Proud heritage built on ice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am

WHEN VIKING EXPLORER Erik the Red named a vast, icy and barren tract of land 'Greenland' some time in the 10th century, and invited people to come and live there, he must have known he was not offering the most inviting piece of real estate around.

But the intrepid redhead did generate interest in this inhospitable island, whose ice-cap covers more than 80 per cent of its surface.

Despite its polar location, Greenland has sustained a number of vibrant population centres over the centuries. Most of these cling to the west coast, parts of which are ice-free year-round.

At 2.16 million square kilometres, Greenland is the world's largest island. It is closer to Canada than any place in Europe, but its towns have a decidedly Danish flavour. Much of the architecture, with russet-red and white colouration and a sense of spaciousness, is also clearly Danish, and the legal currency is the Danish krone.

It is commonly assumed that Denmark is one of Europe's smallest countries, but when you include Greenland, which is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark (with two seats in the Danish Parliament), the country looms larger in terms of land extent than anywhere in Europe, except Russia.

The majority of Greenlanders are Inuit (Eskimo), whose presence pre-dated Erik the Red's arrival by a couple of thousand years. The country has had a relatively large Danish population for centuries. Today there are some 8,000 Danish residents, and in all about 56,300 hardy souls call Greenland home.

Since 1979, Greenland has enjoyed a special status, home rule within the kingdom, but its foreign policy, security, currency and other key aspects of governance are decided in Copenhagen.

The education policy is handled by Greenland authorities, but Danish is the medium of instruction in schools. The curriculum emphasises Greenland's pre-Danish heritage and the island's ties to Denmark. The island's official languages are Greenlandic and Danish.

The capital, Nuuk, is an attractive town of about 14,000. Its Danish-style architecture is set against a distinctly un-Danish landscape of craggy snow-covered mountains surrounding a magnificent fjord.

The town's lively harbour is a port of call for trawlers. Most of the vessels bear Danish registration, while the others hail from Iceland, Norway, Russia and further afield.

Fishing is a mainstay of the Greenland economy, with 10 per cent of the population involved in the industry. Tons of shrimp, salmon and cod are sold in Denmark proper, often in the form of sm?rrebr?d-sized morsels on rye bread in Copenhagen restaurants.

Danes have an affection for Greenland, past and present, that is similar to the British nostalgia for the Indian Raj, a feeling that encompasses a hankering for the exotic and an attachment to history.

Many of Copenhagen's venerable bars and restaurants house artefacts from Greenland and old Danish trawlers that have braved the raging northern seas.

Greenland constitutes a rich part of the nation's cultural tapestry, incorporating Nordic and Inuit motifs.

Any Danish child will tell you that Santa Claus lives not in Lapland, but in Greenland.