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(No) trouble in Denmark

Roger St. Pierre introduces ‘The World’s Happiest Nation’

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Draw back the misty veil of time and the Danes of the so-called Dark Ages will be seen more as traders and settlers than the rape, plunder and pillage exponents of their fearsome Viking reputation.

Though fervently attached to their homeland – you’ll see the familiar red flag with a white cross everywhere, on public buildings and in people’s gardens at home – the Danes have always been an outward looking nation. Virtually everyone speaks good English, often without a trace of accent, while many are fluent in other languages too – especially French and German. Though one of the smaller EU member states, with a population of some five and a half million spread across mainland Jutland and 78 inhabited islands (out of a total 406), Denmark has a strong voice in international affairs.

Once reached by a complex system of ferries, the major islands of Zealand and Funen are now linked with each other and the mainland by modern bridges, of which the magnificent part-tunnel, part-bridge Øresund connection, linking the beautiful and bustling capital city of Copenhagen, on the island of Zealand, with the southern Swedish town of Malmo, has had the most dramatic effect.

Currently, there’s strong public favour for a proposed new bridge to span the Kattegat Strait, to link Jutland directly with Zealand, while the ink is now dry on an agreement for the construction of the ambitious Fehmarn Bridge which will, with existing bridges, effectively leapfrog from Zealand, across the islands of Flaster, Loland and Germany’s Fehmarn island to create a more direct link to Germany than the present necessity to travel via the city of Odense, the nation’s second-largest city, set on Funen, and on to Jutland – if the time delay of using the ferry is to be avoided.

And, just as Danes eagerly venture out beyond their own boundaries, they always have a warm welcome for incoming visitors, especially those with business on their mind.

This is one of the world’s economic success stories – a country without any national debt, with one of the highest living standards on the planet and with a system that allies the social responsibility of a well-run modern social-democratic state with the acceptable face of capitalism.

Taxation is high, with a minimum personal income tax rate of 39 per cent and VAT at 25 per cent, but, given high median incomes, with a per capita GDP of US$37,000  most Danes feel they can afford to pay it in return for all the benefits involved. Schooling, public healthcare services, welfare provision and industrial relations are all excellent.

Given an enviable life-expectancy of 80 years, one emerging concern, as elsewhere in the developed world, is the fast-growing ratio of retirees to tax-paying workers.

As yet, Denmark has not joined the Eurozone but has pegged its krone to the euro and has seen strong economic growth over the past three years, being a net exporter of both food and energy, much of the latter generated by a proliferation of wind farms – of which Denmark is the world’s largest operator– a sector that has created some 20,000 jobs. And wind is one thing visitors to this low-lying country are bound to notice – it’s said that Inuits from the Arctic territory of Greenland – a self-ruled Danish dependency, as are the Faroe Islands – hate visiting Copenhagen in the winter because of the bone-chilling dampness and high wind-chill factor that are of a kind that they are simply not used to in their colder but much drier homeland.

But at most times Denmark is a very pleasant place to visit, with a climate similar to that prevailing in the United Kingdom. And, despite the relatively high population density, there’s plenty of pleasantly rolling green countryside and a number of beautiful lakes, especially the shimmering expanse at Silkeborg, overshadowed by Denmark’s highest ‘mountain’ – a plateau, which stands at just 500 feet above sea level.

Getting to Denmark is easy. There are good train services from both Sweden and Germany while SAS, the airline partly owned by the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian governments in partnership with private shareholders, has good links with most major European business centres. Budget airlines have also made an impact, with Sterling, Easyjet, Ryanair and Sunair all active and Billund – the home of Legoland – and the lively North Jutland city of Aalborg both boasting modern airports that make an alternative entry point to arriving at the huge and well ordered international airport in Copenhagen.

For Britons, there are also good car-ferry links from Harwich and Newcastle to Esbjerg, on Jutland’s west coast.

Denmark is well geared to visitors. Copenhagen alone has more than 13,000 hotel rooms, with more constantly being added to meet ever-growing demand, They range from five-star luxury to homely venues and budget accommodation – and it’s all of commendably high standard, the Danes being renowned for their cleanliness and tidiness, and the strength of their contemporary interior design.

Rated as one o the world’s top-10 conference destinations, Copenhagen can cater for events for up to 12,000 delegates while its Wonderful Copenhagen official convention bureau was recently voted best in the world by Meeting & Incentive Travel magazine.

Other major centres, like pretty Århus, the largest city on the Jutland peninsula, are also well endowed with good hotels and an exciting range of conference and meetings venues too.

You can eat extremely well, and healthily, in Denmark, with fish – especially the ubiquitous herring – paying a major role in local cuisine.

Copenhagen has no less than nine Michelin-star holding restaurants and Britain’s respected Restaurant magazine recently chose on of them – Nona – as the 15th best in the world.

There are simpler options too, like the famed open-face sandwiches, known as Smørrebrød. Made from wonderful bread, they come with a vast variety of toppings. Everywhere you will find the hotdog stalls that are such a part of Danish culture, while you should not miss out on a Danish cold table, or smørgasbørd as it is known.

An amazing array of dishes will be presented. The form is to start with the fish – usually morsels of herring in various sauces (beetroot, mustard, dill, onion and the like), smoked salmon, white fish, shrimps – followed by cold meats, cheese and various desserts, all washed down with ice-cold snaps and lager-style beer. And while Carlsberg and its sister Tuborg brand are the best known of Denmark’s brews, the country today has some 85 breweries, and that makes one for every 62,400 inhabitants!

Aalborg is the place for Danish snaps, with their various varieties, from clear in colour to deep amber, and tours of the huge distillery there can be arranged as entertaining corporate events.

Downtown, you’ll find more than 300 restaurants and bars, many of them strung along the bustling pedestrianised Nørregade, the longest such conglomeration in Denmark, offering a lively ambience almost 24 hours a day.

Arguably the best restaurant in town, though, is the trendy Mortens Kro, with its youthful ambience and thoroughly modern take on Danish cuisine, but neither should you miss a dining experience aboard the atmospheric Isbrydren Elbjørn, a converted icebreaker now tied up at the town’s dockside, or a sampling of the various brews on offer at the sparkling Søgaards Bryghus micro-brewery. Aalborg even manages to do the striptease nightclub thing with more taste and style than you’ll find elsewhere and the shopping is first-rate too.

The city has a superb maritime museum, a historical museum and the outstanding Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum museum of contemporary arts, designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and containing an extensive collection of 20th Century world art, as well as changing exhibits. And, on the outskirts of town is the remarkable Viking burial ground at Lindhom Høje, with more than 700 graves and a remarkable collection of standing stones, as well as an enlightening interpretive centre that can host corporate events.

Right at the very northern tip of Jutland, set among sand dunes and heathland, is the neat and tidy little fishing port of Skagen, with its profusion of delightful little villas. Thanks to its wonderful qualities of light, this was once the home of a vibrant Scandinavian artists’ colony, as well as the favoured seaside retreat of the Danish royal family.

Today, the big attraction is a tractor-drawn tour to the ever-extending sand bar at the very tip of Grenen.

Despite its diminutive size, Denmark has an amazing 7,300 kilometres of coastline, a length equal to 25 per cent of the world’s circumference. Not surprisingly, many of its towns and villages have a strongly maritime ambience and waterborne corporate and incentive events are increasingly popular.

During 2005, Denmark, and particularly his home city of Odense, celebrated the bi-centenary of Hans Christian Andersen, arguably the nation’s most celebrated son – though, in typically self-effacing style, the Danes refer to him as simply being: “World-famous in Denmark”.

With political and social stability, exceptionally low crime rates, an absence of extremes of wealth and poverty, a good living standard and a pleasant environment, the Danish people have a lot more to celebrate. No wonder a recent Cambridge University research project cited them as “The world’s happiest nation”.

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