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Baltic Pearl

When God created the world, he saved the best till last—according to Scandinavian myth. And the last to appear was Bornholm—at least if you ask the people of this Baltic island off the Southern tip of Sweden.

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The Danish island Bornholm has many things in common with the southeastern part of Skåne, the so-called Österlen region. Skåne, Sweden’s southernmost province, together with Bornholm were for 700 years part of Denmark. In 1658, under the treaty of Roskilde, both were ceded to Sweden, but two years later the 225-square-mile-island was given back to Denmark and has been Danish ever since. Ironically though, Bornholm lies only 25 miles from Sweden but 85 miles from Denmark.
Bornholm, like Österlen, offers long, sandy beaches, interspersed with jagged coastal areas where rock formations drop steeply down to sea level, and quaint little fishing ports are in abundance. The fertile countryside is dotted with manor houses, the round whitewashed churches and small villages. Painters and artists discovered the beauty of Bornholm in the early 20th century. The special light reflected off the surrounding sea, the clean architectural lines of manmade and natural structures and the long hours of sunshine on the island make it a perfect setting for gifted artists and crafts people. Nature lovers will marvel. Bicycle routes and footpaths abound.
Photo journalist Bo Zaunders recently traveled the island. This is Bornholm through his Nikon lens.

FACTS: Rønne, on Bornholm, is 35 minutes by air from Copenhagen or two and a half hours by ship from Ystad in Sweden. Ferries also leave from Sassnitz in Germany or Køge in Denmark but the trip will take you from four hours and up.
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1. Round Churches
Unique to Bornholm are its round, whitewashed churches. Topped by black-shingled conical roofs, and constructed with two-meter thick walls and gun sights, they’re a form of fortified religious architecture, dating from the early Middle Ages, when pirates from eastern Germany often raided the island.
Pictured is Olsker, the highest and, perhaps, most elegant. There are three others: Østerlars (the largest), Nyker (the smallest), and Nylars (the best preserved, with the most interesting murals).

2. Bornholm Pastoral
According to an old custom, a farmer in Bornholm must paint his house once every year - by June 1st, or 50 days after Easter. Seeing this farmhouse, dazzling white against the gold of the wheat field and deep blue of the Baltic, confirmed the notion that the custom is upheld.

3. A passion for bicycles.
In a country so flat that a hill less than 500 feet high is called Heaven Mountain, bicycling is a much-loved mode of transportation. Even in this far-flung outpost of the Kingdom, biking often is the preferred way of going places. Pausing in front of one of Svaneke’s top-rated hotels, two Danish girls are about to take off on their tandem.

4. Fredriksø
East of Bornholm, an hour across the water from Svaneke, lies Christiansø, a tiny island, famous for its bird sanctuary and spiced herring. Connected to it by a footbridge rises Lilliputian Fredriksø, complete with a granite tower and two fish factories. According to one food critic, this is where “Herring is an Art,” and where “the fish reaches its apogee.”

5. Svaneke
A Danish journalist called Svaneke Danmarks måske smukkeste købstad, Denmark’s perhaps prettiest merchant town. Located on the northeastern coast of Bornholm, it is characterized by crooked little half-timbered houses and a snug harbor. Other pretty settlements nearby are Sandvig, Allinge, and Gudhjem (God’s Home).

6. Classic Smokehouse
As you travel through the island, you see a lot of them, usually by the sea: four-sided pyramids topped by long rectangular smokestacks. These are the famous Bornholm smokehouses, where herring is transformed into Golden Bornholmers, the island’s highly acclaimed smoked herring. Once there were 135 smokeries on the island; now only about a dozen are still in use.

7. Smoking
Outside are racks of silvery herring impaled on long sticks in neat rows, waiting to be placed over the alderwood fire and turned into Golden Bornholmers. Inside sits a man who knows exactly how to do it. He dips a long-handled stick with a rag into his pail of water and runs the wet rag over the embers to create the required smoke.

8. A Bornholm Special
Like having lobster in Maine or stopping by a roadside oyster kiosk in Marenne, France, in Bornholm, for a unique culinary experience, you eat smoked herring. The act is fraught with protocol.
The herring comes whole, still in its shining golden skin; it sits on a newspaper and next to it, within easy reach, stands a chilled Tuborg.

Text and photography: Bo Zaunders

Bornholm trivia:

1. "In the old days on sailing ships, it was said, you must have no more Bornholmers than masts. So you can always tie each Bornholmer to a mast, to keep them from fighting."

2. Bornholm's greatest literary figure was Martin Andersen Nexo, famous for being a communist and having written Pelle the Conqueror. The book made it to the big screen in 1987. It tells the story of Swedish immigrants to Denmark who try to build a new life for themselves. The movie, directed by Bille August, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark) and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Max von Sydow); it also won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was listed in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1000 Movies Ever Made.

3. There are three meanings for the word "Bornholmer": a person from the island, a grandfather clock, and a smoked herring.
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