When considering the cultural, architectural and gastronomic experiences that Denmark has to offer, it can be all too easy to focus solely on Copenhagen. But that is about to change as Aarhus assumes the role of European Capital of Culture, in 2017 – a title it will hold in parallel with its position as European Region of Gastronomy.
For city-breakers, festival-goers, foodies and culture-junkies, this year is undoubtedly the time to make the trip. Not only for the galleries, restaurants and design that Denmark’s second largest city already offers, but also for the range of one-off events taking place throughout the year: exhibitions, performances, lectures and festivals that will enrich this already vibrant cultural centre.
Currently listed as Lonely Planet’s second best city in Europe to visit, Aarhus has come a long way since it was founded as a Viking fishing village in 900 AD. Home to ground-breaking Scandinavian food, design and art innovation, a recently-completed waterfront regeneration means Aarhus is now home to both Scandinavia’s largest library, Dokk1, as well as the angular apartment complex the Iceberg, which was voted 2015 Building of the Year for Housing. 2015 was also the year that the Michelin Guide finally looked beyond Copenhagen, awarding eponymous stars to three restaurants in the city.
Aarhus – known as the City of Smiles – is home to two of Denmark’s most exciting museums: ARoS Kunstmuseum and Moesgaard Museum. The former is, in itself, an exquisite piece of art with an interior inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and crowned by a rainbow walkway designed by the Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson. ARoS is currently exhibiting work by J. F. Willumson, but will become central venue for the European Capital of Culture and host one of four Mega Events, THE GARDEN, from April to September.
The Moesgaard Museum is just as architecturally impressive, resembling an imposing wedge emerging from the landscape. Its star attraction has been the 2000-year old Grauballe Man, a preserved body found almost wholly intact in a nearby bog in 1952 and the subject of one of Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s ‘bog poems’. The museum also boasts extensive woodland walkways and in early summer will host another of the Mega Events, the Røde Orm (Red Worm), a magnificent Viking saga performed on the museum’s roof and adapted from the classic novel by Frans G. Bengtsson.
Time to rethink
The European Capital of Culture title is meant to have a lasting impact. The project was initiated in 1985 in order to focus on the cultural life of one or two European cities – Aarhus shares the title with Pafos, in Cyprus, this year – and use this to strengthen community spirit and inspire development and rejuvenation. It is also supposed to emphasise the diversity of wider European culture through the universal medium of creativity.
The central theme of this year for Aarhus is ‘Rethink’, with the desire to show how cultural movements can reshape social behaviour and inspire new ideas. Events kicked off on January 21 with a light procession, when over 5000 participants carried illuminated ships and lanterns through central Aarhus. Getting art out onto the street and to the people is a running theme, with events such as Little Rebellions in August and September when stairways, parks, basements, alleys and byways will become the setting for performances and art happenings.
There are also large-scale art collaborations taking place as seven participating museums based around Aarhus jointly host an exhibition titled Seven Deadly Sins. Each museum will exhibit work relating to a particular sin. For example, the Museet for Religiøs Kunst, Lemvig, will exhibit a site-specific installation by Barbara Kruger exploring gluttony as consumerism.
Strengthening the community
There are also cross-media collaborations, as the work of Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier will be transformed from screen to stage. Each film in her renowned trilogy – Brothers, Open Hearts and After the Wedding – will be reinterpreted as an opera, a dance performance and a musical and will be performed from August to November at Musikhuset.
Aarhus is already known for its festivals: with food, Viking, and music festivals, such as Spot and Northside, taking place annually. This year however, the food festival is being super-sized to celebrate Aarhus’ status as European Region of Gastronomy. The festival will now include The People’s Feast, potentially the biggest dinner party in Danish history with long tables catered for by various local and international chefs, a hotdog championship and, in early July, a few days devoted solely to the local langoustines from the island of Anholt.
There is plenty for children too. In collaboration with Hay Festival, Aarhus will be hosting Hay’s first children’s literature festival in late October, bringing together 39 young writers at Dokk1.
While the Mega Events will draw the crowds, it’s the smaller celebrations such as these – of good food, good books and social gatherings – that will have a lasting impact, soldering a sense of community as well as making Aarhus an enduring tourist hub. M
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