"Why do we live here in such a rugged environment?" asked a painter in Skagen, who answered his own question: "The real Denmark is a winter day at the North Sea with the wind blowing back your hair and making your skin salty, a trip in the autumn forest to gather mushrooms, or a romantic stroll in the newly leafed beech forest."

The first visitors arrived in North Jutland some 4,000 years ago in a land created by the Ice Age some 10,000 years earlier. Many places in Vendsyssel (the name of the province) still bear traces from the Stone Age, the Iron Age, and certainly the Viking Age. You can see history at many ancient monuments and relics of antiquity on display in the area.

In 1859, Hans Christian Andersen said it best: "If you are a Painter then follow us here, here are Subjects for you to paint, here is Scenery for Writing." In the 19th century, the Skagen painters -- the Danish equivalent of the French Impressionists -- were attracted to North Jutland for its intense light, the region's natural surroundings, the sea, and the people. Many of their paintings can be seen at the Skagens Museum. Some of their homes have been turned into museums.

After a long slumber, the towns of North Jutland are more alive than ever. Young people, who used to head for the bright lights of Copenhagen, often remain in the area of their birth, bringing new energy to its once-dull towns and hamlets.

Separated from the rest of Jutland (and also the mainland of Europe) by the Limfjord, North Jutland is a land unto itself. It's a landscape of North Sea beaches, coastal hamlets, fishing harbors, and wild heaths. It has only one large city, Aalborg, which lies at the narrow point of Limfjord, plus a number of midsize towns, notably Frederikshavn. Any of these would be a suitable base for exploration, but for scenic beauty we'd choose Skagen, at the northernmost boundary of Denmark, which has long attracted some of Denmark's leading artists and artisans.

Because of bridges linking Funen with Zealand and Jutland, you can drive to North Jutland from Copenhagen in 4 1/2 hours.