Approaching the area, I can’t help but notice the how over-grown the grass is (waist high), how decrepit the buildings. Finding the entrance to Christiania is like trying to find a penny on the ocean floor –it’s damned near impossible. Despite the lack of street signs or notable points of reference, I somehow find my way into this maze of a neighborhood, but not through – surprise, surprise – the main entrance, and when I do, there isn’t a soul in sight.
Having been in the area for over 30-minutes, I started wondering what all the hype is about. This surely can’t be the anarchist community that’s had so much buzz around it for the last few decades… Within moments, though, I hear chatter and head towards it, the hub of the only surviving anarchist community in the world, Fristaden (meaning Freetown) Christiania.
Tucked away in the Copenhagen’s outer borough of Christianshavn, Christiania thrives very much as a hippy commune would. Its roots trace back to the 1970s when homeless families began squatting in the abandoned red brick WWII military barracks, and they still do today. And to their credit, they’ve done a bang-up job. In front of me, there are buildings covered in vibrant murals, car-free streets, a clothes swap stand (a leave one, take one system), a neighborhood café and bar, and just behind me, a school and playground for the neighborhood children.
But what grabs my attention most is the gathering of people – a hundred strong – in an open space up ahead of me. As I get closer, the chatter gets louder and someone tests a microphone. 1-2, 1-2. Check. 1-2. As I round the corner, I notice that almost everyone has a granola feel to them: dreadlocks, Birkenstocks, paisley tops for the ladies, cuords, hemp necklaces. Putting Bob Dylan on stage is about the only thing that could’ve made it more like the late 60s. There’s even a café/bar housed in a building that looks like it were an old general store from the Wild West. Curious about the upcoming performance, I linger and observe. The sun is shining and there’s a light breeze that sends a faint smell of cigarettes and cloves in my direction as happy children run around dirty-faced giggling together.
But as much as this seems like a mini hippy utopia, it hasn’t always been the case. Christiania has long battled drug problems, so much so the residents chose to ban all hard-core drugs (i.e. heroin, cocaine, meth). Its residents are, for the most part, peaceful, but they still struggle to keep out the drug dealers who flock to “Pusher Street,” and for whom violence and unrest tag along on their coattails.
The sound of someone tapping the microphone distracts me from my thoughts. A man well over six-feet tall dressed in neatly worn jeans and a green flannel shirt sits down on a stool behind the mic and launches into a long speech in Danish, most of which I can’t understand. Even though I would like to stick around and see what’s to come, my stomach starts to protest.
With that I head off to find Morgenstedet – one of the few strictly vegetarian restaurants in all of Copenhagen – and leave behind the bluegrass music that’s just beginning. Morgenstedet, meaning “The Morning Place” is a cozy, little restaurant that sings of homecooking the moment you walk through the door. A hodge-podge of wooden tables and chairs fill the small room, curries simmer on the stove, and the quiet of diners happily filling their bellies pervades. Famished, I order the daily special, which includes a choice of vegan salads, brown rice and a curry. It’s not cheap (approx. US$12), but one of the servers explains to me – in perfect English, might I add – that all of their ingredients are organic and everything is made from scratch each morning.
In no time, I polish my plate. The food was every bit as good as the guide book notes, though a local who shared a table with me mentioned that they rotate cooks so the quality can fluctuate. I linger for a few moments just to take in the atmosphere before ordering a cup of their hot chai to take with me on a very long walk back to my hotel. And it’s wonderful – the perfect amount of spice and sugar. As I close Morgenstedet’s gate behind me, I see a group of tourists and hoping they’ll lead me to an exit, I start to follow, but they end up staying to listen to the tall, lanky bluegrass performer I left behind earlier.
Somewhere along the way, though, I make a wrong turn and find myself in the middle of Pusher Street. Christiania seemed fairly pleasant until I came face to face with Pusher Street. It is a long dirt street flanked by run-down buildings and filled with the roughest of people. For a female traveling alone, it is beyond intimidating: stormy looking men line boths sides of the street, loud heavy metal and punk music screams, and pitbulls run around freely. Today, Pusher Street feels just as menacing as some of the chancy areas I’ve been through in New York and London.
It’s enough to make my skin crawl. And although no one seems bothered by me, I pick up the pace a bit and say my prayers. With each step my heart beats faster, and it feels like it’s going to burst through my chest. I make it a point not to look anyone in the eye. But before I know it, the sight of harmless hippies and the wild flowers that grow all over Christiania reappears, leaving the grit of Pusher Street behind me. And as I round the corner, the elusive entrance gate I tried so tirelessly to find sits waiting.
*Morgenstedet is located at Fabriksområdet 134, Christianshavn, and is open Tue – Sun from noon to 9pm.
Note to Travelers: If you go to Christiania, do not take too many photographs. I read that it angers the residents, which is I why I have so few pictures of it.
Photo Credit: The Morgenstedet photo was taken by Mette Walsted. http://www.spottedbylocals.com/copenhagen/morgenstedet-christiana