by Jonathan Lorie, The Daily Telegraph, January 19, 2017
The rooftops turn purple then blue as I stroll through the air 50 metres above them. Below me Aarhus appears in all the colours of the spectrum – its medieval lanes in fading yellow, Victorian docks in deep sea green, university in riotous red. If you’ve never seen a city through a rainbow, then this is the place to come.
The skywalk on the roof of the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum is the city’s best-known landmark. It’s a corridor of glass high above the city, its walls splashed with vibrant hues through which you see the world in Technicolor: brighter, moodier, bolder. That’s a perspective the city will be sharing with us all in 2017, when it is Europe’s Capital of Culture. So I’ve come here to discover what’s on offer.
“We have extraordinary things going on, over 250 projects through the year,” says Rebecca Matthews, British-born chief executive of the 2017 programme. “We’re bringing crime writers from across Europe to work on New Nordic Noir, we have dance from New York and London, the world’s first festival of children’s literature, a Viking saga staged on the roof of the archaeology museum.
“But also we’re asking our artists for provocations and debates. The theme of Aarhus 2017 is 'Rethink’. We want people to look at things differently, to talk with their fellow Europeans about solutions to the big global challenges. What does it mean to be in Europe today? What can we learn from each other?”
What we can learn also involves water – music around the industrial harbour, sculptures along the coast – and the Creativity World Forum, which will debate how culture can energise cities.
“It feels,” says Rebecca, “that we’re talking very much to Europe, including the UK. We’re talking about diversity, democracy and sustainability: values that matter everywhere, but are quintessentially Danish. We want a year that will be full of excitement and fun, but also full of contemplation.”
I meet her in Aarhus’s spectacular new library, an iceberg of concrete and glass by the harbour. Voted the world’s best library, it’s a rethink for the digital age. As well as old-fashioned book stacks, its vast halls are filled with red sofas where students are sharing homework, a film crew are viewing footage and children are playing chess. There’s a display of prototypes from the local design school and a gong that’s rung every time a baby is born in the hospital. Out of these elements – innovation, integration, community – this city is renewing itself.
You can see this at the old docks outside, which are being rebuilt as an urban beach. Construction works fill the quays all the way to my hotel – the Comwell, the city’s coolest place to stay. Outside it’s a glinting tower block, rising like a signpost to tomorrow. Inside it’s a shrine to midcentury modernism, with white rooms and geometric furniture from Danish design house HAY.
Yet the new wave in Aarhus has been led not by architects or artists, but by chefs. In the past 10 years the city has filled with great places to eat, and today it boasts three Michelin-starred restaurants. In 2017 Aarhus and its area form the European Region of Gastronomy.
“For a small city, we have a lot of good restaurants,” says chef Rene Mammen at Substans, a Michelin-star eatery, where I stop for lunch. It’s a calm spot, all scrubbed wood and white candles, where they serve astonishing Nordic cuisine – scallops edged with sweet pears and salty samphire, mussels topped with smoky cheese, thyme ice cream showered with rose petals.
Rene has the blue eyes and ginger beard of a Viking – and tattoos all over his arms. “I used to cook in Copenhagen,” he says, smiling, “but I moved back here because Aarhus just welcomes everybody. It’s laid back, down to earth. Our friends run the farms that supply us. I can drive out to pick berries in 10 minutes.”
Local sourcing goes further at Haervaerk, a Bib Gourmand restaurant in a street full of cyclists. “We have no menu,” explains the owner, Michael Christensen. “We just use what we get locally each morning. So the dishes change from day to day – and even table to table. You can taste that freedom in our food.” He illustrates the point with a series of surprising snacks: woodland mushrooms creamed with sweetcorn, herring roe in puffy profiteroles, earthy beetroot sprinkled with pink flowers. It’s cutting edge but still comfort food.
Not everything is contemporary in Aarhus. I wander into the medieval quarter, a grid of cobbled alleys and half-timbered houses, lined with jolly cafés and upmarket shops. On a corner is the Hotel Royal from 1838, with a pillared facade and marbled foyer. Down a side street is the classic Mefisto Restaurant, where families graze traditional meals of fish soup and roast veal. In the centre is the cathedral, built in 1200 above the grave of the son of King Canute V.
You can go back further in Aarhus. A mile along the shore is Moesgaard, a new museum of ancient things, including splendid Viking swords and ancient bodies dug up from nearby bogs. Here you can gaze into the face of Grauballe Man, a sacrificial victim from 200BC, one of many found in northern Europe – including Britain. This one inspired a famous poem by Seamus Heaney about political violence in modern Ireland and the common identity of the North Sea peoples. With a nod to such connections, the museum’s big exhibition for 2017 is about ancient migrations across Europe: it’s called The First Immigrants.
Moesgaard is another museum with a walkway on its roof. But this one leads to our future as well as our past. You can stand up there and watch the silver waters of northern Europe, ponder the tides of time and place that link all these things together, and wonder where we’re going. Perhaps Aarhus 2017 will show us. In the words of Rebecca Matthews, “Culture has never been more important than it is now, for the UK and for all of Western Europe. It’s the biggest connector we have – and we need to keep using it.”
Ryanair ( ryanair.com ) flies from London Stansted to Aarhus from £32 return; British Airways ( ba.com ) flies from Heathrow to Billund (home of Legoland, one hour’s drive from Aarhus) from £120 return.
The four-star Comwell Aarhus is the most modern hotel in town, with stylish contemporary interiors by Copenhagen designers HAY and excellent facilities: double rooms from £160 per night, including breakfast. Vaerkmestergade 2 (0045 8672 8000; comwell.dk ).
The four-star Comwell AarhusDining out
Restaurant Substans was awarded a Michelin star for its cutting-edge Scandinavian cuisine. Three courses from £55: Frederiksgade 74 (0045 8623 0401; restaurantsubstans.dk ).
Haervaerk is a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant serving wildly experimental Nordic food. There is no menu; you eat whatever they cook that day. Dinner costs about £50: Frederiks Allé 105 (0045 5051 2651; restaurant-haervaerk.dk ).
Mefisto is as close as you’ll get to the idea of hygge in a restaurant – a cosy, cluttery, classic Danish bistro with traditional food and a cheery vibe. Four courses from £40: Volden 28 (0045 8613 1813; mefisto.dk ).
Nordiske Spisehus is unique: it collaborates with Michelin-starred restaurants from around the world to reproduce their signature dishes in Aarhus. This is fine dining as a world tour, and it changes each season. Three-course set menu for £57: MP Bruuns Gade 31 (0045 8617 7099; nordiskspisehus.dk ).
The year of culture opens on January 20: for full programme see aarhus2017.dk .
This article was written by Jonathan Lorie from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.