About five hours’ drive from Copenhagen, you arrive at the perfect summer holiday spot in Scandinavia, North Jutland. At Denmark’s northernmost tip there’s nothing but water between you and the horizon. You have arrived at the Scandinavian summer paradise Skagen.
Sand and dunes are interrupted only by wild grasses, and the people barely make a dent in the landscape. You have to have an affinity for sand to truly appreciate Skagen. But as the short summer season kicks into high gear, people from all over the world gather at this resort town.
Skagen – a medieval fishing village
A few hundred years ago, the entire spit, from the Råbjerg Mile to the northernmost tip of Grenen, was more or less obliterated by migrating dunes. By the end of the 18th century, the fishing village of Skagen, once a proud medieval trading center with a population of 4,000, had been reduced to about 600 inhabitants, and its church buried up to its tower.
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There are three lighthouses in Skagen: a gray one, a white one, and the original one, which resembles a giant, primitive wooden lever. Past this odd structure, off the road to Grenen that runs north of town, lies the Danish painter P. S. Krøyer’s favorite beach.
The Scandinavian Summer Paradise – Skagen
Today, still without the crowds or amusement arcades, Skagen offers plenty of sun, rain, sand and sea, and families love going to the beach to build sandcastles or fly kites. Skagen is also the summer-vacation sport for Denmark’s “well-heeled”, mostly people from Copenhagen.
This remote, medieval fishing village attracted back more than a century ago a remarkable group of artists due to its authentic character, its mammoth, ever-shifting dunes, but most of all because of the extraordinary quality of its light.
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The light in Skagen
Mention Skagen to almost anyone around the country, and you will immediately hear about its light and about the Skagen school of painters, the best-known being Peder Severin Krøyer, Michael and Anna Ancher and Holger Drachmann. The area’s sandy beaches were a favorite motif for the artists, though most of the painting done in Skagen is of the town itself, where the houses are predominantly and startlingly daubed every shade of yellow. The Skagen artists have shown the rest of the world what life was like here at the tip of the world.
The area still enjoys an artistic cachet, and there are several artists’ houses to visit, beautifully preserved, and a fine museum that organizes painting days for children. You will also hear about Hans Christian Andersen, famous for his pen rather than his brush. However, the writer’s time in Skagen was notably brief, if rich in the stuff of legend. He visited Skagen only once.
A popular week-end retreat
There are no castles in Skagen. The location itself is the luxury, with modest cottages and hotels and a few local bars and restaurants. For Europeans it’s a big advantage that the Danish schools break up earlier for summer holidays than in most other European countries. This means that at the height of the summer season, plenty of the best seaside accommodation becomes available at low-season prices and the local attractions are less busy, too.
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Skagen attracts weekend visitors from Norway and an international cruise-ship crowd. The sandbar called Grenen marks the spot where waters of the North Sea meets the Baltic. Wave after wave of pilgrims visit this point.
Skagen Proper and Old Skagen
Skagen is actually two places, closely related yet distinct. There’s Skagen proper, a working port; home of Brøndums Hotel with its portrait-filled dining room. The small portraits were the preferred payment method by the painters. The main shopping and dining street is on the peninsula’s east side.
And then some two miles to the southwest is the Gammel Skagen (Old Skagen), tucked among grassy dunes on the Skagerak coast. There are six small hotels, a handful of restaurants, one general store and a number of traditional style rental cottages. The simple, modestly elegant Seaside hotel and the swanky summer watering hole and restaurant Ruths Hotel are worth a stay.
On top of a steep dune stands a massive wooden structure called Sømerket, placed there as a marker for boats. From this spot there is a magnificent view of the boundless sea, notched with ships, that surrounds this improbable spit of land. The largest sand dune of all is called Råbjerg Mile. It still grows by 20 feet a year.
The town of Amber
A popular local pastime across the region is collecting amber. Necklaces of the chunky fossilized resin are for sale everywhere, but it is often hard to distinguish the real thing from stones of the same color. If you wish, local “ambermen” will take you out on amber-spotting courses along the beach.
Food in Skagen
Here far north in the country, Danish food tends to hit the same notes again and again. The staples are herring—spiced, creamed, or marinated—fried fish, cod fritters, smoked salmon, mussels, and potatoes in gravy. But the chefs are doing it so well that even such seemingly plain fare can be wonderful.
The Norwegian playwright Henry Ibsen found Skagen too busy and preferred its smaller neighbor, Saeby, where he found the inspiration for his play The Lady of the Sea. Both towns have plenty of fish restaurants.
The Scandinavian Summer Paradise – Skagen, Denmark, written by Tor Kjolberg