Ribe is a ‘picture perfect’ version of Denmark frozen in time with its cobbled streets, half-timbered 16th Century houses and maze of alleyways radiating from its medieval town square.
It’s often called ‘Denmark’s prettiest town’ – and after travelling the length and breadth of Denmark this month, it gets my vote too.
It’s a brilliant place to spend an afternoon, strolling through its charming streets and exploring its maze of alleys lined with beautifully restored houses.
When we arrived the storm clouds descended on the town and we spent half an hour huddled in the camper van looking at the dark, threatening skies and torrential rain.
Fortunately, like most Danish summer days, the weather perked up and we ventured forth into the sunshine, plastic macs and umbrellas at the ready – just in case!
Oldest Danish town
Walking through Ribe is literally like walking back in time through 1,300 years of history.
Ribe is Denmark’s oldest town dating back to around 700 AD when it became established as an important Viking post because of its river’s proximity to the sea.
It’s still possible to see traces of this past in the town’s Viking Centre with its reconstructions of Viking life.
Modern day Danes love dressing up as Vikings which lends an authentic air to proceedings at the museum – and there’s also a chance to try your longbow and archery skills!
After the Vikings, the town continued to flourish as a trading port and its prosperity grew during the Middle Ages as important trade links to Western Europe developed.
Walking along its pretty harbour you can imagine the ships coming and going, bringing in exotic goods and foreign produce.
There’s plenty of evidence of the town’s early trading wealth with rich merchants’ houses and workers’ cottages clustered around the harbour.
Ribe was fortified in the 12th century when Riberhus Castle was built and the Danish king made it one of his royal homes. Sadly there’s little evidence of the castle and fortifications today except for a few scattered stones and remains of a moat.
The town’s wealth and future had looked assured but unexpected historic events were to turn the tide against Ribe. It became a forgotten backwater, descending into a downward decline from which it didn’t recover.
Ribe’s changing fortunes
So how has Ribe managed to keep its historic character with so many perfectly preserved old buildings?
After a long period of prosperity Ribe’s fortunes changed with three unfortunate twists of fate which bizarrely helped to preserve the town in aspic.
A fire in 1580 destroyed over 11 streets and 213 houses in Ribe’s centre. Then in the 1640s Riberhus Castle was destroyed in the Torstenson War and the royal family relocated to Copenhagen, taking their wealth with them.
In 1659 the Plague descended on the town, claiming the lives of more than 900 people. The town went into a terminal decline and remained virtually untouched by modern development until 1899 when an early conservation group embarked on a massive preservation project.
Today we have them to thank for the authentic, historic look of the town – there are over 100 restored buildings which create an illusion of Ribe being stuck in the 16th Century.
But Ribe is certainly no dusty backwater – it’s a surprisingly lively place with great shops, craft galleries, cafes, bars and restaurants which provide a relaxing, contemporary feel.
Nowhere is the combination of old and new better reflected than in Ribe’s Domkirke, the town’s striking cathedral dating from 948 AD.
Built largely in the 12th Century, this impressive Domkirke also has a multitude of later styles from Gothic to Romanesque – with some very modern additions thrown into the mix.
I was shocked to catch my first glimpse of the cathedral’s striking frescoes, mosaics and stained glass windows designed by Carl-Henning Pedersen in the 1980s.
It’s a surprise to see large-scale modern works in an old building but they really do work and create a radiant visual impact. But the designs have not been without controversy and some have criticised them for dominating the cathedral’s interior.
Danish designer Pedersen’s mosaics comprise 3 million small, glinting and glimmering stones, an awe-inspiring creation.
For me, they epitomise the effective meeting of old and new, reflecting the cathedral’s links to the past and present.
Over the road, Det Gamle Radhus – the Old Town Hall – is another living, breathing example of an old building pulsating with modern life. Dating from 1496 it was used as a courthouse until recently and is still a popular venue for weddings.
Sadly it was shut when I visited so we missed its interesting collection of medieval weaponry including an executioner’s axe and thumb screws. They’re proof that life in medieval Ribe wasn’t as idyllic as this picture perfect town suggests!
Looking at Ribe’s historical timeline, there is definitely a darker side to the town’s past.
One story that stands out is the true tale of a female resident who was burned as a witch in 1641 on the ghoulishly-named Gallows Hill.
Mad dogs and English men
Walking around the town in the sunshine I started to notice a few examples of Ribe’s eccentricities.
I love the story of the town’s ‘Dogma Dogs’, mongrels of indeterminate breed which are ‘bred’ for their ‘authenticity’. I discovered that every year the latest ‘Ribe Dog designs’ are presented at a special doggie event in the town resulting in dogs of different shapes but smallish sizes with a distinctive Ribe look.
There are certain rules for these Heinz 57 dogs – they can’t contain any breeds from the Danish Kennel Club list, they shouldn’t be adorned with clothing accessories, and they must not be kept on a lead.
Ideally, they should fit in a cycle basket or backpack!
Confused? I was until I spotted some of these cute dogs strolling around the town. Another example of Ribe’s passion for contemporary design, perhaps? Or just further proof of Ribe’s eccentricity?
Ribe may be preserved in aspic but it’s also a living, breathing place with real charm and a contemporary air… and there’s no disputing that it is Denmark’s most beautiful town.
I found it one of the most relaxing towns I’ve ever visited in Europe, and it’s bursting with history around every corner.
Make sure to check out its oddly leaning, skew-whiff, half-timbered 16th Century homes on Puggardsgade with their strange angles and eccentric architecture.
But most of all, enjoy stepping back in time and getting a real sense of the Middle Ages.
Tammy’s top travel tips – Ribe
Ribe is located a 30 minute drive south of Esjberg in Jutland, Denmark.
This small town is easy to find your way around but to make the most of its history pick up a walking map of Ribe and brochures from the excellent tourist information centre in the town square. The centre also organises guided walks.
Don’t miss the Ribe Domkirke which is open 10-5 daily (11-4 in winter) – admission is free of charge (small charge for tower).
The town’s abbey, St Catharine’s, is worth the short walk from the town square. Founded in 1228, it’s like finding yourself in a time warp with its mix of Baroque and Gothic features which are given a crisp, Scandinavian twist.
It has free admission but for a small fee, you can drop into the former monastery cloisters. Sadly we couldn’t work out the entrance to the cloisters on our visit so we missed this tour.
The Ribe Viking Centre is open 10-6 in summer (shorter hours in winter) but closed on Mondays. There’s plenty of hands-on activities for adults and children.
The Town Hall has limited afternoon opening hours if you want to take a look at its museum and historic interior… not forgetting the thumb screws!
If you’re staying overnight, look out for the Night Watchman tours, complete with costumed guides explaining the town’s history and their role in checking public safety and flood warnings. This tour departs from the Torvet main square – and it’s free.
There are a variety of hotels in Ribe but locals recommend the Den Gamle Arrest, a former jail converted into a decent quality guest house overlooking the cathedral. Fortunately, they’ve thrown away the cell keys but you can still indulge your prison fantasies!
Also nearby is the popular Hotel Dagmar, slightly more pricey, but with an olde worlde interior and, from what I’ve heard, hearty, big breakfasts.
Motorhomes are well-catered for with cheap, official overnight parking area on the edge of the historic town – 10 minutes walk from the centre. This is handy but a bit cramped – although great if you want to eat out in town and not spend much time in the van.
We opted to stay in the van up the road near Mando on the quiet seafront opposite the old causeway with great sea views.
Overnight parking of motorhomes is allowed in Denmark as long as you don’t get out chairs, tables and barbecues (classified as overnight camping) which makes this a convenient one night stopover.
For those on a budget, Ribe camping site plus cabins is located north of the town.
Other trips from Ribe…
It’s worth spending a few days in the vicinity of Ribe. Not far away is the small island of Mando, which can be reached by a causeway during low tide. Check tide times for safe crossing to the island. A fun way of getting over to the island is by the eccentric tractor bus – the vehicles run from Vester Vedsted and take about 45 mins to make the crossing.
Also not far away are the small islands of Romo and Fano which are both popular tourist haunts with sandy beaches and woodland walks.
Romo is the busiest and most accessible – with a permanent road link. Fano, which is nearer to Esjberg – involves a short boat trip.
Romo is a centre for two great outdoor activities which take place on its huge sandy beaches. Try your hand at sand yachting (with tuition) and kart kiting or simply watch the experts skimming across the sands!
Nearby Wadden Sea National Park (Nationalpark Vadehavet) stretches along the Jutland coast, providing great opportunities for bird watching especially during winter and summer migrations. The nature centre at Vester Vested has useful information including times for the seal safaris.