The island of Bornholm is, for all intents and purposes, an exclave of Denmark (despite not actually/legally being one). Situated in the Baltic Sea, Bornholm’s location suggests it naturally be a part of Sweden (which, in history, it has been), Poland or even Germany (which has also held it for some time). But, alas, it is actually Danish and my good friend and co-worker Sean Nickley recently visited the isle.
Being a geo-oddity eccentric of sorts, I thought Sean’s piece fits perfectly in the annals of The Weekend Roady, so I figured I’d share it with the rest of you…
(Note: This piece was originally published on Seeking out the Hygge, a blog by Sean Nickley chronicling his four months abroad in Denmark. Highly recommended if you’re the type of traveler who would rather learn to identify with the culture of a place over simply just passing through the tourist hot spots).
At half-past midnight on Friday, I found myself boarding a ferry with 70 fellow DIS students bound for the small Danish island of Bornholm. Forty kilometres wide and thirty long, Bornholm is home to some 41,000 Danes despite being geographically closer to Sweden.
They ferry ride was six hours long, and I found myself trying to sleep in perhaps the worst of spots: a cramped airline-style chair under a bright safety light. However it was a very full voyage, so I made do with what I had: a leather jacket and a stiff, fully-packed backpack as a makeshift pillow/sleepmask. I stretched across three chairs, curled into my best attempt at a fetal position, and jammed my eyes shut. Surprisingly, I managed more than a few hours of sleep in this position, and while not perfect, it was a better experience than my time sleeping in Schoenenfeld.
The ferry pulled into the capital of Rønne (pop. 14000) at just past six, and I sleepily boarded a bus bound for Gudhjem. I woke once more as the bus pulled into the hostel, located on the rocky shores of Gudhjem harbor. I found myself in a tiny village, red-roofed and still very much asleep, built up on the hills above the shores of the Baltic Sea. “Quaint” is an understatement – this is the dream village of every retiree or starving artist, filled out to the edges with tiny bakeries and glass shops, and the sorts of restaurants where your grandfather knows the bartender, and probably his whole family too. In no time at all, we were checked into our rooms and eating a very traditional Danish breakfast – slices of deli meats, cheese, and jams on heavily-buttered Danish rye bread, and yogurt with muesli. I made sure to eat a large meal, knowing I had a lot of biking ahead, and quickly found a small group to travel with.
Anna, Annalisa, Ashley, Mollie, Kelsey, Greg, and myself biked north out of Gudhjem and, coming out of some trees just around the first corner, found ourselves suddenly blasted with the vistas of Bornholm: fields stretching out to the left and right, bordered by the sea to the east and by far-off trees or hilly horizons to the west. The morning fog was still rising off of the freshly-plowed earth, and despite the gray skies and chilly wind, we biked on, energized by the sight.
After six kilometres we found ourselves at Helligdomskliperne, “The Sacred Cliffs,” just behind the Bornholm Art Museum. We hiked down to a cave called the Black Cauldron: a narrow fissure in the rock face that required a nerve-wracking climb down a rusted ladder that looked like it wasn’t built to support Sean-sized adventure seekers. The cave went deep into the rocks and never widened. Looking up, we saw fallen boulders wedged in the walls above us. The ocean waves lapped at the cave’s mouth, and at any point I was prepared to make a blood sacrifice to open the horcrux chamber and fight Voldemort’s Inferi. Sadly no blood was spilled (this early in the journey, anyway), and so we pressed on, biking a kilometre north.
We arrived at Døndalen, a small nature preserve and home of Denmark’s highest waterfall. I decided that I suddenly fancied myself a rock climber, and scrambled up to the top of the falls despite the wet rocks and slippery mud everywhere. The climb up went without issue. On the way down, however, I found myself facing a step down that seemed far more vertical than I recalled on the way up. I ultimately took a misstep, and found myself sliding down the mud uncontrollably. Luckily I stopped after having slid about only fifteen feet, and had only a muddy jacket and bloodied elbow to show for it. My companions had all had their backs turned to look at a map throughout all of this: they had no idea that I’d fallen and were rather surprised to see the mud bath I’d taken.
Choosing to venture south rather than continue north, we went back the way we came past Gudhjem, to Baltic Sea Glass a mere 2km past town. There we enjoyed a glass-blowing demonstration by an American expat from Wisconsin who moved to the island in ’77. In his words: “I was a Poli-Sci major. You never know where that’ll take you, eh?” I’m not sure how the Georgetown political science students would feel about glass-blowing, but perhaps I should tell them it’s an option given the current job market.
After the demo, we biked back to town to eat in one of the local restaurants. I had salted herring with Bornholm mustard, served as a traditional Danish smørrebrød, or open faced sandwich, topped with onions and red beets. We stayed at the restaurant for some time, then took a break from biking until dinner.
Dinner at the hostel was tasty: ham (Bornholm has an astonishing number of pigs) with scalloped potatoes and make-your-own salad with delicious dressing. After dinner, a few of us climbed up the small hill at the city’s edge to watch the sunset. Upon our return to the hostel, we were pleased to find that our tour leaders had bought some beer and snacks, and so Ashley, Kelsey, Greg and I took some beers down to the end of the rock jetty to watch the remainder of the sunset over the Baltic Sea.
Waking early the next morning and having an identical breakfast, I joined forces with Anna, Annalisa, and Mollie to complete one of the suggested routes in our tour booklets: the 42km Cultural Tour. The day was sunny and much warmer than the previous, and I was able to shed a whole layer and still be comfortable. Biking up some rather vicious hills north of the city, past the destinations on the previous day’s route, we eventually biked through the harbor city of Tejn which boasts the island’s largest fishing harbor. Passing through, we biked a 3km stretch that was almost entirely uphill, to get to Sankt Ol’s Kirke, the highest round fortified church on the whole island. It was a cozy little building surrounded by a beautiful garden and tended to by a quiet, suit-wearing old man who spoke only a little English, but enough to direct us to our next destination.
We made our way to the very tip of the island, rounding the tip at Allinge on our way to Hammershus, the largest fortress in Northern Europe. Upon reaching the castle, I suddenly felt like I was in the movie Highlander: the ruins sat on an imposing rock hill overlooking the sea and the surrounding countryside. Goats ran all over the rocks outside the castle walls, and the impressive stone-and-brick keep enjoyed dominion over many kilometres of surrounding country.
We explored the ruins and enjoyed lunch at the nearby cafe, before beginning the 15km ride back. By the grace of the Norse gods we made it back alive, despite having to walk up some of the steeper hills that were simply too much for our legs at that point. We decided at that point that ice cream was an ample reward for our efforts, and I wasn’t about to disagree.
At that point, it was time to pack up for our journey home. Leaving Gudhjem behind, we returned to Rønne to board a high-speed ferry bound for Ystad, Sweden. From there, we took another bus towards Copenhagen.
I had an emotional moment on the ride back: As we were crossing the Oresund Bridge which links Malmö, Sweden to Copenhagen, I caught a glimpse of the lights of the city glimmering in the glow of the setting sun. I found that I was overjoyed to be returning to a city that I have absolutely fallen in love with, a city that I have come to think of as home. Yet, almost as soon as that thought had hit me, so too did the realization that I’m leaving that home very soon. Just over two weeks now, and there’s still so much I haven’t done. And while I’ll be quite sad to see it go, I know I’ll be back. There are still unfound horcruxes in that tiny cave in Bornholm, after all, and more waterfalls to tumble down. My adventure in Copenhagen for this year may be coming to a close, but I feel as if my relationship with this city is far, far from over.