If you find yourself near the Baltic Sea and dreaming of an exotic island getaway, you don’t have far to go. Just head to the Danish island of Christiansø. It’s an eco-friendly trip, a slow-living excursion.
In the Danish part of the Baltic, roughly in between Sweden and Poland, the Ertholmene archipelago rises from the waves. It includes several baby islands and a couple more impressive ones, though they’re rather child-sized. Only the larger ones are inhabited: Frederiksø (named after Frederick IV) and Christiansø (named in honour of Christian V).
The islands are made from granite, and opinions are divided on who created them. What’s known for sure is that around the year 1000, some Baltic pirates took a liking to the islands and established their base there – they’d sail out to plunder ships going to and from the ports on Bornholm. At a certain point, King Cnut the Great became irritated by this, and he sent his representative, the Viking Egil, to knock the pirates into line. But Egil rebelled, and after dealing with the pirates, he started plundering on his own. He became famous for burning a ship, together with its crew, off the coast of Norway.
30 years later, the island was still inhabited by bad guys. This time it was former privateers of the Hanseatic League, who like Egil before them turned to crime and mercilessly plundered their former employers as they transported exotic goods by sea. Later, during the Swedish-Danish war, the Danish King Christian V decided to use the natural harbour between the islands, and in 1684 raised a fort there. A hundred years later, a prison was constructed in it that gained renown as a place from which there was no escape. In 1808, during the so-called English Wars, forces set out from there to conquer the English, and war booty was brought back there – not only the cargoes, but the ships themselves. When 15 had been tied up in the port, the English lost their patience and bombarded the island from their ships. That was the only time in the history of Christiansø and Frederiksø that the fort managed to fulfil its original function. Most of the projectiles went into the water, but one or two did minor damage to the fortifications. Later it was home to military barracks, and after they were eliminated, a few artisans and fishermen joined the soldiers who were left on the island. Today it’s inhabited by 90 people, but the structures remain the same; nothing new has been built for more than 100 years. There’s nothing here for a developer: the archipelago is a nature reserve, and its residents don’t participate in the rat race.
Christiansø has a post office, a school, a library, a small hotel and a general store. And artisan workshops in the summer. There are no cars, cats or dogs. Cars, OK, the island is tiny, but why are there no pets? Because the residents collect rainwater in cisterns carved out of the rock, and animals could pollute it. Even sailors who have animals on board have to get special permission to bring them on shore. The only non-human mammals on the island are the hedgehogs, supposedly brought here to keep the mice under control. Mice are mammals, too, but there aren’t any here. The last time one was seen was in the 1990s, after a pregnant mouse arrived on the island, and the species quickly took over Christiansø. Cut off from genetic diversity, the population died out after a few generations. Recently, after long negotiations, the local children have been permitted to have guinea pigs. But they’re under house arrest.
The islands are still run by the Defence Ministry; there are even two officials. Petitioners are accepted every day from 10am to noon. Or you can call: the phone numbers, including mobiles, are on the island’s official website.
Ewa Pawlik: Hello! “Przekrój” speaking. I’m working on a story about your island, and I’d like to speak with someone about a few things.
Official: Oh, then you have to call Hans, he’ll give great answers! I’ll give you the number, I think he’s still around here somewhere, later he’s going onshore.
Onshore, to Bornholm!
Ewa Pawlik: Hello! “Przekrój” speaking. I’m working on a story about your island, and I’d like to speak with you about a few things. Apparently you give great answers.
Hans Ole Matthiesen: I have to – I’m also a guide here sometimes. I show people around the bird reserve – around the edges, because you’re not allowed to go in. After all, this has never been a good place for humans. In 1684, there was a plague outbreak among the men building the fort. They were buried on Graesholm. And now the auks and guillemots have their breeding grounds here. About 10,000 European herring gulls also live here, and other species show up seasonally, on their way to and from warmer countries.
But I can find out all of that on the internet – I’d like to talk about everyday life.
I’m actually working on a project that will make life here even more attractive! I think we already have paradise here, but there are certain problems with keeping people here.
I imagined that you got crowds of people who are longing for a calm, healthy lifestyle, far from the rat race.
That’s how it used to be. Today young people look for a career first, and realize only many years later that it doesn’t give them real satisfaction. But by then they have kids and mortgages, and moving to an island becomes impossible. After all, you can’t just show up here and settle down. The residents of the island are exempt from tax because of various inconveniences that you have to put up with when you live here. But there are certain conditions: you have to be employed on the island or in one of the institutions related to it. There aren’t many jobs here, so you have to wait your turn.
Are you a descendant of the prison guards or the soldiers who were once stationed here?
Not me – I’m relatively new, but I think we have seven families that have been here for six or seven generations. Three-quarters of the residents are those who settled on the island in the 20th century. This year we hired two teachers from outside, because the seventh grade has grown like crazy.
How many students are we talking about?
In the seventh grade we have as many as seven students. [Laughter] I know that’s not much on the mainland, but here we live on a different scale. Our school has seven grades, and in the later ones new subjects are added: biology, physics, German. We couldn’t manage it ourselves. For two years, our school has been ranked the best in the whole country. Twice in a row, our students won the prestigious Math Professor competition! Unfortunately we don’t have a secondary school, so after the seventh grade the kids move to the mainland. They used to live in boarding schools, but today their families don’t want to be separated from them, and sometimes they leave the island along with their kids. The project I mentioned is meant to help create jobs so that couples and families can live here comfortably.
Today when somebody wants to bring their partner here, they might be doomed to unemployment and living on a single salary. That doesn’t work for everybody. Sometimes people want to come back, like the daughter of Ruth, who’s famous nationwide for making three kinds of marinated herring. She had to wait until her mum retired. That took a while! [Laughter] A young guy’s also coming back who’s finishing up his marine engineering degree and wants to work on the ferry that brings passengers here from Bornholm. He thought up this career so he could come back here to live.
Do any foreigners live there with you?
Let me think… One fisherman married a Thai woman, and a housepainter has a Russian wife. We also have a carpenter from Sweden. Another new person moved here recently, but she’s Danish. Actually it’s a love story. A tourist from the mainland came here for a couple days and rented a cottage. We have several here, I recommend them! But hers turned out to have a problem – a pipe burst, or something like that. They called a blacksmith, who was a widower, because nobody else was available. And I guess that’s a good thing, because they fell in love, and now they live here together.
Do you have more singles on the island?
Yes, we have a few. They’re usually people who aren’t interested in marriage anymore, sometimes because of their age, and sometimes because they need freedom. The younger ones use dating apps like anybody else. And they meet regularly on the mainland. I seem to remember that somebody recently found their mate online! Let’s keep our fingers crossed! In the summer, you can date as much as you want.
You must be busy during the season, with 40,000 tourists, but what about other times? Don’t you get bored?
Not at all. Our social life blossoms. The library is open two days a week; you can play hockey; we go on walks together and have discussion clubs; we meet at the shop and sit in the back with a beer. It’s impossible to be lonely here! The women have their own space, where they do crafts and other stuff – we don’t get involved. We just laugh that their building used to be a chicken coop, so sometimes we laugh at them a little, but it’s good-natured! In the winter the Whisky Club is very active, it has 11 members. Nobody misses a meeting! We also have permission to use the historic cannons every now and then, so we get to shoot. We only use gunpowder, no projectiles of course.
Where do you go on vacation?
Some people have summer houses in Sweden, and some on the mainland. We sail from Bornholm to Kołobrzeg for quick trips. After each season, the hotel owners take time off in Thailand. We don’t take holidays in the summer; that’s when we have to take care of an island full of tourists – regular rubbish disposal, supervising deliveries. We do it together, nobody shirks.
The pandemic has hit the tourist industry hard. Have you felt it?
Not really. We have what I’d call a caring government. Last summer they subsidized the ferries between Christiansø and Bornholm; Danish citizens rode for free. And because the tickets are quite expensive, there was no shortage of interest. Most people come here for three hours, because that’s how long the ferry stays. We’re trying to change that. We already have several houses for rent, and a campsite.
And crime? Do you have bad guys on the island, like in the past?
I can’t recall any incidents. The worst thing that happens here is violations of the ban on drones. There’s a nature reserve here, and it’s still a military base, so that’s prohibited. When we catch somebody, most often they apologize politely and we stay friends. That’s it for crime!
Are you dependent on income from tourism?
Not so much. We have the nature reserve, the government supports us. Personally, I’d like the people who make it here to stay, to watch the sunset and the sunrise. Those are the most beautiful times! Well, and we just like having guests. The EU is considering vaccine passports – that might not be a bad idea. At the moment, only Danes and Norwegians can visit us. Have you been here?
Yes, long ago I came to the island on a sailboat. I remember the open swimming area and jumping off a trampoline into a beautiful bay. And the wind. Do you ever get tired of it?
Very much so! The wind is most of all noise. There’s no place to run from it – it’s constantly buzzing in your ears. That’s wearying. And it paralyses life on the island: on windy days, the ferries don’t run. We can be cut off for several days, sometimes as much as five. When the weather’s bad, the ferry rocks and I get seasick. Even when we get back on land, my head doesn’t stop spinning, I have trouble walking. If I get into a car, I can’t drive. The police would think I’m under the influence. We often talk about how people can fly to the moon, but when the weather’s bad we can’t get to a nearby island. It teaches you humility. Like the winter here. If you feel big and important, winter on this island will cure you of that!
I’d prefer to visit you in the summer!
Come in May or September, there’s no crowds and the water is warm. And definitely stay for a few days. Bring whoever you want, you can bring hundreds of friends. [Laughter] We like people. If you don’t like other people, you wouldn’t survive on the island. There are no bad guys here! If somebody were to stray, we’d rehabilitate them, like we fix everything else here. Come on over!
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino