My journey to understand love on a small island in Denmark started, like many things in my life, with an offhand comment.
My brother — who is nothing if not a pragmatist — and his now-wife eloped in Denmark a few years ago, later telling us that the process is both affordable and straightforward there.
“It’s the Las Vegas of Europe,” he remarked. “Only, it’s cute.”
Two years later, while I was planning a visit to a college friend in Copenhagen, my brother’s words returned to me. A quick Google search confirmed that he was right. I knew a few things about Denmark before visiting — most of which were related to design or the country’s ridiculously delicious porridge — but I wasn’t well-versed in the nation’s other institutions.
Equal marriage, I learned, has been legal in Denmark since June of 2012, and the documentation required to wed is simple. It’s fairly affordable to get hitched (the cheapest offer I found was around 500 kroner, equating to about 75 USD), and a legally binding ceremony can often be arranged in just a few days. This approach to marriage felt Danish in every sense. Not unlike the Danes’ style or design, their weddings are practical, simple, and, of course, aesthetically pleasing. As I would soon discover, one small island off the coast of Southern Denmark perfectly embodies these ideals, a place where thousands of couples get married every year.
This is how, after an early train from Copenhagen to Nyborg and a bus to Svendborg, I found myself boarding the ferry that would make its way to the Baltic Sea, toward the island’s city of Ærøskøbing. (The pronunciation sounds something like aay-rue-skoh-bing.)
Upon arrival, I navigated to my first logical destination: food. Consequently, this led me to a gift shop, where the man behind the counter also moonlighted as the island’s information desk. He was, like most Danes I had met thus far, delightful. He explained with a beaming, prideful smile that the island sees some 4,000 weddings every year — up to 40 a day in high season — and that most of its 6,500 residents play some part in the wedding industry. He had observed over the years that the marriages were often between non-Danish people, and that the majority of them were German (likely because of Germany’s proximity to Denmark, as well as the fact that same-sex marriage was not, until recently, legal there) and, strangely enough, Brazilian.
If you were young and on Ærø, he said, you were there for a wedding.
Once I started looking, there was evidence of that everywhere. From the well-dressed families making their way off the ferry to the young musicians hauling instruments home after rehearsal at city hall and a pre-decorated taxi ready to whisk a new couple away, there was a sense of anticipation and celebration woven into the fabric of the town. At one point, as I bent down to tie my shoe, I even noticed gold confetti stuck in the spaces between the cobblestones.
Cute, as my brother had described Denmark, wasn’t even the half of it.
The island of Ærø looks like a set for Wes Anderson’s next movie. Everywhere you turn, it’s cobbled streets, sandy beaches, and brightly colored homes. Every cottage is precious, every doorway more noteworthy than the previous one. The houses are low and nestled together; only their differing colors indicate where one ends and another begins. The three towns (Ærøskøbing, Marstal, Søby) are small and intimate, complete with winding streets and tiny courtyards. The island itself is low, rising up from the sea into rolling hills shared by hay bales and wind turbines. And, what’s more, the entire island can be toured either by a free shuttle bus, via popular hiking paths, or by bicycle.
Home to a heritage site that has earned the Europa Nostra award, the island is focused on restoration. I often rounded a corner to find people painting their homes or tending to the flowerbeds outside their windows. But the level of care feels purposeful, not contrived. Ærø is not a place created for marriage, nor is it a pretty facade with hollow bones. It’s a place that embodies the care and commitment people hope to formalize there.
My second morning on the island was crisp and quiet, bathed in the day’s first golden light. But within that calm, subtle sounds began to reveal the starts of people’s days — an alarm clock’s ding from the hotel down the way, a jingle of the neighbor’s keys as he unlocked his bike, a creak of shutters opening to the street. As I walked to the harbor, I was sure my camera shutter rang out like a gunshot in the 6 a.m. stillness. The island has a quaint aura about it that you’d like to bottle and gift to all of your loved ones on a rainy day.
Although I’m as cynical as the next millennial, the more I wandered through the towns and caught glimpses of ceremonies just beginning or celebrations just ending, the more I could sense something ethereal in the air. There’s a feeling that lingers in a place that sees so much love. Ærø is a destination for those seeking lifelong happiness, for beginnings, for unions. That kind of energy permeates through the brightly colored doorways and winding streets, leaving the island drenched in a fullness that is difficult to describe. As Ærø disappeared from view during my sunny ferry ride back toward Copenhagen, that was precisely how I felt: full.
Denmark is heralded as being one of the happiest countries in the world, an accolade often credited to its focus on robust social safety nets and democratic programs. But it also points to a central Danish value: togetherness. And what is marriage, if not the celebration of togetherness?