Denmark’s ‘freetown’ Christiania hangs onto soul, 50 years on

A refuge for anarchists, hippies and artists, Denmark's 'freetown' Christiania turns 50 on Sunday, and though it hasn't completely avoided the encroachment of modernity and capitalism, its free-wheeling soul remains intact.

Denmark's 'freetown' Christiania hangs onto soul, 50 years on
Christiania, one of Copenhagen's major tourist attractions, celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sunday. JENS NOERGAARD LARSEN / SCANPIX / AFP

Nestled in the heart of Copenhagen, Christiania is seen by some as a progressive social experiment, while others simply see it as a den of drugs.

On September 26th, 1971, a band of guitar-laden hippies transformed an abandoned army barracks in central Copenhagen into their home. They raised their “freedom flag” and named their new home “Christiania, Freetown” after the part of the city where it is located.

They wanted to establish an alternative society, guided by the principles of peace and love, where decisions were made collectively and laws were not enforced.

Soft drugs were freely available, and repurposing, salvaging and sharing was favoured over buying new.

It was a community “that belonged to everybody and to no one”, said Ole Lykke, who moved into the 34-hectare (84-acre) enclave in the 1970s.

These principles remain well-rooted today, but the area has changed in many ways: tourists weave through its cobblestone roads, and the once-reviled market economy is in full swing.

Perhaps most importantly, it is no longer a squat. Residents became legal landowners when they bought some of the land from the Danish state in 2012.

Now it is home to some 900 people, many artists and activists, along with restaurants, cafes and shops, popular among the half a million tourists that visit annually.

“The site is more ‘normal’,” says a smiling Lykke, a slender 75-year-old with ruffled silver hair, who passionately promotes Christiania, its independence and thriving cultural scene.

Legislation has been enforced since 2013 — though a tongue-in-cheek sign above the exit points out that those leaving the area will be entering the European Union.

‘Embrace change’
It is Christiania’s ability to adapt with the times that has allowed it to survive, says Helen Jarvis, a University of Newcastle professor of social geography engagement.

“Christiania is unique,” says Jarvis, who lived in Christiania in 2010.

“(It) endures because it continues to evolve and embrace change”.

Some of those changes would have been unthinkable at the start.

Residents secured a bank loan for several million euros to be able to buy the land, and now Christiania is run independently through a foundation.

They also now pay wages to the around 40 people employed by Christiania, including trash collectors and daycare workers.

“Money is now very important,” admits Lykke, who is an archivist and is currently exhibiting 100 posters chronicling Christiania’s history at a Copenhagen museum.

But it hasn’t forgotten its roots.

“Socially and culturally, Christiania hasn’t changed very much,” he says, noting that the community’s needs still come first.

‘Judged a little’
Christiania has remained a cultural hub — before the pandemic almost two dozen concerts were held every week and its theatres were packed.

But it is still beset by its reputations as a drugs hub.

Though parts of Christiania are tranquil, lush and green with few buildings, others are bustling, with a post office, mini-market, healthcare centre, and Pusher Street, the notorious drug market.

Lykke says it’s a side of Christiania most could do without.

“Most of us would like to get rid of it. But as long as (marijuana use) is prohibited, as long as Denmark doesn’t want to decriminalise or legalise, we will have this problem,” says Lykke.

While still officially illegal, soft drugs like marijuana and hash are tolerated — though not in excess.

Since early 2020, Copenhagen police have seized more than one tonne of cannabis and more than a million euros.

“Sometimes I don’t tell people that I live here because you get judged a little bit. Like, ‘Oh, you must be into marijuana and you must be a smoker’,” says Anemone, a 34-year-old photographer.

For others, Christiania’s relaxed nature is part of the appeal.

“It’s different from what I know, I really want to see it,” laughs Mirka, a Czech teacher who’s come to have a look around.

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Heirs of Little Mermaid sculptor demand removal of Jutland rival

The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, the city's most famous monument, has gained a rival in the harbour of Asaa in northern Jutland. Now the family behind the original is demanding its removal.

Heirs of Little Mermaid sculptor demand removal of Jutland rival
The rival mermaid sits at the entrance of Asaa harbour in north Jutland. Photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

The new sculpture, titled Mod Hjemve, or Towards homecoming”, was placed in Asaa harbour four years ago, and shows a mermaid looking like it has just swum in from the sea. 

But the heirs of Edvard Eriksen, the Danish artist who created the mermaid erected on Copenhagen’s Langelinie promenade in 1913, complained this month in a letter to the local mayor that the Asaa mermaid was too similar to the Copenhagen one and demanded that it be removed and destroyed. 

I must admit that I could not help but laugh a little when I received the inquiry. A cow is a cow, and a mermaid is a mermaid,” Mikael Klitgaard, the mayor of Asaa’s Brønderslev municipality, told the Danish broadcaster TV2.

One cannot patent an entire species of animal, and by the way, I do not think the two mermaids are similar at all. Ours is more plump and has a completely different face.” 

Palle Mørk, the artist who made the new mermaid, strongly denied modelling his sculpture on Eriksen’s. 

I just didn’t do it, not by any means. It doesn’t look the same at all,” he complained. “My mermaid is made of granite and not bronze, and it is more than twice as big as the one in Copenhagen. Mine is also plumper, and the facial expression and hair are different.”

The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen is made of bronze and has a very different expression. Photo: Avda-berlin/Wikimedia Commons

When TV2 pointed out that the two mermaids were sitting in a very similar way, he retorted, “well, how the hell should a mermaid sit on a rock? She doesn’t have legs, but fins. You cannot have a patent on mermaids.” 


Stina Teilmann-Lock, an academic at Copenhagen Business School who studies the history of copyright, said that Eriksen’s heirs were particularly zealous when it came to protecting their copyright.

The newspapers Politiken, Berlingske and the now-closed Nyhedsavisen have all been fined for using an image of the Little Mermaid.

Berlingske had to pay 10,000 kroner ($1,800) for using a photo of the statue in connection with a 2005 story on Denmark’s tourism industry.

In 2009, the heirs demanded a licensing fee from the town of Greenville in Michigan which had erected a mermaid statue to celebrate its Danish heritage. 

Thomas Nymann, chairman of the board at Asaa Havn, said that the media coverage in Denmark had led to a temporary increase in tourism, but said he hoped the publicity would not harm his talks with the heirs. 

The more life we ​​can get at the port, the better! I do not know if I would use the word ‘boom’, but the other day there was a tourist bus from Korsør that wanted to see the mermaid,” he told DR

He said that the heirs were demanding that the harbour remove the statue and also that it pay them a fee, something he said the harbour town could not afford. 

According to DR, the café on the harbour, Cafe Hawblik, has stayed open longer into August than it normally does because of the curious visitors, and even put a mermaid sandwich on the menu. 

“My partner jumped on the idea straight away and made a mermaid sandwich, which were selling like hot cakes fright from the start,” said café owner Allan Legaard Hansen.