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Christiania: Free but flawed?

The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania
The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania

When telling people I was planning to visit Copenhagen this holiday, Christiania was a universal recommendation. According to its website, Christiania is"a self-governing society where each individual is free to themselves under the authority of the community. This society shall be financially self-supporting, and the common aim must always be to show that the mental and physical contamination can averted". According to a Danish politician, Christiania is"a dwelling for people who wish to live in a different manner". According to many Danes, Christiania is "a hippie squat"

In basic terms, Christiania is a "freetown", an autonomous neighbourhood in the middle of Copenhagen that has existed as a commune since 1971, and whose residents (roughly 700 adults and 250 kids) struck a deal with the Danish government in 2011 to purchase the land off of them for a more official independence. Up-to-date information about this deal and the situation in general is pretty hard to find online, but since this loose agreement the community has been raising funds via selling off "shares" in Christiania for anything between 100 and 10, 000 krona (£10-£1000). Although officially subject to Danish jurisdiction, the area is famous for a rather more lax approach to law-keeping, particularly when it comes to the drugs trade - the aptly-titled titled "Pusher Street" that Christiania is famous for has been portrayed as both a tourist draw and guilty of scaring visitors away. Since the "junk blockade" of 1979 residents have maintained that hard drugs no longer circulate, but this is fairly easily disproven even if such sales are rather more low-key than the brazen high street trade of the softer stuff. Hash is dealt openly despite frequent police raids, with dealers dressing themselves and their stalls up in camouflage and many wearing balaclavas and sunglasses - according to the website this is because "Pusher Street chooses to strike against the government's misguided marijuana policy and emphasis camouflage netting over all the stalls to make hash less visible". Christiania has its own "state" gallery, many outdoor art installations, and several cafes and food stalls. Signs above its exits proclaim that "you are now entering the European Union".

We visited Christiania with a Canadian we'd met at our hostel. She passed on what she'd heard from all the Danes she'd encountered: Christiania is where Copenhagen residents go when they're fifteen and want to try something illicit, a glorified squat full of hobos and hippies and drug addicts. It took us a while to find, as it's situated on an island in the middle of the city accessible only by bridges; at first we thought the whole island was the commune, and were shocked at how clean and family-friendly and totally normal the streets looked, nothing different from the rest of the city. The sight of a giant psychedelic mural by a narrow door through which wafted a certain familiar smell informed us that the commune makes up only a corner of the island, and is completely walled off from neighbouring suburbia.

My first impressions of the place were that it has a similar vibe to Tacheles, the late and great artist squat in a similarly central position in Berlin. Graffiti coats every surface, dark doorways and passages lead to who knows where, weird refuse sculptures are dotted left right and centre. As we walked in deeper signs told us that we were now entering the "green light district", where photography was banned along with running and sudden movements. Pusher Street is the central market square of Christiania, a cluster of camouflaged stalls run by men in dark clothes and often hidden behind the netting that hangs over their wares. We decided to make a purchase (when in Rome), and the experience definitely felt very illegal and pretty intimidating - and was the most expensive transaction I made in my entire time in Denmark. Which is saying something. After wandering round the remaining few streets (it really is just a collection of a couple of squares and alleys) we wended our way out through the exits and back into Denmark proper. We were underwhelmed, and unimpressed, by both the goods and the town.

I think there's something fairly depressing about Christiania, and its not because all of the buildings look abandoned and most of the graffiti can't really be classified as art. To me it felt seedy. It felt like some of the rougher areas of Amsterdam, aided by the preponderance of stalls selling tacky t-shirts and marijuana paraphernalia, and people with eyes like pies cramming overpriced hotdogs into their faces. There's certainly a feeling of existence outside the law, but not in an "our town, our rules" kind of way... it's more of the vibe of illegality. I'm all for decriminalisation, but that isn't what Christiania is - its residents are painfully aware, as they have to be, of the officially forbidden nature of their merchandise, and they conduct their sales as such. For a town set up to celebrate independence and variety outside of the system, it seemed to me there was precious little variety of enterprise. We did come across Danish people who commented on the positives of the freetown, people raising their children all together and growing their own food, the stuff of idealistic 60s communes. Maybe all of that happens and it's just not on show to non-residential visitors - but it would be a far cry from the Christiania that we saw.