A fairy-tale town, a 12th century fortress, and ships galore

The forecast is for heavy showers, but we decide to take a chance and head in a south-easterly direction from Lyø towards Ærøskøbing on the island of Ærø. Once we are out of the shelter of Lyø, the wind picks up to 13 knots from the south-west and gives us a comfortable beam reach all the way. The islands of Avernakø, and then Drejø, pass by to our port side. In the distance, we can see squalls, and we keep our fingers crossed that we are to be spared. It is pleasant sailing, but we feel that it is only a matter of time before the rain comes our way.

And so it does. Just as we pass Drejø, down it comes by the bucket load. We drop the sides of the cockpit canopy and huddle inside, eyeing the AIS and trying to peer through the sprayhood window to make sure nothing is coming. Out of the gloom a tall ship appears, but it is travelling parallel to us in the opposite direction, so it is not a danger. A few minutes later, it disappears back into the murk again.

A tall ship looms out of the mist and rain.

As we approach Ærøskøbing, the rain eases. We follow the marker buoys into the marina on the right. The wind is still strong, so we opt to tie up alongside the outer pontoon rather than a box berth, and let the wind blow us onto it.

“Perfect”, says the First Mate. “I must say, I like alongside berthing better than the box berths. And I don’t have to clamber over the anchor all the time. But have you noticed the marina is only about half-full?”

Tied up in Ærøskøbing marina.

“Yes, it has quite an ‘end-of-season’ feel now”, I say. “It’s nice that it isn’t so busy, but sad to think that that’s almost it for another year. But at least we have a bit of time left. Let’s go and explore Ærøskøbing in the meantime.”

We wander through the quaint little former market town with its colourful houses and cobbled streets lined with hollyhocks.

Street in Ærøskøbing.
House in Ærøskøbing.

“I read that it is Denmark’s best-preserved settlement from medieval times”, says the First Mate. “It certainly is very picturesque. It reminds me of something out of a fairy-tale.”

Fairy-tale town?

In the morning the winds are still strong, but have moved around to the north.

“I think I’ll go and get some photos of those doors today”, says the First Mate. “They’re just so beautiful.”

“Fine”, I respond. “I was thinking of seeing the museum. We can meet afterwards and compare notes.”

I climb the steps of what was a former bailiff’s house, now the recently refurbished Ærø Museum, and am immediately immersed into a world of the island’s history and culture, replete with creaking floors.

Like many of the coastal towns in Denmark we had visited, Ærøskøbing was founded in the 1200s. The ‘-købing’ suffix means that it was given the status of a commercial and maritime trading town in the Middle Ages. The town was destroyed by fire in the 1600s, but was rebuilt – it has been from those times that the character of the town today derives. To maintain this character, master craftsmen have been encouraged to settle there, particularly bricklayers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. One display celebrates the role that these craftsmen have played in the development of the town, some of which, such as wheelwrights, coopers, and millwrights, have long gone.

Carpenters’ planes in Ærø Museum.

A poignant little tale is that of Bende Bendsen, a poet, teacher, linguist, and, yes, a hypnotist. Although born a West Frisian, he settled and lived most of his life in Ærøskøbing. Despite his several talents and obvious intellect, including writing a grammar of the West Frisian language, he struggled most of his life near the poverty line, and when he couldn’t work any more due to old age, he died in the poorhouse. After his death it was found that he had written several scientific articles and had communicated with numerous academics throughout the world.

With no bridge to the mainland like most of the other Danish major islands, much of the focus in the museum is on the modern challenges of maintaining a viable island population on Ærø. Many of the younger people are leaving the island to be educated and to find jobs elsewhere, so that the population is both declining and aging. Nevertheless, the people are fighting back, and when the Maritime School in Marstal was threatened with closure in 2000, a third of the population travelled to Copenhagen to protest. The government backed down.

With its picturesque building and streets, the town is a popular tourist destination, and has also promoted itself as a wedding venue, simplifying many of the complex rules surrounding international marriages.

Ærøskøbing – a popular tourist destination.

I eventually find myself in a small enclosed garden at the back of the museum, which is supposed to be a reconstruction of an 18th century urban garden. It s quiet and peaceful, and I sit down on one of the seats for a few minutes.

I think of the challenges of trying to maintain a viable island community in today’s world. We had encountered similar issues on some of the islands on the west coast of Scotland we had visited – Canna had only a tiny population of 19 permanent residents, Gometra only three. Attracting people with the right skills who want to live on such small island communities is difficult. At least Ærø has 6000 people; and they seem to be quite dynamic – one aspiration is to be self-sufficient in renewable energy – already solar, wind and biomass power are providing 55% of the island’s needs, and a fully-electric ferry was commissioned in 2019. The island of Eigg, in the Inner Hebrides, had similar aspirations.

Urban garden at the rear of the museum.

A group of people enter the garden, talking noisily. I decide it’s time to leave and have a coffee with the First Mate. As I walk back, I see a wedding taking place. Just as it said in the museum.

Wedding in Ærøskøbing.

“How did you get on?”, I ask the First Mate, over our cappuccinos.

“Great”, she says. “I took more photos of doors than I know what to do with. Each one is different, and I can’t chose which one I like best.”

Colourful door in Ærøskøbing.
And another one …

“They certainly seem to like their doors”, I say. “But what’s this one? The prison?”

And a third …

The next day, the wind is still blowing hard, so we take the bus up to Søby in the north of the island.

“I read the guide book”, says the First Mate. “There seems to be a bit going on there.”

When we get there, there isn’t. It is a Sunday, and everything is closed except for Finn’s Bakery. We do the harbour and the surrounding area in ten minutes. It’s two hours until the next bus back to Ærøskøbing, so we decide to have a coffee and some cake at the café. I pick up a brochure at the table.

The only place open in Søby on a Sunday.

“Søby translates as lake-village, and dates back to the 1100s”, I read. “The area surrounding it is mostly farming, but there are fortifications north of it that were used in the Gunboat War between Denmark and Britain in the early 19th century. Nowadays it is a fishing and industrial port. There is also a shipyard and a marina with 200 spaces. The stone pier was built in 1865, and eventually regular ferry services were established with Faaborg.”

“All very interesting”, the First Mate says. “I didn’t realise that Britain and Denmark had been at war with each other.”

“Neither did I”, I say. “Remind me to look it up when we get back to the boat.”

“Anyway, what about walking back to that stately home place that we passed on the way up?”, she says. “I think it was a couple of kilometres, so it shouldn’t take long. Then we can catch the bus back from there.”

“Sounds like a good idea”, I say. “The brochure says that it is called Søbygaard. There are also the ruins of a fortification there we could have a look at. Let’s go.”

It’s a sunny day, and we arrive at our destination hot and sweaty. They are some quite impressive ramparts called Søby Volde built by a King Niels in the early 12th century as fortification against foreign incursions, mainly from the Germans and people called the Wends, a confederation of different Slavic tribes living along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.

Søby Volde, fortification from the 12th century.

“It says on this panel here that the ramparts were only used for about 150 years, then it fell into disrepair”, says the First Mate. “Apparently the sea used to come almost up to here also before it was drained. They’ve found the remains of buildings, which was likely to have been a trading port.”

“You can just see where it would have come”, I say, once we get to the top of the ramparts. “There’s a marshy piece of ground called Vitsø Nor over there. Amazing to think that ships used to dock here.”

I try and imagine the castle as it once was – apparently wooden palisades were embedded on the ramparts, so it would have been much higher. Traces of fire and crossbow bolts have been found, suggesting it might have been attacked at some stage.

On top of the ramparts trying to work out what’s what.

We walk down again and up the small road opposite the ramparts to Søbygaard, a medieval manor house and farm buildings. There is a moat around the house.

Søbygaard manor house.

“It was built by Hans the Younger around 1580”, the woman in the ticket office tells us. “He quite liked building manor houses on Ærø – he already had one at Gråsten, this one was the second, and later he built another one at Gudsgave in the south of the island.”

“I bet he didn’t have to do the cleaning of them himself!”, says the First Mate.

The ticket woman smiles.

“That’s for sure”, she says. “Then in the last few decades a lot of effort has been put into restoring the house and its surroundings, and now it is used for concerts and exhibitions.”

The bus is almost due, so we walk back to the road. Some llamas are also waiting at the bus-stop.

“Are you going back to Ærøskøbing too?”, I enquire politely.

“Don’t be silly”, says the First Mate. “They don’t understand English. You’ll have to ask them in Danish. Or Spanish. And mind they don’t spit at you.”

Llama waiting at the bus-stop for Ærøskøbing.

We arrive back in Ærøskøbing without the llamas.

“I think I’ll just walk over and get some photos of the beach huts over there”, says the First Mate. “I’ve been wanting to do that since we arrived.”

From the boat, we can see the huts on Vesterstrand, the beach that stretches northwards from the marina. Apparently they are a bit of a thing on Ærø – the plots that they are built on are rented indefinitely, and there are strict regulations about what can and can’t be done to the huts themselves. No extensions, no electricity or water, and only minor maintenance. But they are quite a status symbol to own or stay in, and some have remained in the same family for four generations or more.

Colourful beach huts on Vesterstrand.

While the First Mate is away, I look up the British-Danish War of the early 1800s.

“It occurred during the Napoleonic Wars”, I read. “Denmark and Norway were neutral and tried to keep the seaway between Denmark and Norway free for trade. The British were having none of that as they wanted to blockade trade to France, so they attacked and destroyed a lot of the Danish and Norwegian navies. The Danish and Norwegians retaliated by fitting guns on small fast boats which were quite successful at attacking the larger British ships. They were helped by shore batteries, one of which was near Søby. In the end though they lost, and Denmark had to cede Heligoland to Britain, and Norway was annexed by Sweden.”

“Sounds a bit traumatic, given their sensitivity to territory”, says the First Mate when she returns. “They seem to have forgotten all about it now, though.”

The next day, the wind has dropped, so we decide to push off to Marstal, in the south of the island. Even though it is only about five miles from Ærøskøbing to Marstal as the crow flies, the journey by sea is about two-and-a-half times that, as it is too shallow to sail directly. Instead, we must make a huge loop by heading north-eastwards, then taking the narrow Mørkedyb Channel southwards, and then turning south-westwards again. Luckily the route is buoyed most of the way.

Our route from Ærøskøbing to Marstal through the Mørkedyb Channel.

The entrance to the marina at Marstal is narrow and quite shallow, but we manage to find a berth. The owner of the boat next to us grabs our lines and helps us to tie up.

“Yes, this is our home port”, he tells us. “We have finished sailing for the season, but we decided to have a couple of weeks just relaxing on the boat before we go home again.”

“You will know Marstal well then”, says the First Mate. “What should we see here?”.

“Well, Marstal is the largest town on Ærø, and also the main shopping centre”, he says. “It became world-renowned in the 17th and 18th centuries for building wooden ships, and that sets the atmosphere of the town. It has a Maritime School that trains navigators for the Danish merchant fleet, and there is a Maritime Museum that’s worth a visit. The streets and houses are also quite quaint, although, I have to say, not as picturesque as Ærøskøbing.”

We set off to explore the town.

“It’s interesting”, I say. “Have you noticed that there is no real town centre like other places? There’s no church that is in the centre either. I read somewhere that the town developed around the streets that radiated out from the shipyards, then they just put in ring roads every so often to link them.”

Cottages in Marstal.

“Yes, but there are not so many nice doors as in Ærøskøbing”, says the First Mate. “Our neighbour was right.”

We walk back to the harbour. There are ships of all shapes and sizes.

Traditional ship in Marstal harbour.
Boats in Marstal harbour.

We eventually come to the Maritime Museum. We spend the next couple of hours going through it. It’s an impressive collection of all things nautical.

Ship in a bottle – Maritime Museum, Marstal.
Storm at sea – Maritime Museum, Marstal.

“Phew”, says the First Mate as we come out. “They must have paintings or models of almost every ship they built here. I don’t think that I have seen so many pictures of ships in one place before. And some of those storm paintings also made me shiver. Here, get a photo of me with this chap. I’ll send it to people and tell them I have run off with a pirate.”

Tall dark stranger?

“They probably think that already”, I say.

Back at the boat, we clamber back in over the anchor. Suddenly there is a cry from the First Mate.

“Help, help! My shoe has fallen in. It’s drifting off.”

Luckily, there is a boathook close to hand.

“They need a good wash anyway”, I say, as she hooks it back in. “Why don’t you chuck the other one in too?”

Man shoe overboard!

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