Our hotel just outside Aalborg is in an old country house amid sprawling meadows on the edge of a wood. It’s a balmy afternoon, with the sun still high in the sky at nearly seven o’clock and just a few clouds disappearing off the horizon. It’s the kind of place where you want to relax in one of the salons and admire the view, a glass of chilled Chablis in hand. I enthusiastically grab the wine list from our waitress who shares my preference for French dry white wine. “Here we are: Chablis. How much is 620 Danish kroner?”. Dr K quickly checks the exchange rate and replies crisply: “How much is the Chilean white?”.
The gasp-inducing price of alcohol is one sure sign that we’re in Scandinavia. But there are other clues that we have left Germany and are now in Denmark.
Both countries are in the Schengen area and there are no border checks; you just drive through. The scenery is the same: mostly flat landscape with open fields interrupted here and there by sections of forests; the trees are still a fresh green and the meadows are just turning yellow. If it weren’t for the signs saying you are crossing a border, there would be no way to tell. But within minutes we realise we’ve changed country. The small town we’re driving through seems to have more sex shops than bakeries, and large billboards show leather-clad ladies offering all manners of services.
A further clue, but only available to those in the car, is musical. Dr K has been tinkering with the iPod again. This time, we’re treated to some Nielsen. Not exactly road-trip music but we indulge him, bearing in mind he has organised most of this trip after only a casual suggestion from me one evening this winter that we should go to Finland.
Outside, there are fewer cars and nature is more open. Lupins are growing freely on the roadside, sharing the space with cow parsley, wild roses and other meadow flowers. There are sycamore trees and birches. A bridge takes us over a small fjord. We’re suddenly feeling all scandic.
It’s late morning when we get to Aarhus, Denmark’s second city and home to the first significant international environmental convention. The old town is busy so we end up parking just outside, at a place called Dokk1, on the harbour. Dokk1 turns out to be the new library. It’s still unfinished but there is a buzz about it. The whole docks area is a huge building site where old industrial brick buildings are rubbing cornices with spanking new developments, some only half built. Lorries are going in and out, and cranes are swiveling above mounds of rubble and craters in the ground.
Back at basecamp I google Dokk1. It is part of a vast regeneration project on the waterfront. In due course it will be not only a library and media space but also a public services centre. People will be able to borrow books and watch films but also enjoy tranquility and contemplation, says the Dokk1 website. Right now, the big open spaces are a little disconcerting, but it’s welcoming enough and there is a sense of something going on.
What we find most impressive, though, is the car park itself. There are no cars in sight; it’s operated by robots, or, to be accurate, machinery that takes the cars to underground cells. Thankfully a very human Dokk1 assistant – no robot would have a beard like his – helps us figure out how it works. We place the Vorsprung on a platform in one of about 20 cubicles, get out and lock it; as we press a ‘park’ button outside the cubicle, shutters descend; like children unwrapping their first Scalextric, we watch the car being swallowed down into the bowels of Dokk1 and the robot slide it away to an unseen underground space.
Still wide-eyed we leave modern techno-mechanics to go admire the beauties of Aarhus late Gothic cathedral. The longest church in Denmark, its austere red brick exterior conceals high white-washed interiors adorned with intricate altars and coloured frescoes representing saints and Nordic heroes. It’s magnificent. A mobile phone number just above the collection box suggests the bishop and his crew have moved into the 21st century.
Skirting past the nearby Beaux Arts style theatre, we amble down the main square and through hip and arty streets. In a café with “lots of young people”, as Godfather P candidly observes, we have our first Scandi lunch – open fish sandwiches on brown granary bread.
The streets heading back to the harbour have a different vibe. There are a few older buildings overlooking the canal, most of them turned into offices and cafés. As you get closer to the harbour, old warehouses have been knocked down and replaced with 1980s-style low-rise apartment blocks. The overcast weather doesn’t help, but it feels a shame that in a country renowned for its creative design tradition, there should be such uninspired constructions.
Back at Dokk1, we collect the car in the same state of amazement as we left it, watching it rise smoothly from the underworld – and wondering nonetheless what would happen if the system broke down. Next stop, Aalborg.
Herrings and aquavit
Founded in the 11th century during the reign of Hardeknud, son of Knud the Great, Aalborg expanded thanks to its strategic position at the northern tip of mainland Denmark, at the mouth of the Limfjord. The town developed trade links with Norway early on and it also became well known for its herring fishing and for its aquavit.
Having shared this basic information with us, Dr K promptly hoiks us over to the Budolfi church, Aalborg’s cathedral. Its white-rendered walls shine in the afternoon sun. Sadly, it’s after just after four, the time churches usually shut in northern Europe – and we find it closed. There seems to be quite a lot going on, but it’s been a long day already, having left Flensburg just after breakfast, so after a quick tour around the centre of town we drive on to our hotel and to that glass of Chablis. Or perhaps it will be Chilean wine.