A Road Trip Through Denmark in Fall

If you crack a guidebook for Copenhagen you’ll find a number of great (and not so great) suggestions.  Everything from a visit to The Little Mermaid (yuck) to the incredible vista out over the Sand Buried Lighthouse or Skagen’s world famous light. One thing missing is a suggestion to see Denmark, in Fall, as the leaves change.  This past fall I had the pleasure of, mostly by happenstance, taking a week-long road trip with family through Denmark at the end of October. The results were a complete, and utterly enchanting, surprise.  Of course, if you’re somewhere with four distinct seasons, the beauty of fall is a given.  But, there are some places that are better equipped to charm your socks off and, after my road trip, I’ll happy add Denmark to that list.

What makes it special? A large portion of the Danish countryside uses buried power lines. Fences are also usually less-than-blatant, or artfully done where present. This creates rolling farmland, with fresh fall/winter cover crops sprouting (or blooming), with a sporadic mixture of small stands of trees and large forests. The forests themselves range in density and plant life fairly significantly throughout the Danish landscape. With a wealth of islands, exposed coasts, and inland lakes Denmark’s forests are also typically heavily blended with many types of trees thrust together in a veritable tree-bouquet that adds rich texture, depth, and in fall a brilliant array of colors.  All of which is dotted by small one and a half lane country roads, brilliant coast line, charming old farm houses many of which are brightly colored and have thatched rooftops…and then of course, brilliantly hygge historical Danish towns.

If you’re visiting Denmark from abroad, another great incentive is that depending on how and where you book, the country which is famous for its 180% tax on new vehicles has tax-free rentals specifically available for visiting foreigners which results in drastically reduced rental prices and in many cases unlimited mileage. These rentals require that you and your drivers don’t live in Denmark and are not Danish citizens. If you meet these criteria, renting a car suddenly becomes a very affordable way to see the country.

So, without further adieu, here is a mixture of color photos taken during my week-long road trip through Denmark, including visits to the island of Fyn, Sjaelland, and Jutland. Don’t miss the full album on flickr here.

The Back Roads of Jutland

The Incredible Power of Social Networks Illustrated By Studying, Living and Travelling Abroad

Nyhavn Harbor in Copenhagen

Housing in Copenhagen

When I signed the agreement and notified the University of Copenhagen that I was headed to Denmark I assumed I’d face a lot of challenges upon arrival.  Things like visa issues, language barriers, and a drastic change in weather.  What I didn’t expect was the housing nightmare that greeted me.  I arrived in Copenhagen on July 20th.  Four months later, after aggressively scouring available housing outlets, my search was finally rewarded. On November 29th, I moved into an apartment that should last me for the next 12+ months (and hopefully the remainder of my stay here in Denmark).

It was my well-developed, trans-continental social network that saved me.  Utilizing contacts, new and old, I was able to keep an affordable roof over my head while I undertook an arduous search. Without this  ace in my pocket ,  I would have been camped in hostels and hotels for months, spending an exorbitant amount of money with no room for my luggage. My story illustrates the importance of a social network and what a powerful tool it can be.

United States Based Trip Prep

Between 2004 and 2007 I worked for a commercial real estate company in Phoenix, Arizona.   I worked closely with many brokers and their teams.  In 2007 I left the company to travel Europe for 3 months. When I returned to Arizona, I took a job as an analyst with a business sales, mergers and acquisitions company. I stayed in touch with past colleagues and my social network continued to grow. Fast forward three years.  I informed my boss that I planned to return to school to pursue my Masters and would be moving to Denmark.  While sorry to see me go, he eagerly accessed his mental rolodex for ways to help me with the move.  This is where it starts to get complicated and the obscure beauty and power of a network starts to really come to light.  He recalled that one of the real estate team members who had helped with the purchase of our new building had dated a Danish guy. The head of that team and her boss was an old contact that I happened to also know, independently, through our mutual time spent at my previous job in the commercial real estate company.  In an odd twist of overlapping networks, when the time came to purchase a new building my boss reached out to his friend and contact: the real estate broker from my old company.  Over the course of the purchase and move into our new building, I ended up not only re-connecting with my old real estate contact, but also meeting his team, which included the woman who had dated the Danish guy and I mentioned previously. Whew, confusing right?

Back to my meeting with my boss – on the spot he picked up the phone, called, and made the connection for me.  While no longer dating the Danish guy, she spoke highly of him and because she knew me offered to put me in touch with him.  A few minutes later, I fired off an e-mail with general questions about Denmark, housing, phones, and language barriers.  I continued my trip prep while my new Danish contact responded with great suggestions, and things moved forward.

Copenhagen’s Unexpected Rental Market

After arriving in Copenhagen I realized that not only was it going to take much longer than expected to get my visa, but housing was both more expensive and significantly harder to find than I had assumed.  To be fair, the University had warned that finding housing in Copenhagen was expensive and difficult.  On the flip side, they did just short of nothing to help with the process.

As someone coming from Phoenix, I was met by a whole different world.  In Phoenix we have such a glut of available apartments and housing that you can sign up with an agent for free who will then show you around various apartments.  The agent is compensated by the apartment complex(s) who regularly offer signup bonuses. If that fails there’s more than enough housing from private landlords available.  The search for an apartment seldom lasts more than a week.

In Copenhagen the situation is the exact opposite.  It’s not uncommon for people to search for an apartment for 3-6 months.  Renters sign up on a mixture of free and pay sites to gain access to apartment rental listings.  A listing inside the city proper in the 3,000-4,000 DKK per month ($600-800 USD) rental range typically garners between 80 and 250 e-mails in the first day!  There is also a heavy preference among renters for female and Danish tenants which added an extra layer of difficulty as a male international student.

After my fifth day in the hostel I followed up with the Danish contact I had been introduced to.  Luckily, he had a spare room available for a month before his tenants moved in and he graciously offered to let me use it.  With a huge sigh of relief, I figured I’d be all set. After all, a month is a long time…Right?

As August drew to a close, it became apparent that my visa would not be arriving any time soon and that the one offer which had been made by a “local” dorm, was too far out of town (45 minutes) to justify accepting.

Luckily, here again my network made a huge leap forward. My host reached out to a friend of his who also doubled as his house cleaner.  She was willing to host me for a month or two, but was hesitant as the apartment didn’t have doors for about half the rooms.  A long time hosteler, I mentioned it wasn’t an issue for me. It turned out that she and I got along well.  She was a gracious host and between our busy schedules the shortage of doors in the apartment wasn’t an issue.  I can’t stress how wonderful she was to allow me to invade her apartment like that.  Especially when one considers just how obscure my connection to her was.

Eventually, my visa came through as my hunt for an apartment continued.  I was hampered by my class schedule and the need to use public sources of internet to endlessly scan, and then pounce on room postings.  While I looked at several, nothing came through until I finally had an offer for a room on Amager near campus.  It looked great.  It was a guy and his two dogs.  He smoked but that didn’t seem like it would be an issue.  He was extremely friendly, nice, and happy to help with things.

After a week I was able to move in and started to get settled.  Everything seemed to be going well until it became obvious that we had two extremely different lifestyles that were not compatible. I moved out the next day.  Luckily, the female Danish friend I had been staying with came to me rescue and welcomed me back without so much as a grumble.  We had a good laugh about the mis-adventure and my search began once again with renewed vigor.  Contacts and my emerging network in Copenhagen shared several opportunities with me, but none panned out.  Desperate to be able to unpack/get settled and with the semester coming to a close, I took a new approach. I started offering more than asking rent. It turns out that money trumped being male, and an international. Within a week and a half I had a lead on a place.  It took another two weeks to finalize things before I was able to move in.

Now, I finally have what I hope will be a semi-permanent home for the remainder of my time here in Copenhagen.

It has been an adventure, and to be fair, I could have found a place much quicker had I been willing to live 45+ minutes outside of the city.  As an international student, and someone who has experienced the incredible power of networks, I felt it was extremely important for my immersion, social activity, and overall experience here in Copenhagen to be in or near the University. The cost of commuting was also a key factor. Ultimately the need to be somewhat centrally located has made things more difficult and somewhat more expensive.  In the long run though, it has also been well worth it.

It’s important to note that I only had the opportunity to make that choice, however, because of the incredible help offered to me through my network of friends and contacts.  I owe a lot of these individuals a huge debt of gratitude and their open, helpful, and friendly nature has really inspired me to pay-it-forward and to be mindful of how I can help my friends, contacts, and their extended network.

At the end of the day, I hope this helps you all remember to never, ever, ever, underestimate the power, capability and influence your network can bring to bear.

To all those that helped along the way.  Thank you.

Split, an Island, and a taste of Dubrovnik

Island of Broc - Croatia

The bus I caught from the waterfalls ended up being a regional slow-moving one. Its route took it down rural roads and through small villages. The up side of which was an exceptional view of the Croatian countryside. The downside of which was an added hour plus to the bus ride. After four hours on the thing my legs were cramped, I was tired, hungry, and anxious. The hostel I had reserved a spot closed their reception at 8PM unless you had e-mailed ahead, which I hadn’t as I fully expected to arrive closer to 5 than 9.

The city of Split itself is fairly large, much larger in fact than I expected. The old town however is tiny and ironically enough, much smaller than I expected. The good news was the bus station was located right by the ferry station/port and right next to the old town. I’ve hinted and flat out mentioned it before – but I suppose this is another prime example…I’m doing everything by the seat of the ol’ pants so of course I had no clue where the hostel was, lacked a map and only vaguely remembered the hostels name (it was easy after all…Split Hostel…I was in Split and it WAS a hostel…soo yeah go me).

Split - Croatia

I quickly found an over-priced internet cafe, paid for 10 minutes, printed a HORRIBLE map off their website and set off to find the place at a bisque pace (it was already 8:40). Split is a fascinating city, it’s also incredibly confusing – but more on that later. I wandered around, ended up completely overshooting where I was going and was thoroughly confused as to where exactly I was. I asked a local, who in the drop of a hat set to helping me find the place. He had recently started English lessons as was eager to gain a little experience talking to me. He wasn’t sure where the hostel was, but together we wandered around the heart of the old town for a few minutes. Eventually, he asked another local, who joined up and also set to helping locate the place. The newcomer split off after taking us to another square and seeing things were in hand. This left the original local and I to locate the small alley behind a magazine stand that led to the hostel. Relieved to be there and to have met such incredibly warm and friendly people, I said my thanks and wandered up the stairs to the hostel.

Roman Palace in Split, Croatia

Luckily the place was still open. I walked past the small courtyard in front which was full of hostel residents all gathered around drinking and getting to know each other. I then paid for my room, dropped off my stuff and set to introducing myself. I joined the others out on the patio and practically threw myself at the stool I was going to sit on. Collapsing in an exhausted, relieved heap, I introduced myself and as often occurs in a good hostel was immediately part of the group. We all socialized a bit, then all set off to a nearby bar. There we settled in and closed the place down, mixing, mingling and exchanging wild stories.

The next morning I’d dedicated to checking out one of the local islands. First though I started out by exploring Split a bit. Split (the old town) is an incredible city. Located beside the harbor it shows obvious signs of being a major tourist haven but has a more aged and historical feel to it as well. Home to arguably the last (or second to last) western Caesar it was once a beautiful palace. It has also served as a major fortification and general city. The old town itself is an odd mix of old buildings and marble-paved streets. The city is (IMHO) designed to be defended from military attack. The old city is tiny – a 5 minute walk will get you across it. However, it is a crazy mix of tiny streets, small squares, alleyways and stone structures.

Split - Croatia

The city is designed to both confuse and limit successful troop movement. Even if an invading force were 10 times that of the defenders they would easily become lost in the warren of small streets and alleyways. At some points only 1 person can walk down the street, while others allow for a spacious 3 or perhaps even 4. All the while invaders would be exposed to rooftop assault. Its often hard to tell if you are turning into a small walkway that will dead end, or a dead end that turns out to be the entrance to a large courtyard with 3 or 4 other exits and entrances. It took me quite a bit to figure out the lay of it and it was not until I started exploring every small, odd, tiny little crack in the walls that I truly got to explore the city. The streets themselves are made of a marble-like stone and washed every night creating a clean, uniform feeling to things.

Island of Broc - Croatia

Cats – Croatian cities have tons of cats. It’s fantastic and while the cats are arguably wild they are clean, well kept and well fed. I heard it rumored that they were partially there to keep the snake, rat, and pigeon populations under control. Many of the locals leave food out for them and the rest they catch and scavenge. As a cat lover, it was great having beautiful cats all over the place. In many ways cities like Split and Dubrovnik belong more to the cats than to the people.

Island of Broc - Croatia

After exploring Split and finding some food, I returned to the hostel where I bumped into 3 of the girls I’d talked to a bit the night before. They had missed their initial ferry and were preparing to catch a later one to a different (and closer island). I inquired about the island and their plans and they invited me along. It fit with my plans and seemed like a good idea so I grabbed my bag and out the door we raced. We caught the ferry and headed to the island of Brock. A windy and cold hour or so later we unloaded off the boat into a small town. I’d heard some of the other guys that had done the island the day before talk about renting a car or scooter. Eager to see the island and countryside the girls and I quickly decided to give it a try. For $20 each we got an automatic car for the day. One of the girls offered to drive and I took up the co-pilot’s seat map in hand. The island itself it turned out was…well an island and a small one at that, which, worked perfectly for us allowing us to see about half of it during the course of the day.

Island of Broc Coast Line

Our first stop was about 5 minutes outside of town along the coast. We raced down to the jagged stone beach and snapped a few photos before resuming our 7 km trip to the next town. There we parked the car and explored a picturesque little village with a quiet harbor. There were very few people around and no other tourists. The town itself was pristine. Surrounded by olive groves, vineyards, and orange trees it was nestled in a small valley. The harbor was framed by palm treas and the entire village was covered in pomegranate trees, kiwi trees and grape vines…all interlaced with beautiful red and sandy-colored blossoms on large bougainvillea type vines. Everything was in bloom and I was reminded of the old movies and sailors tales of island paradises where you could roam around picking fruit right off the vine while the waves gently rolled in. We walked about and I had the epiphany that kiwis actually grow on vine-like trees. Not really sure where else I thought they would grow, but…well…sometimes its the little details that get you.

We piled back into the car and started inland. The roads were narrow and wound through the countryside. The island itself is incredibly rocky and once you get away from the water only suitable for vineyards on terraced mountainsides and rugged olive groves. We wound up to a small village that the map said had a museum and an old castle. Upon arriving we found the old monastery locked and paid the admittance fee for the small museum. There a younger Croatian woman, who spoke incredible English, shared the island’s history with us…from its early greco-roman residents…to the Napoleonic wars when a Croatian commander sank several English war ships. Her eyes positively shone with love of country and history.

We left the old converted house and then realized that one of the buildings we had walked by – thinking it was another (though larger) house – was in fact the remains of the old castle. Most of it had fallen or been incorporated into other things but once you knew what you were looking at its original pedigree was unmistakable. As we took it in, an old Croatian lady that didn’t speak any English, came in and beckoned for us to join her. The castle as it turns out was her home and after walking us around it briefly (it was a tiny thing, no larger than a normal home in the states) she led us to a cellar-barn area full of large vats and with a small table set up. On the table there was an odd assortment of water bottles and old plastic coke bottles filled with two different substances. One of the substances was homemade olive oil. She poured us a spoonful to sample and the rich taste was fantastic. Then with a playful gleam in her eye she poured a sampling of the other – it was clear and in bottles with rosemary in it. Elegantly displayed despite being housed in an odd assortment of old water bottles. The first girl took a sip and immediately her eyes bulged and she began to cough. The bottles contained a local alcohol. I forget the exact name but its something like Rakleon. It tastes like rubbing alcohol (with a taste of rosemary) and definitely had a bit of a kick. We all tried both, then decided we could not/did not want to purchase the two. Only slightly disappointed she then asked if we wanted to try vino.

More manageable and eager to try a bit she walked over to a huge glass vase and poured a sample. The wine was a deep red. If you held it up to the light the sunlight would be hard pressed to make its way through. Deeply tasting of grapes but not overly bitter – or sweet it had a sound taste. The price for a 2 liter bottle was $4. As much because I wanted to repay her kindness (and salesmanship) as out of eagerness to try the homemade wine, the girls and I each picked up a two liter. The old lady was delighted, pouring from the huge vase into a funnel that filled the old plastic bottles. She then threw in a few ripe pomegranates for us to enjoy with the wine. Delighted we said thank you and left, piling back into the car and on a mission to find food. We wandered to the next village down which was the 2nd largest we had seen we parked the car again and found one of the only open food places we had seen. A small pizza place by the old harbor. We ate, then explored the town a bit. It was gorgeous and closely resembled the other, except that it had a soccer field and there were more people out and about.

Relaxing on Broc in Croatia

We made our way out and about once again winding up to a tiny town on a hillside with a small chapel. There we took a few quick photos, had a brief conversation with a mule, and then decided to head back towards town to eat our pomegranates and drink our wine. We found a spot, sheltered from the cold wind, on the protected side of the breakwater and dove into our pomegranates. Before long we were all sporting blood-red noses, hands, and stained mouths. The pomegranates and wine tasted great. With about an hour and a half left to kill we decided to explore the northern end of the island. Driving in a huge loop we wound up and toward the center of the island on tiny streets. Some were on the edge of small cliffs. At times it was a pretty exhilarating experience as the roads were tiny, the locals drove incredibly fast, there were no lines and the edge of the road ended with an immediate drop off the side of the cliff. In many places there were no guard rails and others lacked even so much as a 1 inch shoulder. The island was beautiful.

Roman Tower in Split, Croatia

Eventually we found our way back to the port safe and sound, put in a little gas and returned the car. We piled onto the ferry and headed back to Split. That night we all went out, watched the England-South Africa rugby cup then contented ourselves enjoying the evening.

The next day I spent relaxing, napping, hiding from the rain and exploring the city. My brunch was a rotisserie chicken and an apple purchased at the local outdoor market. The market itself was a fun mix of butcher shops, produce tables and florists. While most of the butcher shops were actually shops I did see one merchant with two halves of a sheep or goat laid out in the bisque morning air on a folding table. It’s definitely a wonderfully different world than back home. I hiked to the high point and overlooked the city, then meandered through the inner city a bit more. That night a good group of us got together and did the hostel thing.

As I talked to a few of the guys at the hostel we all discovered that we were heading to Dubrovnik at about the same time. We formed a small group (there were 4 of us) and made our way to the bus, then struggled through the 6 hour bus ride to Dubrovnik in the very south of Croatia.

I heard a lot of people compare Dubrovnik to Split but I found it to be very different. Surrounded by an intact old city wall, the old city itself was beautiful but more organized, cleaner, and I would say touristy. That said, time is up and my fingers are tired. I’ll tell Dubrovnik’s tale as soon as I get the chance to write another update.