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Often described as the Danish answer to Milton Keynes, Billund is a new town but one that has more to offer than a herd of concrete cows. And with beautiful countryside, quaint old towns and the UNESCO-listed Royal Jelling monument on its doorstep, there’s more to Billund than Legoland, says Ruth Styles.
Billund’s city centre is a functional affair offering a generic range of shops and modern amenities but little in the way of inspiration. The exception to the rule, however, is the Skulpturpark Billund, a pretty 1.3-kilometre stretch of parkland that sits between the cafés of the central boulevards and the cluster of hotels around Legoland. Renovated in 2011, the park has 17 permanent sculptures including Jens Galschiøt’s elegant Little Prince and Harvey Martin’s The Star Animal and is the perfect spot for a morning constitutional. Take in the view next to Jeppe Hein’s 3-Dimensional Circle which sits beside the Billund stream and reflects the ripples of light that flicker off the water.
Although no longer exclusive to Denmark (there are outposts in London and Manchester), Legoland (Nordmarksvej 9, 7533 1333) is quite literally what made Billund. But while the original has plenty of attractions and space to enjoy them in, you don’t have to see Legoland’s marvels from the ground. Instead, try seeing it from the air courtesy of Billund Rundflyvning (Bopladsen 19, 3073 8481) and from the comfort of a propeller-driven plane. Choose between swooping over the hoi polloi wandering around Legoland, getting a sneak peek of Givskud Zoo (Løveparkvej 3, 7573 0222) from above or a combination of both. Either way, it’s a grown-up way to see the main sights without breaking a sweat.
If you can tear yourself away from Legoland or manage to disembark from the plane in good time, hop in a hire car and head to the picturesque nearby town of Kolding. Here you’ll find a compact city centre enlivened with rows of brightly coloured houses painted in chic cream or buttercup yellow as well as a fine moated castle, the Koldinghus (Markdanersgade 11, 7633 8100). A Danish royal castle founded by Cristoffer I in 1268, the building has been everything from fortress to regal residence and now a museum. Once you’ve had your fill of history, head to Helligkorsgade for lunch at the fabulously (and Britishly) named restaurant, A Hereford Beefstouw (Helligkorsgade 20, 7552 0087). As you’ll swiftly discover, beef stew is indeed on the menu and excellent it is too.
Walk off your lunch at the pretty Geografisk Have (Christian 4 Vej 23, 7550 3880), a botanical garden that covers 12 hectares and includes some extremely rare fauna, among them the mellifluously named Chinese dove tree. Hop back in the car after the walk and head to Royal Jelling (Gormsgade 23, 4120 6331), one of Denmark’s four UNESCO World Heritage sites. A world away from the medieval marvels of Roskilde Cathedral and Kronborg Castle, Jelling offers an insight into Denmark’s Viking past with its runic standing stones and burial mounds. Raised by the Viking king Gorm, and his son Harald Bluetooth, the stones celebrate the latter’s conquest of Norway and Denmark, as well as his conversion of the two to Christianity. A later medieval church stands close by, and there’s a huge museum and visitor centre to fill in any gaps in your knowledge.
Equally historic but missing the Viking pedigree is the lovely town of Fredericia, which was established in 1650 by King Frederick III who modestly named it after himself. Despite beginning life as a military camp – and narrowly missing out on becoming the Danish capital in place of Copenhagen – Fredericia is now a bustling town that has become a magnet for creative types, perhaps because of the large number of museums and galleries it boasts. One of the most interesting is the Smidstrup & Omegns Museum (Præstegårdsvej 74, 7586 0142), which recreates 17th-century rural life in fascinating detail. Round off your afternoon with a spin around the city ramparts and a visit to the Gunpowder Tower (Øster Voldgade, 7210 6980), which dates from 1675.
Impressive though Fredericia’s historical riches are, they pale in comparison to those of Ribe – arguably the oldest town in Denmark. Pretty though it is, behind its quaint crooked buildings lies a mischievous streak and as a result, a pint (or cocktail) or two with the locals is a treat not to be missed. Before you succumb to the evenings revels though, look out for the Ribe Night Watchman who from 1 May until 15 September sings his way through the city streets each evening, passing on local lore as he goes. Afterwards, tuck into some of the local Ribe Beer at Café Strygejernet (Dagmarsgade 1, 7541 1351), a cosy little watering hole with outdoor seating and prices that (by Danish standards) won’t break the bank.
While the bars of Ribe are bound to raise a smile, chances are, the restaurants will too. Get a taste of Ribe’s Viking past at Vægterkælderen (Torvet 1, 7542 0033) where you’ll find convivial company and a smorgasbord of traditional dishes served up mezze style. For a more upmarket experience, try Kolvig (Mellemdammen 13, 7541 0488), a chic dining spot located in what was once a chicory merchant’s house and where you’ll find local produce whipped into good enough shape to please even the fussiest of eaters.
If you can’t face the drive back to Billund, spend a cosy night in Den Gamle Arrest (Torvet 11, 7542 3700), which despite the name and its past as a prison houses 11 cosy bedrooms, nearly all of which have views of the cathedral, and one stylish boutique. If you do make it back, take a detour to the Hotel Svanen (Nordmarksvej 8, 7533 2833) for a nightcap. Conveniently located in Billund’s city centre, Svanen’s restaurant, No.8, offers a chic setting for a drink as well as a terrace, while the lobby bar is a cosy, comfortable alternative.