Caroline Hurry
Caroline Hurry

Few places slip into a 1950s parallel universe but Bornholm in the Baltic Sea, almost manages. With its half-timbered fishing villages, cobbled streets, medieval centre and 17th century smoking stacks, only 5G masts and cars bring it into the 21st century

Forget huge hotels, throbbing nightclubs, neon signs, or shopping malls. Here you’ll find chicken-poop crapshoots, yellow cottages crisscrossed with black timberwork, shops exhibiting ceramics, bakeries, ancient rocks, and little harbours where squealing gulls wheel past low-slung hammocks of sleeping clouds. Ginger cats prowl the alleys, hollyhocks grow on pavements and birds sing from fig trees. The place smells of horse dung and smoked herring. I loved it.

To get here from Copenhagen, we crossed the Øresund Bridge connecting Denmark with Sweden and took the ferry from Ystad, a two-and- a-half hour crossing.

At Gudhjem’s Broddan restaurant, overlooking red roofs down to the glittering sea, we tucked into “Gold over Gudhjem” – rye bread topped with smoked herring, radish and a raw egg yolk. A folkdance for the mouth, it’s washed down with 38 percent alcohol Akvavit, which livened up the post-prandial walks a tad.

A typical street in Gudhjem where hollyhocks grow on pavements

Bornholm’s oldest commercial centre, Gudhjem held herring fairs in the Middle Ages and started the smoked fish industry. Fishing is still the main occupation here and from Gudhjem you can take a boat to Ertholmene, a group of three tiny islands ‒ Christiansø, Fredericksø and Graesholmen ‒ with a population of around 140 artists and fishermen, an hour away.

The boat that takes visitors to the Ertholmene islands

Gudhjem is a good starting point for the 6km trip inland to Østerlars, the largest of the island’s four round 12th century churches. Whitewashed, with a black conical roof, its stonewalls are a metre thick.

Østerlars, the largest of the island’s four round 12th century churches.

Built by the Knights Templar on their way to the Crusades, the upper levels reached by a narrow winding staircase were used to fire on enemies. Downstairs, faded 13th century frescoes depict sinners descending into hell.

Hammerhus Slot, Northern Europe’s biggest castle ruin glowers from a cliff above the Slotslyngen woods.

Hammerhus Slot, northern Europe’s biggest castle ruin founded by Danish King Valdemar Sejr in 1200, glowers from a cliff above the Slotslyngen woods.

Centuries earlier, the Vikings left runic stones and artifacts in Almindingen forest while Bronze Age monoliths, rock carvings, preserved burial mounds and cairns can be seen on Madsebakke near Sandvig, where ships, circles, and sun-wheels have been scratched into the rock.

Rugged cliffs break the shoreline

Around this area, footpaths festooned with lakes, valleys, marshes, and forests, criss-cross the island. Rugged cliffs break the shoreline with the trail around the Hammerødde, Bornholm’s most northerly point, being particularly spectacular.

We started at Sandvig for a strenuous 7km hike using the Lille Fyr lighthouse as a marker, passing Salomon’s Kapel, a ruined 14th century chapel and cliff colonies populated with birds. From here, we could see all the way to Sweden, 37 km/s away.

We rented an apartment in the east coast town of Svaneke, where we quaffed the local brew and bet on chicken shit. Svaneke is famous for its chicken poop crapshoots. Organizers place three hens on a street divided into small numbered squares. If a chook craps in your square, you win. It’s quite the crowd puller!

Sandvig beach in Bornholm

One morning we meandered through fields of golden wheat, wild heather and blooming lupines, to find the old homestead of my late father-in-law’s family from Nexø. The original house had been demolished to make way for a pig farm but the old barn was still in situ.

A man with a yapping terrier told us we weren’t the first to ask about the place. “A 90-year man called in the other day to say he used to work here,” he told us.

Work was the last thing on my mind in Bornholm, although I did think up a fishy joke. What did the herring reply when told when told smoking would kill him? “It’s okay, I’ve been cured!” My husband didn’t find it particularly amusing, but he’s Danish!