Funen (Fyn in Danish) is Denmark’s proverbial middle child. Lacking Zealand’s capital-city pull or Jutland’s geographic dominance, it’s often overlooked by visitors, who perhaps make a whistle-stop visit to Hans Christian’s Andersen’s birthplace and museum in the island’s capital, Odense. Sure, the master of fairy tales is a worthy favorite son, and Odense is a lively cultural and commercial center. But there is much more to Funen: thatched farmhouses, picturebook coastal towns, and grand Renaissance castles dot the island’s patchwork of fields and woods. Rolling southern pastures and orchards grow some of the country’s best produce (Funen is called ‘Denmark’s garden’), while handsome harbor towns give access to a yacht-filled archipelago and idyllic seafaring islands like Ærø. It’s not hard to understand why many describe this region as a microcosm of the very best of Denmark.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Odense is Denmark’s third-largest urban center. It lies at the heart of an area dubbed the “Garden of Denmark” for the variety of fruits and vegetables produced here. The town is most famous as the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. Odense is easily explored on foot. Looking like a storybook village, the old town contains some fine museums, including three art museums, one of which, Brandts, is dedicated to photography. Odense’s showpiece is the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, where the storyteller’s life is detailed through drawings, photographs, letters, and personal belongings. A library contains his works in more than 90 languages. The H.C. Andersens Barndomshjem (H.C. Andersen’s Childhood Home) shows where the writer lived with his parents in a room measuring barely 6 ft by 1.5 m 5 ft.
Small, sleepy Kerteminde has much to offer beyond its pleasant cobbled heart of timbered houses. The impressive aquarium, sandy beaches, and yacht-filled harbor make for pleasant diversions, and there’s a radiant collection of work by ‘peasant painter’ Johannes Larsen. Kerteminde is also a base for visiting the superb Viking ship at Ladby, or for getting away from it all on Romsø.
Denmark’s only Viking Age ship grave, known as Ladbyskibet (the Ladby Ship, named for the tiny village where it was found), is a captivating sight. Around the year 925, a Viking chieftain was laid to rest in a splendid 21.5m warship, surrounded by weapons, jewelry, clothing, and other fine possessions. Archaeologists have ascertained that not long after his burial the grave was plundered and the chieftain’s body was removed. But what was left behind is amazing: all the wooden planks from the ship decayed long ago, leaving the perfect imprint of hull molded into the earth, along with 2000 rivets, an anchor, iron curls from the ship’s dragon-headed prow, and the grinning skulls of sacrificed dogs and horses. The site of the find – under a turfed-over mound – gives an eerie sense of time and place, compounded by a dimly-lit airtight chamber that holds the compelling relic. The site’s adjacent museum, Vikingemuseet Ladby, does a great job recounting what is known of the story. It displays finds from the grave and a reconstructed mock-up of the boat before it was interred, complete with slaughtered cattle, giving a vivid sense of the scale and trouble taken over the burial of the chieftain. In a neighboring field, a group of boatbuilding enthusiasts is building a replica of Ladbyskibet, using techniques from the Viking era.
Whatever you do, don’t miss a day exploring Egeskov Slot, squarely aimed at families but with plenty of thrills for all ages.
In its 17th-century heyday, Faaborg claimed one of the country’s largest commercial fishing fleets. It might be a lot sleepier these days, but vestiges of those golden years live on in cobblestone streets like Holkegade, Adelgade, and Tårngade. Add to this a couple of good museums and a reinvigorated waterfront, and you have a winning pitstop.
The darling of the Danish yachting fraternity, who pack the town’s cafe-dotted streets each summer, Svendborg is a major sailing center. There are more Danish boats registered here than anywhere else outside Copenhagen, and the town is the main gateway to Funen’s beautiful southern archipelago. Although it’s predominantly a modern industrial settlement, Svendborg possesses marvelous wooded cycling areas, popular beaches, a great natural history museum, and a first-rate hostel – not to mention a harbor packed with old wooden boats from across the Baltic.
The island of Tåsinge is connected to Svendborg and Langeland by road bridges. Its main sights are in the northeast: the pretty sea-captains village of Troense and palatial 17th-century Valdemars Slot. The rest of the island is a mixture of woods, hedges, and open fields, cut through by the main road, Rte 9.
Langeland is a long, narrow stretch of beach-fringed green, connected by bridge to Tåsinge. It’s a grain-producing island: small farming villages and windmills dot the countryside, and everything moves at an unhurried pace. Langeland’s major town, Rudkøbing, is unremarkable; the real attractions lie north at the Tickon sculpture park and south at the former military stronghold of Langelandsfort. This is a great area for meandering exploration, bird-watching, and paddling in clear waters on the island’s beaches.
Rudkøbing’s tumbledown streets are pleasant enough for a brief meander, but there’s no need to spend much time here (unless you’re traveling by bus, or stocking up on info or supplies). Between Torvet and the harbor are a series of narrow cobbled streets lined with tiny tilting houses. Combining three of the most interesting, Ramsherred, Smedegade, and Vinkældergade, makes a fine stroll.
Southern Langeland’s pastoral landscape contains some gentle diversions. The island’s favorite Blue Flag beach is at the thatched seaside hamlet of Ristinge. Other pitstops include a manor house and a Cold War-era relic. At the tip of Langeland, you might spy wild horses (follow signs for ‘Vilde Heste’): two herds of Exmoor ponies have been introduced to keep the coastal meadows cropped. The area here and around Bagenkop also contain excellent bird-watching sites connected by footpaths, and there’s a coastal nature reserve, Tryggelev Nor, midway between Bagenkop and Ristinge. Humble, Bagenkop, and Lindelse are all reasonable sized villages – they each have a nondescript kro providing accommodation and food, plus small supermarkets. Humble is closer to Ristinge beach but Bagenkop has more charm, plus an idyllic small harbor for wandering.
Ærø is the frontrunner for the title of the loveliest Danish island. The island is rich in maritime history, and home to some good beaches and photogenic bathing huts. Add the picturebook town of Ærøskøbing and the country roads that roll through gentle countryside peppered with thatched-roofed, half-timbered houses and old windmills, and you’ll really capture the feeling of stepping back in time. It helps that Ærø is populated by some of the friendliest people in Denmark: in a gesture of kindness, the local bus is free. Still, the three main towns (Ærøskøbing, Marstal, and Søby) are within perfect cycling distance of each other, and cycling is a great way to get around – not least as this is in keeping with the spirit of an island that is run almost entirely on sustainable energy sources such and wind and solar power. In summer the place comes alive. There is a lively jazz festival in late July/early August, and it’s a favorite yachtie destination.
Marstal, at the eastern end of Æro, is larger and more modern than Ærøskøbing, but it’s one of the island’s big draws thanks to its living maritime history. In its 19th-century heyday, more than 300 merchant ships pulled into port annually and eight shipyards were operating. It’s still a seafaring town with a busy shipyard, a marina, and an excellent nautical museum. Appropriately enough, acclaimed author Carsten Jensen partly set his bestselling maritime epic We, the Drowned here. You can buy the novel at the museum and in the tourist offices. It’s a great way to steep yourself in Marstal’s seafaring history.