Freetown Christiania is a neighbourhood bordering Copenhagen that claims independence from the EU and has a strange, brutal past
In April of last year I was travelling in Kathmandu, Nepal, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the city. After a few nights of sleeping rough, I was evacuated back to London by the UK government, and then onwards to Dublin with the Red Cross. From there I flew to Morocco where I got a severe bout of food poisoning. Things weren’t going well. I had a case of feeling jinxed by travel, and so I booked a flight to Copenhagen to collect myself. I'd heard about an intriguing neighbourhood within the city called Christiania that I needed to see.
If you read about the history of Christiania, it doesn't exactly sound like an ideal place to relax. Formed on the grounds of an old military barracks, the Danish government regard the place as a large commune full of squatters, while its 850-or-so residents consider it totally separate from the city and indeed the EU. Because of this divide, the legal status and rights of those living there is up for debate, and there are still conflicts and police raids alongside official negotiations to try and sort out what the hell Christiania really is.
Freetown Christiania has always been well-known for its drug trade. Hard drugs are now supposedly outlawed within the compound, but cannabis is openly sold on the aptly named ‘Pusher Street’ by guys wearing full balaclavas and gloves to hide their fingerprints. The skunk shops are draped in army netting to camouflage sales, and photography is forbidden. The cops do come in and shut them down now and again but the stalls are up and running again just as quick.
There is an ongoing struggle with the police, one that I witnessed first-hand. As I was walking towards the entrance of the compound I heard a guy running behind me with a police van chasing him. The cops got out of the van and closed in on foot, but as soon as the guy entered the gates they cursed, got back in the van and left. Maybe the police feel powerless to prosecute once the person has entered Christiania, as its citizens believe they are not even part of the EU. I'm not 100 per cent sure, but there is definitely a vibe of ‘what goes on in Christiania, stays in Christiania.’
The place has a strange history. During the late 1970s, hard drugs such as heroin were tolerated, but that didn’t end well. In one year alone between 1978 and 1979, ten people died from drug overdoses. Conditions by all accounts were squalid, with feral cats shitting everywhere. Doors missing, mattresses on the floor. You get the idea. At this point those living in Christiania realised it was probably a wise move to say "enough is enough" and knock the skag on the head.
If the 1970s were eventful, then the next decade was to prove even more hectic. Solid details online are sketchy, but in the mid-1980s a biker gang called Bullshit arrived in Christiania and took control of part of the cannabis market. Violence in the neighbourhood increased, and as you would expect, many Christianites felt unsafe. The police found someone chopped into pieces and buried beneath the floor of a building. The Hells Angels eventually killed all the leaders of Bullshit in a drug war. (There’s a documentary about the murder of the first Bullshit president here if you can understand Danish.) There have been other drug-related murders over the years, and in a separate incident in 2009, a 22-year-old man had his jaw blown off by a hand grenade thrown into the crowds seated at a cafe within the compound.
So what's Christiania actually like? Reading this you may imagine a lawless madhouse. The truth is that it’s pretty laid back, and as it turned out, strangely relaxing. The entire compound is entirely covered in graffiti and creative installations. There’s a skate park, a load of bars and a hill overlooking a lake. That said, it’s definitely unusual to see big guys wearing balaclavas selling weed. Christiania is an interesting place with its own flag, its own laws, and even its own beer. Country? Neighbourhood? Free state? Who knows. But if you’re ever in Copenhagen it’s worth heading for the compound.