Feel free in Christiania, a hippie heaven in Copenhagen

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on August 28, 2020

Make room for the alternative-minded: Buildings are covered with graffiti art and on display are curious objects of recycled materials   -  IMAGES: ZAC O’YEAH

Copenhagen’s hippie enclave is still the hub for all things unconventional — from DIY thingamajigs to cannabis blossom beer

* Even today, as one exits the ‘autonomous zone’ of Christiania, which is celebrating its 50th year of existence and where about 900 hippies still reside, a sign says: “You are now entering the EU”

* In the 2010s the hippies reached a formal agreement with the Danish government to buy the land, effectively ending the state of squatting

* Christiania is full of interesting industries such as the factory that produces the popular Christiania bike, a tricycle crate bicycle

It’s lunchtime. Life in Copenhagen’s infamous enclave of Christiania has been moving in slow motion — as if waking up from yesterday’s parties and beginning to think of tomorrow’s — when it suddenly speeds up.

At home, at peace: The original settlers of Christiania are retirees in their 70s who are weary of selfie clickers

I’m sitting at a typically Scandinavian long wooden table at a central outdoor café, leisurely sampling hemp beer, which, despite its name, has no active drugs in it — but it’s brewed from cannabis blossoms and has an interesting taste. Or maybe it’s just the smell from what all the other guests are puffing away around me.

Suddenly, peddlers along Pusher Street (yes, that’s its name) start folding tables and chucking hashish into bushes. Ironically, the bushes are weedy plantations of cannabis, and in five seconds the pop-up outlets of Scandinavia’s biggest pot retail hotspot (estimated annual turnover equalling ₹100 crore) have vamoosed. Only kiosks offering paraphernalia such as bongs remain when bullet-proofed cops in heavy coveralls do a desultory search operation.

Peeking into garbage bins, they miss the obvious hiding place — the weeds! — and, as they leave, everything gears down into slo-mo again. Thanks to sentries with mobiles, dealers are warned of these weekly, occasionally daily, raids. When sweeps get too close for comfort, cops have been chased out by pushers who feel their sentiments and livelihoods are hurt. (Note to selfie clickers: Don’t snap anything in Pusher Street; photography is strictly not allowed.)

The smokers in the café are least concerned, as personal consumption isn’t a major offence in Denmark. Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by these chilled-out hippies — maybe because, having been born in the late ’60s, I totally missed the psychedelic years. Subsequent travels have taken me to Anjuna Beach in Goa, where tanned Australians with hashish-yellowed eyes practise yoga, grey dreadlocks fringing bald spots (from standing on their heads) that gleam in the setting sun. In a Freak Street café in Kathmandu, a German hippie, joint glued to his lips, told me, “It’s hard to be a hippie back home, but Nepal’s the lost paradise where, according to the Bible, our roots are; our tribe left Asia 5,000 years ago. Big mistake.” Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco is erstwhile hippie haven, where counterculture icons such as Neal Cassady (immortalised in Kerouac’s On the Road) and Ken Kesey ruled the party scene along with house band Grateful Dead (who lived in a commune on 710 Ashbury). But when I got there a lonesome flower-power uncle with spaghetti-thin arms sat collecting 25-cent coins to build a large peace-mark sign on the pavement — “Hey, gimme 25 cents for world peace, won’t ya?” — outside the chic Dharma boutique that advertised overpriced hippie couture.

All these years I’ve been hoping to meet somebody like George Harrison, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg or Timothy Leary. But they’re all dead and the leftover hippies seem to be drugged-out drifters with little of the ’60s’ ideals — that is, until I came to the hippie headquarters at Christiania. Around the time Haight-Ashbury was at its peak, Danish hippies entered an abandoned navy base in Copenhagen. They converted the barracks, spread across 3,40,000 sq m, into Freetown Christiania and declared themselves autonomous. It soon became a place of pilgrimage for alternative-minded folks. Even today, as one exits the zone, which is celebrating its 50th year of existence and where about 900 hippies still reside, a sign says: “You are now entering the EU.”

(But, in fact, Christiania is right in central Copenhagen’s gentrified borough of Christianshavn, at the corner of Prinsessegade and Badsmandsstræde, near another major tourist attraction called Vor Frelsers church.)

In the long run, however, lofty free-spirited ideals don’t always translate well into real-life circumstances. By the late-’70s, Christiania was a free-for-all junkie ghetto full of homeless addicts and refuge of petty criminals. Eventually, after several OD deaths, the hippies themselves started policing the scene, evicting heroin users and violent gangs — especially after a series of armed confrontations involving machine guns and grenades — while soft drugs were confined to Pusher Street. Today, signboards everywhere declare narcotics illegal and the pubs don’t allow visitors to smoke weed indoors; smokers are confined to a square marked out by yellow lines and reeking unmistakeably of pee.

The original settlers are retirees in their 70s, who look tired of selfie clickers. They’ve instated various governing boards for finance and arbitration in case of conflicts and every resident must contribute towards a communal treasury, which is a kind of localised tax regime, to fund upkeep, garbage removal and other utilities. In the 2010s they even reached a formal agreement with the Danish government to buy the land, effectively ending the state of squatting — which, in turn, drove up housing costs. Gone are the days when any junkie could hide here from the long arm of the law; today interested parties have to apply for residence.


I don’t see anybody dancing naked and the collectivist lifestyle may have lost its anarchic experimentalism but, having said that, Christiania remains a progressive parallel world with a harmoniously jolly vibe — like Auroville in Puducherry — with a strong emphasis on creative expressions, eco-friendliness, multiculturalism in spirit and cuisine. In Christiania I have some of my best Asian food outside Asia (for example, excellent Turkish grub is dished up at Falafelboden), just in the way Auroville serves superb European grub. In fact, Christiania is a destination for gourmets looking to tuck into organic veggies and avant-garde health foods. The classic community kitchen for fine-dining is Spiseloppen, but there’s plenty more — from hot cafés (for example, Abegrottan) to cool bars (Woodstock tavern of Pusher Street), to the exclusively vegetarian Morgenstedet, the vegan Grønsagen and Loppen that does organic, and the round-the-clock Bageriet where pastries are available if one gets the sugar craving after carousing until late.

The scene tonight: Christiania’s party scene is unparalleled with its free-flowing cheap brew (hemp beer in the image) and nostalgic playlists


Indeed, Christiania’s party scene is unparalleled with its free-flowing cheap beer and nostalgic playlists — remember that song you’ve forgotten since the ’70s? — at multiple clubs within the settlement that feature anything from jazz and jam sessions at Musik Loppen to LGBT cabarets and gay technopunk raves at the homo-culture house Bøssehuset, Latino parties and live reggae at Operaen. Even Bob Dylan has performed at Den grå hal, Christiania’s largest indoor venue; and in summer there are outdoor shows by the café square.

Beyond its drug trade, Christiania is full of interesting industries such as the factory that produces the popular Christiania bike, a tricycle crate bicycle, which can technically transport an entire family. It has found favour all over Scandinavia in times of rising petrol prices and ecological awareness. If that’s too big to carry home, there are crafts stores selling locally manufactured karmic jewellery and hip-hop-wear made of organic cotton (designed by kids whose parents were the original hippies), while Bevar Christiania Boden sells Christiania-branded souvenirs such as kitchen aprons to raise money for preserving the commune; and at Christmas a huge flea market is hosted. I particularly enjoy browsing at Grønne Genbrugshal Market, a recycling warehouse with everything from do-it-yourself thingamajigs to second-hand semi-antiques and handy knick-knacks.

After the drug raid, I stroll around to check out assorted settlements variously named Lotus, Pyramid and Oasis. Many buildings are covered with mind-blowing graffiti art, and on display are curious constructions out of recycled materials that reflect the particular resident’s creative skills — indeed, the National Museum of Denmark has produced a book to document the alternative style of Christiania architecture; and, before the permanent hashish booths were demolished in 2004, the museum acquired one of the photogenic stalls for its collection.

I find meandering peaceful — no druggie robs me as I bask in the sun on the 17th-century ramparts of the naval fortress overlooking a picturesque waterbody, which once was Copenhagen’s moat. In a way, ’60s’ hippie ideals have been given a modern form in this free zone for yoga-practising artistic-vegetarian shamanistic healers and other meditating freethinkers who pursue their alternative lifestyles with great appetites. Ironically, considering the 50-year-long friction between these hippies and the government of Denmark, at a time when industries move out of Copenhagen in search of cheaper real estate, Christiania has become all the more important for generating tourist revenue. As municipal finances are in dire straits, Christiania is touted as a must-visit for anybody interested in sustainable development. It’s indeed considered so uniquely Danish that it ranks as the city’s #2 attraction, with half a million visitors per year ogling the last hippies going about life as if the ’60s never ended.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on August 28, 2020

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