A Baltic pearl

Bornholm delights, defies, and delivers

Photo: Stefan Asp / VisitDenmark
Bornholm’s unique geographic location made it the perfect location for a trading port, a bridge between the surrounding kingdoms. Today, the idyllic harbor welcomes tourists from all corners of the Baltic and beyond.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Like a pearl nestled in a protective shell, Bornholm floats in the middle of the Baltic Sea, embraced by the surrounding land formations. Located to the east of the rest of Denmark, south of Sweden, northeast of Germany, and northwest of Poland, it is known as the “Sunshine Island,” drawing thousands of tourists annually from every direction.

The motivation for my trip was to explore the home of my maternal great-grandfather. To travel there, I found myself on an overnight ferry from Ystad, Sweden, along with a group on a high school trip. 

At first, the Swedish students enlightened me when they began to manipulate the long, padded seats and converted them into beds, but then, all of a sudden, they began to strip down. Not to worry though; they kept their skivvies on, and soon everyone settled down for a good night’s sleep, before waking up refreshed to the wonders of Bornholm.

First impressions

After getting settled, I pursued my surroundings. My first thought, “It’s like Bermuda with cliffs!” The island of Bornholm immediately enchants, offering soft white sandy beaches, dramatic rock formations carved from the relentless winds and waves, and the lush forest of Almindingen. 

And like all the Scandinavian countries, Bornholm bestows both visitors and locals (just fewer than 40,000 residents in 2020) many subtle and soothing amenities. Here you can either pass through or submerge yourself within the island paradise. Choose a path to walk, a dirt road to bike, or a paved street to drive, each separated to permit uninterrupted moments of enjoyment.

Jet-lagged, I often walked the streets in the early morning hours, teasingly tempted by the aroma of freshly baked goods. Annoyed, knowing that it was about five o’clock in the morning and the bakery doors were locked, I soon discovered it wasn’t a problem. The laid-back inhabitants of Bornholm seem to have a simple solution for everything. There was a vending machine outside the bakery where the wayward could purchase delicious pastries at all hours. I continued my stroll as I noshed. 

Charming homes had their front windows adorned with candles and lacy cutouts. These adornments were not only for the homeowners but also for the delight of passers-by. Interestingly, I later learned that Hans Christian Andersen excelled at making these intricate decorative art forms.

Photo: Stefan Asp / VisitDenmark
The rock formations near Allinge appear like the heads of two camels.

An unusual geography and history

Bornholm’s geography is unusual and has been integral to its history. Surrounded by many kingdoms—Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, a part of Russia, Kaliningrad (albeit separated from the rest of that country), Lithuania, and a short distance from Latvia, Estonia, and Finland—its position in the Baltic has been both a blessing and a curse.

Bornholm’s geographic position made it the perfect location for a trading port, a bridge among the surrounding kingdoms where traders met to exchange wares. Sámi fur traders from the north could exchange their goods for glass goblets made by the Franks from the south or amber jewelry from across the Baltic. But the island’s prime location as a maritime crossroads also made the island vulnerable.

Bornholm was an independent kingdom until the 10th century when the island came under Swedish rule for about 600 years, and then Germany’s Hanseatic League took control. Sweden alternated possession again for a short time. However, from 1660 until the present, the island has been part of Denmark.

In more recent history, Bornholm fell under Nazi occupation during World War II, together with the rest of Denmark. During the war, Soviet bombing ravaged the island in an effort to eject the German invaders. At one time, there was even a fear that the Soviets would not leave.

Photo: Stefan Asp / VisitDenmark
At the northern tip of Bornholm, you’ll find the medieval fortress of Hammershus.

Unique architecture

To protect their coveted, yet vulnerable position, locals built seven fortresses on the island’s 227 square miles, and today you can visit their remains. These structures span many eras, from the Iron Age, pre-Viking, Viking, and medieval periods. Perhaps, the most famous fortress is Hammershus, the youngest of the seven and the largest ruin of its kind in Europe. 

Hammershus added a visitor’s center in 2018. There you are taken back to 1660, with the tale describing the life of the Danish King Christian IV’s daughter, Leonora Christina, and her husband, Corfitz Ulfeldt. When they were imprisoned in the castle for treason, they tried to escape down the walls and cliffs but failed. It also offers Brohusets shop and café, a welcome respite for sustenance and shopping, which was lacking when I had traveled there in the past.

Bornholm’s precarious geographical vulnerability even affected the islanders’ construction of their medieval churches, which were built with a unique round design during the 12th and 13th centuries. Four still stand and are open to the public.

Due to the constant need for protection, these round structures were practical. A resident told me, “People worshipped on the ground floor and shot from the top floors.” With minuscule windows on the upper levels, narrow passageways, and substantial walls, the architectural elements replicate those of fortresses.

Photo: Niclas Jensen / VisitDenmark
Bornholm is a foodie haven, where the bounty of the sea is never far away.

A tourist haven

Designated the World Craft Region in 2017, the first place in Europe to be so named, Bornholm is also often referred to as “Maker’s Island,” because of the many artisans who live there and create many different media including, textiles, jewelry, wooden sculptural items, ceramics (because of the fine quality of the local clay), and glassware. More than 20 years ago, the European Union selected the town of Nexø for the location of a school of ceramics and glassworks. This has only encouraged the prolific creativity in these media. 

I’ve always said time and again that you cannot get bad food in Denmark, and Bornholm is no exception. Memorable dining can be found in its many quaint towns. Not to miss is a meal in one of their popular smokehouses, a tradition that began in 1866. Among the many choices, Gudhjem Smokehouse is deemed the most authentic. Try the popular dish, Sol over Gudhjem (Sun over Gudhjem). This fish specialty is made from smoked herring, egg yolk, chives, and radish—scrumptious!

For a more modern culinary option that focuses on locally sourced ingredients, try Kadeau, a Michelin-starred restaurant that will not disappoint. In Bornholm, you are never far from the sea and its bounty. The island is truly a foodie haven, whether you enjoy simple, fancy, or trendy—take your pick. 

A vacation in Bornholm means you don’t have to choose between the green countryside and the beach; both are plentiful. Whether biking through idyllic forests, dining on tasty seafood, or contemplating past lives lived in the many architectural ruins, this Baltic pearl will not disappoint. Bornholm delights, defies, and certainly delivers.

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.