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Hi/Lo: Denmark's Christiania and Valdemars Slot

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.


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