Notes from an author: Elisabeth Åsbrink on the Danish village of Blåvand

War brought the Vikings and Nazis to the village of Blåvand. But it’s the sea, sand, sky and a sense of the infinite that draws you back to this coastal spot.Sunday, 1 December 2019

Though they might be very similar to each other, the neighbouring countries of Sweden and Denmark are, at the same time, extremely different. And, like all siblings, not only do they cherish these differences, but they build entire identities around them. It’s no coincidence that the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier created one of his first masterpieces on precisely this cult of differences, the television series The Kingdom. No Dane or Swede can ever forget the Swedish protagonist standing on a rooftop in the Danish capital at night, looking out to Sweden as lights glittered over the dark waters of Øresund, and declaring: “Here, Denmark. Shat out of chalk and water. And there, Sweden. Hewn from granite. Danish bastards! Danish bastards!”

Another famous Scandi television series, The Bridge, even revolves around that physical connection between the two countries. 

As a Swede married to a Dane, I find myself looking at both countries as if I’m constantly abroad, and over the years I have, together with my husband, sought to identify the core of the two quarrelling siblings’ self-image. While Danes (falsely) believe that they’re free, Swedes (equally falsely) believe that they’re good. Nevertheless, it’s in Denmark that I’ve found my favourite place on earth, the closest part of Denmark to Great Britain. It’s the country’s westernmost point, a small village called Blåvand — its name meaning ‘blue water’. 

It’s a very Danish name, being at once descriptive and prosaic, so that it almost becomes poetry. Like the Danish word for ‘skirt’, nederdel (literally, ‘for the lower part of the body’), or the word for saucer, which is underkop (‘under the cup’), the name Blåvand describes what my favourite place is all about. The sea. The sky. The sand. The wind. The seals, always curious about us their fellow bathers. The hugeness of it all. In short, Blåvand is another word for infinity. 

As von Trier concluded, while Sweden is built on granite, Denmark stands on chalk. Consequently, there are no mountains in Denmark, hardly any hills, no rocks, no climbing, but an awful lot of sand. In Blåvand, and all along the west coast of Denmark, there are beaches with sand so fine and white that it constantly reflects the daylight and requires sunglasses, even on a cloudy day. 

This all sounds trivial, almost as prosaic as the Danish word for ‘saucer’, I agree. So, why come here? I could quote tourist brochures and write about Blåvand as the very place where the Vikings set sail from before invading England. Or I could tell of the ruins of wartime bunkers that remain on the beaches because Field Marshal Rommel and his boss Adolf Hitler were convinced that D-Day would take place here. Or mention the villagers who keep lists of birdwatchers that they check off every August. But my reasons for coming here are not these.

Not at all. It’s about very simple things: finding the narrow path through the lyme grass, climbing in the rippling sand, or being out of the wind, barefoot, knowing that soon, in five or six more steps, I’ll reach the top of the dune. It’s about reaching the summit and being hit by the wind and the view of a never-ending horizon, sealing the sea with the sky. It’s about walking down the other side of the dune where there are no other footprints in the sand, as they’ve all blown away. It’s about laying down a blanket or a towel, taking out a book and reading while hearing the distant laughs of sandcastle-builders. It’s about the soft rattle of sand moving in the wind; thousands of millions of grains of ground-down shells and limestone and granite and crashed meteorites moving like hourglass sand in the breeze. It’s about walking into the North Sea and noticing that 20 metres away, there’s a seal watching you like you’re the animal in the zoo. And — finally — it’s about the miraculous sense of childhood treasure hunts, when a small piece of amber washes up right beside you. 

This is a place so vast that it’s ‘unphotographable’. No matter how many cars there are in the car park, I always find myself alone with the sea, the sky, the sand, the seals. In short, with infinity.

Elisabeth Åsbrink is an author and journalist based in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Her latest book, Made in Sweden: 25 Ideas That Created A Country, is published by Scribe (£12.99). More information: elisabethasbrink.se

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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