Secrets of a Danish Castle


Secrets of a Danish Castle

My first conscious memory occurred on the lower landing of a staircase that spiraled up four floors of the 14th-century, moat-encircled Gjorslev castle in Denmark. I was hugging the railing while my tweed-clad grandfather, Edward Tesdorpf, who owned the place, smiled at me as he walked down the hall to take care of his ever-expanding farm businesses. I was 3 years old.

And now, five decades later, I’m standing on the same spot, this time with a statuesque Danish woman in stylish Japanese casual wear. “This is roasted and steamed tea from Korea,” Mette Marie Kjaer tells me, offering a pleasant cup of miso-tinged brew.

Ms. Kjaer runs her Asian tea company, Sing Tehus, from a rented wing of the castle, offering tea ceremonies and yoga retreats while maintaining Gjorslev’s status as the oldest continuously inhabited building in Scandinavia. After half a century of benign neglect following my grandfather’s departure, the castle is hosting not just yoga and tea events, but arts festivals, medieval fairs and even a summer musical theater in its courtyard. Gjorslev, my grandparents’ home, has opened to the world.

One can say the same thing about Stevns, the area in eastern Denmark where the castle is located. During my childhood, Stevns was considered so isolated that locals used to say that it was where “the crows come to turn around.” My kids still look at me askance when I explain how many of us in this community of fishermen and farmers were intimate with outhouses and coal-burning stoves and heaters well into the 1970s. Some of my childhood neighbors had never even been to Copenhagen, an hour’s drive away.

Although at night Copenhagen’s lights appeared like illuminated pinpricks across the dark Baltic Sea, Stevns seemed an impossibly remote place, where superstitions were strong and conversations short — “Yes, it’s not that,” spoken very slowly, was a particularly popular beginning, middle and end to many interactions. Fortresslike limestone chalk cliffs above the sea hemmed the peninsula off while the Tryggevaelde stream — a 20-mile waterway etched into the flatlands, and, according to local lore, an elf hide-out — turned it into an island.

But now Stevns is being discovered. Copenhagen commuters are trickling in, attracted to the area’s bucolic charms; Stevns’s epic cliffs, which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014; a recently opened folklore museum in the main town of Store Heddinge; and renovated inns and restaurants that have turned Stevns into an appealing weekend destination.

Driving from Copenhagen, across the Tryggevaelde stream, I noticed the gradual transformation of the landscape as the lead-gray sea slowly receded beneath cliffs and dense beech forests. Industrial-size fields diminished to patches of farmlands, with Bronze Age grave mounds protruding like dark citadels.

When mist rises from the bogs, some say it’s really ghostly elf girls dancing around the mounds. Indeed, Denmark’s national play, “Elverhoj” (“Elves’ Hill”), takes its name from a local grave mound where, according to legend, dancing elves and their “chalk king” frolicked with Danish royalty.

The chalk! It’s everywhere: in the drinking wells (reputed by locals to be the best coffee-brewing water in Denmark); in the ancient churches, farmhouses and barns, all constructed with enormous blocks cut from the cliffs; and on my hands and feet after a day of tramping around.

For almost a millennium, chalk cutters have been mining the cliffs for building material, which gives Gjorslev castle and other buildings the appearance of gleaming Lego blocks against the verdant landscape. These ancient, thick, yet crumbling walls have been preserved by generations of homeowners who instead of painting their homes, “rechalked” them every few years with a layer of chalk sludge applied with a brush.

This is how I came to know every square inch of Gjorslev, having spent a significant part of my youth rechalking its alleys, nooks and, on one memorable occasion, suspended by ropes, its central 98-foot tower.

The roots of both my travel writing and mountaineering quests are here, as Gjorslev’s towers and barns made for excellent climbing while the occasional visitors required me to take improvised stints as a tour guide. Disappointingly, little happened in this grand fortress over six centuries, so I improved things with stories of jousting tournaments, executions and other fake dramas to rapt audiences not yet armed with internet fact-checking devices.

During World War II, when the Germans occupied Denmark, Gjorslev did make it into the history books when my country-bumpkin grandfather, goaded by my cosmopolitan grandmother, whom he had snatched from Copenhagen, turned the place into a center for the Resistance. My grandfather and his crew smuggled out hundreds of Jews, scientists and other people wanted by the Nazis via fishing boats to neutral Sweden. Gjorslev’s forests and enclosed fields became secret spots for parachuting in guns and other contraband by the British Royal Air Force.

“The biggest problem were the parachutes,” my grandfather once told me. “Every woman was short of silk for stockings and clothes and they kept bugging us for the silk parachutes. But people would get suspicious if they saw someone in new silks so we had to burn them.”

His luck ran out in the last weeks of the war, when someone blew his cover and a caravan of German soldiers came rolling across the moat to arrest him. He jumped out the back of the castle and spent the end of the occupation pretending to be a patient in a Copenhagen hospital room provided by the Resistance.

After the liberation, the country bumpkin became a war hero, joined the Danish Parliament and various corporate boards, and was visited at the castle by dignitaries such as Field Marshal Montgomery and Eleanor Roosevelt.

On a recent visit, I had a meal at one of my grandfather’s favorite places, Traktorstedet Gjorslev Bogeskov, a century-old dining pavilion overlooking the lapping Baltic next to the castle’s forest. The restaurant has been thoroughly modernized and hosts an excellent buffet of local seafood, Danish pork and salads (lunch, 259 kroner, or about $38). “I’ve only been here for 20 years, so I’m not really a Stevns person yet,” the pavilion’s hostess, Pia Johansen, told me with a joking-yet-not-joking smile.

A 10-minute walk into the forest on a trail bordering the sea brought me to a worn indentation in the cliff where a wooden stairway once descended into the sea. This was the spot my grandfather chose for smuggling Jews and other refugees 20 miles across the Oresund strait to Sweden. On the other side of the path is the wooden cabin where they huddled at night, waiting for their journey to freedom.

The sea was aquavit-clear here and I took a dip in the chilly water, imagining my grandfather in his tweeds, and his mates loading families onto the waiting fishing boats.

Eleven miles south, the Stevns Klint Experience (entry, 140 kroner) recently opened above a former limestone quarry next to the sea. The center consists of a dramatic concrete-and-glass strip of galleries, a cinema and cafe half buried in the hillside above the quarry.

“Here’s the famous fish clay,” said Nana Katrine Legh-Smith, who is the center’s community outreach coordinator, pointing to a two-inch dark layer that runs through a bus-size chunk of cliff, the museum’s centerpiece. The name is derived from the high concentration of fossilized fish teeth and scales in the strata. Ms. Legh-Smith, like me, grew up here, and we reminisced about playing around the cliffs, oblivious to the fish clay’s importance to science and how it would transform Stevns into a world attraction.

“Walter Alvarez turned our cliffs into stars,” she said, referring to the American geologist who visited in 1978 and made a remarkable discovery: The fish clay, with its lode of iridium — a rare metal that is associated with outer space — provides some proof that the extinction of the dinosaurs, along with half of Earth’s species, was caused by an asteroid impact. Stevns is one of the few places on the planet where this layer can be viewed, earning the cliffs their UNESCO status.

Another two miles up the coast is the 13th-century Hojerup Church, which looks ready to totter into the sea 100 feet below. For eight centuries the church and the eroding cliff had been playing tag “one rooster step every Christmas,” according to local lore, until March 16, 1928, when a large part of the cemetery and the church’s chancel collapsed into the Baltic. When I was a kid, I could wander undisturbed to the open back and stare down the Hitchcockian drop. Now the place is bustling with tourists. Any trepidation involved with standing there can be calmed with the knowledge that the cliff below has been fortified with concrete.

I descended the steep steps to the chalky beach where some Japanese visitors were photographing the jagged cliffs. After climbing back up and crossing the parking lot, I was rewarded with an excellent lunch of herring, meatballs and other local delicacies in cozy Hojeruplund (lunch for two, 520 kroner).

But for me the best meal around here is four miles down the coast at Rodvig, nicknamed “the Stevns Riviera,” for its sandy beach, now popular with windsurfers. The 18th-century Rodvig Kro & Badehotel was, in my youth, a “special occasion” spot for anniversaries and weddings, often featuring boiled cod drowned in butter and remoulade — no luxuries back then for the hearty locals!

But over the last five years, the place has been enlivened by the chef Morten Vennike, a veteran of Copenhagen’s buzzy restaurants who makes good use of local produce. I went for the coq au vin, garnished with wild mushrooms, and finished with caramel and apple sorbet (dinner for two with wine, 795 kroner). I left with a new appreciation, after all these years, of the inn’s original Danish midcentury-modern décor.

Later, in the harbor, I bumped into one of Gjorslev’s former farming foremen whom I’d known as a child. “What do you think makes Stevns so distinct?” I asked him, amid the clinking of halyards against sailboat masts.

He pondered for a while. “That I couldn’t say.” We glanced across the bay toward the cliffs, which in the dusk resembled Cubist etchings framed by the now teal Baltic. These same waters nurtured the garrulous talents of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann on nearby shores, but Stevns’s unique magic and myths remain guarded by a tribe of taciturn people.

There was a long pause as I waited for the old gentleman to add something. He didn’t. “Yes,” I finally responded. “It’s not that.”

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