The interplay of the natural world and an unnatural one is key to the sensibility of Aarhus, which, despite an industrial past, has never lost touch with its surrounding woods. That contradiction enlivens the city’s growing food scene. “The good thing about Aarhus chefs is they’re closer to nature,” Thorsten Schmidt, one of the fathers of New Nordic cuisine, told me one afternoon at a table at Castenskiold, a riverside restaurant he has helped rejuvenate. Schmidt has his pick of perches in the high-profile culinary world, and he baffled many people when it was announced that he’d be spending a hiatus in Aarhus. Schmidt is not the head chef at Castenskiold, but he advises Mia Christiansen, a local prodigy who says she seeks flavours that are ‘clean, using seasonal produce. (My lunch at Castenskiold included tiny Danish prawns with local carrots, a steak with chanterelles and a butter sauce with hazelnuts, and a spruce-flavoured ice cream with berries.)
The restaurant isn’t precious, though: after 11 o’clock, the dining room spins up into a bar and dance club, as if to prove how little Aarhusians care about self-seriousness. This is a town in which cosmopolitanism means fun.
The celebrated walking-distance-ness of Aarhus means that it’s an excellent city for nightlife wandering, especially along the slim central river. Hard-core partygoers can dance the night away at Train, a multilevel dance club. I had aspirations of getting in, but the place was full, as it often is, and I felt too old and tired to wait until 3 am for an open slot. Yet I wasn’t at a loss for options. One Friday, I had a whiskey at the Sherlock Holmes Pub, a cosy, British-style bar decorated like a Victorian living room, complete with bookshelves. I met a friend at Fermentoren, which has 22 taps of artisanal beer. I walked up and down the river, where a progression of clubs catered to the young and energetic clientele. Sea breezes blew in from the harbour as, all through the centre of town, kids in pairs and packs galumphed across the cobblestones.
They assembled under the Sankt Clemens Tory overpass to dance. A blond woman burnished her cheeks with a boar-bristle brush, blindly applying make-up as she climbed a narrow street with friends. Dipping into Noir, one of the river clubs, I found myself in a temple of swirling indigo lamps and beer bottles perched on ice-filled cauldrons. This was the Scandinavian magic by which darkness can become cosy and close.