Christiania: the cleaner, friendlier Amsterdam

On the grounds of an old army barracks on the south-eastern side of Copenhagen, you will find a pot-smokers’ heaven. Along the 30-foot path known as “Pusher Street,” you can take your pick from over two dozen stands, each offering the biggest and best buds and the lightest brown to the darkest black hash.
The sight of another gorgeous blond Dane paled in comparison to the various shades of green, brown and black I could freely choose from. Prices range from 40 kroner (about $5US) for a gram of homegrown herbs, up to 100 kroner ($20US) or more for some of the more exotic and potent varieties available. It’s true what they say: you get what you pay for.

The merchandise is laid out for all to see on the countertops, and it’s all clearly marked. Pick what you want and the vendor will break a piece off, usually with his teeth, and weigh it for you. You’re free to haggle and most dealers will throw in some rolling papers or a lighter if you buy a couple of grams.

Do you prefer pre-rolled or are you a do-it-yourself type? Both are available. Feel like something a little trippier? Some of the vendors offer mushrooms, but that is (officially) as hard as it gets. Christiania has a strict, “no hard drugs allowed” policy. Users and pedlars of hard drugs are threatened with expulsion from this 80-acre piece of paradise.

A view of Christiania from the lake.A view of Christiania from the lake.From joke to social experiment

All of this takes place in the unlikeliest of spots, a 300-year-old former military barracks. In its previous life, Christiania was home to the Danish cavalry. The numerous buildings were homes and offices for soldiers.

In the late 1960s the army moved out, leaving the buildings vacant and a large tract of land, minutes from the centre of Copenhagen, unused and off-limits. Neighbours eyed the area as an ideal location for a children’s playground and nature area, but high fences and boarded-up windows prevented them from doing anything about their dreams.

Believe it or not, the thriving anarchist community you’ll find today actually began because of a joke. A writer for a local alternative magazine, Hovedbladet (Head Magazine), gathered some friends together to occupy the abandoned barracks for a spoof article he planned on writing. They climbed the fences and under the authority of their air rifles declared the area to be a “Free City.” The paper ran an exclusive story about the “occupation” and urged readers to move into the area. They did.

Hippies, anarchists, socialists and runaways (from the law, their parents and conventional society) swarmed from all over Denmark and Europe to establish the new city.

They named it “Christiania” after King Christian IV (1577-1645) who had originally commissioned the building of the barracks, as well as many of Copenhagen’s other notable attractions, including Rosenborg Castle and the 35-metre-high Round Tower in the city centre.

Some people moved into the old barracks buildings. Others threw together shacks out of whatever building materials they could find.

Locals and the government immediately balked at the idea of people living tax-free and lawlessly on government land. The police tried to force the squatters to leave, but the sheer number of people and size of Christiania made it impossible.

Eventually the Christianianites, as residents had begun calling themselves, gained an audience with the Parliament. An agreement was reached where the squatters would be free to continue living in Christiania, if they paid for water, electricity and a $1 million yearly rent to the Defence Department.

The annual fee is paid by collecting a monthly rent of roughly $200cdn per resident ? although as many as half don’t pay. Christiania became a national “social experiment.”

The infamous Christiania bicycle.The infamous Christiania bicycle.Persistent police raids

The police have come and gone and come again. Despite a tacit agreement to allow Christianianites to run things according to their own rules, including allowing Pusher Street, marijuana is still illegal in Denmark.

Police raids for pot are fairly common in Christiania. Rookie police training often includes a sweep through Pusher Street. One year there were as many as forty raids. But the police don’t regularly patrol the area (some would say out of fear) and residents and visitors alike are free to smoke openly anywhere on the grounds.

In 1994 the dealers went on strike to protest the government’s threats to close the free city if hash dealing didn’t stop. Yet even that didn’t shut things down completely. Some dealers gave away hash to help regulars get through the dry period, and signs were posted directing customers to other “illegal” dealers around the city who could help out. Eventually the government backed down and decided to give up trying to close Christiania down.

Allan with some local greenery.Allan with some local greenery.From suits to seniors

In keeping with the principles on which it was founded, the community is very ecologically friendly. The ban on cars is an obvious effort. Compost heaps are a common sight, and many restaurants boast “chemical-free” foods on their menus. One of the most interesting businesses in the area is the equivalent of a hardware store. All of the merchandise is reclaimed and recycled material.

Christiania is the place to go in Denmark if you want to meet people, from Denmark or virtually anywhere else around the world. Most people speak fluent English and if you carry around extra smokes (or smoke) you’ll have no problem making friends.

On a normal day you’ll see school trips or clusters of suits, checking out the druggie scene while walking through the grounds. It’s estimated that 500,000 people a year visit the area. During Christiania’s 26th anniversary, “Fodselsdagsfest”, I actually saw a tour bus full of dozing seniors drive through the normally car-free grounds.

Fabrizio’s Amsterdam

On my first visit I had just sat down to roll my first joint in Denmark, a mix of dark Sikim and light Dutch hashes, when Fabrizio introduced himself. A couple of smokes and tokes later, I’d learned a lot about Fabrizio’s life. Italian by birth, he’d been everywhere from South America to Amsterdam. He used to live with a woman in Christiania but they’d broken up and he now lived in Copenhagen. He’d made a living as a drug courier but was now out of work and money and hadn’t eaten in a couple of days.

His most emphatic comments though were praise for Christiania and disgust with Amsterdam. “You can imagine how ugly it would be to see a city with pornography, drugs and prostitution everywhere you look,” said Fabrizio of Amsterdam. “Christiania is much better.”

In Amsterdam you’ll see junkies crashed out on the sidewalk and prostitutes trying to turn tricks from storefront windows. Christiania on, the other hand, is the kind of place where you’ll see one man walking around in a top hat on stilts, and another holding a crystal to his forehead trying to get himself “recharged”.

Local pot-beer label.Local pot-beer label.Business, bikes and falafels

If you can pull yourself away from Pusher Street you’ll find there are many other interesting sites on the grounds. Christiania is a thriving, self-sufficient city. The estimated 1,000 people who live there can take advantage of over 70 businesses that operate in the community. They include a day-care, a cinema, an opera, art galleries, restaurants, stores and bars. Since most residents don’t have hot running water there is also a community bathhouse.

Christiania can even claim a locally made invention: the Christiania Bike. The mechanics at Christiania Cykler can repair your bike for you but this shop is more famous for the design and manufacture of its unique bicycles. One model has a framework between the handlebars and front tire that supports a large carrying box. All over Copenhagen you can see people on Christiania Bikes with their groceries or even their kids riding in the box.

With all the weed around there’s a definite need for food service. The main cafe, just off of Pusher Street, offers hot and cold traditional Danish fare, such as Smorbrod (open-faced sandwiches). Morgenstedet is a vegetarian restaurant that daily offers a couple main courses with African/Middle Eastern salads to compliment them.

Denmark can be considered an expensive city to visit. One of the cheapest and tastiest meals in town are from the 15 kroner ($3) falafel stand on Pusher Street. One of these with a cold Ole (beer) will satiate any munchie attack.

Chillums and filters

Once all of your cravings are taken care of, it’s a good idea to explore the neighbourhood. Foot paths and bridges connect the sprawling residential areas. The main barracks have been converted into an apartment building. Other housing ranges from run-down trailers and bizarre 70’s space-age designs to modern wood and brick cottages that would command a good price if it were not for the ban on sales or rentals of property.

At the top end of Pusher Street are a cluster of vendors selling paraphernalia and handmade jewellry. Along with an endless variety of pipes, bongs and rolling papers you can also buy chillums and turned wooden filters.

By far the most common method for locals to smoke is using a chillum. “It gives you a better stone,” explained my new friend Gunnar. The bowl is packed and clenched between two fingers. You then cup your hands together leaving a gap between your thumbs that you inhale through. In true communal style, you need a friend to light the bowl for you. A slow, steady inhale is the way to go with chillums.

Another interesting item to check out are the filters. First you wrap a “Smoking Blue” or other oversized rolling paper into a cone around the filter. Then you scoop in a bit of herb, pack it down and keep going until you run out of goods or space. The filters eliminate fumbling with rolled bits of cardboard, give a nice even toke and the length of the filter (the longer the better) allows the smoke to cool down a bit before you inhale.

Poverty is one of Christiania`s greatest problems.Poverty is one of Christiania`s greatest problems.Problems in Paradise

Christiania does have its problems. Poverty is probably the biggest. Many of the houses look like they haven’t been repaired since they first went up a quarter-century ago. Some areas actually look like they were imported from an American inner city.

It’s also safe to assume that more than one person is walking around on an empty stomach. But the locals try to help each other out as much as possible. There’s a clothing drop where people are free to take or leave whatever they can. A hefty deposit on beer and pop bottles also provides some with a modest source of income to supplement the generous monthly welfare cheques that many Christianianites live on.

With no laws to stop them, minors can easily get in over their heads. One day I saw two young boys, eleven or twelve years old at the most, sharing a joint and a bottle of beer. They struck me as being too young, but who am I to decide? When you start making rules, where do you stop?

Tourist guides and pamphlets advise visitors that they are safe to walk around Pusher Street and the neighbourhood during the day, but that some may become uncomfortable at night when things liven up. A Danish friend of mine was once assaulted in a Christiania bar while her husband’s band was providing the entertainment. She was so soured by the experience and the apathetic response of witnesses that she refuses to go back, even though her Christianhavn apartment overlooks the area.

Finally, if you have a fear of dogs, Christiania is not the place for you. Large, and I mean really large, dogs and their smaller sidekicks wander around the area freely. It’s a common sight for an all-out dogfight to erupt.

Good restrictions

There are also some good restrictions in Christiania. The main one is “No Hard Drugs,” and this slogan is pasted on buildings, bicycles and houses all around Christiania. Christianianites take pride in the fact that in the early 80s they kicked out a bike gang that was peddling heroin and bringing a bad reputation to the area.

Weapons and fighting are not allowed, and neither are cars. Photography is banned on Pusher Street (large signs with a slash through a camera are posted on all approaches) and visitors are supposed to ask permission before shooting anywhere else in the area. I saw one girl trying to sneak a picture of Pusher Street from a distance get seriously berated by a vendor.

It’s another beautiful day in Copenhagen. I’m sitting on top of a hill, with Pusher Street and its crowds behind me, a peaceful view of trees and the sun glistening off of the water in front of me. My trip to Denmark is almost over, and I’m reflecting on all that I’ve seen and done in the city. Melancholy and infinitely sad, a mantra is repeating itself over and over in my head, “I don’t wanna go home, I don’t wanna go home…”Poverty is one of Christiania`s greatest problems.