I'd been staring at the same steep, craggy piece of forested coastline for the entire time I'd been on Bornholm, wondering if it could be walked. Each day I'd bicycle from the old ruined farmhouse where I was staying to the nearest main road and catch a bus to the little harbor town of Gudjhem. There I'd get supplies and log online at the local library, as the farmhouse was off the signal coverage map. Then I'd walk down to the old smokehouse by the harbor to eat fresh Baltic catch and gaze longingly at that thick-treed, precipitous stretch of uninhabited northeast coast.
I was leaving by ferry the next day and I'd already given up on the idea of hiking it when I picked up a brochure somebody had left on a bench at the smokehouse. It was for the Bornholm Art Museum, 15 kilometers up the coast, and contained a little map with a series of dots running from something called the Sanctuary Rocks, just below the museum, back along the arc of the bay to Gudjhem.
Rain was predicted, I had no jacket—let alone rain gear—and I didn't even know if the dots indicated a footpath. But a couple of minutes later I was bounding up the steep, oxygen-robbing path to the main road at the top of Gudjhem where I hopped the next bus to the museum.
A couple of things had drawn me to Bornholm that summer. The first was a photo in a travel magazine of an amazing round white church called the Rundkirk that looked like something you'd expect to encounter in northern Niger or Mali, not Denmark. The second was a comment I'd read in a magazine by a Danish writer: "You know, Bornholm is the only place in Denmark with teeth."
I mean, it's hard to beat up on a bicycle-wielding, eco-friendly country with 100% literacy, free womb-to-tomb education and health care, no corruption, and a danger quotient so low as to be off the charts. Civilized, cozy as the Danes proudly say (the word is hyggeligt), and if a cup of coffee is $8, well, they've earned it.
Denmark usually tops the "happiest country" polls (though some Norwegians and Swedes have suggested it should be called the smuggest country—and there's that pesky problem of people hurling themselves under trains during the interminable winters). Pancake-flat, it offers few places to climb and few to fall from. Clean and safe, a place of tame pleasures, a great place to take the kids—a duck pond. If it's trouble you're looking for, head for Syria; extreme physical challenge, try a Sahara crossing; ecstasy and noise, book a ticket for Rio for Carnaval. One Persian immigrant described living in Denmark this way: It's like being bathed in chlorine.
Then there's Bornholm. Set in the Baltic Sea three hours east of the Danish mainland by high-speed ferry, due south of Sweden and due north of the German-Polish border, it's packed with wild beauty: rocky coastlines, sandy beaches, golden fields, thick interior forests, chill waters, intense weather (ten-foot high snowdrifts in winter), the highest waterfall in Denmark, and four of those amazing round churches. Good, tough pleasures, and plenty of ways to work up a sweat: bicycling, hiking, running, swimming, sailing. The locals are a crusty but solid folk, and the food is farm-fresh (Copenhagen's trendy, award-winning restaurants grow their gourmet veggies here) or straight from the sea. Hold the chlorine: Bornholm's got edge.
© Visit Denmark
My castoff map in hand, I stared out the bus window at gathering rain clouds to the west. It had hardly rained in the time I'd been on the island, and so what if it did? It was still summer and not that cold. Summer is brief here and the weather turns quickly: by mid-August they're taking in the harvest and by early September the tourist shops have closed down. It was the last day of August.
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