AARHUS, Denmark — This old Viking town, laid out by those seafaring marauders midway through their three centuries of raining terror on most of Europe a millennium ago, is just the sort of place many of us claim to seek when we journey to the Continent.
Nearby ruins indicate earlier settlers during the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages, but Aarhus is a marvelous example of an 18th- and 19th-Century Danish provincial town, with a distinct medieval air in its older buildings and cathedral.
Off the beaten path is another virtue many court in a destination, and Aarhus is every bit of that. It's halfway up the Jutland Peninsula in the Green Heart of Denmark, far from the bright lights and bustle of Copenhagen and other ever-lively European capitals.
Yet all the ingredients for a low-key and mellow visit are here: an idyllic rural setting; half-timbered and grass-roofed houses; lovely little fiords just outside town; old Danish windmills; spinners, weavers and candle makers hard at the task in their period costumes. And Denmark's second-most-important harbor is just a step from town center.
Queen Margrethe of Denmark lends added luster when she spends summers and Christmas at Marselisborg Palace, bringing her Royal Lifeguards for the colorful and always captivating noontime changing of the guards.
Here to there: Fly SAS nonstop to Copenhagen, TWA and Northwest with changes, foreign carriers with home-country stops. SAS gets you to Aarhus in 20 minutes, half the time it takes to get from the airport into town via SAS bus. Five hours is about the norm for a car-bus-ferry ride from the capital. Or take the pretty drive north from the German frontier.
How long/how much? A full day for the city, another for visiting the fiords and other scenic attractions outside town. Much less expensive here than in the capital, with lodging and dining costs moderate.
A few fast facts: The Danish krona was recently valued at .128, 7.8 to the dollar. Spring through autumn is the best time for a visit, winters not exactly balmy between the Baltic and North seas. City buses will get you most anywhere, a day-ticket including city tour for $3, taxis very expensive.
Getting settled in: Missionshotel Ansgar (Banegardsplads; $54-$64 B&B double) is a comfortable but no-frills member of the Scandinavian chain that always promises good, sturdy food in the dining room, often with no alcoholic beverages. This one is dead center of town, rooms overlooking park and concert hall, a green and flowery garden for relaxing in good weather. Even the desk admits that quieter rooms are in the rear, so ask for one.
Ritz (Banegardsplads; $64-$70 B&B) also has an excellent mid-city location opposite air terminal and railway station. Handsome contemporary bedrooms, attractive lobby with fireplace, distinctive old etchings and figurines, dining room of wood paneling and peach banquettes. An altogether pleasant place to stay.
Down a notch or two is the Park (Sdr. Alle 3; $28-$35 double, no private baths), a modest but immaculate place with a most friendly staff, good-size rooms with hot and cold, spotless WCs in hallways. Another good central location, but breakfast is only meal served.
Regional food and drink: Dining is nothing if not sturdy around here. Lunchtime menus highlight a "platter," one of ours bringing forth herring and onion, mushroom salad, cold roast beef, sliced reindeer topped with scrambled eggs, salmon, liver pate and Brie. Somehow they got it all on one plate; a smaller version for about $5.
The town dish seems to be fried plaice with parsley sauce and new potatoes, which we saw everywhere. Or try an egg cake, a super-thick omelet served in the frying pan, stuffed with a cook's choice of vegetables, country bacon on top. To do it right, put it away with strong mustard.
Royal Club and Ceres beer go with most Danish dishes, the town of Aalberg just down the road turning out 12 flavors of aquavit so you don't get caught short when someone says "Skoal!" After the first few, those 12 flavors become indistinguishable.
Moderate-cost dining: Moesgaard Skovmolle Kro, five miles from town in the forest, has a marvelous sylvan setting beside a little stream. This cozy old-fashioned inn has a thatched roof, half-timbered exterior, warm and inviting interior of low gabled ceiling, nosegays on tables. Mostly locals here having the platter mentioned above or other Danish specialties.
Guldhornet, off main square, is a cheerful and informal place that again seems to draw many locals. Open-face sandwich of frikadeller, the veal-pork meatballs as Danish as the flag, with red cabbage for about $3, a two-course meal for twice that, or a fried plaice dinner for $6.50. Stop in this one if only for an afternoon or late-evening coffee.
Jacobs Bar-BQ (Vestergade 3) claims to have introduced the charcoal grill to Denmark, an old merchant's home with huge cobbled courtyard for summertime dining. Near center of town, lively bar.