Portrait of a Danish Island: Ærø
There are a dozen good reasons for visiting the Danish island of Ærø—not least because it is a perfect place to get married. More on that in a future article here on Eurocheapo.
Getting to Ærø by ferry
Every island has its own special appeal, and for us Ærø ticks all the right boxes. It is sufficiently far from the mainland and other islands to have a genuine sense of isolation. Yet with three year-round ferry routes connecting Ærø to the rest of Denmark, the island is easy to reach. The journey time on each of those three ferry links is much the same: about 70 to 75 minutes. So long enough to communicate a sense of distance, but no time-consuming voyage.
That’s the thing about islands. It is all a matter of psychology. When God designed Ærø, he clearly had in mind that the islands’ residents should be forever reminded of their offshore status. For the roads twist and turn, run up and down, but it’s never long before you crest another summit to reveal a gorgeous view of the Baltic. The hilly nature of Ærø means that from higher ground you often catch sea views in every direction at once.
But the hills are not so steep as to defy keen cyclists. The island is small enough to cycle from one end to the other (and back) in a single day. The dense network of minor lanes is tailor-made for walkers. And visitors can hike from one village to another and then ride back in the comfort of the local bus. Bus services on Ærø are all completely free (yes, where did you last see that?).
An island with ideas
Small island communities around Europe’s coast have often been wonderful incubators of innovation. And Ærø even more than most. This is an island with a buzz—a very good buzz. A keen maritime history has ensured that Ærø is outward-looking. It keeps in touch with wider trends. The island has been a leader in alternative energy and is now set to cut a dash in the slow food movement.
For after island adventures and recreation, visitors demand Ærø on a plate. A local champion for real local food on Ærø is Louise Badino (who has far more Ærø blood in her than the Italianate surname might imply). Louise describes herself as a “learning-by-doing” entrepreneur. She already has a niche in the Ærø marriage market but has latterly created the island’s first serious store for local produce. With a plum spot on the main square in the island’s ‘capital’ of Ærøskøbing, Louise’s shop is the obvious first stop for visitors wanting a bite of Ærø. “Buy local,” is Louise’s clarion call as she leads visitors to shelves laden with locally-brewed beer (made at Rise brewery on the island), tempting displays of Ærø mustard and honey, organic herbs and local lamb.
“Can we really say we are a community when most people go shopping at the local supermarket,” Louise asks. It’s a point we might all take on board as we travel. Supermarkets are soulless, impersonal places. If we are to breathe new life into our town squares, we need them to bustle with business, with energy and with enthusiasm.
Making a difference & where to stay
We ran across energy and enthusiasm aplenty in Ærø last week. It was there in the voices and faces of men like Erik Kroman who runs the marvellous maritime museum in Marstal. We saw it in the dedication of Maria and Steen Larsen who in 2006 “came from across the sea” (Maria’s nice way of describing their move from urban Denmark to the island of Ærø) to revive an inn called Vindeballe Kro in a great location in the very middle of the island. While Steen demonstrated the wonderful things that can be done with local Ærø beef, Maria told the tale of how the couple had shaped new lives on the island.
We discovered how Ærø’s own peculiar magic has a way of catching hold of incomers. When Susanna Greve moved to the island in 1974, she could barely have imagined that 40 years later she would still be on Ærø. Susanne now runs an extremely comfortable small hotel (called Pension Vestergade 44) in Ærøskøbing.
It is people like Susanna Greve, Louise Badino and Erik Kromann who are the life and soul of Ærø. And the island relies on dozens more like them. Ærø is exceptional—and very well deserving of a visit. And yet there is a sense in which Ærø is not exceptional. For the story of Ærø is replicated in dozens of island communities around Europe. It is the challenge of having loyalty to community, a sense of being rooted in a particular place and being able thrive locally in a global economy. Ærø just seems to have found particularly good solutions to that trinity of challenges.