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Exploring the Danish Isle of Ærø

Ærø, Denmark

Biking through small Ærø, we tour a 12th-century church, see fields of solar panels that power the island, learn about Viking burial rites at a Neolithic site, and appreciate beach huts and picnics. In Denmark, small is beautiful and sustainable.

Complete Video Script

For me, the best way to explore Aero is on two wheels. I'm meeting friend and local guide Jan Petersen for an island bike ride. Bike rental is easy… no deposits, no locks… this is Aero. I've recommended this leisurely ride for years in my guidebook to show off the best of this island's charms.

The island, is 22 miles long, has 7,000 residents, seven pastors, no crosswalks, and three policemen. Historically, Aero has depended on shipping and farming — mostly dairy and wheat. U-shaped farms are typical throughout Denmark. The three sides block the wind while storing cows, hay, and people. It's the kind of place where local produce — whatever's in season — sits on the roadside — for sale on the honor system.

Jan: We’re now riding below sea level. The sea is about this high and just behind this dike that was built around 150 years ago to keep the sea out to claim this wasteland…
Rick: All this was reclaimed then.
Jan: Yes, it is, and today is used for grazing for cows.

Most of Aero's villages are further inland, not visible from the sea. Church spires were stunted… designed not to be viewable from marauding pirate ships.

This church with a white-washed exterior dates from the 12th century. Its long nave leads to the altar. With gold leaf on carved oak, it's from 1528, just before the Reformation came to Denmark.

Rick: It’s a remarkable church.
Jan: Yes. The special thing was these reversible pews. You have the service up here but when the sermon was on had to flip over.
Rick: Okay, so we watch the service and then when it’s time for the sermon, look at the pulpit.
Jan: Yes, pay attention to the pulpit that is in the middle of the church.

In the back of the nave a list of pastors goes back to 1505 — all theologically related to Martin Luther. He’s painted with his hand on the bible as if on a theological rudder — and steering the church on a true course. The current pastor (Janet) is the first woman on the list in over 500 years.

Aero, like Denmark in general, is embracing clean energy. Home to communally-owned, state-subsidized windmills and one of the world's largest solar power plants, it's well on its way to its goal of energy self-sufficiency. This field of solar panels saves 1,500 homes a third on their heating costs.

A short walk from the road takes us to a fascinating pre-historic sight. 6,000-years ago this was an early Neolithic burial place. Though Ærø once had more than 200 of these prehistoric tombs, only 13 survive. And Vikings also appreciated the holiness of this sight.

Rick: This is such an evocative spot.
Jan: Yeah, imagine a thousand years ago the Viking chief would gather the community here to bury a person here. They built a ship and burned it. They have found pieces of burned wood in the underground here.
Rick: So this is actually the shape of a Viking ship.
Jan: This is the shape of Viking ship.
Rick: A big Viking ship.
Jan: You have the stern up there and even longer ago they came here to use this as a holy spot.
Rick: And this stone burial chamber, is that actually much older?
Jan: 5,000, 6,000 years old.
Rick: As old as the pharaohs.
Jan: Yes. The Vikings recognize this as a holy ground. And later on put their holy spot here.

Rick: So we’ve got a little hill here.
Jan: A little hill. We’re going to the highest point of the island called Sunshoy.
Rick: What does that mean?
Jam: Seems high.
Rick: How high is it?
Jan: 6,750 centimeters.
Rick: 6,700 centimeters. That’s about 2,700 inches.
Jan: Yeah, something like that.
Rick: Jan we’ve summoned the devil. Seems high.
Jan: Yeah but worth the view.
Rick: It sure is.

Just a short stroll from Ærøskøbing, a narrow spit is lined with cozy beach huts and families savoring a balmy July evening. Denmark embraces the notion that small is beautiful and, here, the concept of sustainability is nothing new.

These tiny beach escapes are privately owned on land rented from the town. Each is different, but all are weathered by merry memories of locals enjoying themselves Danish-style.

To cap our visit, tonight we're joined by the major and his friends for a picnic dinner on the beach. A former music teacher, he's leading us in an appropriate song for Aero — the ship went down but the sailors survived, making it back to their beloved homes and families.