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Hi/Lo: Denmark's Christiania and Valdemars Slot

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.


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