In 2017 the European Capital of Culture will be Aarhus, a Danish city in Eastern Jutland. Given all the press-coverage recently you might have thought it was Hull in Yorkshire, but Hull is only the UK City of Culture.
The European Capital of Culture is an annual award, whereas the UK one is a more nebulous affair awarded every four or five years. Presumably this reflects how long it takes our public sector to make a decision. If we’d had the same sluggish bureaucracy back in 1939 we’d all be reading The Daily Mail these days, and Aarhus would be very different.
Aarhus is home to an open air museum called ‘Den Gamle By’, which translates as ‘The Old Town’. It was the work of a man called Peter Holm and a result of his passion for collecting houses. Strangely enough it all came about by accident as Peter originally wanted to collect mice.
Drinking is the national sport in Denmark and most Danes collect booze related ephemera such as beer mats. Unfortunately the only beers available in Denmark are Carlsberg and Tuborg, which are exactly the same and both brewed by Carlsberg. So their collections only ever run to two items. Peter had more ambition and wanted to collect something that he could at least get into double figures.
Therefore he hit upon the idea of creating a Mouse Town. He thought this would both keep him busy and make him some money by charging people to see his Mouse Town at travelling fairs. Thus, one day in 1908, he sent out a servant to procure his first mouse. The lackey, being devoid of ears and slack of brain, misheard his master’s instructions and returned three weeks later with ten wagonloads of timbers and bricks.
The rest, as they say, is history. Peter abandoned the idea of a ‘mouse’ town and decided to start building a ‘house’ town instead. Anyway by then gerbils had become much more popular and the days of the travelling mouse-towns were numbered. Inspired by his new vision he scoured the length and breadth of Denmark and amassed a large collection of other people’s houses. He then moved them brick by brick and reassembled them all in Aarhus.
The speed at which his collection grew was frightening. The peasants that sold him their hovels had barely scratched their ‘X’ on the deed of sale before the wattle and daub started coming down around their ears. Indeed some of the peasants found themselves classed as fixtures and fittings and were transported along with the houses. Their descendants still wander the streets of Den Gamle By, dressed in period costume and robotically greeting everybody with fixed smiles. It’s a bit like a Danish Westworld.
By the time the Second World War broke out Peter had collected over fifty houses, which the incoming Nazis promptly claimed for housing the master race. Fortunately the evil threat of the Teutonic menace was vanquished by the brave bulldog spirit of the British. Thus the old town of Den Gamle-By returned once more to Danish hands.
So now it is an open air museum for all to enjoy, even the Germans are allowed back in. In fact the visitors are mostly Germans, as their holiday spending keeps the entire economy of Jutland in the black.
The statue of the pig in the picture has an interesting tale to tell, and a curly one at that. At the time I didn’t know what it was. Some research revealed that it was part of an artistic statement against racism by Danish artist Jens Galschiot. In November 1993 sculptures of a pigs in trench-coats, weighing one ton, appeared overnight in twenty different European cities. Most councils got the hump at bronze pigs popping up unannounced in their city squares and had them melted down for any third place medals they might need in the future.
Some enlightened councils saw the point and either moved them to galleries or left them where they were, thus leaving it up to Mother Nature to wield her erosive powers of wind, rain and vandalism.
Note: Beware of wasps when visiting Aarhus. This is where they make wasps and the biggest ones can’t fly far, so they stay in Aarhus.
I got stung by a big bugger.