Bornholm is for connoisseurs and an acquired taste. We had discovered all of Denmark before getting around to Bornholm, writing it off as a Baltic island where Danish families who can't afford a Mediterranean holiday go to romp on the sandy beaches in summer. But after coming to know Bornholm in greater depth, we eventually succumbed to its peculiar charm.
The most hurried visitor to Denmark will still pass it by, and it's damn hard to get an accommodation in July and August unless you make reservations well in advance. Most of the holiday flats want a full week's booking, and very few foreign visitors, except perhaps Germans, have so much time to devote to Bornholm.
We like to skip the overcrowded summers altogether and visit in either the late spring or early fall, when Bornholm appears at its most dramatic seasonal change. Of course, that means you'll have to forego beach life, but the waters, even in July or August, are just too cold for us. Perhaps we grew spoiled after living for so many years in the Florida Keys.
Surrounded by the Baltic Sea, astride the important shipping lanes that connect St. Petersburg with Copenhagen and the Atlantic, Bornholm sits only 37km (23 miles) off the coast of Sweden, but about 153km (95 miles) east of Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark. Prized as a strategic Baltic military and trading outpost since the early Middle Ages, and sadly the site of many bloody territorial disputes among the Danes, Germans, and Swedes, it's home to 45,000 year-round residents. An additional 450,000 visitors arrive during the balmy months of summer. Besides tourism, which is growing rapidly, the economy relies on trade, fishing, herring processing, agriculture, and the manufacture of ceramics. Thanks to the island's deep veins of clay, ceramics has been a major industry since the 1700s.
Covering a terrain of granite and sandstone is a thin but rich layer of topsoil; the island's rock-studded surface is made up of forests and moors. The unusual topography and surprisingly temperate autumn climate -- a function of the waters of the Baltic -- promote the verdant growth of plants: figs, mulberries, and enough lavish conifers to create the third-largest forest in Denmark (right in the center of the island). This forest, Almindingen, has the only rocking stone which still rocks. Rocking stones are giant erratic boulders weighing up to 40 tons that were brought to Bornholm by the advancing glaciers during the last Ice Age. In addition, one of Denmark's largest waterfalls, Døndalen, lies in the north of Bornholm in a rift valley and is best viewed from spring to fall.
The island covers 945 sq. km (365 sq. miles), and most of the inhabitants live along 140km (87 miles) of coastline. Not only do the flora and fauna differ in many respects from the rest of Denmark, but its geology is unique as well. The island is divided into two geologic zones: 1,500-million-year-old bedrock to the north and a 550-million-year-old layer of sandstone to the south. The best beaches of Bornholm lie in the southwestern section of the island, between the towns of Balka and the main beach town of Dueodde.
Bornholmers traditionally have been fishermen and farmers. Today their villages are still idyllic, evocative of the old way of life in their well-kept homesteads, as are fishing hamlets with their characteristic smokehouse chimneys, often used for smoking herring.
The island is still sparsely populated. Grand Canary, a Spanish island off the coast of Africa, for example, is the same size as Bornholm, but while that resort hosts some two million residents in high season, the greatest number of people ever seen on Bornholm at one time is 100,000.
Because of its location at the crossroads of warring nations, Bornholm has had a turbulent history, even as recently as 1945. Strongholds and fortified churches protected local inhabitants when the island was a virtual plaything in the power struggle between royal and religious forces. It was plundered by pirate fleets, noblemen, and the Hanseatic towns of Pomerania. It didn't experience peace until after it revolted against Swedish conquerors at the end of Denmark's war with Sweden in 1658. A group of liberators shot the island's Swedish Lord, and the Bornholmers handed their land over to the king of Denmark.
On a more modern and rather fanatical note, the liberation of Bornholm -- unlike the rest of Denmark -- was slow to come in 1945. Even when the Nazis had surrendered, the local German commandant on Bornholm refused to give up the island to the Allies. In response, the Soviets rained bombs down on Rønne and Nexø (the two main towns) and then invaded the island and occupied it for several months before returning it to the crown of Denmark. During the long Cold War, the Danes indulged in a little payback time with the Russians. Bornholm became one of NATO's key surveillance bases, spying on what Ronald Reagan called "The Evil Empire."
The island's cuisine is obviously influenced by the surrounding sea. Baltic herring, cod, and salmon are the traditional dishes. One of the most popular local dishes is called Sun over Gudhjem, a specialty of smoked herring topped with a raw egg yolk in an onion ring. It's served with coarse salt and chives, or, most often, radishes. In autumn, the small Bornholm herring are caught and used for a variety of spiced and pickled herring dishes. Another local dish is salt-fried herring served on dark rye bread with beetroot and hot mustard. When it comes to food, those Bornholmers are a hearty bunch.
Hassle on Bornholm -- Don't expect to enjoy a holiday on Bornholm without some inconvenience: Boats from Copenhagen take either 5 1/2 or 7 hours each way. And if you plan to visit in midsummer, firm reservations are essential because of the large numbers of Danes who come for the sandy beaches and the Baltic sunshine.