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By bicycle, an up-close visit to Denmark's Funen island

A combo bicycling and dining tour of the garden-like isle leaves one visitor hungry to be both in and out of the saddle.

August 02, 2009|Susan Spano

COPENHAGEN — While this year's Tour de France cyclists struggled to overcome rain, cold and hills, I took a four-day bike trip in Denmark, one of the most cycle-friendly nations in the world. It has more than 7,000 miles of safe, interconnected, sign-posted bike trails and -- get this -- no big hills.

My 50-mile trip was hardly as long or as arduous as the Tour. I never tried to go fast because I wasn't competing for the yellow jersey. I went riding for the fine food and beautiful scenery, both of which I found on the island of Funen.

Funen is wedged between the Jutland peninsula and Zealand island (home to Copenhagen) and is considered the garden of Denmark, a tapestry of woodlands, meadows, manor houses and sleepy villages with half-timbered houses.

Its farms and fisheries produce rich dairy products, raspberries, cherries, fiord shrimp and other fresh ingredients prized by a new generation of chefs who are putting Danish cuisine on Europe's gastronomical map. (Copenhagen alone has 13 Michelin-starred restaurants.)

When I found a self-guided biking and dining tour on the Funen island tourist bureau website, I got hungry. The package had plenty going for it: deluxe accommodations for four nights in some of the island's better hotels, big Danish breakfasts, three gourmet dinners, bike rental, luggage transport, cycling map and route descriptions.

The package -- four days of biking 15- to 20-mile stretches followed by three-course gourmet dinners -- operated more on the carrot than the stick principle. I do too, so I booked it, and before my Copenhagen-bound plane even got off the ground I could feel the wind in my hair.

Day 1

From Copenhagen, I took the train to Odense, my Funen departure point. The trip took a little more than an hour and crossed the 7.8-mile Great Belt Bridge between Zealand and Funen islands.

Odense may be the third-largest city in Denmark, but in a taxi from the train station to my first hotel, it looked more like a small town -- tidy, well-organized, with a pedestrian-only main street, a Gothic church, population of about 188,000 and a long canal leading to an inlet of the ocean.

The canal helped Odense become a manufacturing center, but its chief industry was born in 1805, when Hans Christian Andersen came into the world, the son of a washerwoman and shoemaker who lived in a hovel that's now a popular tourist attraction.

I arrived at Knudsens Gaard Hotel, a Best Western motel near a gas station on the south side of town, built around an old farmstead with a cobblestone courtyard. My room in the new wing had contemporary furniture, a bed with a soft duvet and an unenclosed shower.

A sturdy bike with a front basket and attached lock had been left for me. I picked up my vouchers, map and route description at the front desk and claimed my first three-course dinner in the restaurant.

The waiter treated me handsomely, as did everyone once they found out I was a biker, which in Denmark is as good as traveling with a baby. When I sat down, he said the chef had prepared a special menu for me starting with fingers of catfish on a bed of wild rice in a triumph of a white wine sauce. The entree was pillow-soft veal surrounded by spring vegetables.

Then the waiter brought the kitchen's special chocolate gateau, a cross between grandma's devil's food cake and creamy French fondant. Locked in a lifelong struggle with high-calorie desserts, I tried to eat just a few bites but couldn't stop until only a smudge of chocolate remained.

Day 2

Up at 7 to fair skies and a traditional Danish breakfast buffet: eggs, bacon, yogurt, cereal, fruit, pastries, cheese, cold cuts and thick, square Danish brown bread. Despite the previous night's dinner, I had an appetite, and nobody batted an eyelash when I made two sandwiches for lunch from the breakfast provender.

The first stage of the tour -- to Nyborg on the island's east coast -- was an easy 20 miles. Figuring it wouldn't take more than a few hours to get there, I spent the morning in Odense.

The summer sales were in progress on Vestergade Street downtown, and I found the front door open at St. Knud's Church, a 13th century landmark built of patterned brick. St. Knud's has two treasures: a huge, intricately carved altarpiece dating from the early 16th century and the skeletal remains of King Knud IV (or Canute), who was slain in 1086 and later became Denmark's first saint.

I had to stop at Andersen's birthplace, now an impressive modern museum. Its displays describe his impoverished childhood, theatrical writing, toothaches, travels and career as a storyteller, including such classics as "Thumbelina" and "The Emperor's New Clothes."

I ate a sandwich by the duck pond outside and headed for Nyborg on Route 6, an easy-to-follow path. Fields of summer wheat bordered by red poppies flowed by, then half-timbered farms built around courtyards, red Danish mailboxes, village churches with stepped gables.

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