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Displaying items by tag: Cycling through History in Denmark

Sunday, 01 January 2012

Cycling through History in Denmark

Denmark may be the most ideal cycling destination in the world.  In addition to a strong cycling culture in this small Scandinavian nation, Denmark has developed an extensive network of cycling paths, which make touring by bicycle safe and easy.  The locals are welcoming, friendly, and fluent in English; and, to make cycling interesting, Denmark has a long and varied history that is easily accessed by bicycle.     

City of Bikes

DSC 0047We arrived in Copenhagen a couple of days before our cycling tour and explored the city on foot, including Tivoli Gardens, the royal palace, and the history of this Scandinavian capital, which is presented in several excellent museums.  It quickly became apparent why Copenhagen is known as the City of Bikes, because cyclists fill the streets at all times.  They cycle to work, take their children to school on their bikes, and generally leave their cars at home.   

It was June, which is not our usual time of year to travel (because of crowds and high costs), but that’s about as early as it’s warm enough to cycle in Denmark. It turned out to that we had comfortable weather with lots of daylight, green hills and fields, and an abundance of blooming flowers.

We took a train north to the city of Helsingor, toured the castle that was the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and rode a ferry across the Oresund Sound to Sweden. This narrow strait is an important passageway between Europe and the Baltic countries, and for centuries Denmark enriched its coffers with fees from ships passing through it.  It’s also the crossing used by the resistance movement and fishermen during World War II to smuggle 8,000 Danish Jews out of German-occupied Denmark, thereby sparing then from deportation to concentration camps and certain death. 

Coastal Roads and Small Villages

Danish VillageThe cycling portion of our trip around the island of Zealand was organized by Die Mecklenburger Radtour of Germany who furnished maps, directions, bicycles, and transported our luggage. 

We cycled independently, rode an average of 30-40 miles for six days, and followed the directions from one location to the next. 

It took us a while to catch on to Denmark’s system of cycling paths and roads during our first day of cycling, which was a 34-mile ride from Copenhagen to Koge, down the east coast of Zealand.  As we cycled along coastal roads and through small villages with views of fishing boats, beach homes, and sea birds we spent part of the day huddled over our maps, asking directions, and making sure we were on course.  Everyone we talked to was helpful, friendly, and spoke excellent English.   

The weather was sunny and mild, the terrain was flat, and the views of the coast and fishing villages were wonderful.  This is what traveling by bicycle is all about!

We arrived mid-afternoon in Koge, a coastal town founded in 1288 as a gathering place for farmers to sell their goods.  The scope of Danish history is remarkable; here events (and buildings) often pre-date Shakespeare and the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.  For example, Koge's town hall (which is still in use) was built in 1552. 

Koge was also the site of a witch hunt in the 1600s known as the Koge Huskors, in which a wealthy merchant accused a local woman (Johanne Thomes) of having sent the devil to his house. She was found guilty and implicated other local women (including her maid, who said Johanne had made her urinate in the baptismal bowl at church).  In all, around a dozen women were burned at the stake, including the unfortunate maid. 

Legends of Trolls

By our second day of cycling we were on to Denmark’s system of cycling paths, and we were able to enjoy rolling along in the warm sunlight, past tree-lined roads, tidy farms, and well-kept villages.  Today’s ride was a little longer ride (41 miles) across southeast Zealand.  We took in the picture-perfect roses, fragrant sweet peas, and delicate peonies and stopped for lunch in a grove of trees where we ate olives, bread, and cheese purchased that morning at the farmers’ market in Koge. 

In the afternoon we took a wrong turn (my fault) and wound up in the picturesque coastal town of Praesto.  The bad news was my error cost us an extra 12 miles of cycling; the good news is we were able to enjoy the beautiful Præstø Fjord, which for centuries has been a Danish vacation site.  We saw swans swimming in the coastal waters, which Hans Christian Andersen must have seen, too, because he was in the area when he wrote “The Ugly Duckling.”

Back on our bikes (and back on track) we cycled on to Naestved, our destination for the night.  There is evidence people lived in this area as far back as 400 BC.  The town that now stands was founded in 1135 by the Benedictine monks. 

Scandinavia is filled with legends of trolls, which are generally held to be large, ugly, and dim-witted.  Such a legend is associated with the hills outside Naestved: 

Dale Cycle FieldsThe troll Fladsa couldn’t stand the sound of Naestved’s church bells, so he filled a sack with sand and set off for Naestved to bury the churches.  But there was a hole in the sack and most of the sand ran out. As the sand leaked, it formed the Mogenstrup ridge near Naestved and the highest hill in Naestved was created when the troll threw the last bit of sand at the village.  (Source:

Borreby Castle

Day three was a scenic 38-mile ride across the south of Zealand, following the coast in the morning and meandering inland in the afternoon.  We stopped for a lunch of fish cakes in the coastal village of Bisserup, and then cycled through fields of wheat, corn, and barley.  In the afternoon we came across a field of strawberries being picked, and stopped and ate a few – freshly picked from the field, warmed by the sun, and incredibly juicy!

BorrebyWe took a side tour to Borreby Castle, which was built in 1556 as a defense against invaders.  Access is via a drawbridge, and the castle is surrounded by moats and equipped with scald holes and loop holes (vertical slots to shoot arrows through). 

Borreby Castle was the setting of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (What the Wind Told About Valdemar Daae and His Daughters), told through the perspective of the wind, in which a nobleman and his three daughters bought the castle and then squandered their time and money and wound up with, “Nothing to eat and nothing to burn!  It was a hard lesson they had to learn!” 

We spent the night in the port city of Korsor, which since the 13th century has been an important defense and transportation port on the “Great Belt” between Denmark’s islands.  We had dinner at Madam Bagger’s restaurant, named after Hedevig Bagger, a local who in the 1700s became the first woman in Denmark to gain status as a postmaster on her own right (not inherited from a spouse).


DSC 0003The fourth day was a pleasant 39-mile ride along Zealand’s west coast and then inland.  For much of the afternoon we cycled on a narrow grassy trail that was formerly a railway, and then through fields of grain and tree-lined lanes to the coast and the shipping town of Kalundborg. 

Kalundborg was first settled in 1170 as a harbor and fortress, and a brick wall enclosed the village.  As the town grew, it expanded upwards, because there was no more space inside the city’s walls.  Today, Kalundborg is a major shipping port and a stop for many Baltic Sea cruises.

The next day it was pouring rain when we woke up, so we explored Kalundborg while waiting for the weather to improve.  A statue in the city square honors the town’s founding father, Esbern Snare, who is generally credited with designing the town and its beautiful five-spired brick church.  While history says Snare’s daughter actually oversaw the church’s construction, a local legend tells otherwise:

Fin the Troll offered to help Esbern Snare build the church, but in return he wanted Esbern's eyes and heart unless Esbern could guess his name. When only half a column remained to be built, Esbern had still not guessed the name, and he was getting desperate when he suddenly heard the voice of a troll-woman singing:

      Lie still, baby mine!
      Tomorrow cometh Fin, Father thine,
      And giveth thee Esbern Snare's eyes and heart to play with.

After hearing this Esbern returned to the building site, and when the troll brought the last half of the column, Esbern greeted him by name. Fin flew into a fury and vanished. 

The rain didn’t let up, so we took a train to Roskilde.  It felt good to take a day off from cycling and allowed us more time to explore this ancient city. 

This town of 10,000 was started in 900 AD by the Vikings as a trading post, and it served as the capital of Denmark for 200 years.  In medieval times, Roskilde was one of the most important cities in northern Europe.  The magnificent cathedral in Roskilde is the burial site of Denmark’s royalty and today it is a tourist attraction that hosts concerts and weddings.

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde offers a history of the Viking civilization and displays Viking longboats that were excavated from nearby Roskilde Fjord in the 1960s. 

A Hard Country to Leave

Our final day was a relatively short ride (26 miles) on small cycling paths along the coast.  It rained lightly on and off all day, and we stopped frequently to adjust our rain gear, check our maps, and enjoy the fields of bright yellow mustard and swans (many with babies) swimming in the waters.  It was satisfying to complete the tour and arrive back in Copenhagen, where we started the tour a week earlier, but also sad because our trip was nearing an end.

Esbern SnareDenmark was everything we had hoped it would be and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in this very special place.  It is a place where travelers are appreciated, cyclists are accommodated, and history is abundant.  We found Denmark easy to fall for – and hard to leave.

About the author:

Dale Fehringer is a freelance writer in San Francisco.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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