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Sunday, May 31, 2009, in Ærøskøbing, Denmark

Hi everyone. This is the last port we’ll visit in Denmark before we move on to Germany. Last week, we had arrived in Nyborg, Denmark and were staying for a few more days.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Nyborg was a very important location, the seat of the “Danehof”, or assembly. Here, the king and leading citizens met to resolve the country’s most important issues. A document known as “Denmark’s first constitution” was signed in Nyborg Castle.

We visited the castle (museums, like sailing, make for a good Sunday activity, as nothing else is open). The castle was begun in the 12th century, mainly as a protection against the Slavonic Wends (Slavs from the southern Baltic area). It was expanded, first under Queen Margrethe I in the 15th century, and again by Christian III in the 16th century. Our ticket included a visit to a nearby house once owned by a merchant and now the town’s historical museum.

The weather wasn’t right for a long walk around historical sites in town, but we’d have at least another day, and one with better weather. Not arriving in the summer gave us good access to empty harbors, but much of the summer activity doesn't really start until summer does. For example, Nyborg’s Tattoo Guard reenacts the 9:00 PM patrol through the streets, clad in their green uniforms, to the accompaniment of fife and drum. But this doesn’t begin until July. Their nightly mission: to make sure that the town��s entertainment is shut down on time. They plug the beer barrels and shut down the restaurants. We’ve seen the summer crowds in Scandinavia. It’s not only the summer skies that are well-lit. To the tattoo regiment, I say, “Good luck with that.”

We took our town walk on our last day in Nyborg, with the help of a gorgeous brochure graciously provided at the tourist office. I wish every town did that. The walk took us past some of the same buildings and ramparts we’d been walking by for our whole visit, but we could now see who owned these houses, how old were the fortifications, and where the moats once were (in some areas, now filled and covered with brightly-painted half-timbered houses.) The walk covered three distinct architectural eras in Nyborg’s history: the medieval town that emerged after the castle was first built, then the rise of fortifications and the growth of Nyborg after the town was destroyed during a civil war called the Count’s Feud, and then the rebuilding after a great fire in 1797.

We’d already seen the castle, but the weather and the route enabled us to look at the fortifications, including a stone wall that looked barely able to contain a cat, a 40-meter (125-foot) stone passageway through the fortifications that was the only public entrance to the town until 1869, and the new architectural style of trimming the edges from corner buildings that became fashionable after the 1797 fire. The last, of course, should probably be described as “the closing the barn door” style.

In 2000, when we were still sailing in Sweden, we met a Danish family who had stopped at the same port. When we made our way to Fyn, we saw them again at their home in Odense. Søren looked us up several years later when he visited Miami to participate in a sailing competition during the winter, and we continued to find each other on email when we were in the same general part of the world. Søren found us in Nyborg, and he and Lotte joined us in town for dinner. We visited a traditional Danish restaurant in town, and were assisted with the menu by very patient companions Lotte and Søren in our unending quest for local food.

We’d been in Nyborg for several days, and wanted to move on. The weather wasn’t going to be great, but it wouldn’t be dangerous, and our trip was only about twenty-five miles. We decided to leave very early in the morning, before the wind picked up, and get to Svendborg before lunch.

It was easy to leave the dock, and though it was chilly, it was snug under the cover. We were even able to sail for most of the trip. With only about four miles left to go, the weather soured. The skies got dark, and we began to hear the rumble of thunder.

Rain is a minor problem, because it hurts visibility and because it makes docking even less fun. Thunder, or actually lightning, is a bigger problem. When your eighty-foot mast is the only large object in an area where all the water is at sea level, you worry about the boat being hit. There isn’t much danger to us, but the electrical system, and many very expensive electronics that are connected to it, could fry in an instant. While you’re depending on them to guide you to your destination. So we started to watch the lightning bursts on the horizon. I’d look around and think, “I wonder if those trees are taller than the mast. I wonder if that building is taller than the mast.” Do basketball players cower under thunderstorms?

At first it looked as though we were traveling ahead of the storm. But the blasts on the horizon got brighter, and the lapse between the flash and the clap got shorter. One bright light was followed almost instantaneously by the thunderclap. You sometimes have experiences sailing where you later say, “Now that I look back on it, it does seem a little scary.” This wasn’t like that. I was very worried while we were going through it.

An email came in just as we were emerging from the overcast, grumbling sky. It was from Søren. He said, “There’s thunder here in Odense. If you haven’t left yet, you probably shouldn’t go out.” Oh, well.

Somehow, we got to Svendborg without being struck. It was raining while we docked and I couldn’t care less. I was just happy to be docked, even though the equipment could still be ruined if we were hit while we were sitting at the dock. We could see half a dozen old wooden sailing ships across the harbor, testament to Svendborg’s shipbuilding industry. In the 19th century, shipyards in Svendborg produced half of all the vessels sailing under the Danish flag. We walked around the harbor to a cradle holding a partly-restored, partly-rotted wooden boat. A man was pulling off the splintered remains of the old inner hull and explained that this boat had once been the night ferry to the nearby island Ærø. The wood had been covered with fiberglass for a time, and that’s what caused the resulting mess underneath. This is a lesson to anyone who is tempted to remove those ten-year-old fiberglass showers that they once installed so that they no longer had to clean the grout underneath. You’ll never feel clean again.

Svendborg is a charming place. It’s the second-largest town on Fyn, which makes it a smallish city by most standards. It’s dotted with half-timbered houses, many of which are in use as shops along the pedestrian shopping streets. As in Nyborg, there’s a slender set of unused tracks for a no-longer-in-use train along the coastline. I look at those tracks, which have nothing to do with the modern train system nearby, and imagine a toy train circling the town endlessly, to complete the picture-book quality of a town that’s always dressed up for Christmas.

It was a windy, rainy night and we woke to a crisp morning. Svendborg was making some welcome upgrades to the town docks, new pontoons with new electric power, replacement of the wooden docks, and a modern building with showers and other amenities. The heads and showers were operated by an electronic card, and the heads had the sparkle of the showroom. This still being May, the power stations were in place but many were not yet working, there was the near-constant beat of pile drivers, and there were many missing planks to step over to get to town from the pontoon. But the inconvenience was cancelled out as soon as I stepped off the dock to town, where the heady aroma of smoked fish and herring met the brightness of freshly caught flatfish and more. Nearly every town has a fishmonger right at the head of the harbor. It’s a struggle to resist, and we give in and buy something most of the time.

For this town visit, I knew to ask the tourist office if there was a brochure explaining a walk around town. This time, though, we’d already walked ourselves tired before we got to the tourist office, and for the next day’s amble through town, I forgot to bring the brochure with me.

I began to realize that I was in a romance with Denmark’s weather. Not a storybook romance, though. More like an abusive relationship. Sure, it started out all sunny and warm. But then Denmark would turn chilly on me and our relationship might even get stormy, as if sent by Thor himself, the Norse god of thunder. Just as I’d be ready to give up, the sunny day would show up as if the chilliness never had happened…even sending me flowers as if overwhelmed by remorse. And I thought I’d given up all those emotional games in my childhood. Can you play hard-to-get with a god?

Our departure day was beautiful, and we were blown southward the short distance (by another Norse god, Njord, the god of wind and the sea, my new boyfriend) to the island of Ærø, to the port Ærøskøbing. We tied up to the long wall of the commercial harbor with the other visitors, and were immediately visited by a friendly policeman.

“Is this your first port?”

Just about any time we’re approached by someone who’s seen our flag, they ask the same question. “Did you sail here from the US?” We didn’t. So we begin most of our foreign relations with an apology.

So it’s not unusual for a civilian to ask us if we’d sailed over. But this was a policeman, and his question would only be relevant if our first port in Europe was Ærøskøbing. Of course, once I’d seen the town, I was less sure that it might not be.

If you were only allowed to see one place in all of Europe, Ærøskøbing might make it to the semifinals. It’s walkable. There are dozens of half-timbered homes, well-tended, some of which look as though they’re made out of gingerbread (I seem to be starving a lot when I’m traveling.) There’s a butcher, a baker, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a candlestick maker.

Danes call this archipelago the South Sea Islands, because it’s a little more mild (translation: a little less freezing) than the rest of the country and because plants that don’t survive elsewhere in Denmark can grow there. It’s old; burial mounds and other sites demonstrate human activity on Ærø for more than ten thousand years, and Ærøskøbing is more than 750 years old. Plus, the island has its own flag. This means that there’s probably untapped demand in town for a shop that sells little flag napkins and little flag toothpicks to ferry travelers.

We shooed away the policeman, but then Art had a change of heart. Our next port would be in Germany. We’d cleared into Norway (against the desires of multiple officials, who don’t seem to care about process nearly as much as we do), but we were completely unable to clear back into Sweden when we returned for the season in September. We’d tried to no avail once to find the customs office in Uddevalla. We had called Customs in Gothenburg, a big city, and they disinvited us to see them. So as far as our records went, the boat had exited the European Union in May of 2008 and had never officially returned. We’d heard over the years that the Germans might ask us for a paper trail of where we’d been, and we simply didn’t have one. So Art decided that Ærøskøbing was the perfect place to get some proof.

By now, Friday afternoon, the police office was closed. The tourist office told us to try him at noon on Saturday. We left the tourist office just as the ferry was coming in. And then an extremely short parade happened.

About a dozen people had created two giant puppets on sticks during an art workshop in town. They walked around town with these giant heads, one meant to be the Sea King, with a ship in the place of a hat, and one a mermaid who looked as though she might be made of seaweed. They walked out on the ferry dock to greet the bewildered passengers who’d decided to visit Ærøskøbing at this particular moment.

The big heads on the puppets reminded me of something I’d seen in Barcelona; the trails made me think of Chinese New Year. The mask festival came about because Ærø is among the few who celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas, with masks. It’s kind of a Halloween for adults. But Ærø must have come to its senses. Who wants to be outdoors in a mask in January? Who’s even in Ærø in January? So apparently the islanders are redrawing the holiday calendar, starting in 2009, with a Mask Festival in June. And we apparently got to see the dress rehearsal.

On Saturday, we found a restaurant in town with a garden area for lunch. The fenced-in patio kept the wind’s chill away, and all above us were a lattice pattern of vines with lilac-hued flowers hanging beneath them. Art ordered the day’s special, a hash of beef, pork and potatoes, and I had spare ribs. Small buds from the overhead flowers would occasionally fall delicately into our food. It was delightful. And nourishing. It’s always a problem when the things that drop from the sky onto your plate are healthier than the things that you ordered.

Art managed to find a policeman, who was happy to sign a paper, though there was no such official one, announcing belatedly our boat’s return into the European Union. Art’s pretty sure that the policeman wrote something like, “Hey, we don’t have a form for this, but I certify that this guy’s boat is here. Love and kisses, me.”

Our friends Søren and Lotte and their sons sailed to Ærøskøbing, arriving on Saturday afternoon. It was a holiday weekend of some kind, as we could see signs for something called Pinsedag. Søren and Lotte have become our encyclopedia for all things Denmark. “Why do the rooflines slope down with a little curve at the bottom?” (It’s just a style. Danes call it a Chinese roof because it resembles a pagoda.) “Do Danish people all take down their flags from the stern every night?” (Yes, and the Germans even take down the small courtesy flag that you fly when you’re visiting a foreign country.) So I asked Lotte about Pinsedag, the holiday that Danes were celebrating on this weekend. Pinsedag, what does that mean? Lotte said, “Pinsedag? It means….something religious.” That’s my favorite kind of religious holiday. Something religious. I could celebrate that every week.

Søren, Lotte, and their two sons (one from each of them) came to dinner on our boat. I’d been noticing that fresh rhubarb is everywhere, and rhubarb had been featured in the dessert we’d eaten when we’d dined with Søren and Lotte in Nyborg. When I stumbled on a recipe for pork tenderloin (a Danish favorite) with rhubarb chutney, I decided to make that. We all sprawled out around the main salon. Frederik, 12, was enjoying the side chair, and Kristian (15) and I ran off to the aft cabin to take turns playing my little Martin backpacker guitar. Maybe I should get a second one for duets. Kristian is fluent in English, and he sounds like any American kid, but he can turn on a Harry Potter British accent at a moment’s notice.

So it’s a quiet Sunday for us. I hope you guys are having decent weather. It’s time.

Love, Karen (and Art)