Despite its historical architecture, 21st-century Copenhagen is a booming modern city. The cobbled streets and historic churches remain, but the skyline is dotted with cranes as new structures rise. Striking contemporary buildings include the glistening Black Diamond, a modern riverside extension to the Royal Danish Library which also houses an auditorium and exhibition spaces, and the imposing, colossal Opera House, while the city’s homes are filled with cutting-edge technology and design. The landscape that the Little Mermaid looks upon has shifted dramatically. This is why passing through the gates to Christiania is all the more magical; the hard edges and clean lines of the city melt away to reveal a very different world.
The rich fairytale history set out by Hans Christian Andersen seems to live on in Christiania, a warren of fantastically painted buildings, craft havens and greenery and a ‘freetown’ which functions outside the normal laws of Danish society. So how did such a place come into being? Christiania, found to the south of the city centre on the banks of Copenhagen’s myriad waterways, was formerly an army barracks. On 4 September 1971, a group of free-thinking Copenhagen locals broke into the disused barracks to use the overgrown green space as a play area for their children.
Jacob Ludvigsen, editor of the cutting-edge left-wing Hovedbladet magazine, is the person credited with declaring Christiania an autonomous space, publishing in Hovedbladet that ‘Christiania is the land of the settlers. It is the so far biggest opportunity to build up a society from scratch while nevertheless still incorporating the remaining constructions. … The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for the wellbeing of the entire community.’ But it would be too broad a brush stroke to merely paint Christiania as a ‘commune’. It is, quite simply, like falling through a particularly lovely rabbit hole, as Alice did to discover Wonderland.
It is immediately striking that there are no car-worthy roads in Christiania – cars are not allowed. Ivy-covered buildings are painted with lavish murals, paths are lined with lavender and tulips grow alongside timber structures that look like cottages from a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Some of these pretty, almost unreal-looking structures, built by the residents, overlook lapping waters. Others are built into hills, round-windowed and oozing charm, like something from Tolkien’s Shire. Buildings are not ‘owned’ as such, but are built to be passed on to others, in time. It’s 85 acres of peace, tranquility and alternative living.
The simple life
‘I always advise that my guests see a slice of Christiania,’ says Kirsten Brøchner, owner of Hotel Kong Arthur and the Ibsens Hotel. She sees the area as adding a richness to the Copenhagen experience. ‘It’s a great way to see another side to Copenhagen, a simpler way of life, which, as the city changes, is all that more important to preserve. It can be a like stepping back in time.’ Brøchner’s tips include taking in the Gallopperiet art museum by Christiania’s main entrance, catching the various art galleries and drinking in the atmosphere over coffee, as well as stopping by Galleri Leonard, a collective artist workshop and exhibition space on Sydområdet. Pick up some handcrafted artifacts at CA Butikken on the corner of Prinsessegade and Bådmandsstræde, marvel at the artisanship in the Q-Smedien iron workshop on Mælkevejen and soak up some late night jazz after dark. As long-time Christiania resident Tanja Fox, who moved to the area as a child and has never left, attests: ‘we are living in heaven.’