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Christiansø (Ertholmene)

It's weird that the best source of information about Christiansø are the napkins at the local restaurant on which a short explanation about the local way of life is printed. My guess is, the waiters have gotten tired of answering the same questions about 70,000 times a year - because about 70,000 is the number of tourists tiny Christiansø gets every year. Now compare this to the number of its residents - about 100, and you get a local to tourist ratio of 1 to 700.

To me at least, the visit to Christiansø is the highlight of the trip - I have never been to a place with a three-digit number of residents and a double-digit area that is about an hour away from the next inhabited area. In winter, the only regular transport to and from the island is the mailman's ferry which brings the mail every day, along with extra food in case someone needs it. Between April and October, ferries from Allinge and Gudhjem make the round trip once a day (and three times a day during the busiest period of mid-July to mid-August), bringing about 200 tourists each who spend about three hours exploring the island before they head back - the locals call them "the three-hour tourists". It is during those months that many locals are hard at work, making enough money to last them through winter, when they can finally have their island to themselves. In the past, most of the islanders were fishermen, but there are very few left today - most of the residents are either employed in the island's administration, or by one of the island's two businesses - the hotel and the restaurant. The hotel has 6 rooms and a small camping site- and if those get full and guests absolutely have to stay overnight, they can be housed in one of the cells of the former jail, the first one in Denmark for political prisoners.

There are in fact three islands that form the archipelago called Ertholmene.  Christiansø (Christian's island), named after King Christian V, is the biggest, with its 22.3 hectares, followed by Græsholmen, and the tiny 4-hectare Frederiksø, named after King Frederik III. Græsholmen is a bird sanctuary where people are not allowed, and the other two are connected by a bridge that can be opened if a bigger vessel needs to pass through the inner harbor. The islands constitute a protected area where nothing, not even the flowers, can be changed without special permission from the Danish Ministry of Defense which owns the archipelago and strives to preserve its original appearance. This is why the houses down Gaden (The Street) on Christiansø still look like they did when soldiers with their families lived there and eight apartments shared one kitchen. On the inside, however, the houses have a second set of walls for insulation, have a modern kitchen and a bathroom each and, as the napkin in the restaurant explains, are equipped washing machines, dishwashers, TVs, Internet, etc. Interestingly enough, my Danish cell phone operator has no coverage on the island, but my Bulgarian one does.

Ertholmene first attracted attention in 1684, when king Christian V decided to establish a naval base in the Baltic Sea to be able to observe the movements of the Swedish fleet. However, the base was used in battle only once, against the British in the war of 1807 - 1814 - a battle which the Danes won. The island's population reached its peak of about 800 people in 1810, but by 1855 the base had become obsolete and was abandoned with only 20 people left to look after the buildings. When the military left for good in 1863, a handful of former soldiers were allowed to settle there as fishermen - and between then and now, not much has changed in the appearance of the island.

Our walk starts on the main street of Frederiksø, goes by the local community hall (Månen, or The Moon), and ends at Lille Tårn (Small tower) which now houses the local museum after having served as quarters for soldiers, fencing hall, theater, and hospital (not all at the same time, of course). In the tiny pond in front of the tower, a mama duck is taking her fluffy offspring on a tour of the pond while across the water, the innumerable birds of Græsholmen fill the air with their calls. Across Lille Tårn is the building of the former prison, where Dr. Jacob Jacobsen Dampe, one of Denmark's most famous political prisoners, was held. Next to the building, a dozen wooden fishing boats shine with their bright colors in the summer sun. We cross the bridge to Christiansø to head to the inn which was once the commandant's residence. This seems to be the most lively spot on the island - small as it is, it somehow doesn't seem overcrowded despite the 400+ tourists walking around. The inn offers a simple fish-only menu, the friendly waiter speaks fluent English, and numerous seagulls fly above waiting for an opportune moment to steal some food. Going uphill from the inn, we pass by Christiansø Kirke (Christiansø church) and Store Tårn (Big Tower) with its very unusual construction of tower within a tower, with the outside tower built first. It was Denmark's first lighthouse, and has served as one for over 200 years. A grassy path leads from Big Tower around the island, through the remains of old fortification walls built by hand and named with big names such as King's Bastion and Queen's Bastion. We pass by the school, the sports field, the dump with the poetic name "World's End", to reach the south end of the island where numerous small houses are snuggled in the tall grass - these are former workshops which are now converted to summer houses. We have to hurry back up the 101 stairs at the end of Gaden (The Street) which lead us past the house of the island's administrator and back to the inn- somehow, three hours have passed without us noticing.

I wonder what life is like in a place that is so small that its main street is simply called "The Street" and its hotel - "The Hotel". No paved roads, no cars, not even bikes, and toilets that are flushed with sea water because fresh water is limited. People know the name of the person who cooks their food in the restaurant , the names of all civil servants, and the name of the mailman. Neighbors have grown up together, and parents' greatest worry when their children play outside is that they may come too close to the water. The island has a library, a sawing club, a Christmas Ball, a carnival - and, as the napkin puts it, the islanders have about 100 friends to visit every day. There is a doctor and a landing space for helicopters in case of emergencies; there are two teachers and a priest. One of the saddest moments in many islanders' lives is when they have to send their children to boarding schools somewhere else in Denmark, because the island's school only goes to 7th grade.  Parents can't even have a pet to keep them company when the children are gone - dogs and cats are not allowed on the island because of the limited drinking water and the bird sanctuary. Despite its remote location, the island enjoys the same standard of living as the rest of Denmark, but at the same time has preserved the sense of a small, tight-knit community that tends to be negatively correlated with modern living. The napkin, perhaps in response to the perception of backwardness many people hold about remote places, defensively states, "People here have many things for which you can envy them". And in a way, I do.

June 4, 2011      
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