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The darker side of Ribe

In time for Halloween, explore the macabre history of Denmark’s oldest town.

Photograph: Aziza Berdieva

Text: Catriona Turner

Ribe, just half an hour from Esbjerg, is a must-see for anyone visiting or living in Jutland. With its picturesque half-timbered buildings, imposing cathedral, and Viking history, it’s always a rewarding day out. But there’s a darker side to Ribe’s story…

The head meadow

Approaching Ribe from its west side presents a lovely view of its skyline thanks to the flat meadow which separates the town from the Wadden Sea. It’s an important area for wildlife and has been integral to the town’s fortunes, having once provided fertile grazing land.

What’s fascinating, if less delightful, is how this area got its name. Hovedengen translates as ‘the head meadow’. In the sixteenth century, the local penalty for piracy was harsh: as a deterrent to any others prowling around the North Sea, pirates caught in Ribe were beheaded, and their heads displayed in the meadow on spikes, facing out to Ribe Harbour.

One case concerned the pirate Morten Thodes, who was beheaded in 1555 along with the rest of his crew. The area was once called Todes Eng (Thodes’ Meadow), and some say his ghost can be seen roaming the corridors of the nearby Danhostel Ribe!

Witch hunts

Another dark episode in Ribe’s history is explored at the brand-new Hex! Museum of Witch Hunt, located centrally at Sortebrødregade.

The new museum has been created within a sixteenth-century building, (which unfortunately means it’s only partially accessible for wheelchairs). Through a series of low-ceilinged, dark rooms, you learn the history of disease and poverty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that led to superstition, scapegoating, and ultimately to thousands of women being persecuted and executed across Europe.

Denmark’s most famous witch, Maren Spliids, lived in Ribe and was burned at the stake there, at the ruling of King Christian IV. The most affecting and memorable section of the museum tells her story, with dramatic light projections and a haunting audio narrative.

"Denmark’s most famous witch, Maren Spliids, lived in Ribe and was burned at the stake there, at the ruling of King Christian IV."

Like so many Danish museums, the design is impressive, using modern technology and surprising detail to give history a vivid immediacy. The audioguide, included in the ticket price, provides an atmospheric context for the visual exhibits. (I recommend bringing your own headphones for this, as there’s a lot to listen to.) Subtle sound and light effects give the impression of creeping fire following you through history and convey the horror of what can happen when fear of our neighbours takes over.

By the time I left, I was grateful to live in a (somewhat) more enlightened time, when we women are not being blamed for a new plague!

Sort sol

More cheerfully, now is the season to catch another ‘dark’ phenomenon around Ribe. Sort Sol translates as the black sun, but it’s not as doom-laden as it sounds. Starlings migrating through the region provide a stunning show every year, as they dance together in the skies over the Ribe Marsh. Take a tour with Vadhavscentret, or set yourself up with a blanket and a hot drink at one of the likely viewing spots along the Ribe Å, to enjoy the spectacle as dusk falls.

For a bite to eat, I always recommend Café Quedens, with its lovely courtyard located right next to the museum, or pick yourself up a treat from the appealing rows of pastries at Radhus Konditoriet.

But there’s one more chance to delve into the darkness, as the Night Watchman takes his tour of the town. Join him at 8pm every evening until October 17, to hear more dramatic moments from Ribe’s history. Just make sure you get home before you lose your head!

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