Looking for light and comfort with the Danes

''Skagen gold'' is seen on houses everywhere at the tip of Denmark; outside Skagen, a church is buried by sand but for its tower. ''Skagen gold'' is seen on houses everywhere at the tip of Denmark; outside Skagen, a church is buried by sand but for its tower. (PHOTOS BY MEG PIER/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Meg Pier
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2008
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SKAGEN, Denmark - Disembarking from the 30-minute flight from Copenhagen to Aalborg Airport in North Jutland province, I saw a wiry gent with white hair holding a sign with my name. I had splurged on the services of a driver for four hours on each of the two days I was to be at the northernmost tip of the country and Kaj (pronounced "ky") proved an able guide.

As we made our way to Skagen, about 50 miles north, I asked him about "hygge" (pronounced "hue-ga").

"Well . . . it's the family, around the table, having wonderful conversation," Kaj said. "With a fire in the fireplace. And candles lit, lots of candles."

"I see . . . so warmth is important in hygge?" I said.

"Noooo . . .," he replied. "A snowball fight can be hygge."

My tutorial was tabled as we turned into the nearly empty parking lot of Rabjerg Mile, a huge expanse of undulating sand dunes 12 stories high and more than a half-mile square. They are easily accessible and open to the curious.

Kaj and I climbed the massive sand pile, laughing as we battled the strong wind that has been slowly moving this patch of earth for more than 700 years. It was an exhilarating hike to the top and as we caught our breath, Kaj pointed for me to look back. Our footsteps were already being erased by the wind.

According to biologist Poul Lindhart, the projection of land known as the "Skaw," which includes both Skagen and Rabjerg Mile about 12 miles to its south, first formed during the Ice Age. The dunes on the west coast of this promontory were initially covered with vegetation, but the effects of the Little Ice Age of the 1500s, combined with overgrazing by livestock, stripped them of the plant life that anchored them in place.

Thus began a massive migration by the dunes of more than a half mile between the 1300s, when the area was first settled, and the late 1700s. While other sandy areas of the Skaw have been planted since the 1830s to prevent such drifting, the Rabjerg Mile is allowed to go where the breeze takes it. It is heading eastward toward the Baltic Sea at an annual rate of 16 to 22 yards.

Kaj later deposited me at Skagen's picturesque harbor. The seafood restaurants adorning the former fish warehouses rimming the bay were mobbed with sun-burned Danes enjoying the summer day. After lunch I headed to Grenen, meaning "branch," the very tip of the "Top of Denmark," as the area is also known.

This finger of sand extends out a mile and a half, with the blue waters of the Baltic to its east and the North Sea pounding its western shore. While it is light until about 10 p.m. in summer in Skagen, there were few people on the beach at 5 as I made my way to the point. I saw three Sandormen - open-air tourist trolleys pulled by big-wheeled tractors - heading in the same direction, and then a small crowd spilled out onto the spit of land. Reaching the headland, I discovered I was amidst a wedding party, a dozen of whom stood barefoot on the Grenen's tiny tail curving out into the water. I felt privileged to witness their hygge.

Two hours later, I bounced along in a taxi to Tilsandede Kirke, or "the buried church," about three miles away, in the nature reserve of Skagen Klitplantage. In the 1790s, St. Laurentii, as the church is officially named, was all but swallowed by the great sand drift that created the Rabjerg Mile. The parishioners gave up digging it out, and now only the church tower remains as a place of pilgrimage for tourists.

Thomas, my driver, offered to turn the meter off while I walked through the heather and pines to the church. I was charmed by his courtesy. The white-washed tower protruded out of a rolling hill, the lines of its roof ascending like steps to its peak.

According to Sabine Kirchmeier-Anderson of the Danish Language Council the word hygge exists in Danish and Norwegian and is used to express a feeling or atmosphere of "comfort, cheerfulness, coziness, friendliness, bonhomie." Its Old Danish root of "hugh" means "remembering with a certain state of mind." The buried church qualifies.

Villy Hansen, of Denmark's forestry services, who cares for St. Laurentii, says the first recorded reference to the church was in a priest's papers in 1387, when he wrote of 20 kilometers of expensive cloth being brought to it for safekeeping after being salvaged from a ship stranded off Skagen's west coast.

Salvage and life-saving operations were long part of the everyday fabric of life in Skagen. Between 1860 and 1889, 506 ships were stranded off its coast.

The Skagen Local History Museum displays personal accounts of numerous rescue operations. The Dec. 27, 1862, rescue attempt of the stranded Swedish ship Daphne left eight Skagen widows and 25 fatherless children.

The heroic seamen were a frequent subject of the artists colony that took root in the area's sandy soil during painting's Golden Age in the mid- to late 1800s. With the first broad brushstrokes of Impressionism, painters such as Holger Drachmann and Michael Ancher were drawn to this "Land of Light," as northern Denmark is known.

Or so I thought. Mette Bogh Jensen, curator of the museum, says it is a myth that painters congregated in Skagen because of the light. "The artists came to Skagen because they were fascinated by the exoticness of the place, that it was far from the cities, difficult to get to, cheap to live in, and the fact there were other artists coming as well, and they could be a part of a community," she says.

Leaving the museum, I crossed the street to the Michael and Anna Ancher House. Danish minimalism had not yet occurred to anyone in 1884 when the Anchers bought and began filling their home. And I do mean "filling" it. The museum's partial listing of the contents include: door moldings Michael lifted from an old local house; a copper ceiling lampshade probably made from a pair of scales; and an 1800 beechwood settee, bought on auction in the old grocery store in Sondervig by a fisherman who sold it to the Anchers. And, of course, paintings upon paintings. The entire house was virtually wallpapered with art.

The Ancher House personified Kirchmeier-Anderson's further definition of hygge as "an atmosphere of friendship and harmony . . . We tend to take care of people we like and agree with by comforting them and keeping them warm and cozy. So not only people or gatherings but also a house, a chair, a blanket or a sweater can be hyggelig."

I had come to Skagen to conquer a mountain of shifting sands, to straddle a spit of land with one foot in the North Sea and the other in the Baltic. By the time I left I understood hygge.

Meg Pier can be reached at

If You Go

What to do

Skagen Museum

Brondumsvej 4, Skagen

011-45-9844 6444

The world's largest collection of works by Skagen painters. Adults $14, children under 18 free.

Skagen Local History Museum

PK Nielsensvej 8-10

011-45-9844 4760

Exhibits on Skagen's cultural history. Adults $6, children under 18 free.

Michael and Anna Ancher's House

Markvej 2-4

011-45-9844 3009

$10 per person.

Skagen Natural History Museum

Hojen Station

Flagbakkevej 30

011-45-9845 0706

Adults $5, under 15 85 cents.

Where to stay

Ruths Hotel

Gammel Skagen, Hans Ruths Vej

011-45-9844 1124

The beach is about 100 yards away. Doubles $287.

Brøndums Hotel

Central Skagen, Anchersvej 3

011-45-9844 1555

The oldest hotel in Skagen. Rooms $200-$260 per night.

Where to eat

Restaurant Pakhuset

Rødspaettevej 6


An excellent fish restaurant on the harbor. Entrees from $15.

Brasserie Plesner

Holstvej 8


A gourmet restaurant in exclusive surroundings in Skagen's center; Scandinavian food and design at its finest.

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