There are few dreamier ways of spending indolent days than dawdling up the
lakes on the Hjejle fleet’s nine boats. We disembark for picnics or lunches
at inns; when we want to move on, we need only hoist the jetty pennant to
stop the next boat.
Our favourite destination, lily-fringed Slaaen Lake, where clouds of
dragonflies dance, hides in Denmark’s oldest woodland. This is fairy-tale
country, yet it’s also the land of the enigmatic forebears of the Vikings.
From here they sent to the future their prehistoric time traveller: an
anonymous Iron Age man whose mesmerising face would become a universal
ancestral portrait. In 1950 peat diggers unearthed him from lonely Tollund
Fen. They feared a recent crime. His brain, internal organs, hair and
genitalia were perfectly preserved. He is perhaps the most famous Dane after
Andersen, Hamlet and Detective Sarah Lund. We meet him in person in
Silkeborg Museum: an ordinary man but as historically iconic as Tutankhamen.
Though tanned black by peat, his face is serene. He has stubble on his chin
but his nails look freshly manicured. You feel he could soon wake from a
dream. It’s like a face-to-face encounter with an unsuspected relative and
makes 2,000 years dissolve.
A noose grips his neck but why he died remains a mystery. Murder? Execution?
Buried in midwinter, he was possibly an emissary dispatched to beg the fen
gods to expedite the spring. DNA tests this year may identify his
descendants. Through the Viking settlers, many will be British.
Embraced by six sparkling lakes, Silkeborg’s attractions, cultural and
aquatic, put it high on the list of places where most Danes would like to
live. Perhaps there’s Viking blood in us, for we feel instantly at home. The
Museum Jorn is one of Scandinavia’s most exciting modern art galleries. The
ultra-modern Aqua Freshwater Aquarium has windows on the lake bed, giving
fish‑eye perspectives of the region’s teeming marine life. We stroke giant
sturgeons and watch otters play, then swim from a beach in spring-fed Almind
The Germans made Silkeborg their supreme command HQ for the occupation of
Denmark. The chic spa hotel, Silkeborg Bad, became a labyrinth of bunkers,
some now museums. Sunbathing and swimming far from hostilities, the troops
lived the life of Riley. Rommel came to pleasure‑cruise on commandeered
boats. Resistance was deadly. The memorial to victims reads, “Unity is
strength, Faith is victory.” Denmark’s best‑loved playwright and poet,
Pastor Kaj Munk, was murdered in a ditch. People daily leave flowers. Every
May 4, Danes light candles in their windows as they did when they welcomed
the Tommies in 1945. The Germans surrendered to the Royal Dragoons.
In summer Silkeborg harbour has a seaside-like buzz. There are open-air cafés
and myriad boats. Crowds gather to watch the Hjejlen make its progress. A
veteran voyager tells us, “The route’s always the same but always looks
different. Haven’t missed it in 70 years.”
Today we put in at the historic Eel Inn – as much fried eel as you can eat for
£43 – a challenge that demands copious akvavit. But landings are speedy. The
Hjejlen isn’t a museum piece. Timetables are strict. Steaming into Jul Lake
the captain blasts his horn, scattering a flotilla of canoes. It takes 10
slow days to canoe to the coast. The Dannebrog flag streams from the stern.
Ahead is Himmelbjerget, Denmark’s Sky Mountain. Most Danes climb it at least
once in their lives. At just 536ft, reaching the sky is more an ambition.
Danes happily joke about its lofty aspirations. Yet the diadem of lakes seen
from Andersen’s bench trounces the views from many grown‑up mountains.
Denmark’s artists flocked here after Andersen. For the travel-loving author,
this home‑grown romantic grandeur matched anything in the Alps. Its image
became printed on the national soul.
We climb the summit tower that commemorates Denmark’s first constitution: a
symbol of the country’s social cohesion which, Borgen notwithstanding,
always seems to hold. As an absolute monarchy until 1849, democracy came
late to this most democratic land. The heathery hill is a traditional venue
for political rallies and extended-family outings. They unpack elaborate
picnics to create homely “hygge” – the communal cosiness that’s Denmark’s
favourite pastime, a concept Danes themselves struggle to translate. Here
you get an inkling of why they’re sometimes rated the world’s most contented
people. After your picnic you can sail on to Ry and explore another
constellation of lakes. Later, in Silkeborg, we watch the dancing‑water
fountains rippling Lang Lake. Angling from a jetty is Edward from
Manchester, who’s been coming for 40 years. Within 10 minutes he catches 10
roach. “Best fishing there is,” he says; then, unconsciously paraphrasing
Hans Christian Andersen, “All these woods and lovely lakes. It’s perfection
The British Museum exhibition ‘Vikings: Life and Legends’ runs March
6-June 22 in the new Sainsbury Exhibition Gallery. Highlights include the
120ft-long warship from Roskilde discovered in 1997 and the fabulous Vale of
York Hoard, discovered near Harrogate in 2007 (britishmuseum.org)
By sea: DFDS Ferries (0871 522 9955; dfds.co.uk)
sails alternate days Harwich-Esbjerg and daily Newcastle-Ijmuiden .
By air: BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com)
flies daily from London City and Manchester to Billund; Ryanair (0871 246
0000 ; ryanair.com) flies
daily to Billund from Stansted and Edinburgh and to Aarhus from Stansted;
KLM (0871 222 5757 ; klm.com)
has daily connections via Schiphol to Billund . It’s around an hour’s drive
to Silkeborg from Billund, or there are four daily express buses (£17).
The Hjejle fleet (hjejlen.com)
operates May-late September. The steam paddleboat sails only at weekends
outside July and August. Day passes £14, children half price. A kayak
day-trip with Silkeborg Boat Hire (skcu.dk)
costs £30 . Solar-powered boats for up to eight passengers (solbaaden.dk)
can be rented in Ry village for £110 for half a day or £176 for a full day.
The region’s ideal for leisurely cycling on woodland tracks and dedicated bike
lanes. One-day bike hire from Silkeborg Cycle Hire (skcu.dk)
costs £17 for adults, £11 children.
Where to stay
Gl. Skov ridergaard £££
Five-star modern luxury in a historic spa hotel set in its own tranquil park.
Also has a renowned gastronomic restaurant (87 225500; glskov.dk;
doubles £187 including breakfast).
Hotel Dania ££
Directly on the marketplace, this is Silkeborg’s oldest hotel. Hans Christian
Andersen stayed here (86 820111; hoteldania.dk;
doubles £110 including breakfast).
Svostrup Kro ££
A 300-year-old inn on the Guden river six miles from Silkeborg that oozes
charm. Be woken by cuckoos, lullabied by nightingales. It also serves some
of Denmark’s best traditional food (86 572326; svostrup-kro.dk;
doubles £110 including breakfast).
Maybe not for everyone but this is Denmark’s most historic hostel, with
beautiful lakeside gardens. Good for single travellers or families on a
budget (86 823641; danhostel-silkeborg.dk;
from £33 per person or £63 double and family rooms).
Where to eat
Gastronomisk Institut £££
High-flying Danish-inspired modern cuisine where everything’s cooked near
your table (Sondergade 10; 824097).
Café Evald ££
Modern restaurant with terrace to the river serving upmarket, locally sourced
Danish specialities; big selection of local beers (Papirfabriken 10;
Brasserie Underhuset ££
Classic robust Danish dishes served on the market-square terrace or in the
atmospheric cellars (Torvet 7; 823736).
The inside track
The coarse fishing is said to be Europe’s best. Weekly permits for the entire
lake and river system cost £50 plus the national annual permit fee of £17.
Contact Silkeborg Tourist Office (0045 86 821911; silkeborg.com)
or Ry Tourist Office (696600; visitskanderborg.com).
The spectacular Silkeborg Fireworks Regatta was first held in 1899 with the
Hjejlen as the star. There have been 35 since. This year’s enormous four-day
extravaganza runs August 13-16. The next won’t be until 2017.
Silkeborg and Ry tourist offices offer excellent English language brochures
describing local walks.
Bolling Lake, where the Tollund Man was found (the site is marked with a
memorial) has an atmospheric ancient-Jutland ambience. The fens are rich in
wild flowers. Get directions from the tourist office.
Besides the Tollund Man, Silkeborg Museum (museumsilkeborg.dk)
has the Elling Girl mummy and rare pre-Viking artefacts. Open daily
May-October, weekends only November-April. Adults £5.50, under 18s free.
The Aqua Freshwater Aquarium (visitaqua.dk)
is fun for all ages. You can walk there or sail on a Hjejle fleet boat.
Adults £16, children £8.25.
The enormous collection of the Silkeborg-born painter Asger Jorn, Denmark’s
most important 20th-century artist , is housed in his eponymous lakeside
Also displays works by his friends Max Ernst, Man Ray and Léger. Adults £8,
Most Danes speak some English but a courteous “Mange tak” (many thanks) will
win you many friends.
What to avoid
All this ambient water breeds many summer mosquitoes. From July onwards be
ready with repellents.
Hitting cyclists: be particularly careful when making right turns – cyclists
have priority on your inside for going straight ahead. They’ll expect you to
know that and won’t pause for an instant.
Bewilderment at fuel pumps – almost all petrol stations are completely
unstaffed. Pop your card in the slot, fill as much as you need, pop your
card in again and take your receipt.
Article source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/denmark/10672547/Denmark-a-fairy-tale-land-where-the-Vikings-once-wandered.html