Suddenly, the city has a global standing. Aarhus was chosen as a European Capital of Culture for 2017, and today it is a jewel of a place to visit: safe, creative, English-speaking—and still undiscovered by the tourist hordes. It can’t compete with the size or variety of Copenhagen. But it doesn’t need to. Aarhus is where you go if you’ve seen the capitals of Europe and still hope that a city you have never heard of will appear and, like an unexpected soul mate, sweep you off your feet.
I came to Aarhus one day in late summer with few expectations. (It is fair to say that a city whose tourism taglines include “In Aarhus, when we say walking distance, we really do mean walking distance” encourages modest dreams.) But after a tour of its downtown attractions—indeed navigable by foot—I began to see the city as more than the sum of its parts, to notice the strange magic that draws you in. This is not a city of suits or glamour hounds but creative thinkers, eccentrics, and travelers who’ve returned to roost. If a single idea unifies the population, it is a belief that there’s an opportunity to make what doesn’t yet exist.
“There’s a strong art scene here,” Hans Oldau Krull, one of the city’s leading painters, told me one day. I’d just tracked him down in his bar, Under Masken (‘Under the Mask’), which is a bohemian dive of the first order: dark, friendly, filled with artists and klatching students.
An enormous fish tank glowed along one wall; Krull said that, because he can trace his lineage back to seafaring people, he finds marine life comforting. The bar reflects his interests in other ways. Krull’s brother once told him, “I admire your career—I can’t drink enough to be an artist,” and Krull has taken that claim as a business mission. Since I’d come to talk to him about his work, he led me to a table outside and began chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Krull’s goatee, blond-white, matched his teeth and tinted aviator glasses. He wore a straw Stetson, and his pants and shoes were generously spattered with paint. Long ago, he said, he learned English by listening to Bob Dylan (I thought, “What the fuck is this guy saying?”), and he has now mastered the language to the point of disinhibition. It was the end of the Aarhus Festival, a programme of gallery shows, performances, and parties. A parade of passers-by called out affectionately, and Krull invariably answered, though he often had no idea who the greeters were. “I know too many people,” he told me, not unhappily. When he isn’t at his bar, he paints at a studio in the suburbs, outside if the weather is all right. Riding into the city on a Vespa, dangling rolled-up sketches, he has become a mascot for his loony, laid-back town.