IT WAS AN ORDINARY church tower, a familiar sight above the red tile roofs of every Danish village. The only thing missing was the village beneath it, including the church. The steeple soared abruptly from a wasteland of coastal dunes like some solitary monument to a tragedy at sea.
“It was a historic tragedy,” my companion, Lars Jensen, remarked as we climbed to the base of the tower. “The church and the village are right here under us, where a great tide of sand buried them 180 years ago.
“No one knows the exact cause, and of course it took time—for years the villagers literally dug their way into church every Sunday morning. But in the end they gave up.” He shook his head sadly. “What a terrible way for a seafaring village to die.”
Terrible indeed, though in the manner of Danes the villagers merely conceded the battle, not the war. Near the site of the tragedy—now known as Old Skagen, on the tip of the Jutland Peninsula—they built another Skagen and ringed it with fragrant defenses of dune grass, heather, and pine. It survives to this day, a quiet fishing port of 13,000 and a monument to the human spirit.
Nothing Daunts the Danes
In weeks of travel throughout Denmark I came to think of its people in terms of Skagen. Born to a union of land and sea, early accustomed to hardship, oftentimes threatened by superior forces, the Danes have defended their homeland for a thousand years, more than once at the cost of rebuilding it from ruins.
Like Skagen, too, Denmark wears few visible scars of its turbulent past. Spared the agony of a major battle on its own soil for more than a century, Scandinavia’s smallest country includes some 500 picturesque islands, lying in the Baltic under the lee of the Jutland Peninsula map, see more here.
The biggest of these is Zealand, where Copenhagen stands facing east toward Sweden. But it didn’t take me long to learn there is far more to Denmark than the capital city, the green farms of Zealand, or the long north-reaching thumb of Jutland. On the island of Funen, for example, throbs Europe’s largest shipyard (pages 266-7).
Denmark’s total territory also includes Greenland and the Faeroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Both integral parts of the realm, they make Denmark more than twice the combined size of Sweden and Norway.
No Dane lives more than 35 miles from the sea or, for that matter, more than 568 feet above it. Endlessly honed and leveled by a succession of Ice Age glaciers, Denmark has inspired neighboring Norwegians, with their wealth of mountains, to twit the Danes with the comment: If you stand on a box you can see the whole country. Ignoring the taunt, some 5,100,000 Danes refer to their homeland with equal poetry and pride as “Danmark”—literally, “Field of the Danes.”