Our Denmark Adventure: How Somebody Totally Undersold Sønderborg, and I’m Going to Need a Pastry Intervention

Midlife Sentence | Sonderborg

Our oldest son is a young man of many talents, but I must say, he’s got a ways to go if he wants a future in the travel industry. When we’ve talked about the town he’s called home this past year, he totally undersold it. The impression he left us with was: safe, small, and rainy. There’s a rocky beach and a harbor, a decent mall, and a great kebab shop within walking distance.

We weren’t really prepared to be blown away by Sønderborg, a seaside town of around 30,000 that straddles the narrow straight of Alsslund in southern Denmark.

When we arrived, the weather was perfect for a stroll around town, and Jack gave us a tour along pub and store-lined cobblestone streets. There were refreshingly few crowds after the hustle of Copenhagen.

We were having drinks on the boardwalk when we heard some trumpeting fanfare near Sønderborg Castle that we had to check out. It was a demonstration with some guys in costumes on horses who were riding very fast with what looked like javelins. I got really excited about seeing some sort of medieval death and dismemberment demonstration, until I realized that they were actually trying to get a little ring on their stick (ahem, lance), a competitive tradition that stems from the middle ages (and that used to involve opponents instead of rings until someone realized the potential for wasting otherwise perfectly good knights and their armor). Turns out, we’d just missed an entire festival the town produces every year for a sport that has been around in one form or another since King Christian III and his sons introduced it to Denmark to in the 1500s.

Later, we took the boys and their luggage to Jack’s host family home on the mainland, where they’d stay for the night, while we were at a hotel near the center of town. Jack’s hosts, Jørn and Birte, live in a gorgeous 150 year-old, stone farmhouse that was passed down to Jørn from his father.

The two suggested we all have dinner at a local restaurant, the Colosseum, which features a favorite dish of the late King Frederik IX of Denmark. The combination of “Ox in Spicy Sauce with Potatoes, French Fries, Chopped Egg, Onions and Beetroot” is the Husets Specialitet (house special), and something the king came up with and then directed this restaurant to have on hand for whenever he was in town, which to me sounds like the best use of royal decree there ever was. It was like stroganoff and poutine had a love child and raised it in India. I’m going to try to make it at home.


For today, Jack had arranged for his school counselor and Danish teacher to give us a tour of his school, the Sonderborg Statsskole, one of two sixth form colleges in town. In Denmark, as in England, Wales, Norway, and several other countries, school is compulsory through a certain age (in Denmark it’s sixteen), and then most students (80% or more) attend a sixth form school for two to three years in preparation for university or a vocation. Although there are private institutions in Denmark, almost all public education in Denmark is free to Danish citizens, permanent residents, or students from any country in the EU. Denmark has been ranked by the UN’s Human Development Index as having one of the best education systems in the world, tied for first place with Australia, Finland, and New Zealand. Literacy in Denmark is approximately 99%. I got all this from a Wikipedia page, but I’m going to site the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science to make it look like I did better research than that.

I can do that, people. It’s my blog.

After our school tour, we visited the castle, which developed around a central tower erected in the 1150s as fortification for the island of Als. The tower was expanded upon and updated through the years, and eventually became the fortress it is today, with the islet expanded to be a part of the larger island. Legend has it that King Christian II, who was held prisoner there for seventeen years in the mid 1500s, restlessly wandered around a table in his quarters, dragging his thumb along its circumference and making a groove in it. There’s a sculpture representing the story on the boardwalk, within view of the castle.

Later, we walked back to the center of town for lunch at Jack’s favorite restaurant, toured the town shopping center, and grabbed coffee at a Lagkagehuset: Denmark’s answer to Starbucks. If there was any way I could eat another bite, I would have had something sweet and flaky. The selection of pastries was so pretty. As it is, I’ll probably be bringing back five pounds of pastries around my midsection.

You remember how we did that Whole30 thing last spring? The thing where we gave up wheat and sugar and alcohol? That’s totally how our fall is going to look, people. Something will need to be done when we return.


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