Culture club

A Dan­ish city gears up for a year of artis­tic events

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - JONATHAN LORIE

The rooftops turn pur­ple then blue as I stroll through the air 50m above them. Be­low, 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. 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 pro­gram, which launched in late Jan­uary. “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 about so­lu­tions to the big global chal­lenges. 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. “We’re talk­ing about di­ver­sity, democ­racy and sus­tain­abil­ity — val­ues that mat­ter ev­ery­where, but are quintessen­tially Dan­ish,” Matthews says. “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 Dokk1 li­brary, an ice­berg of con­crete and glass by the har­bour. Last year, it was awarded the world’s best pub­lic li­brary by the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tions. It’s the first time a li­brary in Den­mark has been accorded the honour and 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 is view­ing footage and chil­dren are play­ing chess. There’s a dis­play of pro­to­types from the lo­cal de­sign school and a gong is 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 just out­side, which are be­ing re­built as an ur­ban beach. Con­struc­tion works fill the quays all the way to my ho­tel, Comwell, ar­guably the coolest place to stay here. It’s a glint­ing tower block, ris­ing like a sign­post to to­mor­row, but in­side is a shrine to mid-cen­tury 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 sur­round­ing area form a Euro­pean Re­gion of Gas­tron­omy.

“For a small city, we have a lot of good restau­rants,” says chef Rene Mam­men at Miche­lin-starred Sub­stans, where I stop for lunch. It’s a calm spot, all scrubbed wood and white can­dles, serv­ing as­ton­ish­ing Nordic cui­sine such as scal­lops edged with sweet pears and salty sam­phire, mus­sels topped with smoky cheese, and thyme ice cream show­ered with rose petals.

Mam­men has the blue eyes and gin­ger beard of a Vik­ing plus 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,” says 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, in­clud­ing wood­land mush­rooms creamed with sweet corn, her­ring roe in puffy prof­iteroles, and earthy beet­root sprin­kled with pink flow­ers. It’s cut­ting edge but still com­fort food.

ARoS Aarhus Art Mu­seum, main; Aarhus canal, cen­tre left; Dokk1 li­brary, cen­tre right; Moes­gaard Mu­seum

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