Is Christiania and Pusher Street Closed?

Christiania, one of Copenhagen’s most iconic tourist attractions, is on the cusp of a major makeover. The semi-autonomous “Free town” of Christiania sits nestled in the heart of central Copenhagen on an old military base and is most famous for Pusher Street and its Green Light District where Hash and Marijuana are openly sold despite being illegal in Denmark.  The story goes that a group of hippy squatters moved into the base in the 70s and took it over. Since it started Christiania has been largely left alone and currently serves as home to roughly 900 people living in a self governed democracy.

In recent years there has been increasing pressure for Christiania to re-integrate. In part, this has been due to an increase in crime tied to Christiania’s famous “Pusher Street” as the vendors have pivoted from casual and friendly sales by local residents, to gangs and outside groups eager to peddle harder wares and who have an inclination towards violence. Added semi-frequent raids by the Copenhagen police have only served to further the divide.

Over the last few years there has been an uneasy truce. Police would periodically raid Christiania, or set up stop-and-search stations in the nearby Christianshavn metro station, but would otherwise largely leave Christiania alone. The aim has been to focus on driving re-integration through economic and political means by working to normalize the free town, working with its leadership, without stripping away much of what has made the community special.

All of this changed August 31st when two police officers and a civilian were shot by an armed dealer mid-arrest. The dealer was later shot and killed. At the heart of Christiania and Pusher Street there has always been a simple unwritten rule: No guns and no violence. It is part of what has differentiated Christiania and made it stand out as an exciting and welcoming experiment. A casual hippie free town, that focuses on artistry, quirks and living daily life, Christiania has always been a safe place, full of families, and which served as a crossroads between people from all different backgrounds and trades from bankers to boat hands, CEOs to young children and their families.

Christiania Has Lost Its Charm

During my initial visit to Copenhagen in July of 2009 my host made sure that Christiania was part of the two-day whirlwind tour.  The small freetown of Christiania is a fascinating place.  With a history that dates back to the 70s, the town considers itself an autonomous kommune completely independent of the Danish Government. This, despite being situated on what was in the early 70s, an abandoned Danish military base, in the very heart of Denmark’s capital.

The freetown, which has become most famous for its green light district called Pusher’s Street and the open sale of marijuana, was far more than just that. It was a fantastic artist community awash in creative and earthy experiments. It was not only safe, but felt it as well.  All while being family-friendly and the type of place where everyone congregated – be it businessmen in suits, families with young children, or the typical crop-cut washout thug.

The Day I Fell In Love With Copenhagen

Cathedral and Lily Pond - Copenhagen, Denmark

The day started off well.  After an absolutely fantastic evening out on the town, during which my friend Kevan introduced me to Danish nightlife I rolled out of bed and headed to the common area. There I ate breakfast, changed and then set out to meet Kevan at the nearby 7-11. Yep, that’s right. I said 7-11.  Believe it or not they’re everywhere in Scandinavia.  When you think about the primary focus and business model behind the company it makes perfect sense, but you can imagine my shock.  McDonalds? Subway? Burger King?  Sure. Those are expected. But some of the others were definitely a surprise. 7-11 was the main one, but TGI Fridays in Norway was a close second.

A Tall Ship - Copenhagen, Denmark

Kevan had volunteered to play guide and show me around the city.  We met up mid morning and then set out down the main shopping boulevard.  We wound down past city hall, through several large squares and then eventually paused at Tivoli Gardens.  Tivoli is a world famous amusement park located in the heart (and I do mean heart) of Copenhagen.  The park opened in 1843 and is the second oldest amusement park in the world. Impressive right?  From Tivoli we continued along the boulevard and quickly arrived at the central train station.  The station itself is beautiful.  A large sprawling building, it has most of the traditional charm of early turn of the century trains only unlike many of its peers the station’s massive ceiling is built from and supported by intricate wooden timbers.

Fountain and Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

After making special note of the train station’s location (I’d arrived through the airport, but would be departing by rail) we cut down towards the harbor.  The route wound through ancient cobble-stoned streets, most of which were lined by trees and periodically ballooned into small squares. As Kevan shared random tidbits of Danish history and lessons in local culture we wound past parliament and the new opera house – a beautiful building located along the central waterway which feeds København’s picturesque deceptively named ‘New Harbor’ which was completed in the mid- 1600s.

Main Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wound past the harbor I was left with what seemed to be a perpetual grin stuck on my face.  The whole area is a historic district dedicated to old “tall ships”.  As a result, every open space available along the canal has some sort of aged vessel moored in place.

Cathedral's Dome - Copenhagen, Denmark

Some 5-10 minutes later we arrived at Frederick’s Church which is also commonly called the Marble Church.  A large cathedral, it looks and feels very similar to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and boasts the 4th largest dome in Europe as well as the largest dome in Scandinavia. The Cathedral was bright and beautiful with a very clean build and a massive organ. As with most of the great cathedrals throughout Europe and Scandinavia it leaves visitors feeling small, insignificant, and awed.

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

With stomachs rumbling Kevan and I headed back to one of the cafes along the new harbor.  Over the course of our walk the topic of local foods had come up.  To my surprise we’d pieced together that the origin of the US slang smorgasbord (an extremely diverse set of options), has its roots in the Scandinavian Smörgåsbord and more regionally the koldtbord in Denmark.  Kevan suggested a restaurant with a spectacular view of the harbor and then introduced me to a beautifully presented Smörgåsbord.  It featured a delicious dipping sauce, fresh beef, bacon, and fish as well as a delicious chick/potato salad.  Good food is always a plus…good food, a bit of history and an incredible setting? A rare delight!

A Gargoyle - Copenhagen, Denmark

With fully belly’s we struck off towards the Gefion Fountain. A beautiful fountain that depicts the Norse god Gefion in a chariot pulled by a number of large animals.  The fountain sits beside a beautiful small church and a stones throw away from Copenhagen’s old fortress Kastellet, or the citadel.

The Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

The old earthen fortifications are still visible and well maintained.  The wide moat which surrounds them boasts a picturesque mixture of goldfish, swans and lily pads.

Dog with Geese - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wrapped back around the fortifications and moat towards the main entrance to the fortress we paused briefly to watch a dog at play.  Set to the backdrop of the cathedral, the dog slowly tried to herd a small group of lounging geese.  The geese, who were anything but concerned, slowly made their way into the moat and then floated just out of reach taunting the frustrated dog.

Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

After crossing a wooden bridge which included a draw-bridge esque component, we passed through the Kings Gate and entered the inner compound.  The compound is still an active military facility with service men on site. As Kevan explained some of the history associated with the fort he also explained that he’d served a portion of his time in the Danish armed forces as a guard – which was a fun insight.

Canon and Bench - Copenhagen, Denmark

Enjoying the brilliant summer weather we continued along the top of the fortification, pausing to take in various sights. Some (like the photo above) reminded me of civil war era-fortifications along the North Eastern part of the U.S. while others were decidedly more modern. The most comical was a view from the fortification wall of the found Danish mermaid statue. Not overly interested in the statue from the get go, I wasn’t terribly disappointed to learn that it had actually been shipped off to the world fair where it was a piece of the Danish pavilion. I was, however, extremely entertained to learn that to make up for it, a webcam had been set up and was broadcasting an imagine of the statue into the harbor where the statue would normally sit.

Windmill - Copenhagen, Denmark

Chuckling, we wrapped along the back half of the fortress wall and paused to take in a large windmill, which dates back to the 1840s and is still operational. The mill was built in case of a siege to aid in the milling of supplies such as flour and rolled oats.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

Starting to feel a bit footsore we wound back the way we’d come, pausing briefly when we stumbled on a gorgeous swan resting along the banks of the fortress moat.  If you could train wild birds for picture perfect moments, the swan would have been a prime contender.  As I paused to snap a series of photos the swan largely ignored me, focused on its grooming and enjoying the afternoon sun.  It was the perfect addition to what was already a picturesque backdrop.

The Old Opera House - Copenhagen, Denmark

Our next destination was the Freetown of Christiania. Our path wound us back past the new harbor, through a large central square, and in front of the original opera hall before we crossed a bridge and wound towards the small section of the city occupied by Christiania.

Locals at Rest - Copenhagen, Norway

The walk towards Christiania was gorgeous.  It took us over the main bridge, and across a second smaller canal which was awash in people resting, socializing and eating.

The Canal - Copenhagen, Denmark

Though slightly less picturesque than their Dutch counterparts, the Danish canal system is absolutely gorgeous and adds a lot of beauty and extra character to Copenhagen.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we neared Christiania I realized we were near one of the more unique fixtures of the Danish skyline: the Church of our Savior.  To my surprise Kevan mentioned that you could climb the external spiral, which seemed like too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

View from the Spiral - Copenhagen, Denmark

The rout to the top was a long one, but well worth it.  The first half wound through the internal workings of the cathedral, including a large room which holds one of the largest sets of bells in Europe.  From there it broke free into the spiral which starts out fairly wide and slowly wraps upward.  The higher you get the narrower the stair becomes before it is literally absorbed into the top of the spire. While rather difficult to navigate, especially given our collective size (we are both over 6’4″) the view was well worth it.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

After taking a few minutes to enjoy the fresh air, and view of the city we wound back towards the organized chaos of the city. Eager not to get stuck in the bell room when the hour struck, we hustled down the stairs, dodging rafters and ducking past old wooden supports before pausing briefly to watch the massive mechanical clock mechanism slowly crank away.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As the afternoon began to slip towards dusk, we reached Christiania.  The area – about the size of a city block is an odd thing. The buildings were originally a Danish military facility which was abandoned in the 60s.  By the 70s, local hippies moved into the area and began to lay claim.  The area has continued to evolve and was largely left alone by the local government. It has developed its own flag, currency, culture, and set of laws. Additionally, it is partially protected by a law passed in 1989 which transfers responsibility for the supervision of the area to the Danish government, instead of the local city.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

As a hippy mecca, the area is most famous for having a lax/largely unregulated approach to soft drugs (though all hard drugs have been banned via a local law) and in many ways acts as the Danish equivalent to Amsterdam’s coffee houses.  Weed and Hash are openly sold along the central street from freestanding stalls.  That said, there’s far more to Christiania than just soft drugs.  The area is awash in art, music, crafts and food.  As we walked through the small area, there were a series of musicians performing, sandwiched between shops selling everything from silly tourist knickknacks to a plethora of Christiania-specific items, most of which sport the local flag: A red bar with three yellow dogs. The district even has its own branded beer which is available for purchase.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

With mention of things like Dutch Coffee shops and street vendors hawking tubs of marijuana it’s easy to assume that the area would be dangerous, or family unfriendly.  Interestingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The area is a creative commune first and foremost, built around mutual respect, investment and cooperation.  As a result, it’s mostly family friendly and not uncommon to see parents with young children at one of the local eateries relaxing, listening to music and grabbing a bite to eat. Hungry, Kevan and I found an open picnic table in an open area, sandwiched between a sculpture from Arthurian legend of a sword in a stone and a large oriental obelisk.  For just under $10 USD (which by Danish standards is dirt cheap) we ordered a delicious flank steak served in a thick portobello mushroom sauce with a side of egg sized boiled potatoes.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

After a hearty meal, it was time to wind our way back towards the hostel.  First, however, we paused at the new harbor where everyone was out and about relaxing and listening to a jazz singer performing at the foot of the canal.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

The golden light of sunset brought out the color in the buildings and boats, and put everything into a magical twilight. As we wandered casually through the crowd, we paused again at one of the small courtyards off of the main harbor.  In the entrance to one of the small museums in the area, another set of musicians were set up and performing.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

Exhausted, we headed back to the hostel to collect a few of the girls, before heading back out on the town to explore Copenhagen’s night life.  Kevan was a fantastic guide and host who offered a special insight into the city.  I can’t wait to find my way back to Copenhagen and can easily say it is hands down one of the most delightful, friendly, and enjoyable cities I’ve been to.  As far as national capitals go, it is easily one of my top three favorites in the world.

If the opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate! Head to Copenhagen and enjoy everything the city has to offer!

Prague Part 2, Vienna & Bratislava

Bit of time to kill before I catch my bus to Croatia, so hopefully I’ll get caught up! It’s brutal how easy it is to fall behind and I hate writing when things are not still fresh in my memory…but here goes!

Prague continued: The show and ballet I saw were both the highlights, but in general Prague is a very musical city. It was not unusual to find street performers which always livens up the experience. On the first day I explored the natural history museum. Quite a different experience than many of the others I’ve seen. The whole thing seemed stuck in time. The exhibits came in basically three different forms…the mineral exhibit, the early human artifact exhibits, and the stuffed animal exhibit. The early human exhibit was interesting, but fairly small. It consisted of a few old artifacts prior to and including the start of the bronze age and a bunch of bones. The mineral exhibit was large, but very different in feel as all of the gems were locked away in old wooden cases with viewing windows. It would not surprise me to learn that they dated back to at least the early 1900s. The stuffed animal exhibit was just that. Rooms and rooms of anything and everything they could kill and stuff…a very weird vibe to it, especially as some had not weathered well and as a result the various butchering cuts and stitches were becoming evident. The building itself however was gorgeous with a beautiful interior.

Night life – while I spent just about every night mixing and meeting people, I only spent two of the nights out at the main bars/night clubs. The first night I did a pub crawl. So far these have been a fantastic way to explore the city’s night life and meet other people. The crawl was lead by an odd American and his sister, and took us to 4 or 5 bars and clubs before ending at a night club. Both were friendly and the crowd on the crawl, despite being almost all guys, was a good group. We wandered the bars, hitting up some interesting ones, some dead ones, and some boring ones. At one point, while walking through the bottom levels of a club that was just starting to pick up, I encountered a group of friendly Nigerians selling weed and smoking it in the bottom part of the club. It struck me as really odd, especially since the people working at the club must have been aware of what was going on. Needless to say, I ended up back upstairs fairly quickly.

The second major evening out was my final one in Prague. I formed up with a couple traveling from England that were at the hostel and then set off to meet an Australian guy I had met in Frankfurt at a club recommended to me. To be honest, it was really bizarre. There were loads of beautiful girls on the subway and around parts of town, but at night in the bars and clubs they were nowhere to be seen and it was mostly tourists. When we arrived finally at the club recommended as a locals joint there was a massive line. I think we were the only 3 (4 once Brad joined us) foreigners in line. But, as we talked to the people around us it turned out the club was all inclusive so the door cover included unlimited drinks even though it cost a good bit more. We’d all hit up happy hour at our hostel and decided to check out another club instead – apparently one of the largest in Europe that was in the tourist district and a good 5 stories tall with different themed floors.

We set off for the club and after a brisk walk and quick tube jump we were there. The place was just starting to pick up. We did a quick walk through of all the floors and then because it was a bit brighter and completely ridiculous, ended up on the 3rd floor which was oldies with light up squares on the dance floor. There is nothing like a huge white dance floor with bands that lit up in different colors to the music. It was definitely fresh out of the movies. We grabbed a beer (the great thing about Prague was even at the club half a liter was only about 2 dollars US) and started dancing a bit. Before long others came out and joined us and we had stumbled into several others from the hostel including a big group of girls from the States of all places. We spent the next few hours dancing (during which I realized that the beer I had been ordering was 12%…ouch). It’s been a slow process, but I guess my ballroom stuff is finally starting to help me on the non-ballroom dance floor. Within about 15 minutes, I had two of the American girls repeatedly tell me how good I was and that they were intimidated. They would rotate intermittently throughout the night until the night club got so hot that I took my leave and headed out for air.

The Prague castle is interesting but was a bit disappointing. Overlooking the city it’s not a castle, even in the more Eastern Euro-German sense, it’s more a monstrosity with a wall stuck on top of a hill with large marshaling grounds and a cathedral in the middle. Still the view was beautiful.

On the day I caught the quartet in the small library that I loved I got out right around sunset and made my way down to the river. Luckily there was just enough cloud cover to make for a few fantastic minutes as the buildings and trees reflected on the river water and cast everything in a rosy hue.

The main Prague cathedral was pretty impressive with fresco and gold paint everywhere. They definitely were all about the gaudy look. The inner city itself was beautiful with a great mix of architectural styles. Many of the buildings had fantastic doors with a very old, medieval, almost castlesque feeling. It was also really interesting to see how many small courtyards there were and in many cases there were arches and small walkways between the streets creating a kind of interconnected maze. There is also a large astrological clock in Prague which draws a lot of tourists on the hour for a little animated show. The clock itself was beautiful…the show was dumb. It’s just a bunch of figures on a circular piece inside the clock. Two small doors open and they walk up to the window and look out as they revolve past.

It’s an odd thing how in Prague and Vienna to a lesser extent they often build right up to/around their cathedrals. They usually, but not always, still leave the public square part, but it can also be a ways away from the cathedral.

Vienna: Vienna is a very different city than Prague. Every bit as beautiful as Prague, if not more so. It still has the rural industrial feeling but the inner city is composed of large grass areas, squares, and ornate buildings. You can see the wealth that the rulers had and invested in the city in their massive palaces and buildings. While some of the buildings are gothic, most have been designed with greco-roman architecture in mind. In fact one of the main buildings (I believe it was the Parliament) is a massive building that was obviously based upon the Parthenon in the Acropolis though it also has distinctly Roman elements (two curved, sweeping walkways to the entrance). Located between the walkways is a huge statue of Athena with various figures at her feet. I believe it’s closely based on the statue of Athena that was originally located in the Parthenon. At each of the 4 corners of the building’s roof there are huge bronze chariots with horses in motion. They are elegant and beautiful.

Located in the heart of the city is the palatial area which now spreads between the city hall (a stunning gothic building) and the old palace which is now a set of classical reading rooms, modern library, set of museums and galleries. Between the two sets of buildings there is a huge park with gardens, statuary, another much smaller greek building, and large grass areas. Off to one side mirroring each other with fountain-filled gardens are two identical buildings which are now used as art and sculpture gardens. These buildings are massive and incredibly elegant.

Beyond that area are Vienna’s wandering streets. In the older parts of town each building is strikingly different though they are all based on the same uniform architectural style. Most of the facades have some sort of figure or scroll work supporting, surrounding, and adorning every window, corner, and door. On some of the buildings the null space is then painted with ornate images. The theaters and opera houses are exactly what you would expect and right in line with how i envisioned them. They fit right in with the rest of the Viennese theme.

While I would have liked to have seen a show like I did in Prague, many were expensive or playing odd pieces I didn’t have a desire to see. I did however attend an Opera at the old opera house. The ticket was 2 euro for standing space, which while a fun thing for a quick peak at the house and the show, was definitely NOT the way to see the opera. Despite enjoying the show, at the first intermission I took my leave, my legs were killing me, it was hot, the view was poor and the acoustics were marginal (we were located all the way at the back in the top). While not as small or ornate as the opera house in Prague it was definitely very impressive.

I met an Englishman who was killing some time after having plans fall through. He was staying at the hostel, but had lived in an Austrian town a bit outside of Vienna for a while a bit back. On the day I’d set aside to tour the city, he was eager to join me, and offered to play tour guide. Apparently, he’s also a fairly proficient musician (level 8 cert) and about to start a masters program in linguistics. As we wandered the city he had all sorts of fun tidbits to share. In addition to covering the bits I mentioned above, we also walked through a large outdoor market street which runs all week long. While there we were passing a wine shop selling (I believe it’s called Vino?) and we stopped for a drink as he introduced me to it. Made from the thicker parts of the wine that they sift off it is apparently only available a few times a year and because of how it ferments cannot really be exported or sold elsewhere. I tried a red, he had a white – it was a potent wine, but also had a champagne feel to it. Much thicker than wine, it would settle if you left it sitting for more than a minute or two. It had a much sweeter and juicier element as well. All around a very pleasant drink.

Later, again ready to rest our feet after hours of walking, we made our way to a small dingy coffee shop he had found during his time in Vienna. The sign looked like it was straight from the 40s and the interior was dark, musky and brown. The walls had mismatched wallpaper, which definitely came from a wide variety of mixed fashion styles and decades. (It reminded me my childhood when my grandparents would take me to the old Brown Derby for hot chocolate. This place though was much older and grungier.) In some places the wallpaper had peeled off…in others it looked as though it had burned and in others people had written all over it. The chairs and tables were piled into the place and the lighting was marginal. The place was fantastic! We made our way to a corner and ordered our coffee and rested our feet. I felt as though I should be madly writing an opera, book, or poetry.

Yesterday I decided to check out Bratislava (some of you may remember it from Euro trip) – located about 50 k (or miles I’m not sure) from Vienna. It is a 10 Euro round trip bus ride and takes about an hour and a half. Lewis (the guy I’d toured Vienna with), Sarah (A kiwi girl I bumped into in Prague and saw again here in Vienna) and I were preparing to set out when we also picked up another American (his name escapes me at the moment). We set off, caught the bus and were in Bratislava by noon with open minds and high hopes. I’d heard that it was worth a visit but not worth an overnight stay. That was an exaggeration. The city itself is an industrial mess with a skyline that is interesting only because of the number of smoke stacks. It has cheap multi-story residential buildings being built and smog. The old city itself has one or two beautiful buildings. The rest are built in a very simple, very plain architectural style that was generally bland and boring. Even the castle perched up above the town on the hill reminded me more of a Holiday Inn than a castle. We explored the city for 2 hours or so, then looking for more to see and feeling like there had to be something we were missing started looking at postcards…unfortunately, everything on the postcards we’d seen. The only really cool thing was a set of bronze statues they have built on/into the streets. One is a camera man peaking around a corner, another is a classicaly dressed figure leaning on a bench, and the third is a chubby construction worker up to his shoulders in a manhole leaning out.

Hungry and done with the city we looked for a restaurant. We’d each converted between 5-15 euro into the regional currency. For me that meant my 10 Euro got me 330 or so SK dollars. Initially we’d expected to find keepsakes, have to pay for museums etc. No such luck. Not wanting to take the hit transferring it back we looked for a restaurant with what might be regional food willing to pay a bit more than usual to get rid of the notes. The place we found must have been an old monastery or wine cellar. It was a a maze of small rooms that wound down into the earth with small domed ceilings, brick walls, and odd paintings on the walls. We settled in, ordered, then waited eagerly for food…which unfortunately ended up being nothing like what we ordered. The waiter completely messed up two of the 4 orders (I think he just didn’t want to cook the pork knuckle i was going to try) bringing us instead plates of spaetzel with goat cheese, and another with sauerkraut and bacon instead of the goat cheese. Not having the time to wait 40 minutes more for them to correct the order we made do and ate hungrily. After finishing the meal we still had some time to kill and a few SK left. Somehow we found an old lady selling a bottle of Bratislavian mead (of all things) and decided to try it. We chipped in for the 150 SK we needed for it, got 4 cups and headed down to the river (Danube i think) where we sat around waiting for our bus, reflecting on how shitty a town it was and commenting on how odd the mead was. I guess at least now I can say i’ve been there, and it only cost me 20 Euro.

Next stop Croatia. Catching the 6 o’clock bus this evening. Wish me luck!