It always seems strange that Bornholm belongs to the far-off Denmark, instead of Sweden the coast of which can be seen easily on a clear day from the northern shore of the island. The reasons are, as usual in Europe, historical: Scania, now the southern tip of Sweden, has always been Danish. After one of the lost wars, Denmark lost Scania but held on to Bornholm.
As the result of this conundrum – and the stubbornness of both countries in accepting Euro – we have to change money once again as we leave the ferry. But even without that, we’d know we’re back in Denmark.
We visit Bornholm on foot – taking the van would be far too expensive for the tiny place; the buses drive all around the island’s coast, which helps us see all its parts and sides. South-west corner, near Ronne, is fairly industrial and not very welcoming; as we near Nexo in the south-east corner, the thatched-roof cottages grow denser among the fields of wheat. An occasional windmill pops up on the horizon.
We stop at Nexo not because it’s a particularly beautiful town – it’s as featureless as Ronne, only smaller – but because we’re here to eat. Nexo boasts reputedly the finest smorrebrod in Denmark, one to beat the domination of Copenhagen’s luxurious “Smushi”. From the entry into the tiny Delikatessen Cafe by the harbour, we know we’re in the right place. The smell is unmistakable: the only other places that smell like this are the local ma-and-pa diners in small Japanese towns. It’s the smell of good, simple, homely food prepared from fine, fresh, local ingredients.
We each take one smorrebrod with the “usual” toppings – shrimps, and pickled herring – and one with Bornholm’s specialty, Sol over Gudhjem. Like all the best food in the world, the recipe is deceptively simple and relies on the ingredients: one raw yolk, some sea salt flakes, and one perfectly smoked local herring. It tastes divine.
Bornholm is the capital of Baltic smoked herring, and there are not only large smokeries in each town, but many private homes have smaller ones in their back gardens. The triangular smokery towers rise over Bornholm like pagodas of whiskey distilleries over Islay. As a result, the art of smoking has reached perfection. The Bornholm herring has little in common with the humble kipper, despite similar origins. It is the colour of red gold, the crispiness of hot ember, and the smell of freshly doused campfire. They call Bornholm “the pearl of the Baltic”, but it’s its fish that are the real jewels.
The largest smokery on the island – full five chimneys – (other smokeries make do with three or two) – is in Svaneke, on the north-east corner, and it’s from here that the villages start to look really Danish. The cobbled streets and timbered cottages, painted in the same calm ochres and cinnabars as in Skagen, are tooth-achingly sweet and nauseatingly charming; it’s difficult to find enough superlatives to describe the scenery through which the bus takes us. To bite through all that sweetness, the northern coast of Bornholm is much more rugged than in the mainland, all shattered rocks, reefs, and seaweed-covered boulders, with an occasional formation of standing stones left over from the ancient times.
The last corner of the island, north-west, has the most spectacular nature, rising in a tall, rocky, and densely wooded promontory over the sea. On this high tip rises the grand Hammershus Castle, the largest ruin in all of Scandinavia; the ruined towers and walls strike awe even today – it is comparable with some of the largest castles we’ve seen in Britain, which is highly unusual for a region where most fortresses and castles are, let’s be honest, pocket sized – and must have been even more imposing back in the day, when it was witness to long wars between kings of Denmark and archbishops of Scania over the supremacy of this small, but strategically-located island.
The last bus goes through a dark beech and birch forest, then passes some more charming villages before ending the circle back at the Ronne harbour, just in time for the ferry back to Ystad. While we were gone, the haze had risen from the town, a few more ships arrived at the harbour, and Ystad no longer looks as much like the crime scene as yesterday.