On the Road to Hygge

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Once a year we take a road trip. It’s sort of like a “vacation” for us since it is very different from our routine of finding an Airbnb in the center of a city and using public transportation to get around. When we have “wheels” we visit smaller cities, take the scenic route, and stop on a whim.

This time we decided to rent a car in Hamburg, Germany and spend 11 days driving a loop around the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Michael researched the “most beautiful cities in Denmark” to help narrow down our destination choices. Some were too remote but a couple made the list along with two others that were interesting. The four we chose were Ribe, Aalborg, Aarhus, and Odense. After we returned the car to Germany, we would also visit Copenhagen for a week.

Hygge  (pronounced Hue-ga) is a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a  defining characteristic of Danish culture .) Winter is where Hyggeness really comes into play with wooly socks, crackling fires, lots of candles and warm drinks but summertime Hygge looks like this picture. NOTE: Apparently, our home town of  Seattle  is the Number one Hyggiest city in America!

Hygge (pronounced Hue-ga) is a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture.) Winter is where Hyggeness really comes into play with wooly socks, crackling fires, lots of candles and warm drinks but summertime Hygge looks like this picture. NOTE: Apparently, our home town of Seattle is the Number one Hyggiest city in America!

We were all set, now all we needed was the car. Hertz put us in a midsize Ford Focus. It was perfect for our big bags and had plenty of room. And, as we Senior Nomads get older, we realize that sportier cars with low seats are just too hard to get in and out of! As we sat in the rental car garage at the Hamburg Airport doing our “pre-flight” check we realized we were going to need a tutorial on how to use the fancy GPS.

A nice young man who spoke just enough English got in the car with us. Step #1 was to change the language from German to English. From there he showed us how to program our route, listen to our music and podcasts, and even find services around us. I am sure he thought we were two crazy Americans because we were in awe of all the things it could do! GPS systems have probably been in cars longer than he’s been driving - but for us, they are “new-fangled” technology. That’s because our only car back in Seattle is a no-frills Honda Element that is now 14 years old.

When we drive at home, I am the GPS - although I am not as calm as our electronic traveling companion we named Gerta. Unlike me, Gerta gave perfect directions, was never cross when the driver went the wrong way, never had to say “Ooops, sorry!” and she gently reprimanded Michael when he went over the speed limit.

Michael keeps the family up to date on our whereabouts and often attaches a map like this one.

Michael keeps the family up to date on our whereabouts and often attaches a map like this one.

We loved the split screen and the image to the right that matched up with the sign posts on the highway!

We loved the split screen and the image to the right that matched up with the sign posts on the highway!

After navigating our way out of Hamburg we headed toward Ribe, our first Danish destination and Denmark’s oldest town. This is the type of bucolic village that makes travel guru Rick Steves swoon. It is rich in history and full to the brim with charm. And, like everywhere in Denmark it was pristine. Not a scrap of litter or unsightly tags on buildings to be seen.

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Every door step was scrubbed, the Holly Hocks were tamed, and there was sense of calm and order everywhere we looked. No wonder the Danish at the happiest people in the world.

Every door step was scrubbed, the Holly Hocks were tamed, and there was sense of calm and order everywhere we looked. No wonder the Danish at the happiest people in the world.

That made it easier to go back in time as you walked the narrow streets, and contemplated life sitting in the ancient churches. One evening we strolled the city with The Night Watchman who told tales of yore by lantern light. We enjoyed a small art museum in a 17th-century mansion that featured works by famous Danish artists. And we did our best to support the Danish ice cream industry.

Our animated “night watchman” guide told the group very entertaining stories in Danish. Then he would turn to Michael and I as the only English speakers and give us a very brief recap. We’d have to rely on his broad gestures and the response from our fellow guests to fill in the gaps.

Our animated “night watchman” guide told the group very entertaining stories in Danish. Then he would turn to Michael and I as the only English speakers and give us a very brief recap. We’d have to rely on his broad gestures and the response from our fellow guests to fill in the gaps.

So many ways to have your ice cream! On a Belgian waffle or a freshly made cone? Soft serve? Dipped?

So many ways to have your ice cream! On a Belgian waffle or a freshly made cone? Soft serve? Dipped?

Our Airbnb in Ribe was delightful. If you’ve ever considered living in a “Tiny House” this would be good practice. We had everything we needed just in miniature. You could keep a few things in the tiny fridge, eat at the tiny table, and wash your dishes in the tiny bathroom sink. Fortunately, the bed was full size and dressed in lavish linen. From there we could easily walk to the center of the city through some lovely woods where we saw grazing deer, billy goats, and wildflowers.

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The week we arrived was Gymnasium (high school) graduation all over Denmark. The graduates wear a white cap with a colored band that corresponds with their field of study. To celebrate, the kids in the various “schools” rode through town in decorated horse-drawn carts or open sided trucks with music blaring while the kids sang and danced and drank beer. Lots of beer. The drivers stopped at various homes along the way where parents kept them fed and rested.

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We also saw the beginning of the Danish Men’s National Road Race Cycling Championships. Almost 200 riders crowded the start line in the town square. The winner would wear the bright red Danish Champion jersey in the upcoming Tour de France.

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From Ribe, we drove to Aalborg, our northernmost destination. As we drove further up the peninsula the weather went downhill. It became chilly and overcast so we didn’t see this port city at it’s best. We were only there for three nights, so, to be honest, we kind of hunkered down and only saw the highlights closest to our Airbnb. We also got wrapped up in a Netflix series that our son Christopher told us about called Losers. It features athletes and teams that just missed the big win. Perfect for Michael with his sports promotion background, and we both appreciated the graphic novel look of the production.

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This painting by peder Severin, Denmark’s most famous impressionist painter, reminds me of the evenings we experienced - you could see the moon but there was still waning daylight until almost 11:00 pm

This painting by peder Severin, Denmark’s most famous impressionist painter, reminds me of the evenings we experienced - you could see the moon but there was still waning daylight until almost 11:00 pm

One challenge with staying home in the evening in the far north of Denmark is that it never really getting dark! That was something we were having a hard time getting used to. Not only was it twilight at 11:00 pm - the sun was up and the birds were chirping at 4:30 am!

There was a beautiful church to be seen - and while it was indeed a perfect example of 16th century house of worship, we arrived the day the organ was being tuned. I dislike most organ music and hearing this ancient beauty being tortured with pliers only added to my aversion, so we left after a very few discordant minutes.

On the waterfront, preparations were underway for the Tall Ships Race that would start at the weekend. The crews were having a hard time in the wet and windy weather getting tents up, but if the weather stayed as it was, the race would be something to see. There was a nice design museum built by, and dedicated to the work of the architect Jorn Utzon, famous for designing (but not completing) the Sydney Opera House.

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And even though we had a car, we decided not drive anywhere because the parking space we were given at our Airbnb building was very difficult to get in and out of. In fact, it wasn’t a parking space at all. It was just “a space”. First we entered the complex through a narrow passageway where, on the other side, we found ourselves in a small courtyard. We were supposed to find room for our rather large car amongst the garbage bins and a dozen bikes belonging to other residents. Once we managed to park we decided we weren’t going anywhere for the next three days. When we did leave, it took about fifteen minutes for Michael to carefully maneuver the car and find a way out.

Our ride. This new Ford Focus was a great car for a road trip. Easy to drive, great GPS, plenty of room.

Our ride. This new Ford Focus was a great car for a road trip. Easy to drive, great GPS, plenty of room.

Onward! Our next destination was Aarhus, an ancient Viking stronghold. After our reset in Aalborg, we were ready to jump back into exploration mode even though the weather was still confused about the time of year. Our Airbnb was in a leafy suburb called Risskov. We had a very comfortable private room in a home and our own entrance that opened into a beautiful garden. We could walk to a secluded neighborhood beach and the drive into the center of town was easy.

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Our Airbnb along with the beautiful beach, and honor stands offering just picked berries was very Hygge.

Our Airbnb along with the beautiful beach, and honor stands offering just picked berries was very Hygge.

In fact, driving into the city and parking became its own “event”. There is a very cool new building on the waterfront called Dokk1 that houses a state-of-the-art library along with performance venues and public spaces - including the most elaborate playground I’ve ever seen. One of the reasons we wanted to see this particular library was serendipitous. Michael just finished reading a book called The Library Book that he really enjoyed and this particular library and the woman who runs it were mentioned. Of course, Michael wanted to meet her to talk about the book, but she was on vacation.

On the day we visited Dokk1 the weather looked more like a bleak day in November!

On the day we visited Dokk1 the weather looked more like a bleak day in November!

The parking system at Dokk1 was very high tech.

The parking system at Dokk1 was very high tech.

When you pulled into the Dokk1 parking garage you are instructed to drive your car into any of the pod-like spaces with a green light. There you took a ticket and left the space. Next, you watched your car be lowered gently into the bowels of the building and moved along like luggage at the airport. When you returned, you put your ticket into a large master kiosk to pay where you consulted a reader board to find out which numbered pod (now with a red light) you’d find your car. There was a queue so it took a while for cars to be shuffled and reappear so we were able to watch the system for a while. As long as you don’t forget something in the back seat, it was pretty cool. Our host hopes that someday when she parks her little Fiat 500 there, the car in the return pod will be a new Tesla.

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There was a lot to see in Aarhus, and if you can stand the wallet-draining cost of life in Denmark, this city would make for a great family vacation. Not only is Legoland nearby, but the museums and the working Viking Village are also really well done. And the library, as I mentioned has an amazing playground and free kids activities all day that includes a huge dress-up wardrobe, music rooms, wandering storytellers, and ongoing crafts projects.

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The Moesgaard museum above, and a detail from the Stone Age display. This was one of the most well planned, elaborate, and appropriately interactive museums we have ever experienced.

The Moesgaard museum above, and a detail from the Stone Age display. This was one of the most well planned, elaborate, and appropriately interactive museums we have ever experienced.

The must-see museum in Aarhus is the Moesgaard Museum. I rarely say this about any museum, but you really could spend a day here. Especially since you could break it up with a very nice meal in the cafe or a walk in the woods to the beach and back to break it up. Why a day you ask? Because you will be doing some serious time-traveling back to the Stone Age and then working your way up through the Middle Ages along with at least and hour in the interactive Viking exhibit. We have been to many, many museums but we both agree this one was exceptional. No expense was spared on the quality of the displays or the guest experience. And the building itself is an architectural marvel.

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We finished our time in Aarhus with a visit to the ARoS modern art museum which features a circular rainbow walk at the top of the building. That was the highlight as the rest of the exhibits were underwhelming unless you considered Porn as Art something to consider. We considered it. And it wasn’t art. But it was eye-opening!

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Eventually, the weather returned to the perfect human condition, 72 degrees and sunny with a light breeze. As we headed out of Aarhus we stopped at Den Gamble By, a unique outdoor museum made up of salvaged and meticulously refurbished homes and shops from all over Denmark. Buildings and street scapes recreated scenes from life as it was from the 1700’s to the 1970’s. Speaking for myself, as a class of ’74 High School graduate, that doesn’t seem that far in the past. But when we walked the main street I did feel like I was in a scene from Back to the Future.

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Our last stop was in Odense, a city that has squeezed every last tourist drop from being the home of Hans Christian Anderson, the author of The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor’s New Clothes (one for current times) and many more children’s tales. This town also met the criteria for a beautiful city and our Airbnb was in a quiet, attractive neighborhood. Lots of green space and lovely old buildings, and again, clean as could be. But once you got past the churches all the H.C.A. monuments and museums there wasn’t too much to see, so we just strolled the old streets and soaked up the charm.

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The highlight of our stay was watching the Women’s World Cup Finals between the USA and The Netherlands in Ryan’s Irish Pub. There were two big screens and a mixed crowd of Danes, Brits, and Americans cheering for the USA, but there were a fair number of Dutch fans as well. We’d been following the tournament since the first week, and even took the grand children to the USA v Chile match in Paris. We became big fans of our national team that included Seattle’s own Megan Rapinoe. There was plenty of good-natured rivalry, and while a Netherlands win would have been appropriate in a Fairy Tale city, we were happy to have the USA win the second World Cup in a row. To celebrate we dined at Burger Anarchy on slobbery cheeseburgers and fat onion rings. God Bless America!

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Our Airbnb was comfortable and within easy walking distance of the city center. So we walked a lot and continued to support the hard-working creators of Danish ice cream. However, we were getting weary of the $5-for-a-tiny-scoop prices (although I’ve been told that’s the average in Seattle these days, too).

Time to fill the DIESEL (not gas!) tank one more time and let Gerta lead us back to Hamburg.

Time to fill the DIESEL (not gas!) tank one more time and let Gerta lead us back to Hamburg.

Time to head back to Hamburg and turn in our car before turning right around and flying back to Denmark to visit Copenhagen. You might wonder why we didn’t just drive to Copenhagen and return the car. Just ask the Chief Travel Planner and he will tell you it was much, much cheaper to return the car to Germany and fly to Copenhagen than it would have been to return the car in another country.

So with Jutland in the rear view mirror and the car returned without a scratch we boarded our flight to Denmark for one more week of Danish pastries and, what else? Ice cream! Now that is Hygge.

Thanks for following along,

Debbi and Michael Campbell

The Senior Nomads