When contemplating a trip to Sweden’s outlying islands, one doesn’t immediately call to mind images of centuries-old observatories, tales of pet dwarves and precious prosthetics, and climates so mild that they suit the cultivation of grapes.
However, the island of Ven, off the south coast of the country, can lay claim to these elements of a colourful and fascinating heritage.
Situated in the Öresund strait between Sweden and Denmark, Ven (known as Hven to the Danes) is an easily-accessible and popular tourist destination.
The inland inhabitants of Sweden and Denmark tend to relish the thought of pouring out of the cities and finding an island retreat come the arrival of summer’s warmth; and so Ven, as you’d expect, is in many respects similar to a number of the country’s other well-known islands, with typically welcoming inhabitants and the sort of relaxing activities, diversions, and facilities that holidaymakers require for a peaceful break.
However, Ven is perhaps most interesting to the visitor because of one of its most memorable ex-inhabitants, whose stamp remains on the island today.
Tycho Brahe, the impressively-moustachioed astronomer to the Danish court in the latter part of the sixteenth century, who set up his observatories on Ven and whose work, developed posthumously by his protégé Kepler, led to the formulation of the laws of planetary motion.
Tycho was also so willfully eccentric that he made most of our modern-day media kooks seem like utter dullards by comparison, and learning about his documented foibles provides a fascinating diversion for tourists.
Arriving on the island
Visitors to Ven normally arrive by ferry – from Landskrona or Helsinborg in Skåne, or from Copenhagen (details for the ferries can be found here and here). The ferries land in Bäckviken, where you can find accommodation and places to eat and drink. The town also serves as a good base from which to explore the small island.
Getting around is best achieved by bike – you can rent a variety of types from kiosks – or bus. If the hostel/hotel in Bäckviken is full, consider staying in the city from where you took the ferry – Ven is only a short boat trip away from each.
Things to do
The island’s naturally temperate climate and fertile soil have rendered it useful for growing food crops, resulting in an abundance of lush greenery. Ven can quite rightly lay claim to the title “the pearl of Öresund” due to its pleasantly verdant crags, cliffs, and meadows.
Simply cycling, strolling or taking the bus around the island’s perimeter (such as the west coast, where Bäckviken is located, or the beaches) makes for an enjoyable few hours in itself.
However, most people come to see the twin observatories – Uraniborg (an impressively castle-like edifice) and Stjärniborg – where Tycho Brahe did much of his work. In his heyday, Brahe’s work as an astronomer and alchemist earned him a great deal of respect from the Danish government (Ven used to fall under Danish rule). As a result, the state funded Uraniborg’s construction to give Brahe a place to work.
The project reputedly cost a full one percent of the country’s entire national budget – and it shows. Uraniborg is quite stunning visually, although rather tiny, as if you’re looking at a big castle through the wrong end of a telescope. Stjärneborg is no less appealing, although undoubtedly more of a functional observatory than the elaborately-constructed Uraniborg castle.
The reputed cost, however, may simply be one of the many myths that surround Brahe and which have, over the years, contributed to his mystique. Historical records indicate that he lost his nose – yes, his nose – in a duel.
As a result, he experimented with prosthetics and eventually settled upon a replacement proboscis made of a blend of gold and silver (although recent studies have shown that he more likely had a copper nose for day-to-day use and only wheeled the heavier gold one out on special occasions).
According to biographers, Brahe also kept a dwarf called Jepp in his castle, who he employed as a jester. The eccentric astronomer was devoted to his pet elk, which died one night following a fall after drinking too much beer.
Brahe himself was rumoured to have died of a strained bladder, after not wanting to leave the table during a banquet. Now, however – thanks to research by several Danish curators, historians and scientists – it’s believed that mercury poisoning is what did him in.
Visitors to Ven can learn more about the man and his discoveries in either of the aforementioned observatories; as far as the island’s museums go, they’re deeply interesting and unmissable for anyone who chooses to take a trip to this fascinating and beautiful part of Sweden.