Sometimes you just need to escape. And the adorable Danish island of Ærø is the perfect place for just that.
Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the time being. But travel dreams are immune to any virus. And, while many of us are stuck at home, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.
Few visitors to Scandinavia even notice Ærø, a sleepy little island on the southern edge of Denmark. It’s a peaceful and homey isle, where baskets of strawberries sit in front of farmhouses — for sale on the honor system. Its tombstones are carved with such sentiments as: “Here lies Christian Hansen at anchor with his wife. He’ll not weigh until he stands before God.”
The island’s statistics: 22 miles by 6 miles, 7,000 residents, 350 deer, no crosswalks, seven pastors, three police officers, and a pervasive passion for the environment. Along with sleek modern windmills hard at work, Ærø has one of the world’s largest solar power plants.
Ærø’s main town, Ærøskøbing, makes a fine home base for exploring the isle. Many Danes agree, washing up on the cobbled main drag in waves with the landing of each ferry.
With lanes right out of the 1680s, the town was the wealthy home port to more than 100 windjammers. The post office dates to 1749 and cast-iron gaslights still shine each evening. Windjammers gone, the harbor now caters to German and Danish holiday yachts. On midnight low tides, you can almost hear the crabs playing cards.
The town’s sights, while humble, are endearing. The Hammerich House, full of old junk, is a 1920s garage sale of a museum. Around the corner, the Bottle Peter Museum is a fascinating house with a fleet of more than 750 different bottled ships. Old Peter Jacobsen devoted a lifetime to his miniature shipyard before he died in 1960 (probably buried in a glass bottle). Squinting and marveling at his enthralling little creations, it occurs to me that Ærø itself is a ship-in-a-bottle kind of place.
Taking a 15-mile bike ride, I piece together the best of Ærø’s salty charms. Just outside of town, I see the first of many U-shaped farmhouses, so typical of Denmark. The three sides block the wind to create a sheltered little courtyard and house cows, hay, and people. I bike along a dike built in the 1800s to make swampland farmable. While the weak soil is good for hay and little else, they get the most out of it. Each winter farmers flood their land to let the saltwater nourish the soil and grass, in the belief that this causes their cows to produce fattier milk and meat.
Struggling uphill, I reach the island’s 2,700-inch-high summit. It’s a “peak” called Synneshøj, pronounced “Seems High” (and after this pedal, I agree).
Rolling through the town of Bregninge, I notice how it lies in a gully. I imagine pirates, centuries ago, trolling along the coast looking for church spires marking unfortified villages. Ærø’s 16 villages are built low, in gullies like this one, to make them invisible from the sea — their stubby church spires carefully designed not to be viewable from potentially threatening ships.
A lane leads me downhill, dead-ending at a rugged bluff called Vodrup Klint. If I were a pagan, I’d worship here — the sea, the wind, and the chilling view. The land steps in sloppy slabs down to the sea. The giant terraces are a clear reminder that when saturated with water, the massive slabs of clay that make up the land here get slick, and entire chunks can slip and slide.
While the wind at the top seems hell-bent on blowing me off my bike, the beach below is peaceful, ideal for sunbathing. I can’t see Germany, which is just across the water, but I do see a big stone which commemorates the return of the island to Denmark from Germany in 1750.
Back up on the road, I pedal down a tree-lined lane toward a fine 12th-century church. As they often do all over Europe, this church marks a pre-Christian holy site. In a field adjacent to the church stands theLangdyssen Tingstedet — a 6,000-year-old dolmen, an early Neolithic burial place. While Ærø once had more than 200 of these prehistoric tombs, only 13 survive.
The name “Tingstedet” indicates that this was also a Viking assembly spot. This raised mound, roughly the shape and length of a Viking ship, evokes the scene when chiefs gathered here around their ancestors’ tombs a thousand years ago. The stones were considered fertility stones. For centuries, locals in need of a little extra virility chipped off bits and took them home.
I enter the church. Like town churches throughout the island, a centuries-old paint job gives the simple stonework a crude outline of the fine Gothic features this humble community wished it could afford. Little ships hang in the nave, perhaps as memorials to lost sailors. A portrait of Martin Luther hangs in the stern, making sure everything’s theologically shipshape. The long list adjacent allows today’s pastor to trace her pastoral lineage back to Dr. Luther himself. The current pastor, Janet, is the first woman on the five-centuries-long list. A pole with an offering bag comes equipped with a ting-a-ling bell to wake those nodding off.
From the church, it’s all downhill back to Ærøskøbing. The sun is low in the sky, so I coast right on through town to the sunset beach — where a row of tiny huts lines the strand and where so many locals enjoyed a first kiss. The huts are little more than a picnic table with walls and a roof, but each is lovingly painted and carved — stained with generations of family fun, memories of pickled herring on rye bread, and sunsets. It’s a perfectly Danish scene — like Ærø itself — where small is beautiful, sustainability is just common sense, and a favorite local word, hyggelig, takes “cozy” to delightful extremes.
(These daily stories are excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit Rick Steves Classroom Europe and search for Ærø.)