Our journey started in the fun city of Harwich, quite a good place to embark from because it’s so horrible that you are glad to get away. The only place we could find to park up was a pub called The Castle and as I entered to announce our arrival, I could see that a very rowdy party had just arrived. We anticipated a dodgy evening but actually they all sat down to dinner and were very quiet. We had a classic English pub meal as a farewell and retired to Polly, who was parked up in the little pub car park with another couple of travellers. The £20 facilities were minimal to say the least, in stark contrast to what we were to experience in the next few weeks.
In the morning, the boat was surprisingly packed with rather pleasant Dutch families with young children. This must mean that Dutch families like coming to spend their holidays in England, quite a strange thought really. We immediately hit the motorways, which in Holland seem to have particularly frightening and unpredictable road markings, not to mention strange and dangerous traffic light sequencing. As usual, I was terrified because my motorway driving phobia is in the process of turning into something that affects me as a passenger as well as a driver. Luckily, Birgit is the world’s best driver, which helps a lot. Our target was the city of Delft, where we found a superb modern campsite situated next to a wildlife park in the suburbs. We feasted on tinned sausages and beans on toast and got stuck into to the magnificent DVD series Bates Motel, which was to occupy us for the next couple of weeks.
The next day was dedicated to exploring Delft, and extremely rewarding it was. Delft is an absolutely beautiful city with echoes of Bruges and Amsterdam. Attractive buildings front numerous canals and we managed to put in 15 thousand steps, including a tour of the Delft pottery. A fantastic river trip was conducted by a hilarious student who pointed out all the dents he had made over the years, even adding a couple as we chugged along. We sought out a gorgeous canalside pub for a sunny beer and even found a great Asian snack bar near the campsite. Birgit wanted croquettes and I wanted spring rolls and both were on the menu.
I had been slightly dreading the next day’s outing, which was the world-famous Keukenhof tulip display, but actually it was one of the highlights of the trip. What seemed like an expensive admission price actually turned out to be well worth the several hours we spent among the gorgeous blooms and beautifully cultured parkland. Then it was a long and tedious motorway drive to a tiny woodland campsite in a place called Overjissel, where we were the only guests. We hoped to get away with not paying because there was no one there, but a guy turned up in the morning to take my money. It was then that we identified a significant problem. As had happened in previous years, there was obviously some kind of gas leak and our first canister, which was supposed to last for about a month, was already completely empty. The only solution was for me to switch the actual canister on and off each time we cooked from then on. On the way to Birgit’s friend Gitti’s house near Bremen, we spotted a camper van dealer and stopped to ask his advice. His advice, while stroking his luxuriant beard, was, ”Forget it, you’re never going to find a canister like this anywhere in Germany and you will also never find anybody able to fill it, because the fittings are so unusual.” Oh well.
Gitti provided us with a lovely asparagus lunch on her mini-farm in the countryside before we had to hit the road again to Elmshorn, where we were to stay with my old school exchange teaching partner Gert. We weren’t sure how we would get on, because it had been a very long time since we had seen him and his wife Margrit, but they were extremely welcoming, allowing us to put all our stuff in their fridge and also do some washing. Having identified a camper van dealership in the area, we drove there in the morning and were greeted by the fully expected shaking of heads and negative response regarding anything we could possibly do to sort out the gas, so instead we bought a small gas stove that we could use if we were to run out.
This was our 41st wedding anniversary and we were determined to make it a good day. First we visited the futuristic Philharmonie building with panoramic views of the city, then had the compulsory ice cream, spent an hour in the warehouse museum and several hours in the incredibly brilliant Miniatur Wunderland model railway display. I promise it is much more exciting than it sounds. Birgit had her heart set on asparagus and steak for supper and my doubts about whether we would find such a thing were confounded by rounding a corner and finding a smart and delightful restaurant serving just that exact repast.
The next morning was initially spent in a supermarket stocking up on cheap beer and food before a long, wet and not particularly exciting drive to Tønder, just over the border in Denmark. The campsite was situated next to a leisure centre, where there was a bizarre gathering going on of people who go skiing together in the winter and caravanning together in the summer. As was the trend absolutely wherever we went, they all clustered round Polly Pocket, demanding to inspect her in intimate detail and expressing their jealousy despite their own huge and opulent mobile homes. “Please may we look inside?” was a familiar request almost every day.
The adjacent swimming pool provided a great location for a morning swim, prior to spending the day in the pretty town of Tønder, whose museum was outstanding and contained a tall tower full of designer chairs created by Hans Wegner, a famed furniture designer. There was also a display of quirky pottery with a Covid-19 theme. In the evening, confused to hear loud bass tones coming from somewhere, I investigated and found there was a country-rock gig going on in the leisure centre. It was sold out and anyway didn’t sound good enough to tempt me to spend the whole evening there, so instead, we self-indulgently snuggled down to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, something which I normally don’t confess to anybody, on account of concern about my street credibility. Now it has reached such a state of self-parody that watching it is almost a credible thing to do. It did go on upsettingly late, until way past my bedtime.
The next morning saw me taking a wallet that I found in the gents’ toilets on the campsite to the reception, where I was informed that the owner was in despair, having thought he had lost it forever. A few minutes later, he identified me, embraced me and insisted on giving us two bottles of wine by way of thanks. Would it have been too much for me to ask for white instead of red (as we don’t drink red)? I decided that would seem ungrateful.
Just near Tønder is the unspeakably beautiful village of Møgeltønder, where we admired the frescoes in the gorgeous church and the palace where Prince Joachim lived until recently. Nearby was the island of Rømø, on which we suddenly found ourselves driving across an enormous beach, where the sand is so compacted that vehicles can access it. We drove almost to the seafront, parked up and went for a long and invigorating walk.
The campsite we found was almost deserted and foolishly, we entered the attached restaurant, where we proved the truth of the adage that you should never buy a pizza from anywhere whose speciality is not pizza. It was outrageously expensive and piss-poor. The next morning saw a successful trip to the factory where they make Ecco shoes, although we did initially march straight into the administration building instead of the outlet shop. Like me, Birgit has foot issues and Ecco are the only shoes she can wear, so she was delighted to find a couple of pairs and stock up for a while. The rest of the day was spent in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, climbing the high cathedral tower, shopping and eating ice cream. It was a pretty place with a posh campsite where we could read and have a quiet evening.
The next stop was an absolutely delightful campsite in the sand dunes near Hvide Sande. It had an indoor and deserted swimming pool, where we swam every day for the next four days, because this had been planned as a longer stopover. On previous trips, Birgit had been subjected to having to drive far too often and far too far, so we had arranged to have extended stops at various points along the route. Supper was a magnificent German creation called Miracoli, which is spaghetti with tomato sauce and so-called secret spices. I created this in the luxurious kitchen which was available for all to use. This was a feature of every Danish site we went to, so civilised, so useful, so obvious when you think about it.
I certainly don’t plan to describe all our meals, but you can take it for read that virtually every day we had a Danish pastry in the afternoon and some form of tinned monstrosity in the evening (trying to save gas by not cooking potatoes or pasta). Every day we had long walks on the beach, through the dunes and the marshes, but by the fourth day it was starting to get chilly and on the final night it was extremely wet and windy, to the extent of keeping us awake, as the van rocked in the tempest. We had decided not to eat out very often, simply because we knew the Danish prices would be so high, at least for those on a UK pensioner’s income, but the following day we did have a fish and chip lunch in Glyngore, a pretty village and fishing port.
Now it was time to hit the most northern point in Denmark, the pretty city of Skagen. First we visited the amazing sunken Rujberg Knude lighthouse in the dunes, which had been physically picked up and moved a few hundred metres inland to stop it being engulfed by the sand. On reaching Skagen, we undertook a very long but beautiful walk on Grenen Strand, out to where the two oceans (Skagerrat and Kattegat) meet. It’s probably one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen.
Our first full day in Skagen was one of those days you can describe as perfect. Slightly grudgingly paying a high admission fee to an art gallery, we entered through the front door to be confronted by what appeared to be two Monet prints … except that we quickly discovered that they were in fact Monet originals. A couple of his most famous paintings, which rarely leave Paris (and when they do are only allowed to leave for a maximum of six weeks) were on display. We had amazingly pitched up in Skagen two days after they had started to be exhibited there. My breath was quite taken away and I stood and gaped at them for quite a long time.
In town we found a new ice cream shop that had just opened. We had already discovered that no café in Denmark sold either decaf coffee or English breakfast tea. As these are the only two hot beverages I drink, it was quite frustrating, but the delightful owner recommended me to try quince tea, which was delicious. On the campsite, we were able to hire bikes. Cycling facilities in Denmark are out of this world. Virtually every road will have a cycle track running alongside it. Inspired, we did a big bike tour out to the Sand-covered Church, yes, another place that had been threatened by encroaching dunes. While we are on the subject of identifying things that are particularly Danish, on most days we indulged in an ice cream. There are ice cream parlours on every corner and your ice-cream comes, if you ask for it, covered in some outrageously sweet gunk which is pink and appears to be melted marshmallow.
It is true that things like beer are extremely expensive, as are meals out, but I guess it’s all relative because the Danes earn on average £5,000 a month. Also, the beer is extremely strong so you don’t need many of them. As it turned out, I brought the full unopened packet of Alka-Seltzer I’d taken with me home untouched, because I drank so little and didn’t have a single hangover. The Danishness I’d expected was fully in evidence, everybody speaking perfect English, everybody being friendly and the environment being pristine (no litter anywhere) and absolutely no sign of any kind of deprivation. No wonder it’s claimed to be the happiest country in the world; the quality of living is higher than anything I’ve ever seen in any other country. Of one thing there was no evidence: multiculturalism. That was something we missed.
We parked our bikes outside one of the many harbourside seafood restaurants and tucked into to a glorious repast of mussels, shrimps and langoustines. If we were going to eat out, we were going to do it in style, even though (another surprising bit of Danishness) you had to order and collect your food at the bar, like in an English pub. With that in mind, and to round off the evening, we sought out the nearest Skagen had to a dodgy pub, in which I indulged in a local liquor shot, which was passed out through the window. Entering the pub was less pleasurable because it was full of smokers. Yes, smaller pubs in Denmark allow smoking, even though the population looks startlingly healthy. It was actually rather frustrating, because many of the corner taverns looked very appealing, but we were unable to enter them.
Overnight and all the next day it was horribly wet and windy, again keeping us awake overnight. In Skagen there are houses of famous artists from the Skagen school which you can visit, so we did that, seeking out Anchers Hus and Drachmanns Hus. They were charmingly quaint places but we got completely drenched going from one to the other. At this stage there was little to be gained from staying where we were, so we moved to another local campsite which we spotted had a swimming pool and splashed around in there for a while, completely alone. In the rain, we retreated to the van and watched a film we had been lent called The English Patient, which we found unbearably tedious and pretentious, despite the many Oscars it claimed to have won. Yes, we had finished Bates Motel and to my horror I realised there were two further series that I had failed to buy. Instead, we moved on to a German series called Charité, which was absolutely great.
The inclement weather persisted the next day as we moved on to Ebeltoft via some dramatic and exciting Viking graves which, like many historical attractions, were free to visit. We ended up on a campsite which was actually not the one that we had planned to visit but the adjacent one, which was sadly far more expensive. It was, however, very scenic and we were able to park overlooking the ocean and sit on a small pier sipping aperitifs on a bench as a fisherman unsuccessfully cast his line multiple times with no result. That night, once again, we were buffeted by very high winds
There was an attraction in Ebeltoft which I only entered because I knew Birgit would like it, but in fact was completely blown away by the glass museum. Here we were able to watch glass being blown and experienced some outstandingly brilliant glass artworks. This place and its adjacent frigate ship Jelland, which we also visited, set a trend at the other end of the scale from the free admission attractions. It makes you realise how lucky we are in the UK to not pay for entering museums and art galleries. In the space of 24 hours we paid enough admission fees to cover an annual National Trust subscription.
That night saw us arrive in the city of Aarhus, where we had chosen a campsite situated at the end of the futuristic light railway system that has recently been built. It was so wet on our walk to the tram stop that we had to cower under umbrellas and some bushes for fifteen minutes, getting splashed by passing cars, but it was all worth it because the Aros modern art museum was sensational. So too was the pleasant Latin Quarter, where we were privileged to enter the beautiful cathedral while rehearsals were going on for an organ concert, which meant we got the whole caboodle for free. The guidebook told us about something very unusual in Denmark, namely a restaurant that was both cheap and good. Indeed, the only way to get into it was to pitch up at 5pm and get into a queue. This place was called Olinico and we had the most sensational three course meal for less than we would have spent in the UK, sitting smugly as customer after customer was turned away for not having got there in time.
We drove on the next day to the attractive town of Silkeborg (where the museum featured Tollund Man, a rather likeable bog-preserved warrior with a mysterious past) and boarded the world’s oldest steamboat for a long lake and river cruise. It included a stop-off at Denmark’s highest hill, which was actually not very high at all but still took quite a bit of puff to reach the summit. The campsite just outside Silkeborg offered a great day to do a bit of lazing around and chatting to neighbours. We took a chance and set off on a gorgeous walk through the woods down to the idyllic lake and wandered among the millionaires’ mansions. There must be a lot of extremely rich people in Denmark, including the kind lady who was working in her garden when we stopped to ask for directions. She’d been married to an Englishman who obviously was successful in business. On their divorce, she was left enough money to buy her lakeside mansion outright. When I commented that it must have cost a million or two, she merely replied, “A lot more than that”.
The next stop was Yelling, where KIng Harald Bluetooth established the Christian monarchy around 900. In Yelling, you find the runes declaring his rule. We were to hear a great deal more about Harald Bluetooth and his various relatives in the coming days, as we visited a number of different Viking sites, something we felt was essential on any visit to Denmark. As the weather was poor, we spent the afternoon in a castle (Ekeskov Slot) which looked as though it was going to be a theme park, an idea at which I bridled. It actually turned out to be brilliant, containing huge exhibitions of vintage cars, a slightly intimidating maze (where I got completely lost) plus a treetop walk with which to engage with my vertigo issues.
The next day was spent entirely in the van as it was so wet. It was a pity because we were right on the seafront and should have had a great view of the Storebælt Bridge. Instead, we stayed in and watched the appropriate Bridge Of Spies on DVD, before creating a rather sophisticated egg salad in the camp kitchen. The following day was not a particularly good one. We drove through hail and thunder, sheltering in the excellent Viking ship museum at Ladby before deciding, because of the weather, to enter the Hans Christian Andersen museum in Odense. This was our only major disappointment as tourists in Denmark, because it was poor quality and outrageously expensive. Some tech-obsessed nerds had somehow managed to squeeze all the joy out of the fairy tales and the whole thing was just a massive bummer (as I said in my Trip Advisor review. I only do those if somewhere has been either exceptionally great or spectacularly awful).
We drove on through the monsoon on the motorway, not doing my phobia any good at all. We took the decision to move on to another campsite simply because it had an indoor pool. I cooked another dose of MIracoli in the kitchen and we watched a sexy film called The Reader with Kate Winslet, which was quite good but we were still cold and feeling fed up. We were beginning to have issues with the electrical hook-up, which is very important because it enables us to watch films and keep things cold in the fridge. Using gas for this wasn’t an alternative because of our gas supply issues, so one way and the other, Polly Pocket’s technology seemed to be letting us down. This was making me feel quite anxious because I am a technical dunce and couldn’t do anything about it. For the next few days we battled with the electrical issues before eventually realising that we had simply been very unlucky and plugged in to defective mains supplies at two camp sites running. So it wasn’t Polly’s fault at all!
We spent much of the next day wandering rather aimlessly round a woodland sculpture park, which was actually fun and intermittently impressive, although completely random. Another absolutely outstanding museum was the so-called Welfare Museum in Svendborg. This was situated in the town’s poorhouse, which amazingly had only closed down in 1974. With clear and detailed information and exhibits, a logical layout and strong human interest aspects, this museum was the best of the entire trip and certainly put the Hans Christian Andersen place into perspective. We repaired to the super-hip harbour area, where I fulfilled my long-overdue ambition to consume the enormous prawn open sandwich I’d been dreaming of, accompanied by some super expensive craft beer, while we lounged on deck chairs on an artificial beach.
The next morning it was time to finally cross the Storebælt Bridge that we had been observing from afar for so many days, and pay a mere £30 for the privilege. In Trelleborg, on the other side, there was an excellent Viking fortress where we spent several hours before arriving at a quiet family campsite and continuing to battle with the electricity issues, observed with some interest by the weekend campers. Many of the sites we stayed on were almost entirely filled with people who have their caravans there permanently and treat them as weekend homes. The bigger campsites were visited more by people like us, travelling off-season in mobile homes and normally parking up just for one or two nights. These vans are invariably two, three or even four times the size of Polly Pocket and we are always dwarfed by them.
Other than that, though, the other travellers, who were almost entirely either Dutch or German, showed very little sign of wanting to interact with us or anybody else. It’s a slightly strange world that I really wish could be a bit more friendly. You stand next to complete strangers doing the washing up and the only response you get to any cheerful remarks you might make is the odd grunt. One of the more surreal experiences is when you line up in the morning awaiting your turn to pour your piss into the chemical waste pit. The amount of urine some people can generate in a night is astonishing. In my typically paranoid way, I convinced myself that the unfriendliness was a Brexit knock-on and went out of my way to be ultra-friendly and communicative, but received very little in response. Almost all the mobile home owners travelling out of season are pensioner couples, some of whom don’t seem to address a word to each other all day. In the main, it was more fun to be on the smaller family campsites populated by Danish people, who at least would always nod in a friendly manner and say hi.
What about the British travellers, you ask? There weren’t any. In the five and a half weeks we were on the road, we didn’t see or meet a single UK tourist.
The Roskilde music festival in 2000 was hit by a tragedy in which nine people were crushed to death during Pearl Jam’s set, but the Ragnarock music museum oddly doesn’t mention it. We spent a fun couple of hours in there learning about Danish music history, of which I knew little. The festival re-creation was unconvincing to say the least. More exciting on balance was the huge Roskilde Cathedral, where all the Danish kings and queens are buried. What a bunch of reprobates! Nearly all of them were alcoholics who frequented prostitutes.
Now it was time to visit the island of Møn, which is dotted with frescoed churches, several of which we entered and marvelled at the eccentric and sometimes quite brutal artworks on the ceilings. Every day in Denmark, we passed several of what we called Lego churches, which seemed to have been mass-produced to a single design and simply plonked in each village. The only place in Denmark that features cliffs, white cliffs indeed, is Møns Klimt. In order to appreciate them, we had to first walk down 500 steps and then somehow get back up them. This was pretty exhausting but we had a good sense of achievement when we managed it without being too out of breath.
The campsite we had chosen in the very dull town of Sakskøbing turned out to be pretty rough and ready, but it was all we needed. Every town in Denmark has several Turkish pizza grill establishments and we felt the time had come to try one. In the town square there was a very pleasant and refreshingly cheap one, where I asked for gorgonzola on my pizza. The chef must have taken my request rather enthusiastically because it came with immense globules of gungy cheese which proceeded to give me horrific nightmares all night.
We had intended to spend the following day doing washing and general admin but as the washing machine on the campsite was predictably out of order, we instead decided to explore the island of Lolland, which turned out to be a fine decision. The town we chose was called Maribo, in which we found a gorgeous lake, a beautiful cathedral and a very nice coffee shop. In the tourist office a kind lady recommended two places nearby. One of them was frankly incredible: the Dodecalith standing stones, a gigantic installation of granite structures and electronic music positioned overlooking the sea in a slightly elevated position in a huge wheat field. We had frankly never experienced anything like it and were quite overcome with emotion. On the way home we popped into the Krenkerup brewery, a craft beer establishment attached to a castle, featuring delicious and mainly pretty potent concoctions. We sat outside in the courtyard in blazing sunshine and sampled several of the beers. The only downside of this brilliant day was being beaten at Møbi for the 8th time in succession in the evening.
We were due to leave Denmark the following morning and I found myself feeling quite tearful, because I had grown so attached to so many aspects of this beautiful country. However, things quickly deteriorated when I foolishly checked my online banking and found that British Gas had deducted £550 and was threatening to do so every month from now on. After a sleepless night freaking about this, I decided eventually to ring them and, after hanging on for half an hour, embarrassingly discovered that the whole fiasco was entirely my fault because I had submitted a wrong meter reading. My relief was tempered by acknowledgement of what an idiot I had been.
Feeling reassured, we boarded the car ferry to Puttgarden (Germany) and drove through the Schleswig-Holstein countryside, stopping in slightly down-market Grömitz for an ice cream and a walk on the promenade. This was enlivened by Birgit’s ice cream being snatched from her hand by a huge, aggressive seagull. The normally reliable sat nav took us, via three other wrong ones, to a very hard-to-find campsite near Neustadt in Holstein, where we finally got the washing done and Birgit had her long-awaited sauna. Again there were problems, because I was supposed to take the washing out and put it in the dryer, but sadly I hadn’t understood where the washing machine was. The one I found was empty and I convinced myself (why?) that someone had stolen all my pants and socks. When I suggested this possibility to the receptionist, she flew into quite a rage and shouted at me for not paying attention. The washing was eventually found in a completely different building from the one where I had been looking. For dinner we were down to Lidl canned soup and super noodles.
The campsite was prettily placed near a sandy beach, where we spent a genuine holiday day lounging around and watching people rather unsteadily paddle boarding and kayaking. I was determined, before we left Germany, to dine in a Greek restaurant (they’re everywhere) so we set off for Neustadt in Holstein, a pretty harbour town, where to our amazement we found ourselves parked up directly in front of a beautiful such establishment, where we were able to indulge ourselves in meat and beer in the evening sunshine before wandering over to a local brew pub to round things off.
Just about five weeks after setting off, the next day was to be our final one camping in Germany. Wishing to indulge in a nostalgia trip to my old student haunts in Schleswig-Holstein fifty years previously, I had expressed a desire to visit Plön, a beautiful town set on a series of giant lakes and crowned with the most spectacular castle. It wasn’t without its difficulties because when we found an ice cream shop, we discovered that, along with many establishments in Germany, it didn’t take credit cards. Then, when pitching up for a boat trip around the lake, we were inevitably told the same thing, which meant a long jog back into town to a cash machine and catching a much later boat. Still, it was idyllic, and the beautiful day was rounded off by catching a performance by a trombone orchestra consisting of around 200 members rehearsing in the castle grounds.
From there it was non-stop socialising with family and old school friends in Bremen before heading back onto the very crowded, lorry-filled motorways which took us to Hoek van Holland and the end of Polly’s sixth European trek. On the whole she behaved pretty well and we managed to get home without having exchanged a single harsh word, which we felt was quite an achievement.