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Scandinavian Summer

If "raised" anything is your fancy, however, you may be in for some disappointment in Denmark. The highest point in the whole country is less than 500 feet. Perhaps there are Danish mountain climbers, but I've never heard of any. So you might appreciate the sense of triumph I felt when, during a detour of Jutland's picturesque "lake district" west of the E45 highway, near a sweet village called Ry, our car hit a noticeable downslope (who knew we'd even been climbing?) and I shouted, "This is the highest point in Denmark!" Which I believe it was. Aleksandra, a mountain-lover, was unimpressed. I might just as well have said that I'd seen two raised bogs and a number of extremely poor bogs.

Back to the highway: we drove north, past the cities of Århus and Randers, stopping for a sandwich in Hobro (don't do it), then up beyond Ålborg and eastward again toward the port town of Frederikshavn. Here the highway and all that it symbolizes get left behind, the road hugs the coast, the white-capped blue of the Kattegat appears close enough to touch. Jutland—Denmark itself—narrows down to a spit of wild dune and heath, with a different sea on either side: the Kattegat to the east, and the Skagerrak to the west. At the end of this spit lies Skagen.

Actually, Skagen is two places, closely related yet distinct. There is Skagen proper—a working port; home of Brøndums Hotel, through whose portrait-filled dining room the lifeblood of 19th-century Danish art flowed for three decades; and, these days, a quaintly touristic place of museums and shops and hotels. And then some two miles to the southwest, tucked among grassy dunes on the Skagerrak coast, there is the beachy, sleepily aristocratic Gammel ("Old") Skagen, made up of six small hotels, a handful of restaurants, one general store, and perhaps two or three dozen rental cottages, each built in the traditional style, with yellow plaster walls and red tile roofs marked at either end by a lacy ribbon of white. At the suggestion of our Danish friends we'd booked a room in Gammel Skagen, at the Strandhotellet, which—simple, modestly elegant, and literally nestled beside a dune—quickly came to feel like the embodiment of the place.

Just north of the hotel, there is access to a wide beach (a favorite of the summer crowd from Copenhagen) that runs in both directions as far as the eye can see. On our first evening only a few couples lingered there, stealing a peaceful hour before dinner, talking quietly or simply staring out across the gray-blue Skagerrak toward an invisible Norway. We strolled back past the hotel and, where the paved road stopped, onto a stepped path that climbed a steep dune, atop which stands a sømærket, a massive wooden structure placed there as a marker for boats. And from this spot there is a magnificent view of the boundless sea, notched with ships, that surrounds this improbable spit of land; and of great, humped sand dunes, tufted with hearty vegetation, rolling southward toward the largest dune of all, called the Råbjerg Mile, which like some benevolent monster still grows by 20 feet a year. On all of these surfaces the fading light was reflected with extraordinary intensity.

It all looked calm enough, and beautiful. But start any Skagen native going on the subject of sand, I soon discovered, and you will get an earful. For at one time, a few hundred years ago, the entire spit, from the Råbjerg Mile to the northernmost tip of Grenen (where the Kattegat and Skagerrak meet dramatically in a rip), was more or less obliterated by migrating dunes. By the end of the 18th century, the fishing village of Skagen, once a proud medieval trading center with a population of 4,000, had been reduced to about 600 inhabitants, and its church buried up to its tower.

I mention all this because you have to have an affinity for sand to truly appreciate Skagen. But if you do—if you are moved, as I am, by the sight of a dune rising out of scrubby heath like an albino mountain, or of a church tower poking its godly, defiant head out of the shifting ground—then you might just fall in love with Skagen. Its tough-minded inhabitants never stopped building their houses, fishing, praying, planting trees against the wind, even as the artists arrived and began to show the rest of the world what life was like here at the tip of the world.

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