Fra New York Times
June 10, 2001, Sunday
A Still Life In Motion
By KEN CHOWDER
IN Europe, the past is always close. But there is one place in Denmark where it seems astonishingly close: an ancient fishing village, almost untouched by time, hugs the placid sea just a few miles from Denmark's capital. The small town of Dragor is, in fact, closer to Copenhagen's airport than Copenhagen itself is.
Remarkably, the looming present hasn't spoiled the grace of the past. My
wife, Tine, and I went down to Dragor (pronounced drow-URR) one wet andfoggy weekend in March, and felt as though we were alone. When we walked down the pier -- among the rows of slowly bobbing boats, with the sea gliding gently over a sandy bottom -- the only creatures we met were two swans, sailing through the fog. Then we turned back inland, into the town itself. The old part of Dragor is something of a gentle labyrinth, with
every footstep, no matter where you turn, taking you farther back in time.
There's a lot of time to travel through here. By the Middle Ages, Dragor was already a major shipping town, where the Hanseatic merchants came to buy salted herring. One church (though not its building) dates from the 1200's; the present town plan was already established by the end of the 17th century. Today the Old Town is a good-sized warren of beautifully preserved houses, small homes that are without apparent exception between 150 and 250 years old. All but one of the streets in the Old Town are paved with cobblestones, and the entire section is a walking district -- no cars
allowed. After all, not that many would fit. The east-west streets are
narrow enough themselves, but most of the north-south streets are just
cobbled pathways, so narrow that two large people can pass each other only with a certain amount of traffic management.
We met no one, fortunately. As we rambled along the straight little streets,
we were so close to the houses that it was impossible not to look in. This
soon gave us a good solid case of envy. In Denmark the word hyggelig,
meaning cozy, is given great weight. Life in these small houses seemed
dedicated to coziness above all. The floors were sanded and smooth, the
white ceilings curved, the candles lighted, the matching ceramic knickknacks stationed symmetrically in the windows; so little was out of place that we felt we were walking around in an oversize living museum. Dragor is noted as a retreat for artists and writers, and the insides of the houses looked as
if they were composed for an endless series of still lifes. The fruit sat in
the bowls on the table, seemingly waiting for Cézanne's return.
The perfection of these lovely houses extends to the exteriors as well. Most
are painted the traditional pale ocher and have roofs of red curved tiles --
except for those with thatched roofs, which are usually clamped on with
wooden crosspieces. Often the straw bends in a bell shape around small
''eyebrow'' windows; it looks as if these sweet old houses are about to wink
at you. What do they know that we don't? Well, they know what life was like
Few Americans know about Dragor, but it's no secret to the Danes. It is,
after all, the perfect place for a day trip from Copenhagen, some 15 minutes
by car or 30 by bus from the center of the city. In July the town brims with
tourists. Quite a few are Swedes, too, since the new Oresund bridge between
Denmark and Sweden touches down only a few minutes away. The main walking
street, Kongevejen, is filled with baby strollers, ice-cream eaters,
T-shirted shoppers, Danes in search of the first pink beginnings of a tan,
and Swedes in search of the relatively inexpensive beer of Denmark. Yet even
in busy July the town still has a tranquil, relaxed air -- a little like
Nantucket in the 1960's.
Until a few years ago, another kind of animal wandered the Dragor streets: a
multitude of geese. But the geese have been banished to the meadows just
south of the Old Town -- an area called the Goose Republic. We took a grassy
path in that direction, and soon heard their declamatory honking through the
fog. But the geese -- there are dozens of them -- have little to complain
about: they're all housed in green wooden cubes that look warm and
comfortable, and are punctually fed by the Dragor municipality. Even the
geese have enviable lives here.
Just past the Goose Republic we came to the beach. It's not wide, but it is
sandy. A wooden boardwalk over the water led out to an unpainted old wooden
building announcing ''Winter Bathing.'' In the belief that it lends health,
some Danes are driven to bathe naked in the sea every single day of the
year. But on this chilly day in March we heard no splashes from the far
In July, Danes do want to swim -- I think partly to prove to themselves that
there is such a thing as Danish summer. They are, I think, usually wrong.
Nonetheless, the beach at Dragor is perfect for bathing with small children.
The water is almost waveless; the bottom is sandy, and drops off very
slowly. We walked on the beach, along the meadows, where the ponds of a
marsh curve gracefully through the reeds. We followed those curves, tracing
the arc made by some wintering ducks -- in exile, presumably, from the Goose
There's just enough to do in Dragor, and not too much. The energetic tourist
can hire a fishing boat for a morning; the more sedentary will sit in the
courtyards of the cafes and restaurants and nurse a good beer; those of more
middling habits will browse in the small shops along Kongevejen before
settling down to graze in one of the wonderful little restaurants.
It was clearly time for us to eat. We'd been told that one of the best
restaurants in town was Beghuset. Nothing is hard to find in Dragor; you
just wander around till you bump into it, and we found Restaurant Beghuset
on the edge of a cobblestoned square. Many of the old buildings were once
sites of commerce -- the bleaching house, the customs house, the smithy. At
Beghuset they boiled pitch, used to waterproof wooden ships. It's now an
excellent cafe and restaurant. The cafe serves simple fare, the restaurant
quite ambitious and successful French-Danish food.
At the restaurant, we had a three-course dinner. It began with roasted red
snapper sautéed with tomatoes and shallot, with a salmon soufflé in a little
pouch of phyllo shaped like a garlic bulb, and an herbed beurre blanc,
followed by breast of guinea hen stuffed with truffles on a
potato-and-wild-mushroom flan, accompanied by a ragout of root vegetables in
a pastry shell. Finally came an almond tart, with lemon sorbet and pickled
grapes, circled by a creamy passion-fruit sauce. For some reason, we didn't
have the appetite for the cheese course. The three courses we did manage
cost about $75; a good half-bottle of Sancerre was $24 and a stunning bottle
of Mercurey $45.
THEN it was time -- past time -- to find our hotel. There aren't many hotels
in Dragor, since Copenhagen is such a short ride away. The largest is the
Dragor Badehotel (Bathing Hotel), perched just across the grass from the
water. It's from 1907, and the ambience pleasant but not special, though
several rooms have nice little balconies with wicker chairs overlooking the
We wanted to stay in a hotel that suited Dragor in its time and tone, so we
spent the night right in the middle of town, at the Hotel Dragor Kro --
redundant, because Kro means Inn. Denmark's ancient country kros are a
source of well-deserved national pride; they're almost always charming,
usually in an old-fashioned way.
Dragor Kro is old even for Denmark; the building dates from the middle of
the 17th century, and the prize-winning restaurant, with its half-panels,
dark wooden beams and unpainted wooden tables, feels old, solid and overly
comfortable -- the kind of inn, one imagines, where pirates once drank
tankards of ale. In summer, you can sit out in the courtyard, surrounded by
roses. ''We do it like the old time,'' said the cheerful woman who showed us
around. ''We don't want to change the style. This is a kro, and we serve kro
food. But the fish comes from the harbor right to the table, and you can't
do better than that.''
Upstairs, the rooms have been nicely modernized, with a good feeling for the
structure of the old house -- preserving the wooden ceiling beams. The kro
has five suites, each with a well-equipped kitchen-living room and bedroom,
each with gable windows giving on the harbor. I pushed the window open and
stuck my head into the cool night fog. Quiet out there. The pier rocked
gently in the black water; I thought I saw my swans again, retreating out to
sea, looking like white dabs in the dark painterly distance.
After a while I realized that a misty rain was falling on my head. That fine
rain felt exactly right, somehow; it seemed that Dragor was gently
sprinkling its holy water on me -- that I was being baptized by the past.
Finding your way through a cobblestoned labyrinth Dragor is seven miles from
the center of Copenhagen, an easy trip by either taxi or bus (Nos. 350S, 30,
34 or 75E; at night, 81N). From Copenhagen Airport, it is 10 minutes by taxi
or bus (Nos. 35 or 36).
The best time to go is summer. July and early August will be crowded, but
good weather is just as likely in May and June or August and September. Even
then, it's a good idea to make both hotel and restaurant reservations.
Dragor Tourist Information, Havnepladsen 2, (45) 32-53-41-06; fax (45)
32-53-41-16. Open May 1 through Sept. 31 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where to Stay
Hotel Dragor Kro, Strandgade 30, telephone and fax (45) 32-53-00-53, www
.hoteldragorkro.dk, has five suites, from $126 to $184 (at 8.7 krone to the
dollar). In the restaurant, entrees cost between $23 and $35, with a
three-course fixed menu around $35.
Dragor Badehotel, Drogdensvej 43, (45) 32-53-05-00, fax (45) 32-53-04-99,
has 33 rooms with private bath. Double rooms with harbor view cost $103 a
night, including breakfast. The hotel also has a restaurant.
Cottage Farm Bed-and-Breakfast, Nordre Dragorvej 55, (45) 32-53-28-31, fax
(45)32-53-28-34, is a pretty thatched-roof farmhouse just outside town with
nine rooms, five with private bath; from $29 a person (buffet breakfast
$2.90, English breakfast $4.60).
These restaurants take credit cards and permit smoking. All serve wine and
Restaurant Beghuset, Strandgade 14, (45) 32-53-01-36, fax (45) 32-53-35-31,
has a cafe with simple dishes for around $8 and a restaurant with main
courses from $20 to $22; three- to five-course menus are $34 to $46. Open
daily except Monday and the first three weeks of January. It serves lunch
and dinner except in July, when it serves dinner only.
Nam's Kusine, Strandlinien 49-51, (45) 32-53-18-88, fax (45) 32-53-73-27, is
a superb Malaysian restaurant by the harbor. Open Friday and Saturday, from
May to mid-December. Diners are asked to arrive by 7:30 for an extravagant
buffet (there is no menu) of sambals, masalas, chicken, reindeer, lamb and
vegetables ($45) -- it's all good, and reservations are essential.
Strandhotel, Strandlinien 9, (45) 32-53-00-75, is the oldest public house in
Denmark (circa 1200). King Frederic III came for eel soup, after shooting
swans, in the 1600's. The Strandhotel (which is not a hotel) offers
excellent traditional Danish smorrebrod (open sandwiches) at lunch, and
adventurous evening fare (smoked venison carpaccio, wild boar on polenta,
saffron-poached pears); main courses $11 to $21. Open daily March 15 through
Dragor Museum, Havnepladsen 4, (45) 32-53-41-06, is a waterfront museum that
displays nautical and historical material, with items from the Hanseatic
period, and a cafe that features lox and herring. Open May through
September, noon to 4 p.m., closed Monday. Admission is $2.30, $1.15 for
The Amager Museum, Hovedgaden 4 and 12, Store Magleby, (45) 32-53-93-07, fax
(45) 32-53-02-68, is just over a mile away in the ancient farming village of
Store Magleby. A living museum, it consists of two beautifully preserved
farmhouses where in summer maids and farmhands in traditional costume weave,
wash clothing, tend the garden, bake and cook, and feed farm animals -- and
you're welcome to lend a hand. There are paintings, tools and an impressive
collection of peasant costumes. Open Tuesday to Sunday, May through August;
from October through April, open only on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons.
Admission $2.30, $1.15 for children. KEN CHOWDER