Biking the back lanes of the island of Ærø, I came to a lonely little church. Wandering through its graveyard, I noticed the name on every tombstone ended in "sen." The inscriptions, such as "Here lies Christian Hansen at anchor with his wife. He'll not weigh until he stands before God" seem to fit the salty charm of this tiny island on the south edge of Denmark. Ærø is the kind of island where baskets of strawberries sit in front of farmhouses — for sale on the honor system. And bikes don't come with locks.
Ærø statistics: It's 22 by 6 miles, with 7,000 residents, 350 deer, seven pastors, no crosswalks, three police officers, and a pervasive passion for the environment. Pedaling against a steady breeze, I passed sleek modern windmills hard at work. Along with windmills, Ærø has one of the world's largest solar power plants.
My 18-mile trip laces together the best of Ærø's charms. Leaving my homebase, the ship-in-a-bottle town of Ærøskøbing, I see the first of many U-shaped farmhouses, so typical of Denmark. The three sides block the wind and store cows, hay, and people. I bike along a dike built in the 19th century to make swampland farmable. While the weak soil is good for hay and little else, they get the most out of it. Each winter locals flood their land to let the saltwater nourish the soil and grass, in the belief that this causes their cows to produce fatter milk and meat. Struggling uphill I reach the island's 2,700-inch-high summit — a "peak" called called Synneshøj (sounds like "Seems High," and after this pedal, it does).
Each town has a fine 12th-century church. The interiors are still painted as a Gothic church would have been. A long stick with an offering bag comes equipped with a ting-a-ling bell to wake those nodding off. Little ships hanging in the nave are perhaps memorials to lost sailors. The Danish word for nave is the same as its word for ship. A portrait of Martin Luther hangs in the stern, keeping his Protestant hand on the rudder. The long list adjacent allows today's pastor to trace her pastoral lineage back to Doctor Luther himself. The current pastor, a Janet, is the first woman on the list.
Rolling away, I notice how the town is in a gully. Imagine pirates, centuries ago, trolling along the coast looking for church spires marking unfortified villages. Ærø's 16 villages are all invisible from the sea — church spires carefully designed not to be viewable from sea level.
A lane leads 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 slabs of clay that make up the land here get slick, and entire chunks can slip and slide.
While the wind at the top could drag a kite-flier, the beach below is 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.
As they do all over Europe, churches mark pre-Christian holy sites. In a field adjacent to the next church, stands the Langdyssen Tingstedet — a 6,000-year-old dolmen. This was 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 a Viking assembly spot. The site evokes the scene a thousand years ago of Viking chiefs representing the island's various communities gathering here around their ancestors' tombs. The site is a raised mound the shape and length (30 yards) of a Viking ship.
I roll back into my home town of Ærøskøbing. The sun is setting, so I roll right on through to the sunset beach — where a row of tiny huts line the strand and where each local enjoyed a first kiss. The huts are little more than a picnic table with walls and a roof — each lovingly painted and carved — stained with generations of family fun, sunsets, and memories of pickled herring on rye bread. It's a perfect Danish scene where small is beautiful, sustainability is just common sense, and a favorite word, hyggelig, takes cozy to unknown extremes.