Where on Earth is Denmark?
Some countries in the world are easy to identify on a map, but could you pinpoint Denmark? Just a few months ago I’d have struggled too – I’d have been able to tell you roughly what part of Europe it was in, but then I’d end up getting it mixed up with neighbours Sweden, The Netherlands or maybe even Poland. Denmark is a small, Nordic country situated between the rest of mainland Europe and the Scandinavian Peninsula. If you look at it on a map it is directly across the North Sea from the UK. It is made up of the aptly named Jutland, a peninsula which juts out from the rest of the mainland, and an archipelago of hundreds of islands – of which about 70 are inhabited. The biggest island, Zealand, has about 40% of the population including the capital Copenhagen. Other large islands include the North Jutlandic Island, which is at the top of the Jutland Peninsula, and Funen. The islands are not very far apart at all at their closest points, and there are tunnels or bridges connecting the biggest of them.
Apart from its islands, the other notable feature of the Danish landscape is that it’s flat. Really really flat. Like, pancake flat. According to Worldatlas.com, Denmark is the country with the 5th lowest average elevation in the world. It’s highest point, Mollehoj, is only 560 feet above sea level. By way of comparison, the great English writer and fell walker Alfred Wainwright listed 214 fells in the English Lake District. All of them are a lot higher than the highest point in Denmark.
Not considered part of Denmark proper, but autonomous regions within the Kingdom of Denmark are Greenland and the Faroe Islands. As a child I always remembered Greenland was actually icy rather than green, as compared with Iceland which was green rather than icy. This rather simple mnemonic seems to hold up rather well. Greenland is the world’s second largest island – Australia is first – and is fifty times the size of Denmark, but over 75% of it is permanently covered in ice. Greenland’s ice sheet, in case you wanted to know, is the only permanent continental glacier outside of Antarctica.
Here Be Vikings! A Brief History of Denmark
Denmark emerged in the 10th century as a tough seafaring nation that seemed particularly keen on visiting England, directly across the North Sea to the west of the country. First up I should dispel the image that’s just popped into your head of bearded Danes struggling with large suitcases as they disembarked in Northumbria for their annual holiday. I can do this with one word: Vikings! Yes, many of the Vikings that ravaged England in the centuries leading up to the Norman conquest came from Denmark. They came to plunder and extort money – more Anglo Saxon coins have been found in Denmark that in England – and many of them stayed. Remember King Canute in your English History class? He was actually Danish. He wasn’t even just the king of England either, he was king of Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden as well, ruling an Anglo-Scandinavian Empire for nearly 20 years. The coming of the Normans ended Danish influence, but oh wait, the Normans themselves were descended from Vikings. Those guys were everywhere!
After they settled down from the excesses of their Viking days, the Danes became fairly peaceable, and their history can be characterised by their relationship with Norway and Sweden. From 1397 the three countries were ruled together for over a hundred years. They fell out with Sweden, but continued their union with Norway until well into the 19th century. They were neutral in World War I, but fell under German occupation in World War II. Looking at Denmark’s history of the last few hundred years, it is in many respects a sad one of declining power, influence and territory. In some respects a parallel can be drawn with Britain and its loss of Empire in the latter part of the 20th century although for Denmark the losses are mostly much closer to home. One commonly held view is that because Denmark has lost so much, it has made the Danes more inward looking, more tribal and more content with what they’ve got. It is thought that this could be a key component in the Danes being the happiest people in the world.
Denmark joined the European Union in 1973, the same year as the UK, and similar to the UK has secured a number of opt outs. Denmark and the UK are the only two countries in the EU that are not legally bound to adopting the Euro. I wonder in Denmark’s case whether it has anything to do with their frankly brilliant krone coins that have holes in like a polo mint. I don’t know why more countries don’t have coins with holes in, saves on metal and you can literally string a bunch of coins together! (Note – there are a few other countries that have coins with holes in, but not many at all).
Billund – Lego Town
As usual, I went in search of a traditional or quintessential place to write about, but ended up somewhere that is neither, but when I read about it, I simply had to choose this place! Billund is a small town in the Jutland peninsula area of Denmark. It has a population of only just over six thousand, and yet has the second busiest airport in Denmark, with the place being one of the most visited in Denmark.
The town of Billund has been around since the 16th century, and there is nothing in its history to suggest why it would become such a popular place. It remained a small, insignificant backwater town for hundreds of years. Then in 1930, a Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen started making miniature toys in the town, which at that time was more of a village with only 300 inhabitants. Two years later he founded a toy company, which a name an abbreviation of the Danish words ‘leg’ and ‘godt’ which means ‘play well’. At first these were wooden toys, but in 1949 they started producing small plastic bricks. Yes, you guessed it, the Lego company was born. From humble beginnings they grew from strength to strength until today it is the biggest toy manufacturer in the world. Along the way, the town of Billund grew up around it, with housing, a town hall, a school and a waterworks soon following. In 1959, the Lego Company opened the Legoland theme park, and built Billund airport in 1962. While it started out as a private company airport, it was later opened to the public and is now the second biggest airport in Denmark after Copenhagen.
Looking round on Streetview, I half expected the town of Billund itself to be made of Lego, but sadly not. It is however a very green place with lots of smart looking bungalows (the streets I saw didn’t seem to have houses with more than one floor). Those in search of Lego are in luck however, as Streetview can take you around Legoland itself, so you can admire all the lego models from afar, including recreations of oil rigs, castles and windmills. It will even take you to the door of the men’s toilets, but fortunately the cameraman turned off the camera when he went to relieve himself!
Unsurprisingly, according to Tripadvisor the number one attraction in Billund is Legoland, it would be rather surprising if it wasn’t. Reviews are generally overwhelmingly favourable, and it sounds like one of the big draws is that there are hardly any queues for the rides. It seems also that there’s quite a few Londoners who, disgusted with the prices for Legoland in London, booked a cheap flight to Billund for the day!
There are a few other things to do in Billund apart from Legoland. There is a sculpture park with lots of sculptures not made of small plastic bricks, a few museums and a sightseeing tour. There is also a Fodboldgolf course. A what? Fodboldgolf is football golf. Basically, it is an 18 hole course where you’ve got to get the football in each hole in as few kicks as possible. What a great idea! Apparently it started in Sweden about 10 years ago, so maybe I’ll learn more when I get on to Sweden. Anyway, the course in Billund has instructions in both Danish and English, so easy for visitors to have a go. If only I had a giant back garden, I’d be out constructing a course of my own right now!
Food in Denmark
Most people have heard of Danish pastries, and it turns out that the Danes really are into them, with all sorts of different pastries with exciting names like kanelsnegle, frosnapper and brunsviger. It turns out that pastries is not the only thing they are good at, and with their New Nordic Cuisine they are really leading the way in culinary innovation. I was going to write a couple of paragraphs on the wonders of food in Denmark, but decided it really needed an article all to itself. So read all about Danish food here.
If you want to read a book on what Denmark’s really like, I would strongly recommend A Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell