A week before departure everything is ready: the polish bike loaded with four neatly wrapped panniers, ferry and train journeys are all booked, accommodations and campsites reserved. Cycling in Iceland is a complex undertaking: ferry to Amsterdam from Newcastle, trains to Aarhus, cycling through Jutland to the port of Hirtshals, near the northern tip of Denmark, ferries to the Faroe Islands, which I will explore by bike before embarking on more cycling in the east of Iceland. Three weeks in total and no flying involved. A small sacrifice for the climate emergency, but also a chance to alert everyone to the wonderful adventures that can be had without flying.
But four days before departure, I find myself in the hospital contemplating a very sick person who cannot be left behind. Weeks of planning and preparation are in jeopardy. The day of departure passes, but the miracle of intravenous antibiotics occurs and I realize that I can still travel, catch up with my own itinerary if I make a few changes.
I have to give up the idea of taking my own bike and using rental machines instead; I also have to leave immediately and – gurgling – take a short flight. I hastily stuff a few things into two of the panniers and fly in hand luggage only to Denmark. From the airport, I take trains and buses to the town of Thisted in Jutland, where I rent a Dutch-style city bike with pedal brake. I load up the panniers and my handlebar bag, then set off into the empty, rolling countryside towards the coast, and some dark clouds.
It feels good to be on the way. Planning an international trip without a bike theft is a lot harder than it should be. Ferry routes have been reduced in recent years – travel would be much easier if there was still a ferry between the UK and Scandinavia. Not only that, but taking bikes on international trains can be frustrating and tricky (regional services are much easier). Our transportation systems are hopeless when it comes to doing good for the planet.
As I finally approach the Jutland coast, I rush headlong into a vicious northwesterly gale that brings freezing salvoes of rain straight from the North Sea. All optimism is quickly washed from me. I reached Campsite Hansholm (twin cabin from £63 a night) at dusk, soaking wet, shivering and hating bikes. All camping gear is back home. I take a small cabin. I unpack. I take out a down jacket and gloves. How did they get in there? Stupid items to pack during a heat wave, but I put them on with gratitude. I brought the wrong bag. But what is it ? A copy of War and Peace, the book I was reading and intended to leave behind. I open a random page and start reading.
Tolstoy’s masterpiece is probably the most poignant read I could have chosen: the story of how everyone participates in a needless rush to predictable doom. Even my small no-fly contribution has already failed.
When I wake up the next morning, things don’t look so gloomy. The sun shines in a blue sky as I roll through the grass towards a roaring sea. from Denmark West Coast Bike Path is 450 miles of dunes, woods and back roads, but this morning all I want is the beach.
Without consulting the map – the one I left in the UK – I roll over the sand and turn north. By staying on the edge of the waves I can make decent progress unless I try to turn which causes me to fall. A cloud of curlews rises to my right, the wind holding the birds so close I feel I could reach out and stroke their long, curved beaks. The sea roars in my ears and I no longer think of anything. I love cycling. I love Denmark.
When the tide eventually pushes me into the softer sand, I’m forced inland over the grassy dunes, where I find a marked trail. A chain of black diamonds tossed across the path suddenly unravels and slides into the beds of snapdragons and wild orchids. It is an additional territory. At Thorup Strand I find a fishing collective which sells excellent fish and chips. At the end of the afternoon I am in Svinkløv camp site (tent for two for £47) where my stationary tent has a very comfortable bed. I like Denmark’s low-key, no-nonsense mentality. There’s no fuss, no mess, and certainly no hyperbole.
When King Frederick VI came here at the beginning of the 19e century, he declared it the finest part of his empire (which at the time included Norway, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, a trio of Caribbean islands, the Nicobar Islands and the Bengali city of Frederiknagore, now Serampore).
There is nothing flashy or spectacular, just a few tidy meadows, a thatched-roof windmill and a long beach. There are simple cabins for sleeping along this coastal path, where I had planned to camp, but now I pass by. In the town of Blokhus, lunch under the thatched roof Restaurant Futten, I engage in a conversation with an 82-year-old doctor who once practiced in Greenland, and his son. “I loved doing house calls,” he recalls, “I went there by dog sled.” In the summer, he came back here, to the family’s summer vacation home. I imagine a shack covered in planks filled with pieces of driftwood and the skulls of sea creatures. Suddenly I feel a connection to my route, the vast northern seas salty with craggy volcanic outcrops and ice caps. For the first time I feel the benefits of arriving slowly on land and sea. There is time to talk and build knowledge and expectations.
The doctor’s son talks about the egalitarian nature of the Danes. “When a group of 9th century Viking warriors were asked who their leader was, they said, ‘We are all leaders.’
He asks me if I like the flat landscape. “For us Danes, the desert is not the mountain, but the sea.”
I continue down the beach, following the wavy line of foam to Løkken and what turns out to be a top-notch B&B, Villa Vendel (doubles from £104) in a pretty old-fashioned house with a cycle shop in the former stables. From there, in the pouring rain again, I push the bike up a headland and into the spectacular remains of WWII German gun emplacement. The sea pulls them down, drowns them slowly. Before long, their dark corridors will be fish nurseries.
Apart from a few occasional deep loops inland, I’m almost always near the sound of the sea on this trip and whenever I can, I ride on the beach. In some places cars are allowed and the sand is stirred up, but I always find a business at the water’s edge. Sometimes I take the bike to the dunes and lay down sheltered from the wind, watching the birds and the flowers, then I go for a swim. To dry off, I stand facing the wind. No towel. I buy open sandwiches and coffee from neatly painted clapboard cafes.
I reach the port of Hirtshals the day before the departure of the weekly ferry to the Faroe Islands, checking in at Hotel Montra (doubles from £90) close to the quay. The town itself is kind of a solid marine place, where you can buy a fishing rod and a knife as well as pants, socks, water bottles and towels. But I don’t. No space. My son Conor, who lives in Berlin, arrives by train to accompany me, and in the morning we leave under the sun, walking towards the imposing ship, Smyril Line’s Norrona, who has appeared. We will rent bikes when we arrive in Tórshavn, but I don’t know more than that: they say that cycling is new to the Faroe Islands. On the quay, I chat with a Faroese crew member: “I have a bicycle,” he tells me. “But I never rode it. People don’t cycle in the Faroe Islands. It’s too cold, too windy and we have many long and dark tunnels. »
We board the ferry with a certain excitement spiced with a little apprehension. After the sweet charms of Jutland, it seems, the epic bike ride is about to get a whole lot tougher.
The trip was provided by Visit Denmark. Haves Bike in Løkken rents bikes from £13.50 per day (e-bikes from £22), with pickup and drop-off in Jutland. DFDS ferries sail daily from Newcastle to Amsterdam. A Interrail “four days in a month” pass costs about £200. Smyril Line sails weekly in autumn from Hirtshals to Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands, passenger with bike from £80 one way