I got off at the museum, a Scandinavian modernist structure cantilevered on a wooded promontory high above the sea. A steep path ran beside it bearing a sign with an arrow that said: Sanctuary Rocks. I followed it until a pine forest swallowed me. I emerged just above the sea, staring at a dizzying vertical drop to a narrow inlet between craggy rocks with just enough space for a boat to tie up. A flight of wood stairs led to the landing, and an unmarked path to the right veered back into the forest.
I took the unmarked path. The dim trail ended at a flimsy wood bridge. Crossing it landed me on another trail leading deeper into trees. I was thinking of turning back when the path turned abruptly seaward again and brought me to a high promontory above bird-infested rocks. To the south, at the end of the long curve of bay, the red rooftops of Gudjhem sparkled in the sun. It didn't look all that far away.
I pushed on, back into deep forest, then out, then up, then down, along a series of twisting switchbacks, until I came out at another staggering ocean vista. Dark clouds gathered above me, while out over the sea it remained crystal clear. From a rocky outcropping I could see all the way to the little island of Christiansø, which since the eighteenth century was used as a place of banishment for lifetime prisoners.
Bornholm had always been fought over. It was Swedish at one point, German another, then Danish again. Hammershus Castle, at the island's northwestern tip, is the largest medieval fortress in northern Europe. In 1940 the Germans occupied the island until 1945, when the Soviets bombed the capital city of Rønne and occupied it for a year.
I'd been walking an hour along the path and hadn't seen a soul. I seemed no closer to Gudjhem but in fact further away. Then in the middle of nowhere I saw a young woman emerge from the sea naked. Where did she come from? She stood on a rock, toweling off.
Just then, the rain hit.
I sped up along the wooded path—a mistake, as I fell, bloodying my shin and muddying my clothes. Struggling back up, I saw right in front of me an old Danish cottage house, a few bicycles leaning against it, and a sign that said: "Cafe/Inn." It seemed you could bicycle in from the highway here through a break in the woods. A couple of minutes later I was sitting under an umbrella drinking a Carslberg served by the woman I'd seen drying off on the rock —a slightly more zoftig version of Copenhagen's famed Little Mermaid statue—watching a rainbow out to sea as the rain shower let up. "Look," she said, pointing behind me. I turned and saw a second rainbow.
Fortified, I resumed my slog through the forest. Somewhere past the two-hour point I saw the tip of Gudjhem's smokehouse where my little odyssey had begun. A long descent through a grove of deciduous trees brought me to three standing stones, monolith rocks that act as navigation markers, and a short while later I stumbled into Gudhjem—bruised, muddied, and exultant.
The next day I boarded the ferry back to the mainland, content that Bornholm had shown me a few of its teeth.
Tony Cohan is the author of the bestselling travel narratives On Mexican Time and Mexican Days. His novel Canary was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, his memoir Native State a Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year. He has written on travel for Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, and The Times of London, among others.
All photos by the author except Rundkirk church photo, courtesy of Visit Denmark.
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