Hi/Lo: Denmark's Christiania and Valdemars Slot

Hi/Lo: Denmark's Christiania and Valdemars Slot

The utopian community of Copenhagen's Christiania and the aristocratic world of Valdemars Slot represent cultural fringes of Danish society. But as Kurt Andersen observes, these high/low extremes have much in common.

The people who adore Denmark tend to like it for the same reasons that other people find it unexciting.

No nation on earth is more sensible, reasonable, healthy, tidy, virtuous, nice. The Danes were the first to prohibit slave trading, the first to make school compulsory and free, early pioneers in social welfare. And where else in the 21st century do you find freshly baked breads and good wine for sale at highway service stations?

Yet part of the appeal of foreign travel is to glimpse and taste the exotic immoderation at the centers of other cultures—extravagant, operatic church interiors in Rome; Shanghai's suddenly metastasizing Blade Runner skyline; Tokyo's vast indoor fish market at dawn; pharaonic tombs; bullfights; czar's rooms made of amber; hovels; strangeness; extremes.

Denmark's signature location, on the other hand, is Tivoli—a nice, pleasantly democratic, carefully managed pleasure garden for families; neither huge nor tiny; not fancy or state-of-the-art but not a weird historical artifact either; a place where the entertainment sensibility runs a wholly familiar gamut from lower-middle (Whac-A-Mole) to middle-middle (a Dane doing perfect Frank Sinatra covers) to upper-middle (the Alvin Ailey dance troupe).

In France, strolling the boulevards and ogling the grand buildings of Baron Haussmann's Paris, a literary person thinks of the transgressive, troublemaking freaks who once walked the same streets: Rimbaud, Huysmans, Céline, Genet. In Denmark, wandering Copenhagen's quiet, charming, small-scale, tasteful downtown, one thinks of Hans Christian Andersen—and then maybe of Karen Blixen, whose stories (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) her unappreciative countrymen tended to find too aristocratic, too exotic, too fantastic, too romantic.

So, 113 years after my great-grandparents emigrated from Denmark to Nebraska, I visited the ancestral homeland for the first time with a somewhat perverse agenda: I wanted to organize a trip around the country's touristic outliers, the vividly high and the vividly low.

My most astute local tutor turned out to be Allan Ottsen, a Copenhagen banker and archetypal Dane—generous, civilized, fair-minded, good-looking—whom I met on my second day in the country.

"There really are no extremes in Denmark," Ottsen said as he drove me, my wife, and our teenage daughters to dinner at his home, 45 minutes north of Copenhagen. For instance, even under the current right-leaning government, the tax Ottsen paid on the Audi sedan in which we were riding was $100,000, almost twice the cost of the car. He smiled at our astonishment, but he didn't seem rueful or bitter. The intention of a nearly 200 percent tax on such luxuries, he said, is not so much Socialistic in a strict economic sense, but cultural—to discourage conspicuous displays of personal wealth. Even the fringe political parties in Denmark, he said, are rather moderate, and the Danish press is mild and anti-sensational. It is a capitalist country, certainly, but has not yet succumbed to American-style hypercapitalism—most of the big chain stores and supermarkets closed at five on Saturday and all day Sunday.

"It's the Jantelov," Ottsen said, pronouncing the J as we would a Y, "our Danish don't-excel tradition."

I made a note. Jantelov, or Jante's Law, I learned later, is the life imitating art imitating life invention of another Danish-born fiction writer. Aksel Sandemose's satirical 1933 novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor (A Refugee Crosses His Tracks) nailed the essential spirit of a country prone to extremism only in its deep insistence on restraint, understatement, and homogeneity. His fictional Danish town of Jante required that no citizen consider himself special—not smarter, better, wiser, more interesting, knowledgeable, or important than anyone else.

Ottsen was driving us the long, scenic route up the coast to exurban Fredensborg, by way of what locals call the Gold Coast. But these sea-view neighborhoods of the wealthiest Danes look distinctly upper-middle-class rather than rich—absolutely modest by the standards of Greenwich, Connecticut; or Malibu. If there are houses there larger than 10,000 square feet, I didn't see them. Ottsen paid $160,000 for his car, wears a conservative suit and tie, and runs a bank, and his house and large yard abut the grounds of Queen Margrethe's summer palace—yet he baked us bread and cooked us dinner using eggs from chickens that he and his wife, Else Marie, raise and herbs and vegetables they grow. No airs, no ostentation: Jantelov.

Growing up in Nebraska, I realized, I had lived under the same law without knowing its name. The Scandinavian immigrants who populated the eastern Great Plains transplanted their social progressivism to a few districts (as in Minnesota), but everywhere, from Grand Rapids to Fargo to Omaha and beyond, their native suspicion of individual idiosyncrasy and specialness was baked into the Midwestern personality. It's why I left Nebraska as soon as I could, why I live in the wildly anti-Jantelovian city of New York, and why I love the interestingly extreme. But it's also why I was a halfhearted hippie as a teenager, have been disinclined to live very large as an adult, and why my politics, when all is said and done, seldom diverge too far from the sensible center.

At first glance, Valdemars Slot and Christiania could not be more different. Indeed, I chose to visit both because they are so apparently dissimilar, so representative, respectively, of the self-consciously high and low. Valdemars Slot is on the quiet little rural island of Tåsinge, two hours southwest of Copenhagen. It is the largest private house in Denmark, a perfectly maintained seaside castle (slot in Danish), with magnificent Baroque outbuildings and well-tended grounds, that has been in the family of its current steward, Lensbaron Iuel-Brockdorff, Master of the Royal Hunt and Chamberlain, for 328 years. Christiania, in the heart of Copenhagen, is a graffiti-covered ramshackle former naval base that nearly a thousand cannabis-celebrating hippie anarchist communards have occupied extralegally for 35 years.

But in fact, as I discovered during my days in each, these places have plenty in common. Construction on both began in the 17th century, and the present occupants took over in 1971. The values that they embody are very Danish: tolerance and communitarianism and hygge (coziness) at Christiania; feudal hunting and yachting–flavored aristocratic traditions at Valdemars Slot; and a devotion to fragrant, luxurious imports (Moroccan hashish and French wines, respectively) at both. They are charmingly anachronistic living museums—one for visitors intrigued by the 1960's, the other for visitors into the 1760's or 1860's. The Danish government bureaucracy regulates both. And both the Christianites and the baron's family are nonconformists who reject the happy Danish medium and feel variously annoyed and oppressed by the pressures of their society to force their remarkable, quirky havens to become more...normal.

Southeast across the main canal from downtown Copenhagen is the pretty, gentrified Christianshavn neighborhood, and at its far eastern edge is Christiania (pronounced kristi-ane-ya). Given that Christianshavn became a Haight-Ashburyesque hippie quarter in the sixties, that the Danish military abandoned almost all of Christiania's 85 acres in 1969, and that the Social Democrats swept the national elections in 1971—the Socialists won on a Tuesday, the first squatters moved into the empty barracks the following Sunday—how could history have turned out otherwise?The freaks renamed it Freetown Christiania.

Today there are 900 residents. "There was lots of 'peace and love' and 'we can do anything ourselves' when we started," says sharp-tongued, clear-eyed, gray-haired Nina Pontoppidan, who has lived in Christiania since 1977. Of her fellow residents, she estimates that "forty percent work inside" (as shopkeepers, cooks, artisans, mechanics, carpenters, computerists, artists), "forty percent outside" at jobs in Copenhagen, "and twenty percent stay on the sofa and smoke hash." The main prohibitions of Christiania's simple Grundlov, or Common Law, are no violence, no weapons, no hard drugs, and no private cars within the quarter. Governance is by direct participatory democracy: residents in each of 14 neighborhoods choose whether to admit new people when space opens up—"People are dying to get in," Nina says—and a "common meeting" of all Christianites decides pretty much everything else. "If you love to go to meetings, this is the place to be."

Christiania still likes to consider itself autonomous, off the grid. But the 250 children attend regular public schools, and decades of litigation and regulatory maneuvering have given it a kind of ambiguous government sanction as a "social experiment." Thirty-five years later they are still squatting, but people now pay about $300 a month for rent and utilities. The community's total budget is around $3 million a year. As Nina says, "This is not another planet."

Not another planet, but unlike any other place in Europe that I know about. And while the United States is scattered with hippie towns and villages (like Woodstock in New York, Nederland in Colorado, Bisbee in Arizona, Paia on Maui), as far as I know none of them is quite so pure an example of the type as Christiania.

The surrounding Copenhagen neighborhood is dense, orderly, rectilinear, cemented. Passing through Christiania's gate one enters a softer, leafier zone of detached buildings scattered along tree-lined, unpaved roads and cobblestoned walkways. The oldest structure is from 1688, and most of the others that preceded the hippie takeover are from the 19th century. Typically, a beautiful green barn built in 1847 has been turned into the local building-supply store. And the rest, cottages and shops put up during recent decades, are small, wooden, homely, sweet, concocted in a variety of idiosyncratic vernacular styles. Signs are all hand-painted. It feels like a tatty, artsy-craftsy summer camp where neatness is not a core value.

The community has no hotels or hostels, although bed-and-breakfasts abound in Christianshavn. Yet, just as many tourists in New York and Venice don't venture beyond Times and St. Mark's squares, most of Christiania's visitors seem never to plunge deep into the place. Thus the world's view of Christiania as one big carnivalized stonerville tends to be reinforced. Near the entrance a guy sings the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" while accompanying himself on guitar. The merchandise at the nearby outdoor marketplace is dominated by tie-dyed shirts, third-world jewelry, miniature Christiania flags (three big yellow dots on a field of red), and, at a half-dozen head shoplets, pipes, bongs, and dozens of brands of rolling papers. The other place where outsiders like to gather is Café Nemoland, a jerry-built open-air food court with blue picnic tables, its slight seediness redeemed by a glorious midsummer riot of flowers—roses, petunias, and bougainvillea, all purple and white.

But it takes some time to find the quieter, surprising, deeply ingratiating nooks and crannies, the real life of the place. It's worth a long afternoon or two of wandering. Civic nomenclature is primal: a meandering path with earth-and-timber steps that winds through woods along the Stadsgraven canal is called Green Street. It intersects with Long Street, which leads in turn toward the Northern Area. I watch several small blond children, without any adult supervision, walking a gleaming white pony to a corral. A young woman wearing white leather gloves is pushing a barrow. All sorts of vessels—a grounded red rowboat, a pair of black rubber boots—serve as planters.

On top of one large house I notice several pairs of well-used heavy leather shoes. Nina explains the inhabitants "are a German group who travel for three years and one day at a time. When they are in residence here they put their shoes on the roof as a sign." Another house, also built in the past few decades, is octagonal, with a conical roof and half-timbered walls. On the far bank of the Stadsgraven ("Three years after we stole this side," Nina says cheerfully, "we stole the other side") a house has been constructed around a huge tree. And a two-story house with a steeply pitched roof is built up in a tree.

No, it's not another planet, but rather a fairy-tale recasting of life on this one—I keep thinking of the Shire in Middle-earth, home of the hobbits. It can't be a coincidence that The Hobbit became a text of the youthquake as soon as its first mass-market edition appeared in 1965—benign, furry, happily unambitious creatures living in half-earthen houses, eating well, smoking pipes, and twigging to magic in an idyllic green community. And the Danes in particular embraced Tolkien's vision: in the Danish edition of The Lord of the Rings, the illustrations were by Queen Margrethe. In Christiania, they live the dream.

In a settlement founded by the (no longer) young, youth must still be served. Each age group among Christiania's children has its own clubhouse. One of the largest recent pieces of civic infrastructure is a big indoor skateboarding pit. Loppen (Flea), a 400-seat club, is one of Copenhagen's main rock venues.

In general, though, while Christiania is more bohemian than bourgeois, it also seems as pleasantly middle-aged as it does young. Sharing Loppen's 19th-century warehouse is Spiseloppen, an excellent bobo restaurant that serves, for instance, reindeer over roasted organic mushrooms with berry and aniseed sauce. Den Grå Hal (the Gray Hall) is not only the site of a recurring drag-queen beauty pageant called Frøken Verden (Miss World), but also of the annual Julemarkedet (Christmas market) and festival.

Visitors are welcome at all of the stores and artisanal workshops. The bicycle place, which has a chic new Modernist steel-and-glass façade, manufactures and even exports a Whole Earth–y trike-cum-pram-cum-wheelbarrow. Another shop makes and sells North African–style tables and Swedish ovens. And Grøntsagen, a gorgeous fruit and vegetable store, is a SoHo-meets-the-Hamptons Platonic ideal of such a shop. We oohed and ahhed over the lettuces and melons and oranges for half an hour—and at the shaft of perfect sunlight illuminating a crate of red and green peppers. As we passed the Sunshine Bakery, we stopped just to smell the aromas wafting out. The Månefiskeren (Moonfisher) café has a pretty, airy interior and huge arched windows, and at Morgenstedet (Morning Place), all the entrées are vegetarian and cost about $8. Everything is homemade, including the good, spicy vegetable stew and scrumptious spice cake covered in huge, multicolored frosting flowers.

Cannabis leaves and buds figure prominently in wall murals. Some waist-high marijuana plants growing outdoors are accompanied by a label claiming they are "industrial hemp." People seem to hack and cough a good deal. And one of the central thoroughfares is called Pusher Street. Christiania tore down and ceremoniously burned Pusher Street's dozen hashish and marijuana stands three years ago as a dramatic way of appeasing the government. (One of the stands was spared and installed—so Danish—in the National Museum.) As a result, the old no-photography-on-Pusher-Street rule still obtains—I saw a European tourist snapping pictures for only a few seconds before a man wearing a Chicago Bulls hat backward confiscated the exposed film. This being reasonable Denmark, he paid her for it.

Despite the end of the drug bazaar, however, and despite the fact that most Copenhageners seem inclined to let Christiania remain as it is, the government is pressing ahead with a plan to strip the community of its off-the-books singularity—to "normalize" it. In 2004, the parliament passed a law to begin treating Christianites this year not as members of a collective but as individuals who would be required to buy, or pay rent for, their homes and businesses at market rates. The place is to be de-communized and privatized, and several hundred new dwellings are to be built by private developers. Negotiations between Christiania and the Palace and Properties Agency are ongoing, but radical change—that is, radically in the direction of regularity—seems inevitable.

To a friendly outsider, this Danish government seems to have a misplaced obsession with making an example of Christiania's untidy utopian lawlessness. Dudes, it's been 35 years; let go; let it be. Christianites are now like a lost tribe of indigenous people whose unusual homes and folkways should be allowed to survive in their original state if only as a matter of anthropological interest. BEVAR CHRISTIANIA (Protect Christiania) and FORSVAR CHRISTIANIA (Defend Christiania), as the signs and stickers and graffiti say, amount to the literally conservative position. Besides, even business-minded technocrats ought to understand that the unsullied brand is well established and thriving: all over Copenhagen are Christiania T-shirts and umbrellas and bikes, and an average of 2,000 shoppers and tourists a day visit the place.

Another, virtually secret community of hippie squatters from 1971 lies across the Stadtgraven canal to the south. Ballonparken is a hushed, open, weirdly undeveloped bucolic bubble in the city—no murals, no signs, no cafés, hardly any tourists, and none of Christiania's self-dramatizing symbol-of-the-beleaguered-counterculture ostentation. Walking back through Christianshavn proper, if one takes the correct zigs and zags one comes to yet another, nearly secret village, which, because it lies below street grade, is unknown to most residents of Copenhagen, let alone visitors. Vennelyst—whimsical, intimate, insular, and perfectly odd—might be a colony in Tolkien's world, a 300-cottage development (population 1,000) in the Shire somewhere between Hobbiton and Tuckborough. Its name means "Friends' Place." It is, Danes tell me, an apotheosis of the national hygge sensibility. Summer (that includes late spring and early fall) is the only time this seasonal community is open to visitors, and I challenge anyone to wander its gravel paths and fail to smile and gasp.

Vennelyst is also on government land, but unlike the appropriated acreage of Christiania, it was properly leased and carved into plots from the get-go, in 1892, at the start of the modestly utopian "allotment and leisure gardens movement" that reached its peak in Europe and Britain in the mid 20th century.

Each of the 300 seasonal homes is barely eight feet high, most only 25 square feet, and the very biggest 50 feet wide, all built close together, with almost no side yards. And every one is a labor-intensive marvel of exterior decoration and (especially) gardening—shrubs and flowers of staggering variety and density envelop every cottage. Individually the homes tend toward the kitschy, and in the aggregate they form a kind of urban folk-art masterpiece. Vennelyst's expiring lease with the government was recently extended to 2025. One hopes that if Christiania ratchets back a bit on its romantic bluster and hippie-radical special pleading—its flouting of Jantelov—it, too, can manage to survive intact into the next century.

Valdemars Slot is at the center of a private estate of 2,100 acres, 25 times as big as Christiania, a considerable property almost anywhere, but especially in Denmark, which isn't much larger than Maryland. The two-lane road to this fiefdom, Slotsalleen—Castle Avenue, more or less—has been a public highway since the 1930's, when Baron Iuel-Brockdorff was a baby. It runs to the beach through a pair of huge, butter-colored, two-story 18th-century gatehouses and between the baron's 90,000-square-foot brick manor house and crescent-shaped lawn on one side and his grand outbuildings (including a tea pavilion) and reflecting pool on the other. The fact that the whole damn world can drive right across his private property rankles the baron and his wife, Molise.

"We've tried to build a road around" the central castle complex, Baroness Iuel-Brockdorff says. "They never let us do it. Forget it." "They" are the government and its Jantelovian regulators, of course.

"You get lots of hollow laughter," Baron Iuel-Brockdorff adds.

The five-year-old center-right government has been slightly more accommodating of their aristocratic desire for privacy, but only slightly: there is new wrought-iron fencing along each curb. "The Socialist government," the baroness says, "would never have let us put up the fences."

The couple's complaints are made with smiles, over coffee in the pleasant 20th-century house where they live behind the castle with their Labrador retrievers, Einstein and Clara. The baron and baroness are trim and handsome, charming and astringent, worldly and conservative. They speak perfect English with British accents. During a recent dinner at Nobu in London, the baron mentions to me, he was shocked to be told he couldn't smoke: "I spent two hours looking at four hairy armpits [of fellow patrons in sleeveless tops], but I can't smoke a Cuban cigar!" Serfdom was abolished in Denmark when his great-great-great-grandfather, Carl Juel-Brockdorff (the spelling was changed), was a boy at Valdemars Slot, but the current baron and baroness must maintain a staff of 50, full- and part-time. "The gamekeeper," the baroness announces during our chat, "just came with fresh shrimps. It's a bad year for shrimps."

They are, in other words, central-casting aristocrats irritated by the middling proprieties of the modern world—not unlike the central-casting hippies of Christiania. And like the Christianites in their decommissioned navy base, the Iuel-Brockdorffs occupy Valdemars Slot as a result of a quirk of Danish naval history. The castle was built in the 17th century by the Danish king Christian IV for his son, Prince Valdemar, who died young and never moved in. After Admiral Niels Juel won a big sea battle against Sweden, in 1677, his bonus payment was Valdemars Slot. And 10 generations later, here is his descendant, Niels Iuel-Brockdorff. (The legal owner lately, however, is the baron's daughter, Caroline Fleming, who lives in Switzerland and the U.K. with her husband.)

Today, it's a protected historic property, naturally, but that burdens the owners with an unfunded government mandate—a total of only $5 million a year in public money, the baron says, is doled out to maintain over 9,000 listed buildings. He mentions the high property taxes. Denmark also has a top income-tax bracket of 67 percent, almost twice the U.S. rate. At Valdemars Slot they grow wheat, barley, and rapeseed and have been obliged for the past three decades to earn money from tourists as well.

"It's plain economics," he says. He lent the place to the Royal Danish Naval Museum for 10 years, but—yet another bit of grief with the government—they didn't maintain it in top-drawer fashion. "I threatened to hold a press conference. Then we had to start ourselves. We needed money to keep it up. It was a big chance to take."

There are only a few rooms for overnight accommodations ($128 to $240 for a double includes breakfast), which my family and I took advantage of, indulging the fantasy that we were guests rather than tourists. We stayed in a bright upstairs suite in the northern gatehouse. The décor and furnishings are quite Danish—better than humble but in no way swank, just perfectly nice. The southern gatehouse has a large apartment that can sleep 10, and two houses are available in the estate's forest, called Nørreskov, where wild peacocks roam. The restaurant, designed by Molise, is a lovely groin-vaulted space at the southern end of the castle, with white plaster walls and terra-cotta floors. The menu is divided between old-fashioned Danish and modern French, and the dishes we had were quite good.

The baron and his family use the main house during Christmas and shooting season; at other times they rent it out (as well as the attached slotskirke, a magnificent two-story stone chapel) for weddings, parties, balls, conferences, whatever. And mostly they let $10-a-pop tourists wander the castle's rooms at will.

"We need an in-house staff so people don't nick things," the baron says. Indeed: there are no velvet ropes or Plexiglas barriers. I have never been to a better stately home–turned-museum. The ceilings on the ground floor are 18 feet high, and nearly 22 feet on the second. The family's several centuries' worth of books (5,000 volumes) and antiques—Renaissance chests, pictures from the Dutch Baroque, mint-condition 17th-century Gobelin tapestries, a hidden closet toilet, a beautifully rendered cigar box (decorated with a couple having sex) by the important 19th-century Danish painter C.W. Eckersberg—are here, along with more recent acquisitions, such as a stuffed rabbit in a hunting cap and camouflage vest posed holding a shotgun, and a personally inscribed photograph of Joan Collins. It is a real family's real house.

Filling the enormous attic is an impressive collection of big-game trophies from all over the world, and in the former stables are two nice smaller museums, one devoted to toys and the other to yachting. Around 40,000 people a year visit Valdemars Slot. The majority are Danes, Swedes, and Germans, and most of the rest are Dutch, British, and French. "The Germans," the baron remarked, "have no money. It's a problem when you have Socialism too long."

"You will see here in Denmark," another good-looking, shamelessly haughty Danish aristocrat once told a visiting American writer, "the plus and the minus of true democracy. I don't think it's well for a country to completely give up its elite." Nor to completely give up, the baroness Karen Blixen might well have added had she lived to see the full bloom of bohemianism—the aristocracy's exotic counterpart at the other end of the social spectrum. She knew that Denmark needed a few strange people with the hubris to live very differently from all their pleasant, sensible, relentlessly moderate countrymen.

When to Go

Denmark's general climate is relatively mild, given its northern locale, but winters are cold and dark. The ideal time to visit is May through September, when temperatures average between 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the city is at its most festive, with a variety of outdoor events.

Getting There

Direct flights from the U.S. to Kastrup, Copenhagen's international airport, are not abundant, but Scandinavian Airlines offers several options, including a 71/2-hour nonstop from Newark, and direct flights from Seattle (91/2 hours), Chicago, and Washington (via Dulles International Airport). Travel from L.A. or San Francisco requires a connecting flight.

Getting Around

Your best bet is to rent a car. Christiania, Ballonparken, and Vennelyst are within 15 minutes of one another; Christiania is on the Copenhagen side of the harbor and the other two are on the Amager island side, near Kastrup. Valdemars Slot— two hours' drive from Copenhagen—is on Tåsinge, an island in the archipelago off the island of Fyn. Overnight stays at Valdemars Slot can be booked—usually by the week—through Danish-American agent Henning Ottsen (805/643-6363; www.scandinavianrentals.com).

Where to Stay

Hotel Tiffany
A charming small hotel located in the city center. 1 Halmtorvet; 45-3/321-8050; www.hotel-tiffany.dk; doubles from $182.

The Square
Fashionable accommodations near the Tivoli gardens. 14 Rådhuspladsen; 45-3/338-1200; www.thesquare.dk; doubles from $266.

Where to Eat

Restaurants are in Christiania; addresses (except Pusher Street's) are area designations.

43 Bådmandsstræde; 45-3/257-9558; dinner for two $80.

43 Bådmandsstræde; 45-3/257-2708; lunch for two $20.

134 Fabriksområdet; dinner for two $30.

Woodstock Café
Pusher St.; 45-3/254-5586; coffee for two $2.

Café Nemoland
Pusher St.; 45-3/295-8931; lunch for two $15.

What to Do

43 Bådmandsstræde, Christiania; 45-3/257-8422.

Valdemars Slot
100 Slotsaleen, Troense, Tåsinge; 45-6/222-6106; www.valdemarsslot.dk.

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