Originally created 04/12/98

Travel: Sandy Skagen



SKAGEN, Denmark (AP) -- Sand, sea, wind, and sky have always ruled here at Denmark's northernmost point, in good times and bad.

Especially the sand. Along the beaches, it is very deep and very loose, and getting a foothold can be difficult. When the wind blows, it flies and shifts around the sea grasses. It has forced a town to move, and it has buried a church.

Then there's the sea, on all sides, it seems. The Skagerrak on the western side meets the Kattegat on the eastern at the Skaw, where arrow-like spit of aims directly at Norway and Sweden across the North Sea. The waters can be very rough, and they look like they're higher than the land to someone on shore. They've given fishermen a living but also have destroyed them and their ships.

And famously, there's the sky with its glowing light. The particular conjunction of flat, low-lying land, water, shallows, latitude, and sun causes a refractory luminescence, exhibiting a variety of hues at different times and weathers. They have attracted and inspired a school of artists and generations of vacationers.

But for my great-grandfather and his ancestors, all this was, simply, "bleak." Maintaining their farm a few miles south of Skagen was arduous because the sandy soil had to be firmed with gypsum clay every other year to get a few crops of potatoes, rye, barley and oats.

Their neighbors in the fishing villages of the region took their chances with the seas. They got by not only by selling their catch but by plying an odd subsidiary industry: tending to shipwreck victims -- or pillaging their wrecks.

Fighting sand was an everyday reality. Residents of the old Skagen moved their town from the west to the east coast of the peninsula because the sand kept drifting against their houses. Townspeople finally gave up on their 14th century church when it became too onerous to dig it out of the accumulating drifts. Today, the Tilsandede Kirke (Buried Church) is only a tower poking up out of the dunes in a nature preserve.

Easier times came around in the late 19th century for the same reasons as the harder. The sand, sea, and sky were picturesquely irresistible to a school of impressionist painters who settled here, mostly in the town of Skagen. Upmarket vacationers would soon arrive, enjoying summer sunshine, artistic ambience, and the charm of the old fishing and market village filled with tile-roofed, ocher-washed houses.

Early visitors included the fairy tale master, Hans Christian Andersen. During 1936-37, Karen Blixen settled in to finish writing, in English, her "Out of Africa" memoir, under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen.

Since then there have been yet more painters, artisans, naturalists, tourists, sunseekers, and a few great-grand descendants curious about family origins.

Today's visitors can take in all of compact Skagen's attractions on foot and see others in the region by bicycle or local services.

The first thing to do is go to the Skaw at Grenen, about 2' miles north of the town. At the gateway to the area, catch a ride to the "top of Denmark" point on a bizarre conveyance -- a tractor-cum-bus with monster treaded wheels to get over the sands. Once there, go through the traditional ritual: wade into the water with one foot in Skagerrak and the other in Kattegat. But don't take a swim; it's strictly forbidden because of dangerous currents.

If you're up to walking to and from the point, there are opportunities to detour for a bit of beachcombing on the eastern shore, just off the main road. You also can visit a lighthouse along the way.

Can you imagine the moving, drifting sand being protected as a natural wonder? That's what the Danes have done at Rabjerg Mile, about 10 miles south of Skagen (bike or bus from town are the best bets). Big undulating hills, some well over 100 feet high, have been moving eastward at a rate of about 33 feet a year, deliberately left in their natural state instead of being stabilized with plantings. It's estimated that the dunes will reach the east coast of the peninsula in about 150 years.

If you're hot for a swim, continue on to the beaches at Kandestederne, an expanse of white sand and surf.

From there you can catch another bus back, stopping at Gammel Skagen (Old Skagen), first settled by fishermen in medieval times but mostly abandoned because of the sand. What you'll find now is a quiet collection of upmarket beach houses and hotels. If you're here around sunset (which comes quite late during summer), you can catch a spectacular view by walking to the beach via Hojenvej, the main road.

Back in the newer town, the main cultural attraction is the painter's art. Skagens Museum houses the principal collections of the Skagen, or "Nordic light," school. The pictures replicate many of the vistas outside, including the sky colors, sands, lighthouses, the work and perils of local fishermen, the genteel lives of the painters themselves.

Represented here are works by the school's founder, Holger Drachmann; P.S. Kroyer, who created what is perhaps the signature piece of the era, "Summer Evening on South Beach at Skagen with Anna Ancher and Marie Kroyer;" Anna Brondum Ancher herself and her husband, Michael Ancher, who painted domestic and fishermen scenes, respectively.

More art can be found across the road in Brondums Hotel, founded by Anna Ancher's family; the Anchers' house about a block away; and at Drachmann's house, about a mile southwest -- all open to the public.

An open-air museum, Skagen By og Egnsmuseum (Skagen Town and Country Museum), is an introduction to the town's fishing industry past, with a typical windmill, a poor fisherman's tiny black-tar house, once home to a couple, their six children and two grandparents; a wealthy fisherman's house, with fine examples of Scandinavian painted furnishings; the Fishing Museum; and a house filled with ships and models.

In between, you can just take it informally easy, poking around the beaches and dunes, sampling fresh catch at seafood restaurants, shopping for amber, or if you should be around on Midsummer Eve, June 23, listening to live music and watching the sun stay up all night during the annual Skagen Festival.