To paraphrase an old saying from Goethe, “Why do you want to roam forever, when the good lies so near?” I want to stress the word ‘old’ here, as this is exactly the sort of pep talk that my parents delivered back in 1979, when they wanted me to believe that just because we wouldn’t be flying to Rhodes that year my summer vacation wasn’t ruined. Instead of my cherished Aegean Sea and the fantastic Crusader castles, I was faced with a transparent attempt to sell my everyday surroundings, routes, and means of transportation (bike or by foot) in the area of my home town of Flensburg as the next best thing. Wow – I could look forward to a bike tour and fishing! Or, get this, going swimming in the Flensburg Outer Förde! Strange how no one ever thought to embellish the name with the Scandinavian “fjord” to try and make it sound more interesting. The seventies just weren’t the times for semantic tricks.
A half a lifetime later, things naturally look quite different. Now, people are effectively motivated to look in their own backyards or neck of the woods to spend their free time and vacations or to go hiking – and not only because the Corona virus is the determinant factor in making long journeys and big plans so difficult. Another reason is that there really is some truth in old man Goethe’s words. My nearby option, for example, is to explore Denmark’s most beautiful hiking trail.
If you do not belong to the fellowship of professional hikers, i.e., those who obsessively push their boundaries to the limit in order to have fun, then you really should have a look at this trail. I, for one, have no problem in extending my limits. My boundary is the border with Denmark and my destination is on the Danish side of the Flensburg Förde. It is called Gendarmstien and it is part of the E6 European hiking trail.
Long ago, this 74-kilometer stretch between Padborg, northwest of Flensburg, and Høruphav, east of Sønderborg, was patrolled by Gendarmes, armed men (from the French gens = men, armes = weapon), to put a stop to the certainly exciting but nonetheless criminal activities of smugglers.
No one is interested in smuggling anymore, but there is nothing wrong with a bit of cheating. As such, our trek, which lasts between 3 and 5 days depending on one’s preferences and abilities, begins at Wassersleben just north of Flensburg and directly on the Schusterkate border crossing to Denmark. Crossing the green border past the old border guards’ barracks, you enter the Kollunder Forest. It features beautiful spots that are perfect for sightseeing, relaxing, or grilling. I used to come here as a child with my grandmother. Another fun fact: In the 1980s, a seal from the Baltic Sea lost its bearings and settled in the mini-marina here for a summer, delighting locals, tourists, and newspaper editors of weekly supplements.
Small beaches, which, depending on the wind, can be partially submerged, alternate with muddy paths, stony trails, and open stretches leading onto fields and meadows. The trail is lined with extra cozy resting shelters created by Danish designers. Here and there you can find vacation accommodations, but for the most part, one can enjoy an unhindered view in all directions.
Although others may prefer plunging over the Niagara Falls in a barrel or wandering barefoot through a jungle, I enjoy spending time on the peak of the Ox Isles (Okseøer), which could serve as an ideal backdrop for one of Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ children’s adventure series. The view from here on this still little-known route is tremendous. And an added plus is that just across from the islands, one can go for a snack at ‘Annies Kiosk,’ which serves the best hot dogs in all of Denmark.
The freely available wooden shelters are an ingenious addition to the trail. To call them huts would be an exaggeration, but they do provide a safe and dry place to spend the night without having to set up a tent. Danish design at its finest! For a small sum and the permission of the landowner, it is also possible to pitch a tent on one of the many fields along the route. Just a little way inland and you can even find a room to rent for the night. People are usually very friendly, and if you don’t behave obnoxiously or set up camp without asking first, they will delight in telling you all about the area and its history. Regardless of the time of year, you can hike for long stretches on the trail without meeting many people.
The unique landscape, which at first, second, and even third glance appears rather plain, relies upon its unobstructed views, water, forest, cliffs, and sand for its timeless sex appeal. And viewed up close, it actually has a great deal to offer. If you make the effort, you can see many small and medium-sized rural art installations freely provided by nature: fantastically shaped trees, moss, stumps, driftwood, sloping bushes, and finely formed stones. Along and on all sides of the Gendarmstien trail, there is a wide variety of animal life, such as mussels, which used to be professionally harvested from the sea, as well as rare black woodpeckers, swans, hedgehogs, wild boars, and birds of all colors. One is overwhelmed with impressions simply by looking out towards the sea into the horizontally layered depths of the sky or by surveying the innumerable and harmonious miniature worlds of leaves, sand, and stone found on the edge of the trail and just a few steps further inland.
The water is mostly shallow and calm here. It could very well be the place where the technique of stone skipping originated, i.e. the art of hurling a flat stone like a Frisbee so that it bounces off the water surface. Whosever’s stone bounces the most times before sinking wins. Even today, this art is a means by which vacationing parents can temporarily curb their children’s media consumption.
The ease with which I can transcend my boundaries (the border) is due to the fact that exactly 100 years ago, the citizens of the city of Flensburg voted to remain in Germany, in contrast to the cities of Tondern and Apenrade, which today lie on the Danish side of the border. As in other border regions (Alsace, the Basque country), the people on both sides of the line have, in many respects, much more in common with each other than, let’s say, the natives of Southern Jutland and the residents of Copenhagen. There are numerous historical sites and vantage points along the Gendarmstien that recount the long and ambivalent history of the region and make clear why both sides still don’t sufficiently comprehend all that binds them. But politics and cunning have no place on a relaxing hike, so we leave them by the wayside.
My train of thought ends a few kilometers past Sønderborg, before taking the bus back to Flensburg in just under an hour. Without a doubt, it is worth completing the last stage of the trail, as it is not without reason that the Baltic Sea in this region is also called the Danish South Sea.
By the way, I didn’t miss the Crusader castles the whole time.