes, a little rain is no big thing. They are out biking in it all the time. Wind? It’s always in your face, that’s just the rule. But I sensed this might be an issue for me – as we had set out on our adventure from sunny San Diego – and I was selling sunshine and strawberries.
The morning was just slightly short of enthusiastic sunshine. We looked at each other and immediately put on our rain togs. Such as they were. Ann is always the researcher, so she was prepared for rain – but I was somewhat less so, as I remembered sunshine. Not to be deterred, we set off. Sadly, our highly detailed bicycle maps (tricky to use in the rain) just didn’t show the names of the city streets needed to get to the National Bicycle Routes – so we spent a fair amount of time bicycling around Odense trying to find the road to the south of the island of Funen. Ann chose to ride in front of me so she would be less tempted to give me her honest opinion. At least, once found, it was alternatively a nicely marked bike lane separate from the road, or a small country lane. We made it through the garden island of Funen, through the “Danish alps” surrounding Corinth (I had also promised Ann that there were no hills, but memory is a funny thing….) and on to the coastal town of Faaberg. We stopped at the working harbor, and after some good local craft beer we determined to press on and make our way to the Faldsled Inn (or Kro, as it is called in Danish), the oldest one in the country. On the map, the trip was a mere 35 kilometers, but with the benefit of poor navigation, we clocked almost 50.
My Danish brother from lo those many years ago came over to the inn by boat from across the sound in Jutland. The next morning, after an amazing zillion course dinner at the Faldsled Kro, we loaded the bikes onto his boat (trickier than it sounds, I assure you) and crossed the sound into Jutland. Our plan on Jutland was to head west to the coast, by the North Sea, and then head north to the island of Fanoe, a small place of sand dunes and thatched roofed summer cottages, accessible only by ferry. This trip proved challenging. That’s the word I kept using with Ann.
Okay – first problem, it was raining, but not so much. Second problem was worse. We were following our highly detailed map along a lovely country road. National Route 7. Then it was over. No more road. A couple of horses clopped by and went into the neighboring woods. I looked at the map. Something must be wrong. So we bicycled back up the hill looking for the turn off we missed. No turn off. A young man was jogging out there, miles from town, and I waved at him to sheepishly inquire where the heck we were and why wasn’t there a bike path like the map said there would be? He scratched his head and then opined that perhaps the bike path was off the road and through the woods, on the horse path. He thought that would be the only way to get to the next town we needed to find.
I guess I forgot to mention that Ann is a pavement kind of gal. The very idea of cycling along a loose gravelly path with rocks is not one that makes her smile. Sadly – we didn’t apparently have much of a choice. The woods seemed dark, but they blocked the wind and a lot of the rain, and Ann picked her way slowly and carefully through the rocks, the light of her dynamo-powered headlight always visible behind me. She persevered and had to admit that there were moments of great quiet beauty, as we passed by a pond in the depth of the woods. So far, so good.
Route 7, I was coming to realize, is (to put it charitably) badly marked. When the occasional sign marker was found, it was frequently illegible from weathering. Some were knocked down, the arrow pointing uselessly at the sky. In the midst of the forest (or skov, in Danish) the path would branch. Guesses were made based on the iPhone’s compass app. Our success rate in guessing was about 50/50. Made the day’s mileage look a lot more impressive. The last part of this ride, sadly, was the worst. Tired, at the end of a day of mistakes, we chose to take what we thought would be the easy path. A direct stretch of highway that went west to the coast for about 12 miles. Not until we were on it did we realize that this stretch did not have a bike path (really?!) and faced directly into a westerly 25 mph wind. The end of the day. Wet and tired. Granny gear on a flat road. 6 mph. For a couple of hours. Who knew?
But our goal was Ribe, the oldest city in Denmark and home to some classic old hotels (one made from a converted prison) and a beautiful cathedral with an historic organ. We made it to the Hotel Dagmar and explored this old trading town, inland but accessible by river to the North Sea. A picturesque old Viking stronghold. The next day we hugged the west coast, and rode the well-known West Coast Route created by three or four European countries and stretching from somewhere in Germany to the very tip of the Danish peninsula, called “the beard”. It was another gravel road, as Ann noted, with the advantage of no cars but lots of sheep on the loose. We rode in the wind shadow of the levees that were built along the west coast to protect the farms from the periodic floods, and the rain let up, so all was good in the world.
We made it to Esbjerg that day, to catch a ferry for a brief ride to Fanoe, a small island where at least half of the traffic was bicycles. After a lovely couple of days there, we ultimately had to accept that it was time to shove off. It was clear this was so because the rain had started up again. Time to get back on the bikes!
I have to admit that we cheated. My Danish brother gave us a lift and carried the bikes in his bike rack until we got to the middle of the peninsula, when, about noon, the rain magically stopped and the sun came out. Back on the bikes in a flash and off to see if we could follow National Bike Route 3 back to his house. In stark contrast to Route 7, Route 3 was very well marked, with shiny new signs at almost every necessary turn. Once again we were directed into a forest, but the roads were wide (while grassy) and well-marked, and Ann’s skills were sharpening. It was really quite lovely to ride the path.
Our last day of bicycle riding took us from Haderslev, where we attended the ordination of my Danish brother’s daughter as a Lutheran minister, to the city of Kolding. Kolding is a cultural mecca in Jutland that one can reach from Haderslev in a mere 25 kilometers straight up a highway which has a lovely bike path off to the side. That is, if one wants to go straight up the highway. The only reason for doing that would be to avoid getting lost – and where’s the fun in that? All advised us to take the coastal route, and, after all, we had our detailed map (that just didn’t note the names of the streets) and we had the signs marking out the National Bike Route that squiggled up along the coast, AND we had our trusty iPhones, with map apps that used GPS to show us where we really were. How could there be a problem?
It kind of depends on what you consider a problem. Many of the intrepid cyclists one reads about in the pages of Adventure Cycling think nothing of side trips and detours through mountain ranges, over snowy plains or across rivers. We, on the other hand, had reservations at a hotel in Kolding and wanted very much to make it there in time for dinner. While we started out in good humor, it became aggravating when the map, the signs and the GPS all gave us conflicting advice. Route 5, up the eastern coast of Jutland, is well marked, but the signs tell you to go places that neither the map nor the GPS agree with. Typical was the experience when we got to one “T” intersection, and directly in front of us were two signs, one saying go left for Route 5, and one saying go right. We might have been “misplaced” a few times. Storm clouds gathered.
In retrospect, the endless loops back to ride along the shell and gravel roads right by the coast were scenic and quaint. The National Routes take you through farm lands, forest and fields. The sheep were all quite friendly. When the rain came in earnest we finally gave up following the signs for Route 5 and found direct roads with separate bike paths that led us straight to Kolding and our hotel. We might have been tired and wet, but that just served to make us the more grateful for hot showers and a good dinner. We dropped the bikes off in Kolding and took the train in to Copenhagen, where the flights back reminded us, all too painfully, of the advantages of travel by bike.
P.S. – Lucky for me the roadside strawberry stands came across as advertised, so incredible as it may seem, I’m still married to Ann.
All photos by Richard Opper and Ann Poppe.