On a recent trip to this country of warm welcomes, I had barely unpacked in Copenhagen when a young Danish friend, Frank Engelbrecht-Jensen, called to greet me in one breath and ask me in the next whether I would like to join him on a three-day, head-clearing trip to Bornholm. Denmark is always a homecoming for me--I was a student here many years ago--and this small Baltic island just happens to be one of my favorite spots. Naturally, I leaped at the invitation.
All but unknown to Americans, Bornholm is a kind of Danish Martha's Vineyard and one of Scandinavia's better-kept secrets. Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Germans, who recognize a good thing when they see it, vacation on the island during the long days of the Scandinavian summer. And 70% of them are repeaters.
As I knew from experience, Bornholm has something to offer people of all ages and inclinations. Accommodations range from seaside hotels and house and apartment rentals to woodsy campgrounds. Swimmers and sunbathers love the island's wide beaches, whose sugar-white sand is so fine it was once exported for use in hourglasses. Rock climbers are drawn to its granite cliffs. Golfers flock to its three 18-hole courses, yachters to its harbors. Bikers and hikers find hours of pleasure following its numerous paths and roads. And for people who just want to relax, there are charming towns, like Svaneke and Gudhjem (which means "God's Home"), whose red, yellow, green, blue and white half-timbered houses crowd down slopes to the water's edge.
I hadn't been to the island in decades. Until recently you could reach it only by airplane or overnight ferry. Now you can drive most of the way from Copenhagen. The sleek new Oresund Bridge joining Denmark and Sweden helps make this possible in just three hours, about half of which are spent aboard a comfortable, high-speed catamaran car ferry from Ystad, in southern Sweden, to the small city of Ronne, the island's capital. (It's also possible to take a train or bus from Copenhagen to the ferry and then rent a car.)
Frank and I elected to drive. Setting out one afternoon last October, we arrived in the dark at our hotel, the modern, three-story Radisson SAS Fredensborg, set among trees on the outskirts of Ronne. I was particularly eager to see how the growing numbers of tourists were affecting Bornholm, even in a country that I always find delightfully unchanged.
One of the surprises awaiting me early the next day was the view as I opened the curtains of my room: a sparkling blue sea, seen through a screen of bright green pine trees. The pristine nature of it all made me want to get going right away.
Bornholm is 227 square miles, home to about 44,000 people, but not so big that it can't be driven around in a couple of hours. It lies between Sweden and Poland, about 110 miles from Copenhagen as the sea gull flies, and is rocky at its northern end (two-thirds of the island is granite), where purple heather blooms in August and September. To the south, the landscape becomes gently rolling, fertile farmland punctuated by 13 tall windmills and several smaller ones.
Frank and I made our first stop in the north, near Hasle, to visit herring smokehouses a stone's throw from the sea. As an avid amateur photographer, I wanted to take advantage of the crystalline morning light to shoot these beautiful structures, whose broad, walk-in fireplaces take a pyramidal shape on the outside, then narrow into tall chimneys. Found all along the coast, the smokehouses are distinctive to the island, which was long dependent on its fishing industry as a major revenue source.
The process by which the silver herring are smoked is an ancient one. They are gutted and strung on racks to dry in the open air, then placed over smoldering alder wood and left in the fireplaces until they turn gold. Such is their reputation as a delicacy that they are known throughout Denmark as Bornholmers, the name for the islanders themselves. Nothing beats eating one still warm from the smokehouse. Unfortunately, Frank and I arrived after the previous day's catch had already been packed for shipment. Only the delicious aroma of herring and smoke lingered in the air.
We paused next at a wild spot called Jons Kapel ("John's Chapel"), a 72-foot-deep split in billion-year-old granite. One of several such ravines along the coast, it was named after a medieval hermit and missionary who, legends says, lived here in a cave. A couple of hundred wooden steps descend to the boulder-and-seaweed-strewn shore below. Standing on a rock at the bottom, I was reminded of the elemental forces that have shaped Bornholm over the eons, including the grinding together of continental plates that gave birth to it in a violent upthrust.
From Jons Kapel it was a short drive to the seaside hamlet of Vang, once a center of Bornholm's granite industry, commemorated in a small park where pieces of the hewn stone have been arranged like sculptures. In the upper part of town we had an outdoor lunch at La Port, one of many restaurants that have sprung up to accommodate summer visitors.
On our way to its terrace, I couldn't help but notice that though it was midday and the sun was shining brightly, candles burned on every table. Surely the Danes, in their avid pursuit of hygge, their word for coziness, use more candles per capita than any other people on earth. And what did lunch consist of? Herring, of course--smoked and pickled, served with capers, red onion rings and tufts of feathery dill--accompanied by beet and cucumber salads and buttered slices of dark Danish rye. It was a meal of utter freshness, washed down with beer and ice-cold aquavit.
Thus fortified, we continued to Gudhjem. When I saw it last, it was a fishing village, home to a few artists; now it is a booming resort town. I'm happy to report that it has not lost its mellowness, despite an occasional eyesore, like the sign I saw on the side of a new building for El Puppo--a Mexican restaurant! And in an overzealous effort to make room for cars down by the harbor, the authorities had asphalted over a portion of the rocky shore; plans are now afoot to remove the unsightly covering and restore the boulders to their natural state.
In the shops and galleries along the crooked streets, I found plenty of evidence of how far Bornholm has come as a center of creative activity. About 150 craftsmen now have studios on the island, many of them in Gudhjem and nearby Svaneke. The examples I saw were the work of talented professionals. Bornholm also boasts what many consider to be Europe's best glass and ceramics school, at Nekso. Though applications flood in from everywhere, it accepts only 12 students a year.
One of the most famous of the island's artists, the late Oluf Host, has been honored in his native Gudhjem by having his home and studio turned into a museum, which Frank and I made a point of visiting. Host loved Bornholm and painted it often, but came back again and again to the courtyard of the farm he owned, rendering the barn in different lights and moods, much the way Claude Monet focused on haystacks for some of his most beautiful paintings. Host's works have a strange power, and I was glad to have discovered him.
Next to Gudhjem is the fishing village of Melsted, the location of a 300-year-old farm. The Bornholm countryside is scattered with similar places: half-timbered, brightly colored houses built around cobbled courtyards. This one is canary yellow, and its thatch roof bears patches of fresh moss. Although the house and adjacent outbuildings function as a museum, they have been maintained as if a family were still living there--with animals in the stalls and pens, geraniums on the windowsills, and cats lolling on the plump feather comforters of the alcove beds. I loved it for being so hygge.
Down the road from the farm is an outfit with a big name in the Danish crafts world--Baltic Sea Glass. It was founded by a young couple, Pete Hunner, an American, and Maibritt Jonsson, a Swede. In the 20 years that they have lived and worked on the island they have built their company into a highly successful venture, with customers for their handblown glass scattered all over the world.
Pete took us around the showroom and studio, explaining that he and Maibritt take much of their inspiration from nature. And no wonder: Outside their building a meadow dips to the rocky beach where the coastline stretches as far as the eye can see. Their pieces speak of water and sky, of wind, grass and stone.
It would have been enjoyable to linger at the Hunners', but we wanted to be sure to see Bornholm's new art museum, devoted to the works of local painters and craftsmen. Erected on a grassy slope, the building has already acquired recognition for its originality. The architects, Johan Fogh and Per Folner, seem to have taken their inspiration from the island's ravines. You enter at the highest level and are drawn into an angular white space that splits the museum into two parts, lighted from above by skylights. Then you go down. Long flights of stairs clinging to one wall descend to ground level. Off each landing are the galleries, intimate rooms with paintings dating from the 19th century to the present.
The museum's most memorable feature is the sacred spring that runs through it. In the Middle Ages people came to drink or bathe in its waters in search of miraculous cures. Now, dramatically lighted, it wells up into the museum entryway and flows through a narrow channel that cuts through the entire structure before exiting the building and splashing down to the Baltic. A long elevated walkway leads from the lowest story to a gazebo, where in the country silence visitors can reflect on the art they've seen and admire the sweeping views of forest and coast.
The island's pure air all but guarantees a perfect night's sleep, and the next morning I was up early again, ready for another day of touring. At the top of our list were the island's four round, whitewashed churches, crowned with black-shingled, conical roofs. This unique form of religious architecture dates to the Middle Ages, when pirates frequently raided the island. The safest place for the inhabitants to shelter was inside, secure behind sturdy walls that enabled these handsome buildings to be both places of worship and fortresses.
The 13th century church at Osterlars is particularly fine, its exterior dominated by thick buttresses. The interior features a marvelous medieval painting of Judgment Day that runs in a continuous band around the circular core. The work tells its story in time-muted colors, with the saved ascending to heaven and the damned being shunted off to hell by demons. I could imagine frightened islanders huddled within the church, not knowing whether they would live or die, and constantly reminded of destiny.
Like the other three round churches, Osterlars stands in open country, and the drive to any one of them provides lovely views of the island's historic landscape. We passed several ancient burial mounds and Viking rune stones, or inscribed memorials, which rise from the earth like hulking figures from the past. The snug half-timbered farmhouses we saw everywhere spoke of the cozy domesticity that settled over Bornholm once the pirate threat ended, a peacefulness that persists today.
Having been surrounded by history, we thought it made sense to go deeper still, into Bornholm's prehistory. It's now a real possibility thanks to the state-of-the-art nature center, NaturBornholm, which opened last year. Like the art museum, it sits alone in a field and is split down the middle by a broad corridor, illuminated by sunshine streaming through windows and skylights. A visit to the center is intended as a journey that starts with Bornholm's birth and winds up with an examination of the island's flora and fauna. The imaginative displays cover the billion years of the island's existence, with bronze markers in the floor of each room identifying the geological period represented by stones, fossils and other items. Children loved the hands-on exhibits, and I was taken with the thoughtful, often amusing way in which the displays rendered difficult concepts simple.
For yet a closer look at Bornholm's geology and history, we drove on to Hammershus, a red-brick and stone fortress that occupies a granite promontory above the sea near the northern tip of the island. Indeed, there is no higher point in all of flat Denmark.
To reach this aerie, we hiked up a stony roadway to the gate and entered what remained of the enormous interior and courtyard, carpeted today with thick grass. At the center rises a large, square, roofless tower. The advent of artillery and bombardments from the sea rendered the castle useless as a fortress. It became a prison and home to a garrison instead. So much time has elapsed since Hammers- hus fell into disrepair that its ruins today seem an entirely natural part of the landscape.
The afternoon was growing short, and I wanted to see Svaneke, a village not far from Gudhjem. I had heard its beauty is unblemished thanks to strict architectural controls. I was not disappointed. Even more than Gudhjem, it looks as it did in the 19th century. Yet for all the care taken to keep its antique atmosphere intact, it is not a museum town but a living place of small, multi-windowed houses. Thirsty, we entered the local brew house and had a creamy brown beer. By the time we drained our tall glasses, dusk had fallen and the narrow streets were empty. But I felt none of the loneliness of a place shut down for the night. That's because we could see through the windowpanes into the lighted rooms, whose hyggelig atmosphere seemed almost an invitation for us to come in for a cup of coffee and a good chat.
Instead we had dinner at an old hotel by the harbor, the Siemsens Gaard, housed in a 400-year-old half-timbered building that was once the home of a rich merchant.
Before leaving for Copenhagen the following day, we walked barefoot in the squeaking sand of Dueodde, at the southern end of the island. The beach, backed by dunes and forest, was as pristine as any as I have seen. Brushed by the warmth of the sun, I began dreaming about returning to the island with my family and sharing its many pleasures. In summer, the sun shines well into the night before setting in a splash of colors behind the sea, only to reappear a few hours later in a blaze of dawn. Even in these troubled times, gentle Bornholm makes the world and its problems seem far away.
Dale M. Brown, a frequent contributor to Travel, wrote "The Cooking of Scandinavia" for the Time-Life Books series "Foods of the World."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times