One more camping trip on this Danish summer, after my glorious discoveries on the first effort. This time, I had found a map to which I could link on my phone. It was dedicated to ud i nature and listed all the free camping areas across the country (including the ability to sleep without a tent on any forest floor). Denmark may be small corner of the world, with thousands of islands and the Jutland peninsula, but it has an equally small population. So there is plenty of land on which to camp – especially when one could often do so in someone’s back yard.
Day 1: Christiansfeld to Gaasevig Strand, 46 km
On the first day, I had my sights set on a potential camping spot in the woods and away from the coast, given that it was still holiday season. Southward I rode, through Haderslev and then further to Hoptrup, where I loaded up with a few supplies.
Here I turned right onto Skovsbyvej, heading towards the rather tautologically named Skovsby Skov – the Forest Town Forest. Why? I guess that the village had been named after the nearby forest: hence Skovsby. But then they needed a name for the forest, which was named after the village: Skovsby Skov (Forest Town Forest).
Clearly, there was a forest and – after some climbing – I found it, pedalling along a dirt track called Skovsby Skovvej (Forest Town Forest Road), which turned off from Skovsbyvej (Forest Town Road). Confused? I was a little.
Anyway, I was on the lookout for the camping spot. I passed by the old cottage in the midst of the forest and pedalled on. I looked here and I looked there, but even with my new-fangled map I simply could not find it. Eventually, I turned around and went back past the house. Perhaps I could use a more old-fashioned approach: I asked the old woman at the house. Ah yes, she said, the camping place is in my garden, but I do not have a shelter.
I was welcome to stay, but hesitated. Perhaps it was the old European ‘fairy tales’ about forest houses. Perhaps it was the old woman living by herself. Who knows? But I decided to return to Hoptrup and try my luck closer towards the coast.
The second attempt entailed riding along the Skivsø lake and veering left, only to find that the camping shelter here was on a small triangle of land on a farm. I would have a grand view of the barn wall. It had been a long time indeed since the fireplace had been used. Not so inviting.
Third attempt: down to the water proper. Here I passed by immense camping areas, with all manner of facilities should one wish to ‘escape’ the bustle of life. At the end of dirt track was my spot. No water and no toilets and plenty of early evening bugs. But I had an uninterrupted view of the Årøsund, camping on a grassy knoll with a fire nearby. A rinse in the crisp sea water took away the sweat and grime of the day, after which I simply sat for long hours beside my tent, looking out over the water as the sun of a long Danish summer day finally set.
Day 2: Gaasevig Strand to Maugstrup, 71 km
I was in the area of the Haderslev-Næs Pilgrim Route. If I wished, I could wind my way from one church to another, tracing the route of the Christianisation of Denmark a thousand years or so ago.
But I decided on another pilgrimage of sorts: I would assess all of the bush camping areas on the small peninsula that took its name from the island of Årø at its nose. Indeed, in Danish such a peninsula is called a Næs, which means both nose and peninsula.
This entailed some single roads to the coast and backtracking, some circuitous riding and dealing with the inevitable summer crowds. One camping shelter was beside a ‘grill’ on a busy beach; one was simply a picnic table under trees in close proximity to elderly nudists who were totally shaved, and one was in a corner by the ferry wharf to the island of Årø. None of them were overly enticing.
Pausing to reassess my plans, I found that in the village of Maugstrup was a camping area. I was keen, since on an earlier ride I had already camped in such villages. Getting to Maugstrup entailed riding back to Haderslev after circumnavigating the whole of the small ‘nose’ in one day, and riding off into the small hills of southern Jutland.
In the village itself I could not – once again – find the camping area. Was it beside the children’s playground? I was wary. I asked, but some locals did not seem to know. Finally, a faded sign pointed to the Præstegård, literally the ‘priest’s garden’. Still puzzled, I simply knocked on the glorious door of the priest’s residence. A woman answered the door. Are you the priest? No, it was her husband. Do you know where the camping area is? Yes, it is this corner of the garden.
Only in Denmark! It was a glorious spot, with soft grass, towering trees and the public toilet nearby. As I had already found, in Danish villages the public toilet is always near the church and beside the priest’s residence.
But it took me a while to get to the point of pitching the tent and unpacking my food supplies. The priest’s wife had pressed me to share a meal with them, to sit late into the night talking about matters religious and theological with her and her husband. I merely wanted to be by myself on this last evening.
Day 3: Maugstrup to Christiansfeld, 33 km
Not a long ride to wrap up this brief experience. 33 kilometres along quiet roads, with an old Danish farmer on an equally old bicycle passing me while pedalling into the wind. For the sake of numbers, I wanted to get to 150 kilometres for the three days and I wanted to ride into Christiansfeld from the west, which I had not done until now. So I needed 33 kilometres on this day.
Most of the time, however, I pondered the paradoxes of the state church, which – to my knowledge – persists only in Denmark. Other parts of Europe have long since abandoned the state church, and more recently Sweden and then Norway have abandoned it too, albeit in a typical Scandinavian fashion. In its place, the state provides funding for all religious and even quasi-religious groups, depending upon membership.
The key question for me was whether the state church is simply a relic of the past, a curious quirk of the anomalous history of Europe that you simply do not find elsewhere. Or did the idea and practice of the state church still have a function? This is not the best way to put it. Better to ask: does the state church have new roles to play?
On my rides in these parts, I had camped more than once near or beside a village church. Not only are they part of Danish history, going back to Harald Bluetooth’s conversion more than a thousand years ago, not only are the white stone churches of that era astonishing pieces of country architecture, and not only do they provide necessary public functions all the way from toilets to marriage registries – no, I was most intrigued by the renewed emphasis on country priests being integrally involved in community building.
In so many places in this part of the world, the countryside is empty of young people, and the cottages are bought up by foreigners seeking a cute summer escape. Not in Denmark, for they are increasingly seeing the village communities, with their thousands of years of history, as crucial. Nowadays, a country priest, who usually is responsible for two or three centres and who lives in an extraordinary country Præstegård, is also part of rebuilding a sense of community in the villages in question. I would go further, for this is actually part of the common good, especially as the alienations of capitalist market economies become ever more apparent in Europe.
I must admit that through my camping during this Danish summer, riding a Brompton foldup bicycle, I had become somewhat of a supporter of the state church in this part of the world and in this day and age.