Close to Denmark's most northern city are three ancient and intriguing sites to visit. Words and pictures by Izzy Bunting
Over a thousand years ago, the first settlements were established on the narrowest part of the Limfjord, the series of fjords that cuts through northern Denmark. These settlements changed over the centuries, becoming in turn a thriving Viking community, a prosperous and bustling medieval port, and eventually the modern city of Aalborg.
Aalborg is Denmark's most northern city, and has become a cultural hotspot. It was placed at number eight in The New York Times '52 Places to Go in 2019' feature - and for good reason. A 3km waterfront - recently renovated - is the city's focal point. It's home to the impressive architecture of the Utzon Centre (designed by the architect of the Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon), the cultural centre Nordkraft, and the 16th century Aalborghus Castle. Venture further into the city, and you'll find the cobbled streets and painted houses of the old town.
But it's not just the city itself that draws visitors to this part of Denmark. The city is on the doorstep of a number of wild, ancient landscapes – each with its own special story, and each worth a day trip to discover.
A field of ships
Nearby, overlooking the city, is the site of . From 400 AD to 1000 AD almost 700 people were buried on this green hill. 150 of these graves were marked with stones to resemble the shape of ships. The result is a remarkable landscape of grass and stone.
At the top of the hill, you'll find the oldest graves, dating from the Nordic Iron Age. Walking down the hill is like walking through time – the graves become more and more recent. The latest burials were carried out by the Vikings – then the site was covered in sand, preserving the stones along with a freshly ploughed field. It would remain buried in sand for almost a millennia, until archaeologist excavated the site in the 1950s.
Whilst exploring the site, it's possible not only to estimate the age of a grave from its position on the hill, but also the sex of the deceased. The 'ships' of male graves are more pointed and angular, and women's' are more rounded.
Lindholm Høje wasn't just a site for the dead – to the north of the graves, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a Viking village, complete with houses, wells and fences. And today, an excellent museum brings new life to the past, with reconstructions, illustrations and 3D animations all creating a vivid picture.
Trees, trolls and princesses
Troldeskoven is part of Rold Skov, Denmark's largest forest – an area of ancient beech trees and heather-clad hills to the south of Aalborg. The trees here are over three centuries old and are believed to be direct descendants of the first beech trees bought to Denmark during the Middle Ages.
Entering Troldeskoven is like stepping into a fairytale. The beeches are gnarled and twisted, and everything is dark, mossy and mystical. This magical atmosphere is reflected in its name, which directly translates to 'troll forest'. Whether this is because the trees themselves resemble trolls, or because otherworldly creatures could be lurking under every mossy root is unclear.
The woodland developed its curiously shaped trees due to a unique characteristic. After being cut down, multiple new shoots emerge from the stumps of the beeches. Eventually, a many-trunked tree is formed - some trees have up to thirty trunks. Historically, these were exploited as a source of timber, as one tree could be harvested repeatedly.
The branches and stems of the beeches can also form 'eye trees'. According to folklore, crawling through one of these 'eyes' would cure rickets (caused by vitamin D deficiency). Queen Margrethe II, Denmark's current monarch, climbed through one of these eyes as child, along with her two sisters, Benedikte and Anne Marie. The tree became famous as 'the Princess Tree', but was damaged by a storm in 1994. Today, however, another tree with two eyes can be crawled through.
There are waymarked trails through the forest, and a wooden viewing tower that can be climbed for spectacular views across this ancient landscape.
30km south of Aalborg lies Denmark's most extensive nature reserve. means 'Small Wild Bog', but it's actually the largest raised bog in northern Europe.
Raised bogs are one of the world's oldest living ecosystems, formed by the accumulation of plants and moss over thousands of years. The waterlogged conditions of the bog prevent the vegetation from decomposing, and it eventually forms peat. The result is an acidic, nutrient-poor environment that's ideal for specialised bog plants, such as sphagnum moss, sundew, and bog rosemary.
Lille Vildmose has built up for 1200 years, and today the peat is almost 5 metres thick. However, in the 1750s, peat cutting began – causing the bog to drain and changing it's specialised environment. Although peat cutting at Lille Vildmose ended in 2011, centuries of exploitation has severely damaged the bog.
Fortunately, a rewilding project ran from 2011 to 2016, working to restore the bog's natural ecosystems. The highlight of this project was the reintroduction of moose in 2015 - moose naturally manage the vegetation and birch trees, preventing the bog from becoming overgrown. The reserve is also home to the country's largest populations of red deer and wild boar, as well as golden eagles and cormorants.
You can explore the bogs, lakes and forests yourself – a series of boardwalks leads through the wettest areas of the nature reserve – or join a guided tour from the Lille Vildmose Centre. At the visitors' centre you'll also find fascinating exhibits about the local area, and an old peat railway – still working, the little train now transports visitors to one of the extensive wetlands.
Green Adventures April 2021
Where to stay
is an eco-friendly, Green Key certified hotel in a superb location right next to the waterfront, and close to the city centre. Rooms are smart and spacious, and some have fantastic views across the Limfjord. The hotel works to reduce energy and water consumption; cardboard, glass, plastic and paper are sorted for recycling. Food waste has also been almost completely eliminated, with very little waste sent to landfill. Parking is available alongside the hotel.