hidden europe 26

Rock and rituals: Roskilde

by Nicky Gardner


Think of Roskilde, a smallish city on the Danish island of Sjælland. Yes, the annual rock festival. Yet there is much more to Roskilde than the rituals of one of Europe's premier open air music events. It is a place that captures the very essence of Danish identity.

Even from a dozen kilometres away, the twin spires of Roskilde cathedral dominate the Zealand landscape. At the junction of two farm tracks in the undulating country southwest of the city, four hikers sit on the grass and share a bottle of water. Their rucksacks rest against nearby stones. Behind the walkers are the woodlands of central Zealand, and ahead the Danish cathedral city on the edge of a fjord that every year reverberates to the beat of Europe's premier open-air music festival.

It is an easy three hour walk from Lejre to Roskilde. For modern pilgrims, it is often the final stage on the journey to the festival site on the southern edge of the city - a pleasant area of grassy parkland that has over the years echoed to the music of Bob Marley, U2, Radiohead and the White Stripes. But it is also a walk through Scandinavian history, for Roskilde and its rural hinterland constitute one of Europe's most outstanding cultural-historical landscapes.

Roskilde is not just an annual indulgence on the European festival circuit. It is also the very essence of Denmark - an entire nation distilled into one city and its surrounding countryside. "Look," says Poul Bjerager, as he stands on an ancient burial mound overlooking the village of Gammel Lejre (Old Lejre). "This valley captures more than a thousand years of Danish history." No surprise therefore that this landscape of delicate beauty is being considered for national park status. Poul is the man charged with making it happen. "The Roskilde-Lejre landscape really is the stuff of chronicles and legend," says Poul, alluding to the fact that the area is richly documented in mediaeval poetry and prose. Some scholars suggest that the great mead hall where Beowulf won his laurels was situated at Gammel Lejre. Heorot, as the hall is called in Beowulf, was acclaimed as healærna mæst - ‘the greatest of halls' under heaven. The Beowulf connection is disputed by some, but no-one challenges Lejre's position as the home of the earliest kings of Denmark.

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