Pronounced ‘hoo-gaa’, it’s the Danish concept of coming together and enjoying the good things in life. Here Norman Miller gives us his guide to exploring Denmark the soul warming way.
Plenty of countries and languages have a word for the sense of well-being that comes from warmth and shelter, good cheer and a sense of community shared among friends. The Germans call it Gemütlichkeit, the Italians say comodità, the Dutch enjoy gezelligheid, while the Brits have a go with the concept of cosiness – though that derives not from English but Scots Gaelic còsagach.
But it’s Denmark that has grabbed the spotlight by dubbing the idea of feeling snug, sheltered and communal as hygge.
Danes, of course, may point out that their sense of well-being involves maturely paying high taxes for excellent social services plus genuinely promoting equality. Shops and lifestyle gurus, meanwhile, prefer to cast hygge in terms of sprawling among friends in softly lit spaces (think candles and crackling fires), while enjoying good food and drink – with plenty of warm layers to hand for venturing out in the chilly winter air.
But you can also treat body and soul to a hearty helping of hygge by simply heading to Denmark to explore a natural splendour that complements its cool city attractions. And three national parks provide hikers and wildlife fans with perfect destinations featuring well marked trails and excellent facilities – from expert local guides to plentiful bird hides.
Thy National Park in north-west Jutland is Denmark’s oldest – a dramatic landscape shaped by the sea, mixing vast windswept dunes and sandy grassland. Thy is also one of several Danish birdwatching meccas, with species on view including golden plover and sandpiper – and if you come in early spring you may even see dancing cranes.
There’s rich cultural and historical life too, contrasting northern Europe’s largest WW2 bunker network with little fishing villages like north Vorupør, where locals still drag their boats ashore after a day at sea. The town also boasts the North Sea Oceanarium, a fine showcase for the rich sea life of the North Sea. Klitmøller, meanwhile, is one of Europe’s best windsurfing spots.
Mols Bjerge National Park in east Jutland, meanwhile, offers some of Denmark’s most rugged and varied terrains – high heathlands, forests and pastures, plus a shoreline dotted with deserted sandy beaches. The Stubbe and Lange lakes in the north of the park are famous for their otter populations, while the Kaløs marshes and forests provide further distinctive ecosystems and wildlife.
Mols Bjerge also offers historic riches – Bronze Age mounds, medieval towns, old manors and ruins such as the Middle Ages castle at Kalø.
“Treat yourself to a hearty helping of hygge by heading to Denmark to explore a natural splendour that complements its cool city attractions.”
BLOCK OUT THE SUN
Denmark’s largest – and newest – national park is in southern Jutland. Now garlanded with UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the Wadden Sea National Park reaches along Denmark’s southwest coast down to the German border, and comprises the world’s largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats.
It’s another birdwatchers’ paradise. Situated on the main routes of many migratory birds, the wetlands are particularly dazzling in spring and autumn, when birdwatchers gather at places like Ringkøbing Fjord, Skjern Meadows, West Stadil Fjord, Nissum Fjord and Harboøre Tange.
Spring and autumn are the time to see one of the world’s great avian wonders, when flocks of starlings up to half a million strong take to the skies at dusk to perform vast aerial dances – known as murmurations. Because they blot out swatches of the sky as the birds swoop and dart, they have been given the Danish name Sort Sol (Black Sun). The best times to see it are mid-March to mid-April, then mid-September to mid-October, particularly around the marshes near the ancient towns of Tønder and Ribe.
Murmurations seem to play several roles. Firstly, they allow the birds to share warmth and exchange information on the best feeding spots they have found – a sort of avian hygge, in fact. Predators such as peregrine falcons, meanwhile, find it hard to target one bird amid a spellbinding swirl of thousands. And if a bold hunter does swoop into the flock, the starlings bombard them with droppings and vomit.
Southern Jutland - half a million starlings take flight in what's known as the Black Sun over
Tønder marsh in Wadden Sea National Park;
As a once much fought over borderland, south Jutland is also rich in history and unique culture, having changed hands several times between Denmark and Germany. Hiking and birdwatching can be complemented with a visit to famous Danish battlefields and Denmark’s most atmospheric towns.
The most famous is Ribe – the country’s oldest town, a thriving trading spot back in the 8th century, 400 years before Copenhagen was being thought about. As well as the superb Viking Museum and the town’s grand cathedral, Ribe is also home to some notable birdlife – most famously, the European white stork which has a penchant for building its giant nests on top of the local chimneys.
Ribe also offers the charming spectacle of Night Watchmen. Every evening from the start of May until mid-September, you can take a leisurely stroll alongside these timeless figures through the old town, enjoying old stories, verses and songs as the long Nordic daylight hours turn to twilight.
In the old days, the Night Watchmen ensured the streets were safe and alerted good townsfolk that it might be time to think of bed. Today, it’s just a great way to set yourself up to go find a cosy place to practice some hygge.