We all have an internalized topography, a particular landscape so embedded in memory that a sight or smell can in an instant return us to childhood: this, more than any address, is what we know as home. My landscape, shaped by a lifetime of summer visits to an aunt's cottage on the eastern shore of Nantucket, is blue ocean, salt breeze, rounded dunes, and scrubby beachside brush. Proust had his madeleine, but I will take a whiff of the sea and the feel of sand under my feet over a cookie anytime.
When Danish friends first described Skagen (which they pronounce "Skane")—a sandy, scrubby village at the northernmost tip of Jutland (a large peninsula to the west of Denmark's main islands)—as "the Nantucket of Denmark," they knew what they were doing.
My wife, Aleksandra, and I arrived in mid-August, summer's twilight in Scandinavia, when the long sunlit evenings finally begin to shorten, and dusk comes about nine o'clock; when the air, early and late in the day, carries the first cool bite of fall. Our friends own an island off the coast of Fyn (in Denmark, it seems, you can do things like own an island). And so, shortly after landing in Copenhagen, my wife and I found ourselves in the middle of a squall driving across the second-longest suspension bridge in the world. (Completed just a few years ago, it connects the islands of Sjælland and Fyn.) Fifty-mile-an-hour winds shook the bridge as our car shuddered and swerved high above the turbulent waters of the Store Strait, temporarily dampening our awe at the technological wonder of it all. But an hour or so later, as we entered the hamlet of Falsled in southern Fyn, the storm was over, the sky starting to edge blue around a massive sweep of gray cloud. On the dock behind the elegant, thatched-roof Falsled Kro—an inn where we would be staying a few days later—our friends were waiting by an old wooden motorboat to take us to their island.
About this magical place, called Illum, it's worth noting a few things, not because it's open to the public (it isn't), but simply because its pleasures, as I came to understand them, seem to me very much the pleasures of Denmark itself: a flair for rustic simplicity; an unpretentious appreciation of tradition; a preference for the natural over the artificial; and an easy, unselfconscious delight in family and friendship. The main house on Illum is thatch-roofed, old, handsome, drafty, echoing with the sounds of small children. The dining table seats 20. An enormous woodstove occupies one corner of the living room. The island is long and narrow, covered at this time of year with head-high stalks of heathery purple flowers (a weed, actually, but a beautiful one), and at its center a copse of woods in which stands a ninth-century Viking grave. Herons fish in brackish marsh, and gulls circle constantly. Water is never far away; the light, on clear days, has a vibrancy that seems to lend even landlocked moments the indelibility of a sea voyage.
Danes are very keen on light. Skagen's preeminence in Denmark as a summer-vacation spot for the "well-heeled" (i.e., mostly people from Copenhagen) dates back more than a century. It was then that the first of a remarkable group of artists—attracted to this remote, medieval fishing village by its authentic character, its mammoth, ever-shifting dunes, and, most of all, by the extraordinary quality of its light—began to document its rugged beauty in luminous plein-air paintings. Those very paintings, now gathered in the Skagens Museum, form an important part of what most Danes regard as their cultural heritage. Mention Skagen to almost anyone around the country, and you will immediately hear about its light and about the Skagen school of painters—P. S. Krøyer, Michael and Anna Ancher, and Holger Drachmann are the best known.
You will also hear about Hans Christian Andersen, famous for his pen rather than his brush. Actually, the writer's time in Skagen was notably brief, if rich in the stuff of legend. Born in the small city of Odense, Andersen was a Fyn man through and through. He preferred the agricultural charms of his native idyll to the pleasures of sandy, light-besotted Skagen to the north. He called Fyn the garden of Denmark; with its myriad farms, tidy vegetable gardens, and well-tended flower beds, it's still apparent why. Add to this an abundance of manor houses and romantic castles like Egeskov Slot, and it seemed almost possible, as we left Falsled one misty morning and drove northwest toward Jutland, that we were passing not through a modern land, but through one of Andersen's fairy tales. (This feeling persisted despite the rather deflating promise of a local guidebook, Exploring the Fyn Countryside, that the "special natural features" of the area included "two raised bogs and a number of extremely poor bogs.")