Week 20: Denmark’s Wonderful Cozy Feeling


Sylt (Germany) to Klitmøller (Denmark), 384km; total 9,009km


It was pure misery.


Or at least as close as one can get while on a six-month family bike vacation through Europe.


The rain started shortly after we left the mesmerizing sand sculpture festival in Søndervig - a fairground filled with brilliantly conceived and beautifully etched impressions of European history, from the Black Death and invention of mathematics, to Joan of Arc and witch hunts. Back on our bikes, we were deeply engaged in discussion about epidemics and the malicious treatment of strong, confident women - and also our awe over the skill and patience required to create such intricate art that will only last a few months before melting away in the weather.



So we didn’t pay much heed to the deceiving drizzle that was dabbing our panniers. It was mid-morning and the real rain wasn’t anticipated until late afternoon. Besides, we were breezing along on a glorious southerly tailwind that kept the sprinkling at our backs instead of in our faces.


By noon it was coming down harder, so we and our panniers all donned our raingear to keep us dry and happy. In the classic fishing village of Thorsminde, we paused at the lone diner for a few plates of fries, then set off again into the countryside with a few measly metres of visibility ahead. When you’re well prepared for the weather, you feel untouchable.



But then it just didn’t stop. Even if the gradually intensifying downpour hadn’t been so torrential, the persistence alone would still have soaked us through. You may recall that our clothes and gear are starting to show holes and cracks after five months of constant wear - and the teeming globs of wet found ‘em all. After a couple hours we may as well have been biking in a swimming pool - except with gale-force winds chilling us to the bone. Once our teeth started to clatter we pulled into the only building we’d seen in miles: a run-down flea market with a shut-down “cafeteria”. As we dug around in our panniers for dry socks and mitts, we found deep puddles in our apparently-no-longer waterproof covers, and a muddle of thoroughly soaked garments in the bottom of our bags.


So we exchanged sopping layers for damp ones, and within a minute back on the road we wondered out loud why we even bothered. Normally we would hunker at the first motel in sight, but we’d discovered an accommodation desert in Denmark, and the nearest option was 30km and a ferry ride away. We met another family cycling the other way: they were heading to the train station because the only vacancy they could track down was several towns over.


Even with the tailwind, the rain swamped us from all directions, leaving no dry refuge for any bike part or body part. Perhaps worst was from below, as our tires churned up a drenching, demoralizing spray from the muddy pooled water on the road - into chain links, up pant legs and all over the face of the rider behind.


Pure misery.


Yet somehow our sad-sack, soggy crew of four felt surprisingly serene. You see, bike-touring misery (almost) always ends in somewhere warm and cozy. If it didn’t, we may well have abandoned our favourite pastime after the first week of our Vancouver to Tijuana honeymoon ride, or after that cyclone we ran into in Matapuri, New Zealand, and definitely after the flood-inducing deluge in Trinidad, Cuba. But when we’re wet, we always scramble indoors if at all possible - and on this day our oasis was very far away, but it was coming.


Reprieve from the rain. A warm shower and hopefully a fresh set of merino wool to wear. A hot supper, a little more lavish than the usual - like frozen pizza if there is an oven. Finally a use for that hot chocolate powder we’ve been lugging around for months.


That kind of cozy is a special feeling that only comes after feeling abject misery. Your muscles and mind fully relax - and you appreciate it so much more because it was so recently elusive.


It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe or put words to.


Unless you’re Danish.


Hygge.


Pronounced not quite like “yoga,” it’s more “Hyu-guh.” You kind of need to have the rounded “u” in the French word tu, then the “eu” in deux.


It takes a while to get just right. But when you do, you know what it means. Respite. Shelter. Comfort.


Cozy after misery.


Apparently, hygge made a brief international splash a half-decade ago when a pile of books on how to “live Danishly” took the UK and US wellness community by storm. We’d never heard of it, but we instantly recognized the feeling from our past bike tours, and also life in the Yukon - another cold and windy, marvellously northern climate where minus-40 skiing ends in a hot tub, sauna or on a couch with a warm mug by the fireplace.


The Danes seem to have hygge figured out, as we found during our first week cycling up the west coast of the North Sea in this enigmatic land of Vikings, endless farmland and blustery shores. We’ve been hearing for weeks about how we could “wild camp anywhere” in Denmark, but we never imagined the smart system of tiny wooden shelters that seem to be everywhere - each built by local community groups to provide respite from the elements for bikers, hikers and wanderers of all kinds for free.



Every design is a slightly different take on the general theme of low, pitched roof (often topped with soil and wild grass), oak-plank and log walls, raised plywood floors and an open front (some have even built in sliding doors). There are thousands of these little huts with space for two to six sleeping bags (or in one case this week, just enough for our rain-fly-less tent to fit inside) scattered across the wild Danish landscape, tucked into picturesque nooks in forests and fields - like snuggly little Hobbit homes, or treehouse forts on the ground, bringing out our inner kids.



A phone app tells you where each mini-cabin can be found, whether it has a toilet (usually), a drinking water tap (often) or a firepit, and whether it’s reservable (usually there’s at least one shelter at each site that is first-come, and once they were all taken so we just pitched our tents nearby for free).


They wouldn’t necessarily work in bear (or raccoon) country, and certainly not in mosquito season, but they’re ideally suited to Denmark’s quick-shift summer weather: cute and cozy, surprisingly warm and dark, and just the right fit for a family of four to cuddle happily together.


Hygge.


The Danish make the most of their water, too. This week the boys tracked down another kablepark in the vacation hub Hvide Sande, and a quintessential northern surf town in Klitmøller, known as “Cold Hawaii” where tall and tanned surfers ride frigid waves all year long. In both places Heron upped his game, testing out wakeboard ramps and rails, and front-flipping off his surfboard. Sitka kept pace with big brother, persevering to master the expert-level speed on the cable course and landing some 180 footwork while surfing. Joce is still using her knee excuse (with good reason) and Ed pretends his toe still hurts to avoid being completely shown up by his suddenly super-skilled sons who have blown into territory their dad will never reach. It’s a new parenting feeling - watching and marvelling instead of joining and teaching - but I suppose an inevitable transition and one that’s satisfying in an entirely new way as our boys carve out their own personalities and passions.




They’re meeting some splendid role models in that respect, too. In Klitmøller, young surfer dudes Peter and Erik live the dream as co-owners of Viking Adventures, giving lessons in the sea all summer and renting AirBnB rooms in their houses, all in support of their off-season wave-riding pursuits. We also met descendants of Vikings at the outdoor heritage centre in Ribe that recreates that settlement from a thousand years ago - like a Scandinavian pioneer village. These hobbyists bring their families from all over Northern Europe to the open-air market, to dress and sleep and eat as their long-ago forefathers did, while selling their authentic wares - tools, shields, jewellery and art - that they’ve crafted by passed-down wisdom.



In Vestervig, it was Jan who rescued us from that horrible rainstorm in the former hospital that he’s renovating into Hawkraft - a hotel, music house and cultural centre that will soon be the living hub of the Thy region. Jan quit his job last fall to dedicate himself full-time to his dream of welcoming musicians, artists and tourists from around the world to this inspiring space with floor-to-ceiling paintings, artfully conceived kitchens, and rooms filled with instruments.


Meanwhile, Jan is hosting Ukrainian refugees in the rooms that are ready - offering them free Danish and music lessons, making space in the acreage for them to grow a sunflower labyrinth in solidarity with their still-suffering compatriots, and rallying support in the community to find them employment and social connection. He welcomed us personally on our arrival, to be sure we felt fully at home in his emerging masterpiece - including the washer and dryer.



There’s a certain calm determination in the Danish people we’ve met. A chill but fierce work ethic - unfazed and undaunted by big challenges. Maybe it’s the Viking blood, or having learned to thrive on the wild and windy land we’ve now cycled.


But we’d like to think it’s from that feeling of knowing that there’s always warmth and peace somewhere, somehow to come. That being in touch with struggle and discomfort - wallowing in it, even - that makes the satisfying ending that much sweeter.


For without the toil, there could be no hygge.






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