Return to Paradise

Aleksander Tokarz, Copenhagen

Whenever I need a break from reality or the pressures of everyday living I can always count on one place to go where I can unwind and relax. This modern day oasis is called Christiania, a self-governed micro-nation located in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark. Surrounded by a lake and former military barracks it is a secluded community that is home to about 1,000 inhabitants. Through out the year this place receives more than a million visitors, who come from all over the world to experience a flashback to the counter culture of the 1960’s. The welcoming atmosphere and natural landscape allow this place to have a character that can’t be found anywhere else in Europe. Whatever the experience one may look for while visiting this neighborhood, one thing is for sure, Christiania has a little bit of something for everyone.

A combination of street graffiti and psychedelic painted murals is how one is greeted when entering this enclave from the outside. Along the paths within the entrance are a series of trees and bushes that filter out the vehicle noise and urban bustle of the city. A long brick building on the side hosts a variety of cafes, art museums and musical venues. Scattered bicycles and trash bins align the weaving pathways. Large Sculptures and painted walls give this place a rustic and free spirited feeling, but this is just an appetizer, the real entrance is just ahead. By following the dirt and gravel pathways one can enter Christiania, but not before walking through Pusher Street.

When confronted with the “no pictures allowed” signs and various groups of men with shaven heads and tattoos one might reconsider whether this is the right neighborhood to be in for an afternoon stroll. But there’s no need to be scared, you have just entered one of Europe’s only open cannabis markets. This unregulated industry has been going on for decades within this community and it brings in a considerable revenue to the local drug dealers. Spread out among the gift shops and cafes are a variety of wooden built booths where one can purchase cannabis in regular, compressed, oil, and even edible form. The prices are quite fair, and you can easily haggle for a cheaper price then advertised.

Within this densely packed street and tense atmosphere there are tourists checking out the handmade gifts sold by artists, locals playing with their children, and even an over intoxicated Eskimo population from Greenland that calls this place their home. Although the local police department does not monitor this area, this is not a lawless environment. At certain parts there are street signs that point out that violence, hard drugs, and suspicious activity such as running is not allowed. Within Pusher Street the rules are mostly enforced by the local dealers and their spotters who will snatch anyone’s camera if their picture is taken. However outside the main strip you are allowed to do pretty much anything, and its because of this relaxed atmosphere that on a sunny day you can see hundreds of people strolling along the pathways soaking up the sunshine and enjoying themselves.

After picking up a little gift I move past the dope dealers with pit bulls and walk into several paths that branch off from the main street. Sometimes wandering off course can be fun, even for someone who comes here on a regular basis. There is always something new to spot, whether it is a piece of art, a patch of flowers, or even the latest sculpture. To stay away from the typical crowd of tourists I take a quick hike ahead, and move into a more natural environment. At every corner there are groups of people having a picnic, drinking beers or playing games. Walking ahead I move upwards a series of hills, these surround the whole area and create a protective blanket that keeps this community secluded from the surrounding urban metropolis.

These hills and pathways are actually man made structures that were created hundreds of years ago to protect Copenhagen from invading armies. The wooden beams that prevent the paths from sliding into the lake were actual lookouts used by soldiers through out the centuries. Now they are seating benches for people who want to have a great view while they drink and smoke with their friends. On top of them one can find areas where the surrounding trees and lake make for a perfect urban refuge. From here one can see the tallest buildings standing out over the city skyline. The sound of birds chirping and ducks landing on the water buffer out the noise of the passing cars nearby. The chatter of the tourists below is mixed in with children’s laughter and the rhythm of an acoustic guitar. On a sunny day the sun beams reflecting off the lake can create a truly enlightening experience.

Walking along the top of the canal I continue down a path that becomes less recognizable and more packed with trees and bushes. This wild part of Christiania is only a couple city blocks long, but walking along it can make one feel as if they were hundreds of kilometers away from civilization. Around each turn there is a hidden structural gem where the local inhabitants have built a house for their family. The lack of building and municipal codes has allowed many to build wonderful wooden and geometrically complex structures. Almost each of these homes has a wooden deck that stretches over the lake and invites a little bit of the wilderness inside. During the summer the children can be seen swimming in the clean waters of the canal, and during the winter when the lakes freeze they skate on the ice.

Along the path, rows of wooden structures start to blend together and almost resemble a street found in a rural town. Handmade playground elements give this place a surreal charm that a person of any age can enjoy. Brightly colored walls and greenhouses filled with vegetables suggest that this is an independent community full of artistic individuals. Being here is when I start to question whether I am living in the present or have I stumbled back in time to a land that is free and protected from the influence of the outside world. But as I walk ahead and see the long smoke stacks from the factory nearby I shake off these romantic thoughts and return back to my senses.

As the ash starts to hit the filter I look towards a path that can take me back to the real world. I decide to hike up another hill and take a different route. This time more shaded and covered by hanging branches from the trees. The paths here are narrow and sometimes muddy. Walking around here can be tricky as one can either walk into someone’s front yard or end up on the other side of town. Remembering familiar signs I continue down the rough path. Returning finally to Pusher Street I feel a sense of discomfort knowing that I must go back to contemporary life, where certain rules and aspects of life are non-existent in Christiania. I can only look back and smile, hoping that it won’t be too long till my next time, when I return to paradise.