When you reach Aarhus by train from the south, it feels like you have penetrated deep into Jylland, the long Danish peninsula whose name is often rendered “Jutland” on English and German maps. In Fredericia, once a garrison town on the east coast, overhead cables are cut off. North of here there is only diesel traction on a railway that connects the heads of several sea inlets along the way to Aarhus.
Aarhus train station, four and a half hours from Hamburg by the occasional direct train, is a nice terminus and, for many travelers, the northern extension of their Jutland journey. But some trains reverse in Aarhus, circling the west side of the city, and then meander north. There’s still a lot of Jutland to come, and the 160-mile journey from Aarhus to Denmark’s northernmost railway outpost in Skagen is a scenic delight. It offers no grandeur, but a pleasant mix of forest and moorland, agricultural and coastal scenery. This is a journey to the end of Denmark. Skagen itself is an extraordinary community, perched on a sliver of land overlooking the sea where the waters of the Skagerrak and the Strait of Kattegat mix.
This autumn marks the 160th anniversary of the opening of Aarhus’s first train station. More recent is the current building, a graceful Neo-Renaissance structure from the late 1920s. When I stopped in Aarhus in September, a huge Ukrainian flag was flying above the station clock.
North of Aalborg
I sit on the nearly empty two-car train from Aarhus to Aalborg, where passengers bound for the northernmost stations change to continue their journey to Skagen.
Escaping the tangle of Aarhus’s suburbs, we make an unscheduled – and inexplicable – stop at Hinnerup, with its striking modernist library and cultural center near the station. Then continue through the gentle Lilleå valley, past the woods where eager mushroom pickers are combing the forest floor. We pass stone churches with white towers, red barns in a variety of styles, and solid Jutland farmhouses that nestle gently into the rolling landscape. Jutland is more hilly than many visitors expect.
The arrival of the railway 150 years ago transformed this rural region. The town of Hesselholt even marked the moment by changing its name to Arden. With an idyllic location on the edge of the ancient Rold Skov forest, Arden is a perfect spot for a heather hill walk where eagle-eyed visitors are often rewarded by sighting deer.
In Aalborg, change from the silver train of the Danish State Railways to the two-tone blue carriages of a local operator. We move north on the truss bridge that carries the railway across the Limfjord to reach North Jutland. This northernmost part of Denmark is, in effect, an island, a status it acquired in a storm 200 years ago, when the sand barrier connecting North Jutland to the mainland was breached by a ferocious storm.
Forests, dunes and coast
The North Jutland scenery is tame at first, but the best is yet to come. The sun comes up, so I make an impromptu stop in Tolne, eager for another walk in the woods. The beech woods here turn out to be extraordinarily beautiful. A quick walk is good preparation for coffee and orange cake in an old country inn near the station. Here the potters Janne Hieck and Gregory Hamilton Miller made their home.
“It was curiosity that brought me here 10 years ago,” says Miller. “I was on the train to Skagen and saw this ruined place when the train stopped in Tolne. I bought it on a whim. ”Today the couple runs a pottery studio, a bar and a B&B in the once abandoned inn.
Back on the train, we follow the tiny Elling River towards the coast at Frederikshavn, where I stop to watch the ferry depart for nearby Læsø, an island famous for salt and radishes that I have somehow never been able to visit. Next time, maybe.
The final part of the journey, from Frederikshavn to Skagen, is a wonderful journey through a haunting landscape of moving sand dunes. Tidy conifer plantations give way to arid scrub, while to the east you can see ships at anchor in the sheltered bay of Ålbæk, a part of the Kattegat that separates North Jutland from Sweden.
I stop once again in Hulsig, a tiny village in the middle of a sea of mountain dunes. Then it’s back by train for the last 10 minutes to Skagen, a community full of airy seaside style that, in the last decades of the 19th century, found fame as an art colony.
If in doubt about the importance of geography, come to Skagen, a place that, against all odds, survives in the sand almost at the northern tip of Denmark. I had the romantic idea of getting off the train to see the waters of the Skagerrak and Kattegat fighting outside the station. But the real tip of the spit is in Grenen, so I rent a bike and cycle to the windy point which is, in fact, where the North Sea meets the Baltic. The two seas look quite different indeed, the rough and turbulent North Sea, the calmer Baltic and perhaps, just maybe, a lighter shade of blue.
How to get there
Half-hourly trains operated by the Danish State Railways (DSB) connect Aarhus with Aalborg, normally taking 75-90 minutes. The continuous hourly service from Aalborg to Skagen is operated by the North Jutland Railway (NJ). That second part of the journey takes two hours. Tickets from Aarhus to Skagen are available from DSB. The normal standard class fare is £ 38, but book well in advance and you’ll find discounted tickets from £ 12.50. These cheaper DSB Orange fares are tied to a specific train and do not allow stopovers. For real flexibility, consider using an Interrail pass, which is valid without restrictions on all rail services in Denmark.
The Tolne Inn offers simple and cozy accommodation, with double B & Bs starting from around £ 113. It is just a step away from the forest and there is good local cuisine in the cafe. At the Skagen Hotel, opposite Skagen Train Station, the cost of the B&B doubles from £ 114 in the low season, to £ 186 or more on summer weekends.
Nicky Gardner is a Berlin writer. The 17th edition of his book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available at the Guardian Bookshop. He is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine