“NO PHOTO! NO PHOTO!” This man screamed at my friend Grace and me as we entered the gates at Christiania. We quickly pocketed the camera, completely startled that he was coming at us quickly, motioning that he’d take our camera away. Apparently, Christianians do not want their home recorded by passing tourists.
This was the part of town to come to. While Nyhavn and the Little Mermaid were the type of attractions all the guidebooks sent you to, Christiania is the counterculture, off-the-beaten-path site in Copenhagen. It was where you went to see the part of town whose inhabitants were not interested in your Fodor’s guide recommendations. Surrounded by a decorative brick wall and tall trees, one realizes the protected and enclosed quality of the place on first glance.
We had heard it called a “squatter’s settlement” and an unregulated zone. The self-proclaimed autonomous zone in the Christianhavn neighborhood has been home to a population that believed themselves to be not only self-governing but outside of the Danish law and, to a certain degree, Danish property. Over the years, Christiania has been a thriving arts community, a marijuana haven, and a generally communal area. It has been decided, by my count at least three times, that the land is in fact Danish property and that the occupants of the settlement will have to comply with Danish law. Just last week, another such ruling decided in favor of the Danish government, yet again threatening to dismantle the community and use the space for development. For a long time, Christianians were free from regulation as long as they paid their federal taxes and electricity. This seemed like a compromise with a built-in agreement that the squatters were living on Danish property. However, it was rights to the use of the land that the occupants always demanded, not ownership of it. It is these rights that are being contentiously debated right now.
Started over 40 years ago, the squatters entered an abandoned military base and formed a commune. Tolerated by Copenhagen’s and Denmark’s governments alike, it only began to be a source of controversy when drugs and the drug trade became rampant. In 2005, one incident of violence marked a turning point in the government’s role in Christiania’s regulation; no longer were they given a free reign to do as they pleased.
Hence the adamant “No Photo!” upon entrance. Entering through a curvy walkway with an obscured view ahead (where we finally saw the “no camera” sign), we watched as the first pieces of art became visible. Grace and I walked through a small portion of its 85 acres, lush with greenery and vibrantly painted. Houses and apartments are built with found materials and a kind of anti-architecture that denotes a lack of initial plans when building. This was a wild juxtaposition from the expertly planned and designed city of Copenhagen. Danish bikes and passenger carriages rest unlocked outside of homes, just like outside the gates. Vegetable and flower gardens (some in boats) accompany doorways. I saw more than a few treehouses. The paths meander through woods and up hills, each turn leaving you to wonder whether you’re about to trespass onto someone’s yard; a funny thought when the yard in question isn’t their property in the first place. We came upon an open land, horses nibbling at the grass. Beyond a fence line, ocean was visible in the distance.
There is such an abundance of art and art forms that it was humbling to walk through. Clearly the occupants built their own houses and decorated them elaborately. Homemade carved wood furniture and welded dining sets made of giant gears are showcased on the main path. There is art on every surface. I later came to a beer garden and sat for a bit with my sister on a second visit. The garden accompanied a cafeteria-like space with baked goods, sandwiches, coffee and beers. It had a very summer-camp like feel to the building: large, wooden and built for groups. The garden had a mix of tables and chairs in all styles, a cabana and picnic tables, flowers and greenery surrounding it. The population I saw living there were decidedly more “hippie”-like than any living in the otherwise very fashionable Copenhagen proper. Much more hemp and dreadlocked hair there than I’ve seen since my last Grateful Dead concert.
A main shopping row opens up directly through the gates. Mostly doorways or windows into buildings for ordering items to-go lined one side of the street, while an open marketplace, bazaar style, was across the road. One can buy Christiania keepsakes, Baja-style pullovers, pipes, t-shirts with Che Guevara and Bob Marley on them, all kinds of food and drink, and plenty of other garage sale/flea market type wares. There was a slightly intimidating air to the settlement given off by the inhabitants that I felt most tangibly in the marketplace. It was as if we were bordering on being unwelcome there and definitely being judged as a tourist. I also was keenly aware of my judgment of them, sensing that they knew I didn’t want a Che t-shirt and just wanted to see the community. I sensed their role as a tourist spectacle, and it was kind of sad. My presence was tolerated in hopes that I may spend a few kroner on their goods. I smiled, bought a beer.
Grace, and later my sister and I, left through the gate that proclaims, You are now entering the EU, as if we had needed passports to enter the strange anomaly of a neighborhood. We were off to explore more of this wildly varied city, appreciating it even more for being the type of place that has allowed a squatter settlement for so many years. Visit Christiania now, for it really could be dismantled this time.