*Sweden and Denmark: Cycling in Scandinavia

Experiences and advice from CHARLIE FISHER

A two month ride across Denmark and Sweden, up through Finland to the North Cape, and then down the coast of Norway! Going in May and June would ensure I avoided the busy season and the legendary Lapland mosquitoes. In return I would have to accept a few cool nights at the end of a long hard winter, particularly in the extreme North, beyond the Arctic Circle.

With a two-man tent and all the cooking equipment. I was more heavily laden than ever before. However, apart from Norway, Scandinavia is not very mountainous.

Denmark looks like a country created entirely from scratch by cyclists. The terrain, the roads and cyclepaths, town centre facilities and modest distances all lean towards this view. It is joked that if you stand on a crate of beer in Denmark, you can survey the entire country with ease. This is not at all true, particularly if you drink the crate of beer first. Nevertheless, enthusiasts of hairpin bends, cols and altimeters will find nothing to whet the appetite here. I did however discover one steep climb in the Rebild National Park in the North of the country, soaring to 400 feet above sea level.

The cyclepaths themselves vary considerably, but are generally free from the broken glass and canine memorabilia found on too many paths at home. Some were laid with gravel running through woodland almost out of earshot of the road. Others were smoothly asphalted two lane miniature roads alongside the real thing. Even the quietest country lanes sometimes have a separate cycle path. When cycling on the road becomes necessary, you immediately notice how well maintained they are, with hardly a pothole to be found.

The jewel in Denmark's cycling crown is the comprehensive signposting of a number of quite extensive cycle routes. Whilst road traffic is directed from A to B by the most direct route, cyclists are directed via a delightful mixture of cyclepaths and the quietest country roads. A map showing these routes is provided by the Danish Tourist Board.

The biggest obstacle to a cyclist's progress in Denmark is the wind. On the basis of my trip, this means a gale roaring in off the North Sea. On a dry day near the West coast, it may carry an unpleasant amount of sand, the price to pay for some of the longest sandy beaches in Europe. But flat need not mean dull. The skyline is punctuated by three unlikely structures: telegraph towers that look as if they could withstand a siege: old windmills, idle yet well preserved: and the modern wind turbine. These gently turning beasts have been hailed as saviours of the energy crisis. They are certainly not the eyesore some claim. If only all high-tech solutions to energy needs could look so elegant! I was all too painfully reminded of the slowness to adopt this technology at home:

Western Denmark has one major tourist attraction that is known all over the world. Legoland is well worth a visit, if only to see what you could have built yourself years ago had parental miserliness not denied you adequate building materials! Outdoor and indoor exhibitions, rides, cafeterias and the history of Lego do need a full day out. The shop price tags reveal why your own children are unlikely ever to construct the JCB with working hydraulics!

Legoland aside, the normal day was spent cruising past immaculately picturesque farm buildings and whitewashed village churches. The larger towns of Viborg and Aalborg were no less pleasant. I spent a few hours in each admiring the architecture, functionality and beauty harmoniously combined. Before leaving for Sweden, on my last day in Denmark I rode up to the extreme Northern tip of the country. A few kilometres from the top is the quaint old fishing town of Skagen, notable for its many yellow-painted wooden buildings. The weather dissuaded me from doing what many visitors come to this thin sandy wedge of the country to do - to stand in the water with one foot in each of the Kattegat and Skaggerak seas! I preferred to watch the brave few from the dizzy heights of the nearby lighthouse.

So what are the hazards of cycling in Denmark, if there are no potholes, good cycle paths and little traffic in the towns? I had no mishaps, right? Wrong! Although not for the usual reasons, I did manage to part with my ferrous steed on two occasions.

The first was when I hit a patch of soft sand! I mistakenly assumed that if it's possible to drive on the beach, then it's also possible to cycle on it. To the spectacle of a fine sunset, I added that of a cyclist gracefully somersaulting over his handlebars.

The second mishap arose from a collision with a newspaper! Tightly folded, wrapped in plastic, and dropped on country lanes at the ends of long driveways, the unwary cyclist should beware. Cats and dogs have tried many a time unsuccessfully to trip me up at home, but never newspapers. A good thing too, I realised. Collision with a well parcelled Sunday Times would be carnage indeed.

There are literally dozens of ferry routes between Denmark and Sweden. Local tourist offices can make reservations for a small fee, but this is only really necessary for motorists.

I arrived in Sweden in Gothenburg, which was the only large city that I had to negotiate in the whole tour. I wasted several hours trying to leave in the right direction without using the motorway. Not for the first time I promised myself I would in future use a train to get somewhere less urban. But, as I usually remind myself on these occasions, budget travel is budget travel.

May in Sweden felt like April in Scotland. I saw a few melted snowdrifts at the side of the road, a reminder that winter had only just passed. Nevertheless the long dry spell and the crystal-clear views more than justified the decision to travel at this time. The harsh winter takes its toll on the roads in Sweden. Repeated freezing and thawing of water under the road foundations produce sporadic waves of buckled road. Sweden's next generation of world-beating rally car drivers took this in their stride. The cyclist however experiences a breakfast shaking roller coaster ride, and is relieved to come through the experience intact.

Comparing Sweden with Denmark is like comparing a Danish town with its Legoland counterpart. Distances are much greater. Carefully manicured farmland is replaced by vast forests mixed in with much larger farms. Wildlife, particularly birdlife, is noticeably abundant. The hammering of woodpeckers became a commonplace, as did the multitudes of finches that nonchalantly fluttered in and out of the tent.

One afternoon I saw a sight that dispelled my belief that nobody needs a well maintained road surface more than a cyclist. Rolling along like a runaway fridge on tiny wheels, complete with bobble hat and sticks, came the cross-country skier! Special short skis each with a row of roller-skate wheels enable the most zealous of skiers to stay fit between the seasons. As sightings of this remarkable phenomenon increased, amusement gave way to the desire to photograph one, lest no-one believe me on returning home.

There is a law in Sweden, as in Norway and Finland that says you may camp anywhere for one night, with reasonable exceptions. However, it is rather difficult to find a suitable flat spot for a tent. If you do there will probably be no running water nearby.

Sweden has several hundred official campsites, although not all are open outside peak season. Most seem to be situated alongside the many rivers and lakes that are sprinkled liberally all over the country.

Activities at the campsites naturally focus on the water. Fishing is very popular with Swedes of all ages, and boats can usually be hired or borrowed. Swimming is made easier by floating wooden platforms.

Staying within my budget was not at all easy in Sweden. Denmark had been only a little more expensive than Britain but in Sweden I was paying three times what I would back home for basic groceries. Thus every shopping trip became a tough mental exercise in balancing nutrition and economy. I can recommend the tinned mackerel in tomato sauce with macaroni. Take every evening while prices persist.

As in Denmark cycling is widely used for the functional purposes of commuting to work or to the shops. The typical bike might be a very unstylish open-frame machine, with a single chain-ring and a five-speed hub gear. Chainguards, kickstands and rear-wheel locks are fairly standard extras. These bicycles are indicative of a general common-sense unpretentious approach to life: opting for functional, easily-maintained machines, rather than something that glows in the dark and is capable of ascending a 1-in-3 gradient. Perhaps because of the distances between towns I came across very few club or touring cyclists out on the roads. Nevertheless you expect on meeting such cyclists to exchange some form of greeting, whether a polite nod, an audible greeting, or a big cheery wave. Even the most dour of cyclists will usually acknowledge his fellow enthusiast. Not so the Swedes. Of the half dozen I came across not one of them so much as twitched. I tried nodding, winking, a polite 'Hailo', a hearty 'Hi!', a casual wave. All to no avail. Had I dismounted and pelted them with fruit I still don't believe they would have responded. Most disconcerting! This is all the more unusual since in their supermarkets, the cashier greets you and your basket of groceries with a snappy little 'Hi', or two in quick succession if they're really happy. Quite why a cashier should display more amicability than a fellow cyclist I will probably never understand.

Thus it was particularly pleasant surprise when I was treated to the spontaneous hospitality that occasionally drops into the lap of the cycle-borne traveller. A doctor cycling home from work just stopped and asked me if I would like to stay with him and his family for the night. Furthermore the whole family were keen cyclists and so I was able to carry out minor repairs. They helped me plan the rest of my route to the East coast, and in return I agreed to organise a tour in Britain for them next summer. Most importantly, they knew the sort of meal that a day in the saddle merits. I feasted on all the things that I had looked longingly at in the supermarket. Most memorable was the orange-brown whey cheese with the odour that kills flies and a flavour to forget. It was fascinating to see how this family lived, as compared with a British equivalent. Every member of the family left the home in the morning on a bicycle - three on their way to work, two to school. The car did not move from the drive. Neither was the television switched on while I was there. They spent their evening reading on the verandah or playing rounders in the municipal park. Weekends are spent hiking and fishing, ski-ing in winter. Altogether I could not help but admire their approach to life, and they are by no means untypical.

My experiences in Denmark and Sweden can be summed up in one word - relaxation. I could feel myself unwinding to the more agreeable pace of life that Scandinavians enjoy - so different from the high-octane existence back home. One memorable evening I joined a large group of Swedes at the edge of the campsite lake. Some of them had brought fishing rods or bags of charcoal. Whilst some fished, others cooked the easy catch on sharpened reeds over makeshift barbecues. Everyone just sat there, sharing the taste and smell of cooked fish, the evening birdsong, and the changing colours of lake and forest as the sun went down.

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