Last time I was in Christianshavn, the lively canals and islands area of Copenhagen, I saw a man with an iguana draped over his shoulder. I was on my way to Freetown Christiania, a self-styled independent republic. It is the sort of place where you can expect the unexpected, where iguanas would be more welcome than cars or outside lawmakers.
What is Freetown Christiania?
Freetown Christiania began as an attempt by squatters to occupy the disused barracks and defensive structures alongside the Stadsgraven Canal. It soon developed into a collective community, attracting freethinkers, bohemians and drug dealers. In 1971 it declared itself a “self-governing society”, and it has had an uneasy relationship with the Copenhagen authorities ever since.
Today Christiania has around a thousand inhabitants. No cars are allowed (there are a surprising number of rules for such a free-spirited community). So everyone gets about by bike, most commonly the distinctive Christiania cargo bikes – bikes with front trailers, which we saw carrying anything from children to groceries and fresh meat. The rules make it a quiet and peaceful place, slightly at odds with its reputation as a drug users’ paradise. In fact, although the main road is known as Pusher Street, with drugs openly on sale, hard drugs are strictly forbidden. (If you walk down Pusher Street you are advised not to take photographs, as even soft drugs are illegal in Denmark.)
Exploring Freetown Christiania
It has to be said that Christiania is more of a curiosity than a tourist attraction. However, there are features that make it worth a visit. The creativity of the residents is apparent: there are outdoor sculptures, and every available surface seems to be painted with vivid patterns. The houses are individually designed, often brightly coloured and with a certain “home-made” quality. As you walk around, you’ll spot other quirks such as the “Embassy of Uzhupis” (Užupis is a similar bohemian community in Vilnius, Lithuania).
For myself, I enjoyed the canal side walk, past the remains of the city’s defences. The locals were enjoying the summer sunshine, picnicking and sunbathing on the grass beside the water. Further along, I found a peaceful path, with the mounts of a rampart on one side, a nature reserve on the other. There were birds, butterflies and wild flowers, a pleasant retreat in the heart of the city.