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Nomadic hunters followed the lichen and moss-eating reindeer into post-glacial Denmark. The reindeer heard 'go north' voices, but Stone Age Danes stayed put, sowing seeds in the ash of slash-and-burn fields, fencing in stock animals and burying their dead vertically. Skill and artistry flowered in the Bronze Age from 1800 BC, trade routes paddled all the way south and the most beautiful made-by-Danes products were buried in bogs for sacrificial safe-keeping. Iron clanged in from 500 BC and was domestically available, leading to the development of large agricultural communities. Present-day Denmark can trace its linguistic and cultural roots back to when the region was settled by the Danes, a tribe that is thought to have migrated south from Sweden around 500 AD.

In the late 9th century, warriors led by the Norwegian Viking chieftain Hardegon conquered the Jutland peninsula. The Danish monarchy, which claims to be the world's oldest, dates back to Hardegon's son, Gorm the Old, (Danish mums had a few problems naming their children), who established his reign early in the 10th century. Gorm's son, Harald Bluetooth, completed the conquest of the Danes, speeding their conversion to Christianity. Bluetooth's gob-stopping successors, Forkbeard and sons got the wood on England, setting up shop and throne and living the sweet life of Anglo-Dane monarchs. They kept it together for half a century or so, but as Viking power waned, the borders of the Danish kingdom shrank back to Denmark.

Blackadderish strife, plots, counter plots and assassinations marked the medieval period. By the late 14th century, upstart dynasties intermarried, eventually forming the Kalmar Union under fair Queen Magrethe; Denmark, Norway and Sweden, now all bunked in together, started to exasperate each other. Sweden was particularly peeved by profligate Danish spending on wars, and the union dissolved in 1523 when Sweden elected Gustav Vasa as its king. Norway, however, was to remain under Danish rule for another three centuries.

In the 16th century the Reformation swept through the country, leaving burnt churches and civil warfare in its wake. The fighting ended in 1536 with the ousting of the powerful Catholic church and the establishment of a Danish Lutheran church headed by the monarchy. King Christian IV ruled for the first half of the 17th century, undermining fabulous trade and wealth creation by leading his subjects into the disastrous Thirty Years War with Sweden. Denmark lost land and money and the king an eye. Even more disastrous were the losses to Sweden incurred some decades later by Christian's successor, King Frederick III. Denmark emerged slowly from these wars, focusing on civil development and reform.

During the Napoleonic Wars Britain attacked Copenhagen twice, inflicting heavy damage on the Danish fleet in 1801 and leaving much of Copenhagen ablaze in 1807. The Swedes then took advantage of a weakened Denmark, successfully demanding that Denmark cede Norway to them. The 19th century might have started off lean, dismal and dominated by a small Frenchman with a big ego, but by the 1830s Denmark had awakened to a cultural revolution in the arts, philosophy and literature. A democratic movement in Denmark led to the adoption of a constitution on 5 June 1849, which in turn led to the formation of a Danish constitutional monarchy. Germany took control of Schleswig in southern Jutland, after its inhabitants, people of both Danish and German heritage, revolted against the new constitution.

Neutral in WWI, Denmark reaffirmed its neutrality at the outbreak of WWII; but, on 9 April 1940, with German warplanes flying over Copenhagen, Denmark surrendered to Germany. The Danes were able to cling to a degree of autonomy, but after three years the Germans ended the pretence and took outright control. Although the island of Bornholm was heavily bombarded by Soviet forces, the rest of Denmark emerged from WWII relatively unscathed. Under the leadership of the Social Democrats a comprehensive social welfare state was established. Denmark is still providing its citizens with extensive cradle-to-grave security. An election in November 2001 brought a centre-right, conservative coalition to power with a campaign that focussed on immigration. Fears generated in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA were an important factor.

Although Denmark voted to join the European Community (now the European Union) in 1973, the Danes have been hesitant to support expansion of the European Union (EU). Indeed, when the Maastricht Treaty, which established the terms of a European economic and political union, came up for ratification in Denmark in June 1992, Danish voters rejected it by a margin of 51% to 49%. After being granted exemptions from the Maastricht Treaty's common defence and single currency provisions, the Danes, by a narrow majority, voted to accept the treaty in a second referendum held in May 1993. In September 2000 the Danes signalled a deeper discontent with European intigration when they rejected adoption of the euro, despite strong support for the pan-European currency by the government and business leaders.

When Norway broke its political ties with Denmark in the early 19th century, the former Norwegian colonies of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands stayed under Danish administration. Iceland, under Danish rule since 1380, declared itself an independent state in 1918, although foreign policy was still controlled from Copenhagen. Iceland became completely independent in 1944. The Kingdom of Denmark still includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands, but both are essentially self-governing. The Faroe Islands has had home rule since 1948, Greenland since 1979. In part because Denmark retains responsibility for their banking, defence and foreign relations, Greenland and the Faroe Islands each have two parliamentary representatives in the Danish Folketing. Unlike Denmark, however, neither Greenland nor the Faroe Islands is part of the EU.


The Danish language belongs to the northern branch of the Germanic language group, and bears a strong resemblance to other Scandinavian tongues. Famed Danish writers include Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tales have been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible; the theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, a forerunner of modern existentialism; and Karen Blixen, who penned Out of Africa and Babette's Feast. Peter Høeg, of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow fame, is Denmark's most prominent contemporary author.

Internationally, the best known Danish film director is Carl Dreyer (1889-1968). Dreyer directed numerous films, including the 1928 masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, which was acclaimed for its rich visual textures and innovative use of close-up. Of late, Danish cinema has attracted attention with the wonderful Babette's Feast, and with the adaptation of Danish author, Martin Andersen Nexø's book Pelle the Conqueror, by director Bille August. The leading director of the new millenium is Lars von Trier, whose films Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark have received awards at the Cannes Film Festival; the latter won the Palme d'Or in 2000.

Carl Nielsen, Demark's greatest composer, wrote over 100 works, ranging from string quartets to opera; he is the author of the utterly charming choral work Springtime in Funen (Funen was Nielsen's birthplace); a clarinet concerto, arguably the finest of the 20th century; and six symphonies, of which the fourth, The Inextinguishable, and the fifth, with its almost neurotic drumming, being the best known. The Royal Danish Ballet, which performs in Copenhagen's Royal Theatre from autumn to spring, is regarded as northern Europe's finest. Denmark is also a leader in industrial design, with a style marked by cool, clean lines applied to everything from architecture to furniture and silverwork.

Danes pride themselves on being thoroughly modern, so the wearing of folk costumes, the celebration of traditional festivals and the clinging to old-fashioned customs is less prevalent in Denmark than in most other European countries. Visitors will find Danes to be relaxed, casual, not given to extremes and tolerant of different life styles. Indeed, in 1989 Denmark became the first European country to legalise same-sex marriages and offer gay partnerships the same rights as heterosexual couples. Perhaps nothing captures the Danish perspective on life more than the concept of hygge which, roughly translated, means cosy and snug. It implies shutting out the turmoil and troubles of the outside world and striving instead for a warm intimate mood. Hygge affects how Danes approach many aspects of their personal lives, from designing their homes to their fondness for small cafés and pubs. Danes can give their host no greater compliment than to thank them for a cosy evening.

Nothing epitomises Danish food more than smørrebrød (literally 'buttered bread'), an open-faced sandwich that ranges from very basic fare to elaborately sculpted creations. Danish food relies heavily on fish, meat and potatoes. Typical dishes include flæskesteg (roast pork with crackling), gravad laks (cured or salted salmon marinated in dill and served with a sweet mustard sauce) and hvid labskovs (a stew made of square cuts of beef boiled with potatoes, bay leaves and pepper). The rich pastry known in most countries as 'Danish' is called wienerbrød (Vienna bread) in Denmark, and nearly every second street corner has a bakery offering a mouthwatering selection. Denmark's Carlsberg breweries produce excellent beers. The most popular spirit in Denmark is the Aalborg-produced aquavit. Beer, wine and spirits are readily available in most restaurants, cafés and grocery stores.

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