To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the present Danish/German border in 2020, a good friend and I decided to hike the 84 kilometre trail called Gendarmstien, or The Gendarme Path. It follows the eastern part of the border on the Danish side and is roughly comprised of the same paths the old border patrol – the Gendarms – used to police the area from 1920 to 1958 to prevent smugglers bringing in goods to Denmark without paying tax.
The trail offers sights of both historic importance as well as scenic and was the first route in Denmark to receive the European Quality Trail certification. The 84 kilometre hiking route is divided into 5 stages, but can be completed in 4 days and even less. You encounter many fun facts about Denmark, its history, geology, flora and fauna along the way.
A great route, bordering to perfect! Check out the trail with map in the end of the article for more practical information.
Stage 1: Bjergetapen / Mountain stage
The first leg of the trail is called Bjergetapen – Mountain stage – because of the many hills and ravines that were created during the last ice age 10.000 years ago. The tunnel valley was formed by meltwater that ran in tunnels under the ice and washed large amounts of clay, sand and rocks out in front of the ice where it deposited. You can see the result today in the form of the rich clay soil, the steep slopes and gorges as well as the many springs, lakes and streams along the path.
From deep ravines to charming meadows, through deep green birch forests and along a coastline dotted with beautiful villas and mansions, this short stage delivers contrasting views. Especially Kollund Forest is awe-inspiring with its costal forest. We kept an eye out for the black woodpecker, which is found in only a very few places in Denmark today. Similar in size to a crow, the black woodpecker is an impressive bird with a powerful beak that can strike a tree 20 times in just 2 seconds! Many of the trees in the forest bear witness to its visits, and while we spotted the many holes, the woodpecker itself didn’t reveal itself.
The stage ends in Sønderhav after only 15 kilometres, beginning at Padborg Train station, so its possible to arrive by train in the afternoon and get started on the trail. We, however, had begun the hike a bit earlier and walked another 3,5 kilometres to spent the night in a cabin near Rønshoved.
Stage 2: Tegletapen / Brick stage
We spent the night in a charming cabin at Naturlejrpladsen near Rønshoved and woke up ready to conquer the next stage of Gendarmstien; Tegletapen, or Brick stage. We started by walking past a monument to the first Danish Queen; Margrethe I, as she is supposed to have died on her ship just off the coast back in 1412.
Otherwise, this 20 kilometre stretch was clearly defined by the many brickworks (as many as 76!) that operated in this area. Because the Ice Ages deposited the finest clay in this area, it became the foundation for brickworks dating back as far as to the Middle Ages. When a brick was damaged during the baking process, it was either tossed out into the firth or used as foundation for the many jetties. This means, that the beaches along the trail are filled with smooth brick stones in all sizes.
The “capital” of the brickworks was Egernsund, where we crossed the bascule bridge and admired the brickwork sculptures just off the bridge, whilst devouring a hot dog from the local hot dog stand. The town was home to a group of artists during the time when the area was part of Germany. From 1880 to 1920, the Ekensund Artists’ Colony was Germany’s version of the Danish “Skagen Painters” and created many beautiful works of art.
The day was absolutely beautiful for hiking, and we washed away the travel dust in the firth after we’d set up tent on a primitive (and free!) camp at Brunsnæs. Sitting together around the campfire with fellow hikers and exchanging stories and laughs was a perfect way to end a perfect day!
Little did we know, that the next day was going to be radically different.
Stage 3: Krageetapen / Crow stage
The 3rd leg of the Gendarmstien trail is named Krageetapen, or Crow stage. Not (only) because we traverse the back of the beyond of the peninsula Broagerland (in Danish, a remote place is called “where the crows turn back”) but also because the path goes through the area called Kragesand (crow sand).
We wake to the dripping sound of rain on the tent and put the kettle on for coffee, while we wait for a bright spell. When that doesn’t happen, we pack together our stuff as best as possible and head out on the trail, grateful for our raincoats.
This stage of the trail is serene, solitary and sandy. If the weather had been better, it would’ve offered many chances for a dip or two. The route alternates between coastal trails and roads along the many grainfields. As a peaceful, life-giving vein, the firth blends into the landscape. But in the old days, when the ships left the safe ports heading for the Baltic Sea and beyond, many dangers awaited. In the 1200s, a pirate called “The Red Ons” resided at Skrækkehøj. Here, surrounded by natural embankments, lay a pirate castle, and many innocent people were held captive in the murky basements.
Those stories add colour to an otherwise grey and wet day with some bright spells. It’s wonderful to take in the solitary beauty of the landscape while we walk, and any rain gloominess is chased away with singing and talking about important as well as unimportant stuff.
What a great way to reaffirm friendships!
We hiked a bit further than the defined leg of 19 kilometres, in order to set up camp at another (free!) primitive campsite and manage to set up tent during a bright spell. To sit under the canvas and prepare the dinner over a small gas burner, while the rain is gently tapping was extremely fulfilling and very cosy!
Everything just tastes better after a 24 kilometre hike!
Stage 4: Strandetapen / Beach stage
After a morning dip and close contact with today’s theme, we’re ready for stage 4 of Gendarmstien: Strandetapen, or Beach stage. This leg of the journey provides ample chance for bathing. If only the weather had been nicer..
We walk past the historic Dybbøl Banke, where the Danes took a beating by the German forces back in 1864 and ended up losing Sønderjylland – the southern part of Denmark – for 56 years. The old windmill Dybbøl Mølle stands sentinel over the landscape, that still bears its mark from the historic battle, and an interesting museum 1,5 km. from Gendarmstien tells the story about the complicated and catastrophic battle.
We reach the beautiful city of Sønderborg and savour a good cup of coffee before strolling the harbour promenade towards the imposing, medieval castle Sønderborg Slot. The city is alive with people and it’s a colourful contrast to the solitary hiking we’ve been doing the last couple of days.
The trail follows the harbour and beaches before, in and after Sønderborg. Then we enter the green cathedrals that are the Danish beech forests. The woodlands were under pressure in the Middle Ages and eventually, wood became a shortage. To solve the problem, the Duke declared in the end of the 1600s, that farmers could not marry until they had planted trees in the Duke’s forests. Each farmer had to plant 10 oak trees or 15 beeches and look after them for three years, before he could present his bride to the priest. This scheme continued for more than 100 years, and to this day there are still some places called “Groom’s avenues” and on Gendarmstien, you walk past “Groom’s oaks” along the roads.
The 19,2 kilometre Beach stage ends in Høruphav, after a wonderful but wet hike with amazing views. While a shower halted our hike for a while, we prepared for the last stage of the trail and completed 2 stages in 1 day.
Stage 5: Mølleetapen / Mill stage
The final leg of Gendarmstien is called Mølleetapen, or Mill stage. Throughout the ages, there have been 75 mills on the island of Als, of which 10 were watermills. Some of the mills have been destroyed by explosive fires, but most of the mills have succumbed to modern times and today there is only 1 watermill and 4 windmills left on Als.
This last stage is only 10 kilometres, and so we decided to hike it in one day in succession of the Beach stage. The fact that a good friend had joined us in Sønderborg and we could relieve ourselves of our heavy backpacks in her car, made us (think we were) light and fast. As we were walking, we fist talked about the important things in our lives, then the unimportant things and ended up just silent and content in each other’s company, before bursting into a communal “Bohemian Rhapsody”, grateful for the lack of audience.
After Høruphav we trekked along a charming beach with cottages right on the beach and saw many ducks and birds on this stage of the trail. The last kilometres went across streams and through fields before we reached the final destination, just outside of the little town of Skovby.
Hiking is a great way to get in touch with yourself, and an even better way to get close to your friends. Those memories we created during those days of both wonderful and wet hiking, will stay with me forever.