Fanø Island: Bikes & Bunkers & Beautiful Beaches

You may never have heard of a place called Fanø Island, but if you lend me an ear I might tell you about this lovely place in Denmark. After just a 12 minute ferry ride from Esbjerg you are transported back in time perhaps 100 years, to an idyllic place that will take your breath away. Perhaps it is the simplicity, the natural beauty, or the beautiful straw roofed homes. Perhaps it’s the people. Perhaps it’s the gentle sea breezes, the fresh air. Whatever it may be, believe me when I say that it is quite simply otherworldly.

The channel crossing to the island takes about 12 minutes. The water here is fairly shallow. You can bring a car to the island, but it costs a pretty penny to do so, perhaps as a measure to discourage vehicle traffic, of which there is very little.

The Esbjerg skyline is dominated by this very large coal fired heat and electricity plant.

Land ho!!!   There’s the island!

Once we get to the island we head off straight away to pick up some rental bikes. My breath has seriously been taken away! I am instantly in love with this town of Nordby!

Fortunately for us there are enough bikes at the rental shop. It is Saturday, and the weather is perfect. As such we aren’t the only ones who thought going to Fanø Island was a great idea. The bikes are not in the greatest state of repair. They are dusty and rusty, and there are spider webs hanging on the brake cables. If you want to rent a helmet it costs 4 euros on top of the 14 we already pay for each bike, plus a basket on the bike adds another fee. This calls for negotiating skills.

I ask for a group discount, since there are eight of us. Nope. Okay. Ashlee says she is a returning customer. I ask some more about the helmets, and soon enough he says that we can have the helmets and baskets for free! Yay! That saves 44 euros! Or essentially $50. Score! Not a bad deal to get such a good discount at a touristy place like this on one of their busier days.

Off we go cycling about 13 km to a lovely seaside park where we stop for a picnic. All the play equipment here is handmade by volunteers and donations. The ultimate purpose is to encourage people to get out and connect with nature. Maybe they have the same problem here that we have in the States… don’t play outside anymore? Too much electronic gadgetry?

We leave the bikes locked up at the park and head over the sand dunes towards the beach, or at least where we assume the beach is. The path twists left and right and goes up and down. The weather is perfect, and the sea breeze feels beautiful. After a little hiking we realize that it seems like the path is not really going to the beach. It keeps twisting and turning, but the general direction seems to be north, as opposed to the west. We need to go to the west!

We don’t have cell service…..and our map that we have along is great, but we haven’t been keeping track of time, and our position on the map is difficult to determine because the distance has been hard to gauge with all the twisting and turning of the path. The terrain changes from sand dunes to thick gnarly brush, which scratches and pokes and prods. Then there is a swampy area next to us with thick bullrushes. We cross a bit of the marsh while carefully balancing on some twigs that have been placed over the murky water. I remove my socks so they don’t get wet with this icky water. This path in parts in scarcely even recognizable as a trail, and there are no markings to be seen anywhere. We see no other hikers.

Finally I manage to get a signal on my phone. Google maps to the rescue… appears as though we should keep going forward rather than turn back. The kids are tired. Well, I am tired. We trudge along, sometimes ducking low under branches. Bjorn’s leg is bleeding. We find a wood tick on Kristoff. I guess the wood ticks here carry some kind of weird disease. I try to pick it off with my fingernails, unsure if I succeeded. Just when we are ready to give up the path suddenly merges into what looks like a well used walkway.

There are bunkers from WWII all over Fanø Island, in fact over 300 of them were built by the Nazis.

The beach is a welcome sight. It is a long walk through the sand to the water’s edge. The sand is surprisingly hard packed. I dip my feet. The water is unexpectedly warm, but the strong breeze off the North Sea is cool even in the heat of the day. No thanks, I won’t be swimming, but everyone else does. We have been warned not to go in more than chest deep, as there are very strong currents that can drag swimmers away.

We hike back down the sandy walkway towards where we left our bikes, and then along a road that was constructed by the Germans during WWII. We pass a few frog filled bunkers. Perhaps many of these dunes are covering old bunkers.

What secrets do those bunkers hold? What were the soldiers thinking as they hunkered down in these concrete structures? I wonder what it must have been like here during the war. Seems crazy to think about the ravages of war in this peaceful place. The nazis had over 300 bunkers on this little island alone! Why do we have wars? They are so awful. It makes me cringe just thinking about how fearful people must have been when their cities and towns were taken over during the war. How they must have longed for peace and feared for the future. If you lived here on Fanø Island during WWII your idyllic life would have been turned upside down. I should think I would have loathed the war, and longed for a return of peace. How incredible would have been the day when you saw the last soldier leave your island, men who likely did not want to be there either, who longed for an end to the devastation and death just as you.

I am lost in my thoughts as I walk along the narrow concrete road. In a quiet way I grieve for those who grieved in those dark days. I cringe at the very thought of bombs and gunshots and tanks, and of young men fighting the battles – often losing life or limb. How grievous it is that life must be this way, that we must wound and maim and kill others in order to maintain order and peace. Must life really be this way?

Could there ever be a day when we have peace upon this earth, where men would not feel it justified or necessary to inflict such heinous actions one upon the other? Sorrowfully I have to acknowledge that perhaps there will never be such a day, at least not in my lifetime. We like to think that man of today is so sophisticated, that the atrocities of WWII and other such wars could never happen again. We are far too sophisticated and smart today to allow for another halocaust to occur. Yet I know in my heart that it is definitely possible. We are after all just humans, and the human condition is such that given the right stressors and conditions there is no level of sophistication and intelligence that could prevent war with all its atrocities and horror.

The hike back from the beach seems much shorter than our hike out. Perhaps it is helpful to feel oriented, and our route this time does not endlessly go up and down and all around the sand dunes and through thickets and swamps. I estimate that our hike ends up being well over 5 miles long.
Once again we hop on our bikes and head further down into the island.

We find this windmill, which is open. I have never been inside one of these before. It’s deathly hot upstairs, and sweat is pouring into my eyes, temporarily blinding me. The gears are made of wood. I can’t help but think of my husband, and how much he would enjoy this particular moment of this day.

We come upon a little town called Sønderho on the southern tip of Fanø  Island.

It’s getting close to 6 pm and everything is closing, but we have an ice cream and coffee emergency. I see a man pull his restaurant sign into his shop, and I call out to ask him if he can make us some fresh coffee. He seems eager to, so while he brews a pot we go across the street to the grocery store to buy three packages of ice cream. It’s pig out time!

As we are drinking our coffee and eating our ice cream, the restaurant owner’s wife shows up. When she hears us speaking she is thrilled to tell us that she is from Finland as well. And to make things even more interesting, she recognizes Ashlee as one of her students from a lecture just last week. Then she tells us that her husband has created this incredible fish burger that is made with locally caught fish and is served with caviar, which we should absolutely try. Her husband agrees to make us some, and he fires up his grill again. Soon we have the best fishburgers in the world!

We decide that we will bike along the beach back up to Nordby where the ferry takes off from. We end up having a really strong headwind, and we have 13 km of biking to do. Our bikes have three gears, however my bike has a mind of its own and changes gears whenever it wants. Kristoff is worse off, though, as his brake is stuck on. Ashlee tries to fix it and trades bikes with him. We try to ride in formation so that we can draft off the leader, but the kids seem to get bored with it really fast, and soon are riding out of formation. Lucky for us we don’t get a flat, because we have no tools with us.

Finally we get to the exit from the beach. When we arrive in Nordby we return our bikes. We are about a 1/2 hour past closing, but we had made an agreement with the owner earlier that we could bring them back later than closing. Then we walk around the most darling town ever. I can’t even tell you how cute it is!

We come across this handmade glass shop, which is closed, however the window is open, and a woman is working inside. She tells us through the open window that she is firing up her ovens to melt glass over the weekend for her next week’s projects.

The kids chat with her for awhile. It doesn’t take her long to unlock the shop door to let us in.

She is so excited to have guests from so far away that she lets each of us pick out a glass paper weight for free.

Soon enough it is time to head back on the ferry to the mainland into Esbjerg. What an inspirational and beautiful day! When we arrive at Ashlee’s apartment we are all exhausted. Our hearts are happy, and everyone admits that they had an awesome day. As I lay down to sleep my mind returns to those bunkers, and the horrors of those dark days of history. I find a prayer forming in my heart…..a prayer of thanks for this beautiful day…..for the dear ones who I got to share it with…..for my dear husband who could not be with us this day, for I am sure he would be loving every moment as have I…..for my thankfulness that today is a day of peace here in Denmark…..that there are no soldiers hunkered down in bunkers…..I whisper a prayer for continued peace for the kind and gentle people of this beautiful country here in Scandinavia where the westerly winds blow off the North Sea…..may there be many many more years of peaceable history in the making.