EVERYONE is likely to visit Denmark’s capital sometime in their life but Aarhus, one of those destinations that only other Scandinavians visit in large numbers, is a well-kept traveller’s secret. A common response when telling friends about going there for a short city break is to inquire about its location and when told it’s on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula they’re mostly none the wiser. Just think of that squiggly bit of geography between the north of Germany and the countries of Sweden and Norway – that’s where it is – and because next year Aarhus will be the European Capital of Culture consider a visit before a trip there is no longer something that can surprise.
The city centre is tiny and you can’t get lost there but the airport is way out of town so I took the lazy option and arranged an airport transfer to drop me outside Guldsmeden Hotel, a neat 25-room abode where hot drinks and snacks wait for you all day in the tiny lobby and the bedrooms have four-poster beds. Fresh flowers around the place, candles and organic breakfasts contribute to the hygge experience of staying here.
The sensual surprise of Aarhus is its food scene: restaurants, eateries and cafes that outclass most UK cities of comparable size (Coventry or Leicester for example). In a backyard off Mejlgade, a street in the old part of town with cobbles and quirky angles, Restaurant Domestic hides itself: one large room with bare wood floors and exposed brick walls – domestic only in the Nordic sense of the word – serving exquisitely precise concoctions with a minimum of fuss. The eight miniscule hors d’oeuvre that arrive one by one are a contender for a Michelin star if the accolade was based on the creativity of starters and expect your taste buds to be further titillated by main courses with foraged wild berries and green strawberries.
Aarhus has a few spots worth seeking out. The Botantical Gardens and Greenhouses constitute a smaller version of Kew Gardens, equally delightful but free to visit. The City Hall designed by Arne Jacobsen, is essential viewing for architecture buffs and especially so if you’ve seen the hotel he designed years later in Copenhagen (now a Radisson Blu). Alas, none of his egg chairs await your posterior but his penchant for designing ash trays extends to the interiors of the lifts and the whole building, inside and out, is a triumph of modernist restraint – incredibly, it was built in the early 1940s when Aarhus lay under Nazi domination.
Hærværk is a restaurant with a difference and not just because you don’t know how to pronounce its name. The concept of a fixed menu is alien here and with ingredients varying on a daily and unpredictable basis the same food may not even reach all the tables. If this sounds chaotic – hærværk is Danish for vandalism – rest assured you’re in for a culinary treat. My surprise evening began with profiteroles filled with chicken, cabbage and celery, followed by jerusalem artichokes with a hazelnut curry, but the revelations you’ll experience will be completely different.
Equally exciting but more conventional meals are served up at the restaurant in Hotel Ferdinand, easily the best place to eat or stay on the canal side where it is situated. The neighbouring pubs and eateries are noisy at night but the buzz of contentment inside the Ferdinand restaurant comes from stylish food being enjoyed in a comfortable setting. With no bare tables and brick walls, the white tablecloths and the swirl of waiters come as a welcome relief from Nordic austerity.
For art with your architecture, head for the eye-catching structure topped with a rainbow-coloured circle that is unmissable from the city centre. The silhouettes of people walking around inside the multicoloured circular walkway is eerie, verging on the Dantesque, but inside you’re drawn up a spiral staircase to join them for a walk in a rainbow. The building is the Aarhus Art Museum and called ARoS – no idea why – and as well as permanent exhibitions which include a terrifyingly realistic sculpture of a boy (4.5 metres high) which brings Jonathan Swift’s Brobdingnag to mind.
Direct flights departing Aarhus for London do not leave in the morning so there is time on your last day to pop into the city’s best coffee shop, La Cabra in Graven. Hip cafés are two a penny everywhere nowadays – La Cabra has a record deck for customers to choose from the vinyl LPs and play one for themselves — but finding one that serves speciality coffees and homemade bread is not so easy. I enjoyed a remarkably gentle Ethiopian espresso, my friend a Columbian roast that looked like tea, and took with me a bottle of cascara, a drink made from the skin of the coffee cherry.
Being a circle, the end of Aarhus’ rainbow at ARoS is its beginning so there’s no pot of Scandi gold to seize on but there are plenty of surprises for the traveller to discover in a small city somewhere on the east coast of Jutland.
by Sean Sheehan