Reflections on international living and travel
 

 

 

Den Gamle By - with office building in background
Den Gamle By (Open Air Museum) - with office building in background.

 

Exceptionally Nice Aarhus

Aarhus, Denmark - September 2022 - by Jeffrey

Not a lot of thought went into our decision to spend a couple days in Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark. We had planned a road trip to Norway (for some hiking) and were looking for a good place to break the long drive. Aarhus is perfectly located for such a break -- and a quick look at a travel guide suggested we'd not be bored there. So, we (comprising Ira, my two adult sons and I) decided to stop over. We were all really glad we did!

Now, Aarhus is not a city that jumps out at you with culture and romance like Paris. Nor is it dripping with the history in the way that nearly any Italian city is. It's a handsome, well laid out city with a slightly youthful vibe - thanks to the University - and a decent amount of culture that is well managed and tourist friendly. Best of all, it is populated with super friendly, helpful and good humoured people. These people were so nice, they made Canadians seem like motorcycle gangsters.

I'm not sure if it is just Aarhus or if Danes in general are such delightful people. Ira and I have decided to research this point by visiting Copenhagen soon.

 

Ira and Jeffrey inside Your Rainbow Panorama
Ira and Jeffrey inside Your Rainbow Panorama. (Upper left image by News Oresund, others by Ira.)

 

Itinerary

We decided to stay two nights in Aarhus, allowing us one full day to explore the city before hitting the road for the ferry to Norway.

We visited the Aarhus Art Museum (ARoS) which offered a diverse, if mostly Danish, collection of art from the 18th century or so until today. Well, maybe not today but within the last few months anyway. The museum has more of a focus on modern work, which is fine by me. I tend to prefer the 20th century's artwork over other centuries when it comes to art. Topping off the collection - literally - is Your Rainbow Panorama, a tinted circular walk at the top of the museum (see pictures) which appealed to Ira especially.

We also paid a visit to Den Gamle By, an open air museum in the middle of Aarhus. This is unusual. Open air museums tend to be sprawling spaces outside of cities, where land is cheaper, not city centre things. This location offered sometimes surreal views in which glass fronted office buildings stretched out from behind a perfectly restored medieval farmhouse. All in all, it proved a pleasant place to spend an hour or two.

Perhaps our only disappointment in the city was taking a long walk to the Infinite Bridge, a sculpture in the form of a wooden walkway, of 188 meters in circumference, on the coast outside the city. It's infinite, because you could keep walking around it forever without reaching an end (assuming you had regular food, drink and rest breaks). But, circular walks are inevitably like that and we weren't terribly impressed. Had the Infinite Bridge been a Mobius strip, then I would have been impressed. It wasn't. Nevertheless, we had a pleasant walk to the bridge and a couple of laps around the circle.

 

Infinite Bridge
Infinite Bridge. Photo by Ira.

Thriving Nightlife

Like most University cities in Europe, Aarhus has a thriving nightlife and there is no shortage of varied restaurants and drinkeries which, in turn, suffered no shortage of clientele -- all of whom seemed remarkably cheerful and most of whom seemed to be speaking English amongst themselves.

However, while the restaurants reflected global variety, the cooks kept to the Northern European working hours and it can be dead difficult to find a meal after 9:30PM as we discovered on our second visit.

Now, there are two things I should clarify with that last sentence. Firstly, if you are not familiar with Europe, you may not be aware that Southern Europeans tend to eat later dinners than Northern Europeans. And while a Danish restaurant's chefs would be hanging up their aprons at half past nine, a Spanish chef would just be getting into her groove at that hour. Secondly, we were so impressed by Aarhus, we decided to stay a couple of nights on our return trip from Norway to Belgium. However, as the ferry from Norway only disembarked in Denmark in the evening, and it's a two hour drive from port to Aarhus, it was approaching ten o'clock by the time we checked into our hotel, dumped our bags and went out in search of tasty calories.

Now, in Belgium, it would not be difficult to find a warm meal at that hour, in Aarhus, it is a challenge. We spent more than an hour, wandering the streets, growing ever hungrier, seeking a meal. And, of course, the longer we looked the later it became and the harder it was to find dinner. Finally, a chef at one restaurant -- who was enjoying an end of shift beer -- told us of a new place that specifically kept the kitchen open late. Better still, it was not far away. We dashed over and while the menu was substantially depleted by the time we got there, we finally got a decent meal.

 

Botanical Garden.
Botanical Garden.

Second Visit Highlights

The highpoints of our second stay in the city were the Moesgaard Museum and the botanical garden. The former is a beautifully designed building seemingly half buried in a sculpted landscape just outside of Aarhus. Inside, is a history of the Nordic countries starting from prehistorical times. It was well laid out, impressively presented and fascinating to explore. The botanical garden was perfectly okay, if not terribly special as botanical gardens go. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant space to wander explore for an hour or so.

 

Result of Circumstance

We chose to visit Aarhus largely as a result of circumstance: we wanted to break a long road trip into two parts and Aarhus fit our needs.

In fact, it proved to be much more than that. It was a delightful city and we could easily have spent more time there. Indeed, had the trip only been to Aarhus, we would have gone home happy. But, it is not a place I would have considered if I was looking for an interesting destination. So, it was mostly circumstances that enabled us to discover and enjoy this remarkable city.

Life has been like that for me. Places I visit or move to because of circumstance often turn out to be terrific. After I finished university, I did a course in teaching English as a foreign language. I passed with flying colours and was offered a teaching post in Tokyo (I was living in London at the time). Initially, I was told it would be a couple of weeks before everything would be finalised and they'd toss me into a Tokyo bound aeroplane. A week or so later, the recruiter called to say there were further delays, but I could start soon. Then I got another call informing me of more delays. Finally, I got a call saying that it would be a couple of months before I could start in Tokyo. But, there was a teaching position available in Lisbon, Portugal, beginning in a week. Was I interested?

I thought about it. I really wanted to go to Japan. It would be a very different living experience to the UK and the US where I had lived until then. On the other hand, I had given up my flat (I was living on a friend's sofa) in anticipation of moving. On top of that, money was being sucked up by the cost of living in London. So, although I knew very little about Portugal, I accepted the offer and caught a flight to Lisbon a couple days later.

Lisbon was - and still is - a fascinating city, rich in history and populated with some delightful people (albeit not as friendly as the Danes of Aarhus). I had a great time there and Lisbon still has a special place in my heart. But, if you had asked me (then age 22) to make a list of the ten cities I most wanted to live in, Lisbon would not have made the list. It simply wasn't on my radar. I knew nothing about it. Nevertheless, I am glad that circumstances allowed me to live and work there.

Likewise, in the late 90s when my now ex-wife and I decided to leave Bangkok for a better place to raise children, I would never have even considered moving to Belgium, that strange little country at the heart of the EU and which has language issues. I focused my search elsewhere. But, one day, I was offered a contract at the European Commission (a place I'd never have thought of working at) in Brussels.

I accepted the offer, moved my family to Brussels and quickly became fond of the city and the quirky country. It is a super place to raise children with loads of playgrounds, excellent education (kindergarten here starts at age 2.5 years) and a top-notch healthcare system. I became so fond of Belgium that I eventually decided to become a Belgian (you can read more about that adventure by following this link), something would never have expected before moving here.

 

Picturesque street bench
I felt this was an aesthetically appealing composition.
On the other hand, it might be just an old newspaper, on an older park bench, with an even older tree behind it.

 

Low Expectations

I believe the main reason why cities, that I have visited owing to circumstances, tend to impress me more than expected is because I didn't have many expectations before I visited. Had I got the teaching job in Japan, I would doubtless have moved to the country with big expectations of discovering a (to me) exotic lifestyle and culture. But Lisbon? I knew nothing about Lisbon and, in the early 80s, I couldn't Google it. I did pick up a Rough Travel Guide to Portugal, however, and as I read up on Lisbon, I began to feel I had made a good choice.

Likewise, when I was offered a job in Brussels, I knew very little of the city beyond the fact that it was the capital of the European Union. So, there was plenty of room to be impressed. And I was.

Of course it helps that Lisbon and Brussels are interesting cities. A few years ago, I was hired to do some creativity workshops in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. I had never heard of the city before, though the country has a notorious reputation. So, I had low expectations. Very low. But, the city was actually even more boring than I expected. You can read about my experience here.

 

Conclusions

I guess there are three things I'd like you to take away from this: Firstly, Aarhus is a delightful place to visit. Secondly, the Danes are marvellously cheerful people. And, thirdly, if circumstances offer to send you somewhere you've never been and know little about. Jump at the opportunity - unless the city happens to be Dammam, of course.

 

Den Gamle By
Den Gamle By.

 

 

Den Gamle By
More of Den Gamle By.

 

 

Clock tower
I was intrigued by this clock tower.

 

 

Park bench for long-legged people.
Park bench for long-legged people.

 

 

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