Island life

If Bornholm was in the Mediterranean or Caribbean it would probably be described as a pearl, in the manner that quaint and verdant holiday islands are. You’ve read it in travel brochures and possibly the less than objective but ‘Bornholm – pearl of the Baltic’ doesn’t really work and I’m struggling to find the appropriate cognomen for a place that’s unique, green and very attractive in parts, hosts nearly three-quarters of a million holidaymakers each year during its short summer season but which still seems, despite initiatives and huge effort to bring more tourists aboard, to fall short of appearing at the top of bucket lists.

Bornholm has a lot of history and works hard at attracting tourists since fishing all but collapsed in the 1990s – less than 300 work in fishing now out of an island population of 42000 – but it has few claims to fame; breeding Tengmalm’s owls, round churches, a small ceramics industry, some attractive countryside and an increasingly important food sector are about it. The owls are very difficult to see at this time of year (being nocturnal in most things they do), we didn’t have time to visit any of the churches and pottery sucks so that left the culinary angle. After all, the principal reason for being on the island was to enjoy Sol Over Gudhjem, a competition for international chefs that takes its name from a local dish (smoked herring, raw onion and egg yolk) and which aims to promote Bornholm’s local produce and ‘gourmet tourism’.

We’d decided – not without some trepidation on my part – to forego the car and arrive, in what I like to think of as the true spirit of this picturesque corner of Denmark, with only our bikes. So, attired in tee-shirts and sneakers with newly-purchased saddle-bags strapped on, we boarded the ferry in Ystad – just down the road – for the crossing to Rønne, the main town on the island. Actually, I thought we looked fetching and rather sporty. We know a little about the Danes so the ungainly scramble for coffee and elbowing for seats was less of a shock than the sight of hoards of Danish cyclists kitted out to survive a combination of Arctic storm and tropical deluge. I hadn’t seen so much professional weather-protection before and, as the front gate on the catamaran was lowered ahead of docking, Mission Control was nervously tugging at the hem of her shorts as all around us zips were pulled, Velcro straps tightened and the general rustle of breathable, waterproof shell jackets reached a crescendo.

As we swept onto the dockside we felt very under-dressed but the weather forecast had been mixed and light rain was only a possibility late in the afternoon. It was bright as we turned north and we’d easily cover the 25km to Allinge, where we were booked into the charming but snug Byskrivergaarden Hotel Garni, before then. And we almost made it. The cycle track, a stunningly-pretty route through forests and along shoreline cliff tops well away from main roads, was a joy. At every turn there was wildlife, the perfume of woodland in summer and all around us the song of Wood warblers, Thrush nightingales and Redstarts. By the half-way point the sun was shining and we sat at the Café Emajoka in Hasle harbour with coffee and very passable apple cake discussing plans for future – and more adventurous – cycle expeditions. Cycling was to be our desideratum; we had conjoined with nature and life was wonderful.

By the time the weather closed in and the rain started we were at the point aircraft reach when in mid-Atlantic; too far to turn back and still a long way to go. With water running down my back and dripping off my nose I suddenly understood all those microfibre-lined jackets and tight-fitting cuffs. Visibility was down to about 50m in Allinge and we probably looked a sad sight as we made our solitary and sodden way to the waterfront and the hotel. But by evening the sky was clearing and the rain stopped. Stepping over puddles we made our way to meet friends at Det Gamle Posthus in Allinge. This was recommended as the best restaurant in town and it was pretty good; well-served tapas, fresh local plaice and Svaneke ‘Gold’ beer contributed to a great evening and the forecast for next day was optimistic – sunshine and temperatures above twenty degrees.

We woke to bright sunshine and the island looked different under a cloudless sky. Gudhjem, a picturesque hamlet below wooded hills with two small harbours and a profusion of smokery chimneys, was warm and thronged with visitors. A food market displaying that local produce surrounded the competition arena and TV crews jostled with visiting cruise ship passengers for the best vantage points. As the chefs conjured up dishes that artfully arranged tiny morsels of pork neck with cornflowers and radish (it’s a small island, OK?) we toured the market stalls, sampling smoked herring, sausage and chocolate; wine and oil, honey, soft ice cream (the residents’ favourite treat) and ice cold ‘Sol over Gudhjem’ beer from Svaneke, brewed especially for the occasion. We sampled quite a lot of the beer during the afternoon, to be honest. The standard of the produce on offer was high; this was clearly Bornholm at its best and it was thoroughly enjoyable. I wondered, though, how many of the people complimenting the gourmet delights surrounding us would be scuttling back to their campsites for kebab and chilli sauce, which is a Danish staple.

At the after-party we sipped chilled champagne on the quayside as Bornholm’s clear blue sky turned midsummer white. Dinner later was over on the west coast at Le Port in Vang, which is located high on cliffs and has stunning views to Sweden. A superb meal of smoked cod and veal, a near-perfect Sancerre and excellent service made nonsense of the increasingly tangential Tripadvisor. This place really is very good and the only cloud on the horizon, so to speak, was the cloud gathering over Sweden and drifting in our direction.

By morning the sky was overcast, a sea mist surrounded us and rain was imminent. Nevertheless, we were on our bikes and heading south along cycle route 10 again in an effort to get to Rønne before the downpour. We weren’t even close and being made to wait in torrential rain while cars boarded the ferry ahead of us turned ‘being wet’ into ‘thoroughly soaked’. When we eventually boarded the ferry appeared full – all the seats were taken – as campers and desolate Danish tourists tried to keep children amused and dogs quiet while fending off boredom with family-sized white Toblerone.

We liked Bornholm and have talked about visiting again, perhaps after the summer season, but we’ve been warned by those who say they know that the island closes when the campers, cyclists and gourmet tourists stop coming. I suspect the gourmet food producers take a holiday themselves then but I’m certain we’ll be able to get a kebab. Meanwhile, I’ll have a look at waterproof coats, just in case.