At the going down of the sun...

I’ve just returned from a week in France which was, by turns, enchanting, upsetting, liberating, uplifting, depressing, emotional, surprising, disturbing.  That’s because I spent most of it visiting some of the memorial Great War sites in Picardy with my brother Barry and his wife Jean.

The sites were mostly concerned with the Battles of the Somme and Arras and included the war cemetery where our great-uncle Hugh is buried.  We were the first members of his family to pay our respects at his graveside since he was killed in the Battle of Arras 97 years ago.

It added up to a complex and emotional week; boxes were ticked, certainly; but the experience has left us all asking more questions about that terrible and unspeakably wasteful conflict - specially after our visits to the monumentally gut-wrenching British Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval (above), which has 72,000 names inscribed on it…

I don’t think any of us has quite been able to marshal our thoughts and reflections since we returned on Saturday.  So I’ve decided to leave a more considered description of our visit until a later posting.

In the meantime, back to GT4; back to Denmark…
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They say that travelling is a good way of finding things out about yourself - most especially if you travel alone.  And they’re right.  One of my big discoveries over the course of my four ‘Grand Tours’ is that great museums, galleries, monuments and fine buildings - impressive though they might be - are, more often than not, a mere colourful and stately backdrop to the real business of the solo traveller; meeting people.  Talking and listening.  Asking questions.  Sharing experiences.  Hearing stories - and telling your own tales.

I’ve discovered that, when I daydream about my journeys, it’s always my memories of the people I met along the way that spring to mind first and strongest, and linger there the longest.

Such as the improbably-named Greg and his friends in Kristiansand; a happy group of older teenagers who bought me a beer or two in order to practise their English by explaining what Norwegian life was like, specially on a warm Saturday night…

Hens - fair-haired, handsome, blue-eyed… - who gave up his seat for me on the busy train between Ribe and Aalborg then forced me to drink a can or two of Tuborg while he hazily explained to everyone in the carriage how deeply he loved his fiancée Inge.  They’re married by now…

Mike, an American expat who was staying in the same hotel as me in Copenhagen and who, at the age of about 35, had decided to devote his life to trying to repair the damage done by US forces to the people of the countries they became involved in - Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.  His tales of derring-do genuinely enthralled me and kept me awake…

Jakob, with whom I shared part of the long train journey from Oslo to Lund.  A lawyer, he was returning home to his wife and young family in Halmstad.  I learned more about daily Swedish life from him than I could have learned from a dozen books or tv documentaries - a splendidly sociable fellow…

The funicular tram driver taking his break atop Mount Fløy in Bergen, who scowlingly blamed the British for the loss of so many Bergen children’s lives during the Second World War; we had, apparently, bombed two schools accidentally while aiming for a German U-boat dock…

Sammy, the shop-assistant in the 7-Eleven at Stavanger, who ignored lengthening queues of customers in order to hear about my travels - and who encouraged me to regale them all with my stories of an ageing Englishman who packs his bags and goes places.  He and his girlfriend bought me a drink when his shift ended…


Of all the characters - and there were many others - who crowd my busy memory, there is one unforgettable encounter which, above all others, has planted itself in my excited mind and remains there, vigorous and irremovable. 

The veritable princess of GT4 - the archetypal larger-than-life adventurer - was called Birgit (which she helpfully ‘translated’ as Brigitte).

We met on the tiny platform of Hirtshals station.  This is the end of the line in Denmark; you can’t go any further north.  All you can do is walk to the ferry terminal and take a boat to Norway - which is why we were both there.

We fell into conversation at once - one of those animated chats that make you feel you’ve known a total stranger for decades.  Before we’d reached the ferries, we knew each other’s ‘traveller’s tales’.  Birgit listened as I proudly listed the places I’d been on my travels - France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia...the lot.

But we had to stop mid-walk when she started on her own list because I kept catching my breath with each new adventure.  Nepal, Bhutan, India, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil…

She got stuck in the mud in a Jeep halfway up a Colombian mountain; she wandered alone - with just a backpack - among the mountains of Nepal and arrived in villages where she was invited to eat and stay overnight with the locals; she clambered up the rough-hewn path to Macchu Picchu - all 17 miles of it; she made friends, and maintained ongoing contact, with other long-haul adventurers, including two lesbians from Brighton (whom she has since visited) and a holidaying journalist called Simon, who has recently married and moved to Edinburgh.  Birgit has never visited Edinburgh so it’s now at the top of her bucket list.

It occurred to me that Birgit was afraid of nothing except human lack of communication.  As long as we travel - as long as we talk and smile - as long as we are kind and loving to the people we meet on the way - all will be well.

She certainly wasn’t afraid of her genetic heart condition, which, she said, had killed her mother and her mother before her. 

And she was wasn’t intimidated by her age either.  Birgit is 81 years old.

I hope you’re getting the picture here.  We made each other laugh or gasp in amazement or go ‘broody’ with wishful travel-thinking by turns.  I think maybe we also made plans, somewhere deep-down...

We had an hour or so to wait for our respective ferries and I wanted it to be a whole day.  Being with her was the perfect way to end my time in Denmark.  Upbeat, ‘happy talk’.  I was genuinely sad when the time came for me to board my ferry across the Skaggerak to Norway.
My ferry across the Skaggerak to Norway
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The Limfjord is the stretch of water that runs from sea to sea across northern Denmark, making North Jutland an island.  The city at its narrowest point is called Aalborg; I’d spent the previous night there - my last in Denmark.

It’s a fine old city and I’d learned a thing or two there.  Such as the price of Newcastle Brown Ale. 

And that Fentiman’s is available in at least one shop. 

And how inappropriate some of the city’s street-names are; my hotel was on Jomfru Ana’s Gade - Virgin Ana’s Street - and was without doubt the sleaziest, most virgin-free street in town.

I’d also learned how closely our local dialect is to Danish.  The panel outside a bar proclaimed that ‘jakkers’ aged 19 to 25 could get in half-price.  In 'street-Danish' a jakker is a young man; it’s pronounced exactly as it is in Durham’s ‘pit-yacker’ and is certainly the same word.  Which is no coincidence, considering how deeply Vikings were involved in our local history.

Aalborg is also Birgit’s home town.  Worth another visit, then…
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GT4's motto...

Now read on...

Despite my sojourn in Copenhagen, I planned GT4 essentially as a holiday of movement, of motion; travelling from place to place - mostly by train - to see new landscapes and new towns.  And to meet new people - as many as I could start a chat with.  To re-invent myself, to be whoever I wanted to be, which is what you do if you’re travelling alone on an epic journey like this.

All of which rendered my first experience of Danish trains unsatisfactory - at least for the first few minutes.

The problem was the automatic internal doors that were intended to allow passengers access from the entrance space to the seats.  I stood helplessly while the sparkling glass doors on the 1028 departure from Copenhagen Central to Esbjerg stared back at me - locked, it seems, against ageing and aching English voyagers.

(My legs were still refusing to co-operate with anything I wanted them to do, peeved after my exertions of the day before, when I’d climbed up the seemingly endless spiral, and quite steep, slope that leads to the top of Copenhagen’s famous Round Tower. 
 The sloping spiral that leads to the top of the Round Tower...

 ...and the view from the top, looking west

The view of rooftops and spires is amazing - but they should install a lift.  Perhaps even a paternoster lift.)

Where was I?  Ah yes - the 'automatic' doors on the first train journey of GT4...

A lady sitting inside the carriage started waving her arms frantically, as if fighting her way through the kind of cobwebs you only find in the movies, like an extremely animated Miss Havisham.  Eventually I got the message.  She obviously wanted me to do the same.  So I did.

Advice for boarding Danish trains.  The ‘magic eye’ which is meant to detect your presence and open the internal doors will only work if you make extravagant and unseemly gestures - wave your arms flamboyantly above your head like a demented ballet-dancer and the doors will open.

Thanking Miss Havisham profusely, I flopped down into a seat and waited for the train to take me on the first, real ‘travelling’ part of Skaggerak/Kattegat…
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Danish countryside is often unfairly represented as utterly flat and dreary.  But, although much of it is level and low-lying, it’s very far from featureless.  Amongst the many woodlands and forests, shimmering brightly with new-flowering hawthorn and carpeted with yellow, star-like aconites or white scurvy-grass, were farm-buildings - squat and big-roofed - and attractive small villages. 

From where I was sitting, Denmark looked very attractive indeed; and after yesterday’s efforts, my legs agreed.  ‘What’, they bawled, ‘is wrong with flat and level?’

The further west we went, the sunnier it got.  A ‘Magritte sky’ of scattered, pillow-shaped, high white clouds looked down on a landscape that gradually became more undulating; it heaved and buckled gently under the villages, farms and copses, now emblazoned with drifts of wild daffodils - still emerging here.

I’m almost ashamed to say that I was heavily distracted from this reverie by Miss Havisham herself.  I wanted to engage her in conversation but she was studiously and steadfastly busy.  Knitting.

At least, I think it was knitting - although it was unlike any knitting I have ever seen.  For a start, she was using four needles.  They were much shorter than conventional knitting needles, were pointed at both ends and she was using them with a machine-like dexterity such that my eyes couldn’t easily follow what she was actually doing.

The garment she was constructing was yellow, green and circular - and looked big enough to be an elephant’s trunk-cosy.  Each time I looked over at her, it seemed to have grown by several centimetres.

So it’s Miss Havisham’s fault that I saw only a glimpse of Roskilde (it looked charming) and nothing whatsoever of Odense, the birthplace of (you guessed it) Hans Christian Andersen.

Sorry, Hans.  Maybe next time.

I did, however, notice that we stopped at a station called...
Sorry about that.
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Here’s a list of things you may not know about Denmark.

* On average, every human being on Earth owns 560 pieces of Lego, which has been in continuous production here since 1932 - but the allure of which has always escaped me completely…

* To give old Mr Andersen his due, his books have been translated into more languages than any other book on Earth, except the Bible.  So there.

* Traditionally, Danes differentiate Summer from Winter by saying that, in Summer, the rain’s a little warmer.

* They also proudly declare - to their credit - that Denmark hasn’t been a threat to anyone for over 1,000 years.

* Danish men are the oldest in Europe to marry - on average, they wait until they are 32.

* Danes have the lowest income inequality in the world.

* There are 443 named islands in Denmark, 76 of which are inhabited.

* The flag of Denmark - ‘Dannebrog’ - is the oldest state flag in the world still in use by an independent nation. It was adopted in 1219.

* Denmark was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage - in 1989.

* Time and again, Danes are reckoned to be the happiest people in the world.  My view from the train went some way to explaining why…
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Random memories of Copenhagen...
McJoy's (!) Scottish pub.  I didn't go in...

The memorial to all the Danish sailors who smoked themselves to death in World War Two

In Denmark, 'Hereford' means best quality beef - quid pro quo for all that Danish bacon...
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After my night in Ribe - quaint, polite and comfortable - I made my way north to Aalborg; big, brash and very lively indeed…
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