Even as the second-largest city in Denmark, Århus had nowhere near the notoreity of Copenhagen. Despite its terrific location on the eastern coast of the Jutland Peninsula, it simply didn't have the same spot on the global historic stage. This was a shame, since Århus did so much to retain its unique flavor while her bigger sister city went metropolitan.
Århus was the capital of the Jutland (known to the Danes as Jylland) Province, and a virtual museum of Danish architecture and history. The downtown reminded me a lot of Luebeck in northern Germany -- a healthy mix of old red-brick structures with copper conical spires, half-timbered houses, and brand new modernized shops. Large parts of the downtown were restricted to pedestrian traffic, which certainly had its virtues on the day I visited. The city's harbor was pretty much industrial, instead the lifeline of the downtown was in its main canal, the Aboulevarden, that cut through the heart of the city.
Visitors arriving by train, like I did, will want to start with the main shopping street, the Søndergade, that ran about a half-kilometer long and led one straight to the Lutheran Dom (Cathedral), which is shown in the first photograph. The Søndergade was beautifully paved with silver and black brick, and the stores were very busy. (As with anywhere in Denmark, I found goods to be a bit more expensive than in Germany to the south. It was easy to lose track of the math due to the exchange rate being the odd 7.25:1 to the $US). Søndergade became Skt. Clemens Torv and merged with Lille Torv at the downtown. It was worth getting a city map and wandering around a number of the smaller streets, because a lot of the specialty shops were hidden away, as were several historic buildings.
Without question, if there was one thing to do in Århus, it was Den Gamle By, the Old Town museum. This was one of those simulated old town-type places where the workers dressed and worked as they did centuries past. What made this interesting for me was the sheer size of the place, almost eighty buildings embracing a beautiful stream, shown in the second photograph with a traditional rope-guided ferry. Each one of the buildings was either 'moved' (I presumed that to mean disassembled and reassembled) from somewhere in Denmark or reconstructed copies. The buildings dated mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, although some were decorated in early-20th century style, and some of them contained a history of the families that originally lived within. Each of the common trades were represented: apothecaries, blacksmiths, millers, weavers, tailors, hatmakers, etc. There was also a customs house and plenty of discussion about early Danish trade. I was very impressed.
Den Gamle By was located right next to the city's botanical garden, shown in the third photograph. The botanical garden was a beautiful outdoor walk, and as the Saturday afternoon alternated rain and sunshine, the dozen or so folks outside with me alternately dashed in and out of the plentiful shady trees.
But the main event of the day was the opening of the Århus City Festival, a two-week festival filled with music, food, and drink. As Murphy's Law dictated, this festival opened to a freezing cold (but thankfully shortlived) downpour as the first sidewalk band started its second number. Can't have everything I suppose.
The festival was spread far and wide in the downtown area. Stages were erected underneath the Cathedral and satellited around the minor market squares. Each had live music starting at noon and going well into the evening. Pizza, gyro, and Danish frankfurter (which was very close in style to the American hot dog) stands were everywhere, each selling fadøl (the word for 'draft beer' in Danish) at special rates -- high price for one, but the second one was only a few cents. The street performances were very high quality, including puppeteers and a dancing rapelling act on the walls of one of the banks. The latter was a troupe of six or eight folks who exercised a choreographed routine as they climbed down the face of the building -- very different.
The music played on the different stages varied greatly in quality. The Dom stage was by far the best, with troupes singing and playing mostly pop fare that was universal in appeal, while I watched in despair as a semi-punk/semi-hard rock band did a wonderful job of butchering an ABBA1 song. I supposed it was the product of hard work, after all it must be challenging for four guitarists to play one song in four different keys and tempos simultaneously.
The place was jammed by late afternoon. The fourth photo shows the Aboulevarden with the cafés overflowing with people. This canal front was clearly the center of activity for the city.
For the low price of 88Dkr (in 2002), a one-day city card allowed me to hit as many museums as I could plus use all the public transportation available for no additional charge. Along with Den Gamle By, I took the opportunity to visit a couple of Århus' other museums, albeit they had to be short visits. The Kunstmuseum (city art museum) was particularly nice, and I enjoyed the on-going exhibit featuring photos and video projects from a reknowned Iranian artist.
There was one piece of artwork that I had to critique (negatively) that the city of Århus claims as one of its 'hallmarks' (or perhaps it was just the city tourist bureau making that claim). It was the town hall, shown in the fifth photo. I didn't capture all the detail, but apparently a famous architect was called upon to design this structure with its distinctive clock face, and jailhouse structure. This was the first building I spotted after departing from the railway station and heading downtown, and my first reaction was to recoil in horror. Since when did a town hall look impressive that employs any motif resembling a jail? Making it worse was that the fountain in front (which you can't see) had its waters colored red, possibly for the festival. The coloring apparently had a soapy base and by the time I left the fountain had practically foamed over pink. Brilliant.
Hey, I called it like I saw it. :-)
Anyhow, that in no way 'discolored' ::guffaw:: the experience I had in Århus. It was a very nice city, worth the day trip.
Note 1. It should not surprise you that almost every act that I listened to, no matter the style, had at least one ABBA song -- and that ABBA CDs were often played over the loudspeakers during intermissions. Rule of thumb: if you don't like ABBA, don't go to Scandinavia.
Trip taken 31 August 2002 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin