320km (199 miles) W of Copenhagen; 9km (5 2/3 miles) E of the North Sea; 85km (53 miles) W of Silkeborg; 100km (62 miles) W of Århus

Århus and Silkeborg justifiably attract more visitors, but count yourself lucky if you can spare a day for one of Denmark's most attractive towns left over from the Middle Ages.

We used to exclude Ringkøbing from our Danish itinerary until a broken vehicle forced us to overnight here one rain-lashed night. In the morning, the sun broke through, and we set out to discover the charms, both obvious and hidden, of Ringkøbing, and have been including it on our stopovers ever since. The physical setting alone is dramatic, lying to the east of the gigantic Ringkøbing Fjord, which is separated by a narrow strip of land, Holmsland, from the turbulent North Sea to the west.

This old market town, lying on the north side of the lagoonlike Ringkøbing Fjord, is the seat -- albeit tiny, with only 9,000 inhabitants -- of the regional government. Its oldest known municipal charter dates from 1443, but the earliest archaeological finds establish its origins some time around the mid-13th century. At that time there was no outlet from the western end of Liim Fjord to the North Sea, so Ringkøbing Fjord was the only natural harbor in the area. It became one of the most important harbor cities on the west coast of Denmark, with trading links extending to Norway, Germany, and Holland.

In time, though, especially during the 17th century, the approach at Nymindegab began to fill with sand and move south. With the opening of the West Jutland trunk line in 1875, shipping for Ringkøbing stopped almost immediately, leaving the town to reinvent itself. It wasn't until a lock at Hvide Sande was constructed in 1931 that Ringkøbing was once again assured of a passage to the North Sea. However, its role as a port for ships was never to return to its former glory. It did, however, become the first small town in Denmark to provide free universal education.

That falloff in commerce is what has kept Ringkøbing looking as old-fashioned and splendid as it does today. The townspeople also have a lively, cooperative spirit. For example, they have a beachcombing event to clean the town's 11km (6 3/4 miles) of coastline to ensure that the blue flags (symbol of unpolluted waters) fly over their beaches in summer.