travel - motoring in denmark

fancy a motoring city break that will really stretch your legs - and your imagination. jonathan crouch enjoys the danish capital of copenhagen. so you're sick of paris, you've gorged yourself on germany, you're brassed off with belgium and you've had it with holland. even if none of the above applies, you have to admit that the major european countries are pretty tired choices for a motoring citybreak.

travel - motoring in denmark

In search of something different, I decided on Denmark - a forgotten choice but a surprisingly rewarding one. Unlike most of the rest of mainland Europe, it's not actually on the way to anywhere; that means lightly trafficked roads and a generally calmer atmosphere.

Mind you, that has changed a little since the fixed link was completed between Zealand in NorthEast Denmark and Scania in Southern Sweden. This 16km tunnel and bridge complex connects the Scandinavian peninsular and continental Europe. In theory, overnight, Denmark - and more specifically its capital Copenhagen - has been transformed into a halfway halt from the South of France to the Arctic Circle.

In practice however, it's a little different. For the time being, Denmark remains Europe's best kept short-haul motoring citybreak secret. Getting there is a lot less stressful than travelling to one of the main European capitals. You simply find your way to Harwich in Essex for one of Scandinavian Seaways crossings to Esbjerg in the extreme West of Denmark. The port is on the main Danish Island of Jutland.

Travellers to Copenhagen simply cross to the central island of Funen and then, via a huge, recently completed bridge, to the island of Sealand, where the Danish capital sits on the East Coast. It's a fast 21/2-hour trip with dual carriageway all the way.

More importantly, perhaps, you start out upon it completely relaxed. As a colleague of mine recently remarked, "there's hardly a more relaxing way of travelling than going by sea. Time is on your hands. You've got no traffic jams to worry you. You are virtually forced to relax, lie back and enjoy it."

Scandinavian Seaways calls short motoring trips like this 'Cruisebreaks', a name intended to portray the 'big ship' atmosphere now found aboard its vessels. I have to admit to being anything but a fan of big ferries, but rattling with travel pills, I found the Dan Anglia, as advertised, more akin to a cruise liner. There's a choice of three cinemas and loads for children (though sadly no creche).

The crossing is nearly 20 hours, but thanks to all this, and the fact that most of it is overnight, the time simply flies by. You arrive in Esbjerg at lunchtime - which leaves you just long enough for a leisurely lope to Copenhagen by early evening.

It's certainly leisurely at the helm of a Volvo S80 anyway, a car quite happy to cruise at potentially unlawful speeds for hour after hour. It also has a huge boot - which you'll need if you visit the endless shopping streets of the Danish capital.

Copenhagen - in Danish Kobenhoven or 'merchants harbour' - is Scandinavia's largest city, with a population of 1.5 million. It's been the royal capital of Denmark since 1416 but it was not until the reign of king Christian IV (1588-1648) that most of its outstanding buildings were erected - albeit with the help of Dutch architects.

Since the mid 19th century, the city has grown steadily and today, the only remains of the original ramparts which protected it in sterner times can be seen in areas like the famous Tivoli Gardens, site of one of the most charming Christmas markets in Europe.

Copenhageners are usually friendly folk and most of them speak English. In the winter months, when most of the city's activities retreat indoors, it's a particularly good time to experience the Danish cult of Hygge. Hygge - a Danish ritual impossible to translate fully - is a special feeling of warmth and cosiness with good food and drink added. Frothy glasses are lifted, eye contact is made, and a hearty Skol (cheers!) completes the custom. You can't help joining in.

Amongst the joys of Copenhagen are its cleanliness, its peaceful lack of pretension, its non-cosmopolitan yet sophisticated image, its provincial feeling and its relative lack of traffic. Most of the city centre is now reserved for pedestrians - and those endless shopping streets.

I tried one of Scandinavian Seaways' all-inclusive Copenhagen City Cruise Packages, which included two nights at the three star Savoy Hotel in one of the older parts of the city. Alternatively, you could go your own way and go for something plusher or more frugal. The Danish Tourist Board (0207 259 5959) can help with advice and bookings.

As a first-time visitor, I found the place surprisingly easy to drive around once I'd got my bearings - but the best way is to walk. Stroll around the carnival-type atmosphere that pervades the Tivoli Lake for example, and the air is filled with the pungent smells of funnel cakes and the strains of familiar holiday songs. These are the memories you will take back on the road that leads you home. Experience it all while you can. Something tells me that the kind of Denmark you'll find in the next decade may not be quite as quaint.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

GETTING TO DENMARK: Scandinavian Seaways 0990 333 111

TRAVEL INFORMATION: Danish Tourist Board 0207 259 5959

THE COST: The Ferry -

Dependent on season, cabin selected and size of car.

Typical two berth outside cabin/car up to 6m/seapex fare (not weekends)/low season £290 (approx).

Copenhagen City Cruise £300 (approx)