This feature on the beautiful (and wonderfully vibrant) Danish city of Aarhus appeared in The Irish Independent on June 6.
“Why wasn’t Jesus born in Aarhus?” starts a popular Danish joke. “They couldn’t find three wise men.” Evidently, second-city bashing is not a sport confined to Ireland: Copenhagen’s urban sophisticates love to mock Denmark’s other city, but just as Cork has far more to offer than most Dubs would like to admit, Aarhus is no provincial backwater.
At just under 300,000 inhabitants Aarhus might be a fraction of Copenhagen’s size, but the latter’s reputation for studied cosmopolitan cool is alive and well among the Friday afternoon drinkers in Café Under Masken, a dive bar near Aarhus’s imposing Romanesque cathedral.
It’s not even 4.30pm but already the low-ceilinged lounge — it literally is the ‘cafe under the mask’, as an ornate African head smiles down from over the front door — is full of hip twentysomethings in skinny jeans and trilby hats (men and women), smoking like it is going out of fashion and shouting to be heard over The Pogues’ greatest hits.
Danish avant-garde artist Hans Krull owns Café Under Masken and the bar is decorated with myriad examples of his eclectic work — except, of course, on the three walls that the café’s gigantic aquarium runs along. As I sit slowly supping bottles of lager from the local Fur brewery and watching the tropical red snapper through a fug of cigarette smoke, the opening verse of Sally MacLennane kicks in, to howls of approval from the locals. Doubtless Shane McGowan is still longing to back in “the greatest little boozer” but I feel as if I’ve found it — and, much to my surprise, it’s in the middle of Denmark.
Aarhus, to borrow a phrase from one of Denmark — and Copenhagen’s — most famous literary sons, Hans Christian Andersen, is something of an ugly duckling. The harbour, one of the largest in northern Europe, is filled with Maersk containers and passenger ferries, and large factories still dominate skyline around the docks. A romantic stroll along the waterfront might not be possible but, over the past 25 years, Aarhus has transformed itself from the industrial powerhouse of the Midtjylland (Mid-Jutland) region into a vibrant, bohemian city with a reputation for food, drink and live music.
At the heart of this reinvention is the Latin Quarter, the rather incongruous, tourist office-invented sobriquet for what was formerly known as the Old Town. The warren of narrow, stone streets with historical names such as Klostergade (Convent St), Volden (The Rampart) and Borggade (Castle St) in and around the cathedral were, until recently, run-down and unloved but now are among the most trendy addresses in Aarhus and, indeed, Denmark.
Stella McCartney and Bang and Olufsen are among the designer stores vying for shoppers’ attention alongside independent craft-shops and small galleries on Badstuegade, one of the Latin Quarter’s main thoroughfares. Around the corner, on Rosengade, Casablanca is the city’s oldest café, dating back from the mid-1970s, a time when a lozenge-shaped ‘Tabac’ sign outside and a bottle of Chartreuse behind the bar was the height of Parisian sophistication (both, by the way, still present).
While Scandinavia is often held up as a model for what Europe should aspire to — socially liberal, progressive, fair — our Nordic neighbours are often traduced as safe, predictable and rather boring.
But, as I discovered when I lived in Aalborg, a nearby city of 100,000 folk in North Jutland, a few years back, Danes are anything but dull — as befitting the country that brought the world Carlsberg, Denmark is a nation of beer-drinkers and pub-goers. And Aarhus is blessed with a fine selection of bars to choose from.
A stone’s throw from Café Under Masken, the achingly cool clientele in Ris Ras Filliongong recline on opulent chaises longue, drink draught beers from Denmark and Germany and puff on cigars. Smoking is banned in public in Denmark but paradoxically allowed in bars of less than 40 square metres. It feels a bit too much like sitting in the smoking carriage on the old Dublin-Sligo train for my (ex-smoker) liking but, thankfully, the bar’s basement is larger and, consequently, smoke-free.
During my student days in Aalborg I often ventured south for gigs, and, outside urbane Copenhagen, Aarhus remains Denmark’s undisputed live music capital. Venues such as Voxhall and Train host top-notch international acts most nights of the week, while the burgeoning Danish music scene is well supported: bands such as Efterklang and Oh No Ono are closely connected with Aarhus and still return to the city regularly.
Not everything has remained the same since my last visit, however. The town centre is now almost completely pedestrianised, part of a broader initiative, begun back in the early 1990s, to reduce traffic. Bicycles have become the main mode of downtown transport in Aarhus — city bikes that can be rented by the hour are available on most street corners and are a great way to enjoy this most compact of European cities — and the area along Aaboulevarden (literally “the river boulevard”), once choked up with cars, is now the perfect place to kick back and enjoy the city’s burgeoning café culture.
Foodies take note: Copenhagen might be more than three hours south on the train but the Nordic food revolution that has gripped the Danish capital — Noma in Copenhagen was recently voted best restaurant in the world — is evident in Aarhus, too.
Noma famously uses only produce available in the Nordic region, a commitment to seasonal, local cooking shared by many, including Thorsten Schmidts, head chef at Nordisk Spisehus.
A favourite among Aarhus’s chattering classes, if the packed house on my Friday evening visit is anything to go by, Nordisk Spisehus is a pleasing marriage of minimalism, with sleek, white walls and unfussy service, and maximalism, with portions generous to a fault and all dishes available as takeaway. And, unlike many fine-dining establishments, beer is actively encouraged as a wine alternative. Jutland has undergone a brewing revolution in recent years, with more than 50 micro-breweries appearing in the past decade alone, and locally brewed beer is available in restaurants and bars throughout the city. Nordisk Spisehus boasts a particularly impressive selection (many in special 750ml bottles so you don’t feel left out among the wine quaffers).
Although Copenhageners mock Aarhus as backward and unsophisticated, across Scandinavia the city has a reputation as a cultural capital.
The annual Aarhus festival, which runs for 10 days in late August/early September, is the biggest arts festival in the Nordic region, with past events featuring everyone from the Rolling Stones and Ravi Shankar to Latin American rainmakers and African choirs. The theme for this year’s festival, which starts on August 27, is “neighbours” — expect music, dance, theatre, sport, opera and exhibitions for all ages.
Elsewhere, the Kvindemusset, or ‘women’s museum’, provides a fascinating feminist history of Denmark, while the nearby Frihedsmuseet tells the story of Danish resistance to the Nazis during the Second World War.
Across town, a five-metre tall Boy hunches down, hiding his face behind his left arm. It might look thrillingly lifelike but Ron Mueck’s hyperreal sculpture is the main attraction at the ARoS museum, a magnificent Guggenheim-esque edifice complete with spiral stairs and a light, airy glass roof. This remarkable contemporary art gallery wasn’t named after the Greek god of love but actually borrows its title from the city’s original name, Aaross, or the mouth of a small river.
From small acorns (well, rivers) Denmark’s second city has grown into an engaging, invigorating and vibrant destination. Don’t believe the hype from sniping Copenhageners, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot for a weekend break in Europe. And before you ask, yes, I have heard the one about the Aarhus man who threw his clock out the window…