One gotta love the dark rainy skies of Copenhagen, the rhino butterflies in front of the parliament building, the hobo-artsy drug enclave of Christiania, and all this Danish noir (thus says the person who spent hours and days of her life binge-watching Forbrydelsen). But there is more to Denmark than just the main island. To find out, you either need to do some research prior to the trip, or simply rely on serendipitous encounters and occasional luck.
One reason why every travel writer should hitchhike at least once, is for the sake of geographical randomizing. You never know where you will end up (and secretly hope that it’ll be not in the trunk of a car). I ran across the narrow road in Frederikshavn to the exit from the ferry terminal, and waved at the truck driver, asking for a ride to Aalborg, a city less than an hour down the southern road. It was early 2014, I’d just gotten back from a small lifetime in Africa and was still adjusting to the wonders of European world.
’This day is beauuuutiful,’ the driver exclaimed and offered me a candy. The pissing Nordic rain was sprinkling all over the green hills of Jutland, but that day was, indeed, beautiful. It was his last delivery of the season, from Sweden to Denmark, and the whole summer was in his pocket, or better say, under his sail. ‘Once all the job is done, I am off to Scotland with friends,’ he was dreaming out loud. ‘I have a small sailboat. It’s gonna be beautiful!’
We chatted about this and that, Africa and sailing, road trips and rainy weather. As we were approaching Aalborg, I finally learned how to pronounce the name of the city properly ([Ol-bo]). The driver insisted that he would drop me off in his neighborhood.
‘You’ll like it, from what I learned about you,’ he smiled. ‘It’s like a town within a town. We have our small bar, and our harbor, and – just imagine – the neighborhood never ever needs police, because crime does not even exist here.’ Before he had a chance to mention rivers of honey, candy mountains and chocolate shores, we reached Fjordbyen. ‘I can’t believe you ended up in Fjordbyen!’ my Danish friend was telling me a few days later when I mentioned the place. ‘It is like the cutest place in Aalborg, I used to take all my guests there!’
Fjordbyen (which literally means ‘Fjord City’) started as a fishing village on Aalborg fjord back in the 1930s. The fishermen would build small sheds to store their gear, and in winter time all fishing boats would be pulled ashore or moored at self-made jetties for the season. Fjordbyen actually used to be closer to the city center, under the old railway bridge, but urban expansion eventually pushed it further into the suburbs, until it ended up in its current location sometime around the 1980s. Fishing was not exactly the most money-bearing occupation, and many fishermen started living in their fjord sheds, not being able to afford accommodation in the city. Soon afterwards, they decided to make the best of their situation and turn former storage facilities into cosy habitable homes.
A walk along the windy embankment first brings you to the Maritime Museum, featuring local seafaring history and one ginormous submarine. As for the Fjordbyen itself, it indeed can be described as a work of opportunistic art, a surreal suburban fairytale, or a mildly psychedelic trailer park.
All houses are lined up along the gravel roads, and each one of them has custom design that reflects – I wish I knew what: the mind of its residents, the nature of this place, a particular story that once happened here? From steampunk driveways to hippie outdoor terraces, Fjordbyen represents all what modern-day suburban condos are not. It is, in a way, a portrait of friendly and warm rural Denmark, perched on the edge of urban modernity of Aalborg.
Fjordbyen’s little bar serves food, coffee, football and good company. I landed on one of the spare chairs and looked around to see what kind of crowd shapes this odd community. By law, only Aalborg locals can own a house in Fjordbyen and keep their boat at the docks. And it is not just middle-aged and older people that choose this quiet life of comfortable suburban isolation. Although some of them come here just for the summer season, quite a few houses seem like they are able to withstand cold and lonely winter days.
The future of Fjordbyen is not clear. By law, it must renew its lease within the municipality every five years. But the city’s expansion and plans of new industrial and residential construction may force the Fjord City from its current ground, or wipe it off completely. A little world inside a little town in the tiny country of Denmark.