A deep clang resonates around Dokk1, Aarhus’ latest pride and joy, a state-of-the-art multimedia centre towering over the harbour. The unexpected sound comes from The Gong, a huge tubular bell (weighing three tons and the world’s largest) suspended above a luminous, open space where children and adults play, read books, snack and relax. Electronically linked to the local maternity ward, the bell announces every new birth and injection of fresh blood into Denmark’s booming, youngest city, where the average age is 38.
It’s an apt symbol and a shining example of how the much-hyped, cool lifestyle does not stop at Copenhagen. Because Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, at the heart of the Jutland peninsula is now racing towards 2017 status as European Capital of Culture. In the build-up, the thumb of land sticking up from Germany into the North Sea has devised plenty of ways to lure visitors, often bringing its food and drink pioneers to the fore. And with new flights from Heathrow to Billund, in central Jutland, launched by British Airways this week, both the city and wider region are now easier to reach. The airport has previously been the jumping off point for families venturing to Legoland, but there's so much more to explore beyond bricks and minifigs.
Denmark is remarkably flat and in Aarhus, the entire population seems to rattle along on a bike (no need for gears or expensive brands here) en route to nearby forests, the beach or to the multiplying cafés and bars of the fashionable Latin Quarter. In the town centre, some raise their eyes to admire the city’s new halo of light by the internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson (memorable in the UK for his mesmerising sun installation in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall). Here he has created a huge, circular walkway of coloured glass panels to crown ARoS, the contemporary art museum, propelling visitors through a rainbow-tinted world above the rooftops.
“We don’t have any mountains in Denmark” says ARoS’s director Erlend Høyersten, an imposing Norwegian sporting skull rings and a fedora. “People need a perspective to look up at; this changes the experience of the city.” The rooftop also houses raised vegetable beds and bee hives which supply the stylish museum restaurant. You can have an excellent, affordable lunch there (a three-course set menu is about £20), between viewing the wide-ranging exhibits over 11 floors.
Burgeoning Aarhus may not have Noma or Geranium, but last year three of its restaurants earned a Michelin star: Substans, Frederikshoj and Gastromé. At Substans, an enjoyably low-key place with whitewashed walls, scrubbed wooden tables and waiters with beards and tattoos, chef Rene Mammen follows Nordic principles by using only organic, seasonal ingredients. His seven-course tasting menu is like a voyage through the Jutland countryside, bringing wild herbs, berries, lumpfish roe, truffles, langoustine or veal to your table.
Gustatory pleasures in Jutland are abundant and varied, but it is worth heading northwest (about three hours’ drive from Aarhus and half that from Billund) past scattered thatched houses, modern bungalows and white Lutheran churches to the gourmet hotspot of Limfjorden, a long, snaking sea inlet where artisan producers specialise in anything from ducks to bison, lamb, crabs or the delicious Thise cheese, organic of course.
This is where I stumble on Europe’s largest remaining wild oyster bed. Centuries ago it was the exclusive reserve of the Royal family, and a treasonable offence to eat one of its prized bivalves. Happily, that law has been lifted, but the endangered native oyster is now contending with its invasive Pacific cousin, much maligned by Peter Lund, mollusc maestro. Dressed in waders and armed with nets and bizarre plastic viewfinders to see beneath the ripples, we follow him through the chilly, thigh-high waters. I keep my eyes peeled for the round, native oyster – slow-growing, low in salt and rated as one of the best in the world. It is not easy, since oysters look just like stones underwater.
Foraging both types, we fill our buckets up; back on dry land Peter orchestrates a gourmet indulgence. We eat them raw and barbecued, sometimes with misguided toppings (blue cheese) on the larger Pacific variety. Perhaps it’s disdain for the invader. I greedily guzzle the meaty native variety, unadulterated, with just a squirt of lemon juice, while enjoying the idyllic spot, sheltered by a house beside the inlet where trees bend in the wind between wild grasses and marshes.
From the oyster hub of Lemvig it’s a short drive up a finger of land to the mouth of Limfjorden and the tiny fishing village of Thyborøn. The remoteness is accentuated by salty breeziness, solitude (one cyclist peddles by) and silence, only interrupted by the clinking of lanyards. Yet unassuming Thyborøn is the location of another of Jutland’s recent cultural developments. Opened last year, the Sea War Museum occupies a lofty, refurbished coastal authority building that stands out against rolling sand-dunes leading to the choppy grey waters of the North Sea.
Almost a century ago, the Battle of Jutland took place in those choppy waters, 100km out to sea on 31 May-1 June, 1916, pitting the British against the German navy. Twenty-five ships sank and over 8,600 died, the majority British sailors. The imaginative museum delves deep into personal stories through letters and mementos, beside film footage, guns, portholes and other items recovered by divers. Beyond, a vast stretch of dunes is being transformed into a memorial where 25 triangular stones are planted in the sand, each one symbolising the prow of a sunken ship. It is a moving place to visit, led by the museum mantra: “War is a tragedy and should not be glorified but the history must be told and the victims remembered.”
On the way back to Billund airport, I drop in on a project firmly turned to the future, Denmark’s only whisky producer. Ten years old, the Stauning distillery started life sketched out on the back of an envelope in a pub. After learning the technical process online, the budding entrepreneurs now produce a malted rye whisky that has impressed connoisseurs worldwide. Last year the British drinks giant, Diageo, poured £10 million into Stauning for ambitious expansion. Get there soon to tour the Heath Robinson-style distillery, sip the nectar and drink to the future of Jutland.
British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) has 11 flights weekly from Heathrow to Billund, from £41; the airline also flies from London City and Humberside, operated by Sun Air of Scandinavia. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted.
AroS, Aarhus (00 45 8730 6600; en.aros.dk). Admissin Dkr120.
Substans, Aarhus (00 45 8623 0401; restaurantsubstans.dk).
Oyster Safari, Lemvig (00 45 9783 2808; jyllandsakvariet.dk/trips/oyster-safari). Trips Dkr300.
Sea War Museum, Thyborøn (00 45 9783 2808; seawarmuseum.dk). Admission Dkr79.
Stauning Whisky Distillery, Skjern (00 45 8844 2122; stauningwhisky.dk). Tour with tasting Dkr150.
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