Vikings, Storms, Dykes and Storks
A Day in Ribe, Denmark
It’s a calm and sunny day when my hubby and I roll into Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town. Once a bustling sea port over 500 ago, Ribe was a happening place. Its character was shaped by the floods, fires, and the Vikings that once called Ribe home. But this all ended when the river silted and a new port was built up the coast, turning Ribe into a bit of a ghost town. Lucky for us, too, because it was this loss of citizens and industry that kept Ribe virtually untouched for centuries. We decide to spend a day investigating modern-day Ribe, and discover that despite looks, it still retains a bit of its dramatic past.
Seems Quaint Enough…
When strolling the narrow streets full of single-level, half-timbered houses and Danish flags, we noticed how quiet the town was except for the church bells and occasional cars. But it’s still lively, with plenty of casual cyclists, strolling couples and vacationers at the outdoor cafes. We stopped to pet a friendly cat near the old school, smelled the roses alongside almost every cottage, and fed the ducks from the wooden bridges over the lake.
At the Tourist Information Center in the town square (called the Torvet), you can get a free guide to the town in English, with map and self-guided tour. The Ribe Cathedral is worth the entry price, a very modern and clean feel with colorful mosaic tiled images and stained glass behind the altar, and creatively hand-carved pews and banisters. We scaled the 248 steps to the tower, which start out as a spiral stone staircase and develop into steep wooden switch-back stairs encircling the tower bells. If you’re neither claustrophobic nor afraid of heights, it’s a fantastic view of the countryside from the top. You’ll get a good idea of how really flat it is out here. This is the kind of place my granny would like. But Ribe also has a few aces up its sleeve.
Why the Locals Always Wear Hats
Across from the Cathedral, on top of the Old Town Hall are the Ribe mascots: a pair of giant nesting storks and their babies. These storks return every year after wintering in Africa, and sit upon a nest about the size of a large inner tube made of sturdy branches high above the town. They seem to be continuously stretching their wings, moving about in the nest. I don’t know if they were real or Disney-esque creations for the tourists, but it makes a great photo op. Ribe is quite adamant about preserving their lakes and natural environments with their storks in mind, which makes for a very green and tidy town, full of lovely parks.
Even Pillagers Need a Place to Call Home
Just outside the town is the Vikings Center, an outdoor camp built in the Viking style with live animals, falconry and archery demonstrations, plenty of old Viking huts and buildings, and an open market. If you paid attention in history class, you might recall the Norse Vikings. You could say Ribe was one of their base camps, of sorts. A place to rest from their exhaustive troublemaking around Europe. This reenactment camp is great for kids and anyone who wants to be outside instead of in a museum (although there’s also a Viking Museum in town, if the weather gets to you).
For the Weather Channel Addicts
The nice weather and flat roads make cycling a breeze, so we head out on bicycles towards the sea to see the famous dykes, stopping at the Vadehavscentret, also known as the Wadden Sea Center. The big pull here (unless you’re really into learning about the geology, plant and animal life on the floodplain) is the Storm Surge multimedia show. There aren’t many places in the world where you get the current ocean level with the daily weather. The west coast of Denmark is on a flood plain, where tidal flats regularly shift the land mass, but catastrophic storms have destroyed many towns and Ribe is no exception. The show uses screens, lights, sound and video to give a dramatic history of the great floods over the years, the latest being in December 1999. It’s quite moving, better than the Weather Channel during a hurricane.
Ask for the English version of the video when paying the entrance fee, and if you have to wait you can entertain yourself like we did in the educational section. The sound of a sandworm ejecting what looks and sounds like poo in one of the videos, is the most amusing. There’s also a nice café and some tables outside to watch the sheep while you munch on ice cream.
You can take the tractor-pulled bus ride to nearby Mando Island’s bird and animal sanctuary, when the tide is out. There’s a free exhibit on the island, and plenty to see for nature lovers. We continued on our way towards the sea, scaling the dyke on our bikes to ride along the shore to Norre Farup, then heading back into Ribe for the Watchman’s tour.
Never Mess With a Guy with a Spiked Pole
Every night in Ribe there is an old Watchman in period costume who makes the rounds with his lamp and large spiked-ball-on-a-pole. He sings and gives commentary on the attractions around town as he passes by. It’s the best tour you’ll get, especially because it’s free. Even on the 10pm round there was still a hoard of people with camcorders following him around (making the crowd as amusing to watch as the Watchman). Commentary is in Danish and English, but I think he adds more jokes into the English version. After the tour we finished up the evening at the bar called Vaegterkaelderen (Watchman’s Cellar) under the oldest hotel in Denmark, the elegant Hotel Dagmar.
We weren’t sure what to make of this surprising little town called Ribe, but we were sure that we’d learned something more important about Denmark than its furniture and ubiquitous breakfast pastry!