I did it! I eventually got to Bornholm!
Bornholm had long been on my ‘Go To’ wish list, but other destinations got in the way. Why did I want to go to Bornholm? There are lots of reasons, one, that being Danish, I wanted to see what this other part of Denmark was like. Two, I had done a lot of reading about the island, and the history fascinated me.
A word of warning: you will probably fall in love with the island – try give yourself at least 10 days there, there is just so much to see. I still have lots more to see there, so it hasn’t been taken off my ‘Go To’ wish list.
The small island of Bornholm is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but is closer to Poland, Estonia and Sweden than what it is to Denmark. Lying in the middle of the Baltic Sea or the ‘Eastern Sea’ as the Danes call it, this tiny island of 400sq km, is known as Denmark’s Sunshine Island. Its unusual unScandinavian weather makes it the ideal holiday spot.The best way to get to Bornholm, if you are not in Denmark, is to fly to Copenhagen, and then take a bus and ferry to Rønne (Ronne), the capital of Bornholm. There are flights to Rønne, but the cheapest route is the flight, bus and ferry route via Copenhagen.
Are you wondering how to pronounce that strange letter in Rønne? Danish uses the same alphabet as English, but it has 3 extra letters: Åå (also written as AA/aa, as in the city, Aalborg), pronounced as ‘oh’, Ææ, pronounced as the ‘e’ in ten and Øø, pronounced as a rounded ‘e’, sort of like the e in ‘err’. Danes delight in getting foreigners to say: Rød grød med fløde – go on try it – it means red porridge with cream, and is made with berries.
We took the bus, drove across to Sweden on the amazing Øresund bridge, going under the sea, through the tunnel for a while, and onto Swedish soil. Swedish border control officers boarded the bus, and checked our documents. I found this really weird. Denmark, Sweden and Norway, are all part of Scandinavia, and up until fairly recently, passports were never checked. Now, the officers did a thorough job, making sure no unwanteds were coming onto Swedish soil. The drive through Sweden is short, mostly through open country, where houses had the national blue and yellow flag flying, but also through some urban areas, where, on some buildings, ‘interesting’ graffiti had been allowed to remain. Eventually we got to the ferry terminal, drove onto the ferry, disembarked, and climbed up to the upper decks. A few hours later, the outline of Bornholm loomed up on the horizon.
The main tourism office in Rønne is close to the ferry terminal, as are the bus stops, so after popping in and picking up brochures, we caught the bus up to the northern town of Allinge, where we had booked a ‘sommerhus’. ‘Sommerhus’ directly translates to summer house. Many Danes own these at the coast; they are mostly small and functional wooden cabins. Ours was about half a kilometer from the town, and was surrounded by berry bushes in full fruit, which had us happily sharing the fruit with the many birds which visited our little cabin.
Bornholm’s main economy is now tourism. It was fishing, but with the near collapse of fish stocks, Bornholmians had to make changes to their lives. The story of the near collapse of the economy in the 1980s, and the change of direction to make tourism the major industry is a story of necessity and resilience. Fishing is still a good part of the economy, but a large part of the catch now supplies the restaurants that serve Bornholm specialities to the tourists.
It is well geared for tourism, there are very well-informed tourist offices in many towns, and all the bus drivers happily act as informal tourist guides, and go out of their way to make sure that you’re on the right bus to where you want to go.
Hotels, guesthouses, homestays and camping grounds abound, as do restaurants of every variety. Many years ago, ‘Badehotel’, or Bathing Hotels were the fashionable place to book into, then they went through a period of being regarded as old fashioned, and lost popularity. There has now been a resurrection of these seaside type of hotels, and you will find many of them on the coast. The interior of the island does not have as many accommodation establishments, but who needs that? With a maximum length across the island of 30km, everything is a bus ride, a quick drive, or an energetic bike ride away.
Although a part of Denmark, the unofficial green and red flag of Bornholm is often proudly flown together with the Danish one.
Image courtesy of Langkilde & Søn
Bornholm has its own language, called Bornholmsk. Well, Bornholmians like to say that it is a stand-alone language, but the linguists say it is a Danish dialect. It is considered an endangered language, and is more spoken than written. As one Bornholmer said to this ‘førder’ (non Bornholmian): ‘’If it isn’t a language, why is there a Danish – Bornholmsk dictionary?’’ A good question, I thought. The language issue becomes a political issue, because the Danish that is spoken, is in the lilting sing song fashion which Swedish is spoken in; a leftover from the days of yore when Bornholm belonged to Sweden. I simplified the matter by saying that the Bornholmers spoke Danish with a Swedish accent. I found it to be a beautiful sounding accent.
Driving around, the landscape alternates between beautiful seascapes, deep woods and farmland, and villages in the most beautiful bright colours. Bornholm is famous for its round churches too.
Bornholm’s history goes back to well before the birth of Christ. Before the common era (BCE), the island was inhabited by amongst others, the Wends, who were a people thought to originate in what is now Germany. These people left behind clues to their way of life, of what was important to them. In fields and forests on exposed rock surfaces, still clear petroglyphs are visible. Many of these resemble Viking Ships, and they are thought to indicate the journey of departed souls to the afterworld. Barrows of different sizes are found everywhere. These burial sites have been excavated, and many artefacts which are now in the numerous museums, were found.
Megaliths, or ‘Bautasten’, as they are called in Danish, are everywhere. Some were believed to be petrified Holy Women, and on walking past these stones, it was the habit to greet them. Even at Hammarshus, which was a Christian Bishop’s seat, there is a ‘Bautasten’ raised on a plinth at its entrance.
Hammarshus is the largest Nordic castle ruin. Built in the 1200s; what is left of it is impressive. Built on a high promontory, it has been the seat of the governors and the church at different times over the centuries. It has seen fearsome battles by different inhabitants. The Lübecks tried to tear it down when they took over, then they tried to rebuild it for their own defense. The Swedish Princess Leonora Christina and her husband were imprisoned there; the tale of their escape from their prison room using sheets to lower themselves to the ground and their subsequent recapture, with those that saw them thinking they were raggedy ghosts, is still told with delight and much head shaking.
Many myths are woven around Bornholm, including that it was possibly inhabited by Burgundians from France at one stage, or that Bornholmians inhabited Burgundy, and that the name Bornholm may be derived from the word Burgundy. The most popular legend is that the island was a Templar stronghold, and that the history of Bornholm may have ties with the Merovingian dynasty of France. The round churches point to these myths being factual, and many archeological digs have been done. Strange items, such as the ‘guldgubbe’- small gold stamps measuring about 1 x2cm – have been found by the hundreds; but these finds have only deepened the mysterious history of Bornholm.
Bornholm’s history includes being under control of the Lübecks of the Germanic Hanseatic League in the 1500s and Sweden in the 1600s. The Bornholmians objected to foreign rulers and had them removed. The island was occupied by Germany in during WWll, and the Russians, in their efforts to beat the Germans, bombed Bornholm, especially the eastern town of Nexø (pronounced Nekserr) badly, destroying the town center, which is why Nexø, having been rebuilt, is more modern looking than the rest of the island’s towns.
If getting away into nature is what you are after, Bornholm has walking and cycling trails everywhere. You can wonder through open countryside, through ancient woods, or along the beach and shore. There are many cycle hire shops on the island. Bornholm’s natural history includes dinosaur sites, and it even has a bison herd which lives in a 2 square kilometre enclosure in the Almindingen Forest in the middle of the island. I didn’t see the bison – I was told a bison was there, but I’m really not into viewing sad, lonely animals in a paddock, so I wasn’t interested in seeing it. Afterall, a bison is a bison, not so? As I saw plenty near Yellowstone in the USA, it was of no interest to me. Silly silly me, not having done any homework on the subject. The Bornholm Bison are not American Bison, they are European Bison (Bison bonasus bonasus), also known as Wisent, Zubr, or the European Wood Bison, and are part of the Rewilding of Europe project. There were three European bison sub species in recent times (mid 1800s to 1920s); all were shot out in the wild, but a few of B b bonasus existed in captivity. Sustainable wild herds have been bred up from these few animals, and have been released in many European countries, Bornholm being one location. It is thought by some scholars that the horns on Viking helmets came from bisons, as did their drinking horns.
On your wanderings, stop in at a restaurant, and enjoy the local specialty dishes, like smoked fish. The locally caught fish is smoked in family owned smoke houses. If smoked fish isn’t for you, there are many other dishes to sample. Complement your meal with a beer from the local Svaneke Brewery.
All sorts of delicious foods are produced on the island, these include handmade sweets, chocolates and ice cream. ‘Bolcheriet’ (the Sweet Shop) in Svaneke make their sweets in the front shop for all to see. I did not know that making handmade sweets involved sheer hard physical labour. The guy who demonstrated the art of sweet making was a delightful showman, completely trilingual in Danish, English and German, and he took us through the whole process, from melting the sugar and flavouring, to how to get patterns inside the sweets. Did you know that licorice, my favorite sweet, is actually clear, but it is coloured to the likes of the market? Denmark and the rest of the licorice eating European countries like it black. Australians like it red. Of course, tasting what we had just seen made, was the best part. Jars of brightly coloured delicious sweets were added to my luggage.
The round churches of Bornholm are possibly the biggest tourist attraction. Apart from being beautiful and of fascinating architecture (they were built so they could also be used as strongholds against the enemy invaders), they are steeped in mystery about who built them, and are said to be linked to the obscure practice of Sacred Geometry, which is connected to the Knight Templars. A number of churches are named for Sankt Lars (Saint Lawrence) and bear his attribute, a gridiron. He was put to death by the Roman Emperor Valerian by being doused in oil and roasted on a gridiron, because he refused to hand over Christian Church treasures to pagan Rome.
Of the seven round churches found in Denmark, four are on Bornholm. They were built to be multi-purpose, to be used both a churches and as fortified buildings, in times of attack. Three of the Bornholm round churches are three storied, and the smallest and newest one (if one can call having been around for seven centuries, new) is two stories high.
Østerlars Church (St Lawrence Church of the East) is the largest of these churches and probably dates back to the 1160s. During various renovations, coins and such were found, making dating possible. In literature, the church is first mentioned in 1332. The church is famous for the wall friezes depicting Biblical scenes. One can get to the second and third stories via a narrow stone staircase. From the top you have unbroken vistas of the countryside.
Nylars Church in Aakirkeby was possibly also built in the early 1100s, and is often said to be the most beautiful of the round churches. The central pillar has a painted frieze on it, with scenes from Genesis. Various renovations and changes have been done over the centuries, including the addition of a porch in the 1870s. As decoration in the porch are two rune stones, with Christian inscriptions on them. One of these rune stones has the date 1050 engraved on it.
Aakirkeby’s other ancient church, Aa Kirke (Brook, as in little stream, Church) was built in in 1149, of sandstone. The limestone font is unique, that it is inscribed with runes, which is one of the reasons this church is also regarded as a tourism treasure. The church gave its name to the town (‘by’, is pronounced sort of like yew with a b – it means town), which today is the third largest on Bornholm.
Many of the megaliths found on Bornholm are inscribed with runes, the ancient Nordic script, with Christian messages on them. These megaliths are commonly found in churchyards, in churches, or have often been used as lintels when repairing or adding to churches over the centuries.
Prehistory is everywhere. All the periods from the early stone age (9000 BCE), through the bronze ages and the late iron age (500CE) are represented. Barrows abound, stone circles are common, single megaliths are everywhere, even though it is thought that 75% of the megaliths have been broken, used in building, or as gravestones on Christian graves. Dolmens, the multi-stone burial chambers are common too. Petroglyphs, depicting Viking-like ships, crosses in circles, rings and cup marks are on so many stones out in fields, that one can almost get an overload of these wonders.
The prehistory of Bornholm also includes dinosaur remains and fossilized jelly fish, which had previously only been found in America and India.
Trolls, the ancient beings of the north, have been part of Danish folklore for centuries. On Bornholm they are ‘alive’ and well, and have their own forest, the Troldskov (Troll Forest) and other hangouts. Bornholm has made the troll, Trølle Bølle, from the popular children’s stories, their national mascot.
Known as the Island of Artisans, all forms of art are celebrated, with renowned painters, glass makers and designers having studios and shops on the island.
The next time I’m in Bornholm, I want to spend a good amount time there, so that I can explore everything from the primeval forests to the history, to the very important exploring of the chocolatiers. I would also like to experience the annual ‘Folkemøde’ (Public Meeting;, the Political Festival where all things that affect Danes are openly discussed. A trip to the tiny Christiansø (Christian’s Island), a few kilometres north west from the town of Gudhjem, is also on my list. Museums, art galleries and so much more also have to be put on my ‘been there, done that’ list.
The coastline is made up of sheer cliffs, sandy or pebble strewn beaches and quiet bays which make perfect small harbours, where numerous boats are moored. Most are fishing boats, but many are also pleasure boats, and many owners are happy to hire themselves and their boats out for some sightseeing from the sea, or for a spot of fishing.
Christiansø and the tinier Frederiksø (Frederik’s Island – both named for Danish Kings) are living museums, and everything, down to the littlest wildflower is protected there. Scheduled crossings by boat run year round, but change seasonally. A causeway connects Christiansø and Frederiksø. Accommodation is available on Christiansø, but book well in advance, as it is popular, and places are limited.
Of all things, Bornholm is famous for its Grandfather clocks. These large longcase pendulum clocks are brightly decorated and come in both male and female clocks. Grandfather clocks have straight tops, Grandmother clocks have decorative shaped tops, often resembling ‘Nøller’, the flower covered bonnets worn by Bornholm ladies about a hundred years ago. The clock making tradition happened by accident, when a Dutch ship, carrying a consignment of clocks, ran aground on Bornholm’s coast in 1744. The damaged clocks were sent to be repaired by a local craftsman, who through repairing the clocks learnt the art of clock making, and started his own workshop. Clocks were made commercially until the early 1900s, when cheaper imported watches became available. A beautiful collection of these clocks can be seen in the Bornholm Museum in Rønne.
Museums are everywhere, and whether your fancy is vintage motor vehicles, ancient weapons or the Second World War, you will find extensive collections in one of the museums. The highlight of our visit to the Rønne Museum, was the display of the mysterious ‘Guldgubber’. What were they? A coin? A membership medallion? Or the work of a bored goldsmith, who had fun imprinting them with caricatures?
Statues vie for attention with the bautasten – placed on street corners, they are a constant reminder of the amazingly talented people who live on the island. Art Galleries are numerous too, you just cannot get bored when visiting Bornholm.
I could carry on writing about this wonderful island, and turn this blog into a tome, so this blog ends here, and now you should go and discover this wonderful destination for yourself.