Denmark 2012: Grenen

On Monday morning, I started with breakfast of as many rolls as I could eat, a bowl of cereal and more apple juice than a human being should be able to drink and then went to the station. I planned to go to the beach and that required me to go to Frederikshavn. I thought the trains were quite regular but according to the board, I’d have to wait an hour and a half for one. Either that, or take a rail replacement bus and given the choice, I thought I’d look at Aalborg for a while and then get the later bus.

The best I could come up with about Aalborg was that it’s inoffensive. I had disliked Copenhagen pretty much the second I arrived and loved Odense the second I arrived but I was fairly indifferent to Aalborg. It was pleasant enough. Wide streets, clean, modern-looking in places, easy to wander around. I stuck my head in a few shops, including a toy shop that turned out to be a games shop, which had more dice varieties than I’ve ever seen in my life. I stood there for a little while before buying a purple-blue-space-sparkly one and a green and gold one just because it was interesting and unexpected. Having gone into town via the back streets, I followed the main road back to the station, made an idiot of myself by not being familiar with Danish coins when I bought a drink and when the train arrived ten minutes early, I boarded.

It turned out that despite the screens all over the station and all over the train itself saying the train was going to Frederikshavn, the train was in fact not going to Frederikshavn. The guard told me to follow the red line painted on the platform, which would lead me to the bus station and get on the bus at stand 1. This I did, got on the bus and then actually got my ticket checked, which was something no one bothered with on the last bus.

I sat quietly on my own at the back, watching the scenery and trying to decide what to do at Frederikshavn. Did I want to get the ferry to the little island in the harbour and go amber-hunting on the beach? Or did I want to get the bus up to Skagen and see the seas collide? I mused on it for a while before deciding I really wasn’t in the mood to go on a ferry for an hour and a half and also that I really didn’t have the time. I’d not got out very early and then had time in Aalborg and now a ninety minute bus ride, so that was settled. Skagen it was. But then a problem popped up. I had no idea what Frederikshavn looked like so when the bus stopped and almost everyone got off, I joined them. I already had a funny feeling this was the wrong place, and besides, I have a habit of getting off public transport in the wrong place – see Transylvania and the way I kept getting lost in Norway – so the first thing I did was run onto the railway platform to look at the signs which very unhelpfully all faced away from the road. I was definitely in the wrong place. Fortunately, I’d suspected as much and the bus was nowhere near ready to go so within thirty seconds I was back on it, back in my place.

In Frederikshavn I had a little bit of a wait for my train so I went down to the harbour front where there was what even I could see was a huge scientific vessel, the Ernest Shackleton and two smaller submarine-like things, one being hoisted out of the water. I wandered down as close as I dared and took photos then went back up to the station, stopping to look at a huge chunk of rock left on the pavement that seemed to have been lifted out of the harbour.

The train to Skagen is on a semi-private line and like all trains in Denmark, offers free wifi internet access. I tried it out, found I couldn’t understand the terms and gave up and watched the view instead. At first I could see beach and sea behind houses and as we got further north, we began to get into the sand dunes I’d read about in my guidebook. There are two of them, creeping their way across the peninsula. One is on the west side and just beginning its journey – by 2020 it will cover the main road, and the other has made its way to the east side and is now blowing out to sea. I was looking forward to seeing them because the guidebook made them sound enormous.

The more southerly one is too far from the railway line at the moment to see but I could see the northerly one. I was expecting a huge pile of sand. What I actually got was a mile or so of heathland-topped sand dunes of average height. It was odd and not quite as dramatic as I’d expected.

At Skagen (which is pronounced Skane but imagine you’re saying the G and you get somewhere near how the Danish say it), I knew I had to head north to get to Grenen, which is the northernmost point of Denmark. It’s where the two seas meet and can be quite dramatic. It’s also known apparently for some weird lighting effects. I concluded quite quickly that if the town has a yellowish tint, it’s because all the buildings are painted yellow, not because the sunlight is yellower than anywhere else. Grenen is four kilometres out of town and you can get a bus every hour. Given that it was already about 3pm I decided to walk because that’s only two and a half miles, that’s not far.

I walked up through the town and fairly soon had reached Grenen campsite, where the signs said 2km to Grenen. That meant I’d walked halfway and within a few minutes I was off the main road and walking onto the beach. It seemed very easy, so there were three options there. Either I’m just really good at walking or I wasn’t nearly there or the guidebook was wrong about the distance.

The beach was great. It was sandy and there was a little bite-shaped bay perfect for paddling in and apart from one family who’d clearly come from the campsite, it was deserted. My shoes and socks instantly came off and I went into the water. Not for long, though. I had a goal. I wanted to get to the tip of the peninsula to see the waters meeting. I walked up the beach and very quickly decided that if I actually wanted to walk along this beach, my shoes were going to have to go back on because away from the little bite-shaped bays, it was very stony. Remembering the tale of amber washed up on the beaches of the island at Frederikshavn I decided it was entirely possible amber could be washed up on this beach so I collected stones as I went, anything orangey.

It was a magnificent beach, with those little round bays all the way up it, like the edge of an enormous stamp. But the novelty soon wore off because walking on sand is hard work and gradually I realised that the 2km was actually quite a long way. Eventually I reached a lighthouse. This had to be it. As soon as I rounded that, I’d be at the peninsula.

Not even close. I could see it stretching out in the distance. Not deterred, and indeed determined to get there after this much effort, I carried on. Sand is really hard to walk on. It felt like I’d walked eight hundred miles. A girl came cantering down the beach on a horse and that looked like the ideal way to get around on that sand.

But at long last, I couldn’t take it anymore. There was a road and a car park and I decided to dart across the dunes and onto solid ground. The moment I stepped onto the dunes, I was terrified of a snake. This was snake land and this was snake weather. I jumped at lizards because they rustled in the sand and I thought about my trail shoes and my jeans – no match for any snake. And just as I thought that, there was a snake – a big brown one all of two feet in front of me, slithering away into the grass. I shrieked and leapt in the air in the girliest way imaginable, right in front of a group of schoolkids who all laughed at me but it was the biggest snake I’d ever seen and it was right there. I ran back onto the pavement quivering.

At the car park, it turned out that I had to go back onto the sand to get to the peninsula – half a kilometre of sand between the car park and the end of Denmark and now I was so close I could almost smell it.

It was worth the walk to finally stand in wet sand and watch the waves crash. The sea had crept onto the peninsula and made a lake and I’d walked over the water running into it, unaware that there was an expanse of dry sand on the other side. I certainly wasn’t paddling here. Partly because there were signs up saying it was dangerous and partly because I could see that for myself. I could see the water drop away within feet of the beach and I could see that the waves were quite strong. I stood on the tip and took photos and jumped away when water rushed towards my feet and then borrowed some Danish tourists to take a photo of me there.

Eventually I supposed I’d have to go back. It was nearly five o’clock. I’d had sort-of plans to go and see Snow White and the Huntsman, since Denmark was intent on bombarding me with posters all over the place and with the trailer ever time I went near a shopping centre and as far as I could understand, it was on at 6.45 in Aalborg. However, if I had to choose between being on the beach and hurrying back, the beach was always going to win. I knew it was at least 45 minutes Skagen-Frederikshavn and an hour and a half Frederikshavn-Aalborg and I’d known at 4 when I was still on the beach at Grenen and nowhere near my goal that I wouldn’t get back in time and had cheerfully abandoned the idea.

I started the walk back along the sand and suddenly I remembered just how much I hate walking on sand. I also remembered just how long it had been since I’d had a drink and how hot it was.

After twenty minutes I turned round to see how far I’d come. Not nearly far enough for ten minutes trudging. I looked at how far I had to go. Probably another twenty minutes before I was even at the car park. I wanted to fall on my knees and yell at the sky that I couldn’t do it. It occurred to me that there was no reason not to. So I dropped onto the sand and sat there for a while, wondering why I hadn’t stopped to just enjoy being on the beach earlier.

When I finally made it back to the car park, the first job was to empty the sand dunes out of my shoes. They have a breathable mesh in them and it took a while to get used to the sensation of a breeze on my feet. Unfortunately, on a beach that mesh allows the sand to get in very easily. I wished very much that I’d brought my sandals. And I really wished I’d worn my brown trousers and not my jeans because my brown trousers are lighter and they also zip off and turn into shorts and that would have been ideal.

While I was there, I went into the little shop. Denmark is as much into its amber jewellery as Lithuania, I have learnt. I was expecting more silver, more Viking-style but no, it’s all about the amber.

Walking back on the road was much quicker and easier than walking on the sand. It didn’t take long at all to get back to the campsite where I’d moved onto the beach and I knew it hadn’t been far from there. I stopped for some cash in the town centre – there were no ticket machines on the station platform, only on the train itself and I’d had a look at that machine on the way up and knew it didn’t take cards and I’d run out of cash. Danish trains tend to inspect tickets.

The train wasn’t coming for nearly an hour. I sat down and got out the Prose Edda again. It had been hot on the beach. I’d spent the entire week in a t-shirt with my big checked shirt over the top but the shirt had gone on the beach. Now, sitting on a platform in a breeze, the shirt went back on and then a fleece.

I was interrupted from my reading by some Americans asking when the train was coming. I could answer that easily but I was a little more dumbstruck when they said they hoped it was going the right way. This was very clearly an end station and we were sitting feet away from the buffers. Where did they think the train was going to go if not back down south? They asked what on Earth I was doing in Denmark when the Queen was having a Jubilee and what she would do to me when I got back and I asked what they were doing here. They were from Utah and had come on a cruise around the Baltics and had spent the last month just travelling around by train.

I got back to Frederikshavn no problem, got my bus no problem. This time it was an express Frederikshavn-Aalborg bus rather than a rail replacement one, so it went around the town a little at first and then went straight back without any stops. It was gone nine o’clock by the time I got back to my hotel. I wanted food, a shower and sleep, not to write a blog.

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