Esbjerg (pronounced s-b-yer), a port city with 80,000 residents, is an unusual stop on a tour of Scandinavia. If you travel directly west from Copenhagen, stop when you reach the North Sea and spend a few days in Denmark’s fifth-largest city.
Esbjerg and I have a long personal history, and I stopped to reminisce at Esbjerg State School, a college prep school. Forty years ago, after graduating from high school in San Antonio, I was an exchange student here for a year with American Field Service (AFS). A different school uses the building today, but it still looks the same. And there is probably a library inside, but the school was closed.
Esbjerg’s main library is about 30 years old with a Scandinavian modern look. The result reminds me of a warm and inviting country lodge. Inside there is room for kids to play on an artificial tree while adults can relax and read.
Near the entrance, they had a fascinating exhibit on local history. For a modest-sized city, the library was impressive, with seven branches in nearby towns. Museum-quality artwork circled along the walls. Outside, a sobering exhibit of personal stories and photos of sixteen Danish men who suffered from violence.
Esbjerg isn’t an old Viking town but was once a small farming community. In 1868 it transitioned under a royal decree from King Christian IV. Altona, Denmark’s west coast harbor located on the north side of Hamburg, was lost to Germany during the Second Schleswig War in 1864. So, Esbjerg’s harbor was selected to fill that gap, and the population grew. An equestrian statue of the founding king, who ruled Denmark from 1863 to 1906, still rules from the town square. The bronze statue was unveiled in 1900, and from the look of the crowded square, the King was probably in attendance.
On the town square, an impressive Dronning Louise, aka Queen Louise, hotel dates from 1890. Today it’s a restaurant and pub. The recently restored brick and sandstone façade reflects its grand Victorian style. The regal Queen Louise sits across from the statue of the king, and it’s a sweet touch. His Danish wife’s name was Queen Louise of Hesse-Kessel.
Since many of their children married into European royal families, this royal couple received the nickname “the father-in-law and mother-in-law of Europe.” Two daughters married into top-of-the-line royal families and became the wife of the future King of England and the Emperor of Russia. I’m not sure how popular these Danish royals were with Esbjergensers back in the day, but in July, the Dronning Louise was crowded and a fun place for dinner.
The Esbjerg Museum had three main exhibits covering the city’s history from 1900 to 1950, including life here during the occupation. This Danish city was the first one invaded during World War II and the first to resist. The museum’s building was the town’s library in the 1920s. Esbjerg’s bookstore was subject to Nazi sabotage following some resistance activity. Words have power, and illegal newspapers and pamphlets got it out.
Esbjerg’s Fisheries and Maritime Museum exhibited various ships, saltwater aquariums, and a large tank for their resident seals. But this was unusual: A large Nazi bunker that could house 20 men from World War II. About 500 similar bunkers were built in Denmark during the war.
Nazi fortifications in France, particularly in Normandy, where the Allied forces landed on D-Day, are well known. But more than 1200 bunkers were constructed in the Esbjerg regional area. Since the bunkers and related buildings are so expensive to remove, they remain, and some are open to the public.
Denmark was occupied by Germany for five long years, from 1940 to 1945. As a major port, Esbjerg held a strategic location on the North Sea across from the UK. Nazis worried about the potential for an Allied invasion, so they fortified the entire region. The Atlantic Wall of defense stretched from the Spanish French border to Norway.
Women were active resistance fighters in Esbjerg. Karen Tovborg Jensen was an editor for an illegal magazine, and the stress took a toll on her health. Esther Frederiksen, her sister Ruth, and their mother hid resistance fighters in their home in Esbjerg. Esther also worked for the phone company and provided information to the resistance. All three women were arrested. Esther and her mother were released from prison after five weeks, but Ruth stayed in a concentration camp until the war ended.
Karen is the Scandinavia form of Katherine, a Greek word for pure. When I lived in Denmark, it was a popular name for older women, but it’s making a comeback. Prince Felix, the grandson of Queen Margrethe II, has a teenage girlfriend named Karen. Let’s hope she isn’t hit with the cruel Karen memes and jokes still prevalent in the USA.
North of town, four giant white men are seated with a grand view of the beach and the sea beyond. The 30-foot-high sculpture, Man Meets the Sea, Danish designed and installed in 1995, celebrated Esbjerg’s 100th anniversary.
When I was a poor student in Esbjerg, it was a rare treat to make the pricey five-hour train ride to Copenhagen. Trains boarded ferries to sail from Funen Island to Zealand Island, which was a welcome hour break. In 1998, the Great Belt bridge-tunnel combo was completed for trains and vehicles, eliminating the ferries. Now the trip takes less than three hours.
Fanø, a historic island, is a short 12-minute ferry ride across the Wadden Sea from Esbjerg. The Danish vowel ø means island. The island is a popular destination filled with vacation homes. The western coastline is a wide sandy beach, and the windy conditions are popular for kite surfing and wind buggies.
Fanø is only 10 miles long with a width of just 2 miles and relatively flat. The perfect place to explore on a bicycle. Many old thatched-roof homes dot the island. The Wadden Sea is the most extensive unbroken system of intertidal sand and mudflats in the world. The protected site stretches from Denmark to the Netherland and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Fanø’s location, west of Esbjerg’s harbor, made it a vital part of the Atlantic Wall in Denmark. Fortifications on the small island included concrete roads, cannons, railroads, ground positions, anti-armored vehicle trenches, support buildings, and about 300 bunkers. Nature has reclaimed many of the bunkers, now covered by sand.
During World War II, the Danish resistance was active, but Esbjerg and Fanø were mainly peaceful. Five Allied planes were shot down during an attack on a military airport. Over a thousand Allied airmen and German soldiers, including German refuges, are interred at Fourfeldt, Scandinavia’s largest war cemetery.
The German occupational force on Fanø consisted of over 2,000 soldiers and another thousand Danish workers. Close to 50,000 mines and large marine minefields were established. The 2015 film Land of Mine shows how dangerous it was to remove these mines after the war. This Danish-German historical drama was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Here’s a link to the film trailer with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvsKIBSPfWw
Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, is less than an hour’s drive south of Esbjerg. The Vikings founded this village in the year 700. I visited this charming town forty years ago, and it’s still enchanting. Well worth a visit if you can pry yourself away from Copenhagen.
Ribe’s public library was closed on a Sunday. So instead, I visited Denmark’s oldest cathedral from 1200. Over 200 steps later, the fantastic view was worth it.
Visiting Esbjerg and blogging about it made me reminisce about my life since then. If you’d told the girl from San Antonio, who adapted to a completely different life in Denmark, that 40 years later she’d write novels and live in Philadelphia, she’d never believe it. But I like to imagine that she’d be proud and would encourage me to keep on writing.
Karen Stensgaard enjoys taking some writing breaks to travel and check out libraries. With newcomer PROJECT ONION, she now has a trio of books out there in the world. Something is magical about reaching the number three. As her Irish girlfriend would say, “That’s brilliant!”