June 28, 2009
SOMETIMES my wife and I convince ourselves that we are young and hip
enough to explore alternative lifestyle urban areas with aplomb.
We are totally comfortable hanging with the crazy kids who toil over
cutting-edge artworks in derelict warehouse spaces where graffiti
adorns what is left of the walls.
We are so down with it all (provided there is a cafe with frothy
cappuccinos and warm friands on offer, of course).
But on this occasion, we are holding each other's hands much tighter
than usual. Suddenly, we do not feel down with it all, at all.
We have arrived in Christiania in Copenhagen, and although the "free
town" has become a counterculture tourist attraction, it looks and
feels more like a ghetto.
Dreary weather does not help, either. And even as well-dressed
couples with prams and babies push past us, we still cannot let go of
The carved timber sign above the totem pole entrance reads
"Christiania". The reverse side of the sign doubles as a quick exit
back to civilisation "You are now entering the EU".
We take deep breaths as we enter the land of the unruly.
Christiania has a short but tumultuous history. In 1971, when locals
from surrounding areas were being squeezed out of housing, they moved
into the abandoned 35ha military site to create a self-governed settlement.
It quickly became a haven for hippies, squatters, artists and
alternative lifestylers. The following year, the progressive Danish
government officially declared Christiania a "social experiment".
But the hippie experiment has not been a bed of roses, with continual
tussles with governments about the legal status of the autonomously
governed commune. Although there have been many attempts to evict the
settlement of 1000 people, at present Christiania is secure.
Most Danes want to preserve Christiania, but its model of society is
often debated. There is no concept of home ownership. Residents of
the houses (built on the government-owned land) pay rent to the
community, which in turn pays the Government for water and electricity usage.
And for many years, stalls openly sold drugs along the main drag,
known as Pusher St, as the self-governing rules allowed. But in 2004
this was shut down by Danish police, and the Constitution was amended.
Drunks, drug addicts and the mentally ill, ostracised from mainstream
society, have found refuge in Christiania, and you will certainly see
them along Pusher St, along with signs requesting visitors not to
Among the buildings adorned with graffiti and colourful murals, and
sculpture displayed in green spaces, you can find cafes, restaurants,
bars, galleries and shops where locals have become self-sufficient.
Cars are forbidden, which means Christiania Bikes, the oldest company
of the settlement, does good business.
A highlight is Kvindesmedien, a workshop of female blacksmiths, which
also displays and sells their unusual artwork, sculpture and
furniture fashioned out of iron.
Moving past the clutter of buildings, you will find waterside
cottages with pretty little gardens.
On the surface, especially upon entering, Christiania can seem scary.
But be brave, be adventurous, and be comforted by cappuccinos and
friands. Or whatever the cool kids are eating and drinking these days.