This 18-mile trip shows you the best of this windmill-covered island’s charms. The highest point on the island is only 180 feet above sea level, but the wind can be strong and the hills seem long. This ride is good exercise. Rent a bike in town. While my map and instructions work, a local cycle map is helpful (free loaner maps if you rent from Pilebaekkens Cykler or buy one at the TI). Or it could be fun and easy--though pricier--to rent an electric car from the tourist information office.
• Leave Aeroskobing to the west on the road to Vra (Vravejen, signed Bike Route #90).
Leaving Aeroskobing: You’ll see the first of many U-shaped farms, typical of Denmark. The three sides block the wind and store cows, hay, and people. Gaard (farm) shows up on many local surnames.
At Osemarksvej, bike along the coast in the protection of the dike built in 1856 to make the once-salty swampland to your left farmable. While the weak soil is good for hay and little else, they get the most out of it. Each winter, certain grazing areas flood with seawater. (Some locals claim this makes their cows produce fatter milk and meat.) As you roll along the dike, the land on your left is about eight feet below sea level. The little white pump house--alone in the field--is busy each spring and summer.
• At the T-junction, go right (over the dike) toward Borgnaes.
Borgnaes: The traditional old “straw house” (50 yards down, on left) is a café and shop selling fresh farm products. Just past that, a few roadside tables sell farm goodies on the honor system. Borgnaes is a cluster of modern summer houses. In spite of huge demand, a weak economy, and an aging population, development like this is no longer allowed.
• Keep to the right (passing lots of wheat fields and two Vindeballe turnoffs), following signs to Bregninge. After a secluded beach, head inland (direction: O. Bregninge). Pass the island’s only water mill, and climb uphill over the island’s 2,700-inch-high summit toward Bregninge. The tallest point on Aero is called Syneshoj (“Seems high”).
Gammelgaard: Take a right turn marked only by a Bike Route #90 sign. The road deteriorates as you wind scenically through “Aero’s Alps,” past classic “old farms” (hence the name of the lane--Gammelgaard).
• At the modern road, turn left (leaving Bike Route #90) and bike to the big village church. Before turning right to roll through Denmark’s “¬second-longest village,” visit the church.
Bregninge Church: The interior of the 12th-century Bregninge church is still painted as a Gothic church would have been. Find the painter’s self-¬portrait (behind the pulpit, right of front pew). Tradition says that if the painter wasn’t happy with his pay, he’d paint a fool’s head in the church (above third pew on left). Note how the fool’s mouth--the hole for a rope tied to the bell--has been worn wider and wider by centuries of ringing. (During services, the ringing bell would call those who were ill and too contagious to be allowed into the church to come for communion--distributed through the square hatches flanking the altar.)
The altarpiece--gold leaf on carved oak--is from 1528, six years before the Reformation came to Denmark. The cranium carved into the bottom indicates it’s a genuine masterpiece by Claus Berg (from Lübeck, Germany). This Crucifixion scene is such a commotion, it seems to cause Christ’s robe to billow up. The soldiers who traditionally gambled for Christ’s robe have traded their dice for knives. Even the three wise men (each perhaps a Danish king) made it to this Crucifixion. Notice the escaping souls of the two thieves--the one who converted on the cross being carried happily to heaven, and the other, with its grim-winged escort, heading straight to hell. The scene at lower left--a bare-breasted, dark-skinned woman with a disciple feeding her child--symbolizes the Great Commission: “Go ye to all the world.” Since this is a Catholic altarpiece, a roll call of saints lines the wings. During the restoration, the identity of the two women on the lower right was unknown, so the lettering--even in Latin--is clearly gibberish. Take a moment to study the 16th-century art on the ceiling (for example, the crucified feet ascending, leaving only footprints on earth). In the narthex, a list of pastors goes back to 1505. The current pastor (Agnes) is the first woman on the list.
• Now’s the time for a bathroom break (public WC in the churchyard). Then roll downhill through Bregninge past many more U-shaped gaards. Notice how the town is in a gully. Imagine pirates trolling along the coast, looking for church spires marking unfortified villages. Aero’s 16 villages are all invisible from the sea-- their church spires carefully designed not to be viewable from sea level.
About a mile down the main road is Vindeballe, which has a traditional kro (inn) if you’re hungry or thirsty. Just before the village (past the din fart sign--which tells you “your speed”), take the Vodrup Klint turnoff to the right.
Vodrup Klint: A road leads downhill (with a well-signed jog to the right) to dead-end at a rugged bluff called Vodrup Klint (WC, picnic benches). If I were a pagan, I’d worship here--the sea, the wind, and the chilling view. Notice how the land steps in sloppy slabs down to the sea. When saturated with water, the slabs of clay that make up the land here get slick, and entire chunks can slide.
Hike down to the foamy beach (where you can pick up some flint, chalk, and wild thyme). While the wind at the top could drag a kite-flier, the beach below can be ideal for sunbathing. Because Aero is warmer and drier than the rest of Denmark, this island is home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the ¬country. This southern exposure is the warmest area. Germany is dead ahead.
• Backtrack 200 yards and follow the signs to Tranderup.
Tranderup: On the way, you’ll pass a lovely pond famous for its bell frogs and happy little duck houses. Still following signs for Tranderup, stay parallel to the big road through town. You’ll pass a lovely farm and a potato stand. At the main road, turn right. At the Aeroskobing turnoff, side-trip 100 yards left to the big stone (commemorating the return of the island to Denmark from Germany in 1750) and a grand island panorama. Seattleites might find Claus Clausen’s rock interesting (in the picnic area, next to WC). It’s a memorial to an extremely obscure pioneer from the state of Washington.
• Return to the big road (continuing in direction: Marstal), pass through Olde, pedal past FAF (the local wheat farmers’ co-op facility), and head toward Store Rise (STOH-reh REE-zuh), the next church spire in the distance. Think of medieval travelers using spires as navigational aids.
Store Rise Prehistoric Tomb, Church, and Brewery: Thirty yards after the Stokkeby turnoff, follow the rough, tree-lined path on the right to the Langdysse (Long Dolmen) Tingstedet, just behind the church spire. This is a 6,000-year-old dolmen, an early Neolithic burial place. Though Aero once had more than 200 of these prehistoric tombs, only 13 survive. The site is a raised mound the shape and length (about 100 feet) of a Viking ship, and archeologists have found evidence that indicates a Viking ship may indeed have been burned and buried here.
Ting means assembly spot. Imagine a thousand years ago: Viking chiefs representing the island’s various communities gathering here around their ancestors’ tombs. For 6,000 years, this has been a holy spot. The stones were considered fertility stones. For centuries, locals in need of virility chipped off bits and took them home (the nicks in the rock nearest the information post are mine).
Tuck away your chip and carry on down the lane to the Store Rise church. Inside you’ll find little ships hanging in the nave, a fine 12th-century altarpiece, a stick with offering bag and a ting-a-ling bell to wake those nodding off (right of altar), double seats (so worshippers can flip to face the pulpit during sermons), and Martin Luther in the stern keeping his Protestant hand on the rudder. The list in the church allows today’s pastors to trace their pastoral lineage back to Doctor Luther himself. (The current pastor, Janet, is the first woman on the list.) The churchyard is circular--a reminder of how churchyards provided a last refuge for humble communities under attack. Can you find anyone buried in the graveyard whose name doesn’t end in “-sen”?
The buzz lately in Aero is its brewery, located in a historic brewery 400 yards beyond the Store Rise church. Follow the smell of the hops (or the Rise Bryggeri signs). It welcomes visitors with free samples of its various beers. The Aero traditional brews are available in pilsner (including the popular walnut pilsner), light ale, dark ale, and a typical dark English-like stout. The Rise organic brews come in light ale, dark ale, and walnut (mid-June-Aug daily 10:00–14:00, Sept-mid-June open Thu only 10:00-14:00, tel. 62 52 11 32, www.risebryggeri.dk).
• From here, climb back to the main road and continue (direction: Marstal) on your way back home to Aeroskobing. The three 330-foot-high modern windmills on your right are communally owned and, as they are a non¬polluting source of energy, state-subsidized. At Dunkaer (3 miles from Aeroskobing), take the small road, signed Lille Rise, past the topless windmill. Except for the Lille Rise, it’s all downhill from here, as you coast past great sea back home to Aeroskobing.
Huts at the Sunset Beach: Still rolling? Bike past the campground along the Urehoved beach (strand in Danish) for a look at the coziest little beach houses you’ll never see back in the “big is beautiful” US. This is Europe, where small is beautiful and the concept of sustainability is neither new nor subversive.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2010 Rick Steves