Perched on a bay, the Danish travel wonder of Århus is a lively and colourful university city with a vibrant feel to it while a short stroll from the centre offers relaxation in parks, forests and beaches. This cultural treasure trove is a great walking city to absorb both Scandinavian history and modern life with fascinating displays from the Viking Age, the 19th century and even the Iron Age.
For over 1000 years, Danes have lived in the narrow medieval street around the cathedral area as shown in the Viking remains dug in the free-to-visit basement of a central bank building. Much of the dig is in-situ with a range of tools and a Viking skeleton. Maps highlight the deceptive wide extent of Viking exploration and rule from Iceland and Britain to Ukraine while models show the difficult, but relatively prosperous and communal life of the feared Vikings.
Nearby, shows Århus today with a stunning art gallery (I find the building far more striking than most of the art) with a truly Scandinavian feel to its architecture, while impromptu music launches out in the neighbouring concern hall.
The highlight of Århus is the superb Den Gamle By (Old Town) open-air museum – a remarkable collection of 75 buildings that have been gathered since the museum opened in 1914 (an impressively early focus on preserving Danish heritage). Nineteenth century life is captured in the numerous half-timbered buildings that form a Danish market town of the time. It is easy to feel the traders tramping the dusty streets selling their wares while craftsmen demonstrate their skills in pottery and woodwork and bakers create the wonderful aroma of fresh bread, cakes and pastries. Horse and carts wander the roughened streets while the Mint Master’s House shows the difference between wealth and workers in times past.
The greatest single treasure in Århus is located a few kilometres south of Århus. Among Viking collections, rune stones and a superb collection of pre-Christ military weapons in the Moesgård Prehistoric Museum is the exceptional well-preserved body of the Iron Age Grauballe Man. Thoroughly investigated with all kinds of modern scanners, probes and machines, he is thought to have been sacrificed with a savage single slit across his throat (the gaping wound is very apparent), his naked body dumped in a peat bog around 300BC (and found in 1952). Estimated to be 34 at his death and in good general health, his final meal was a burned porridge of barley and rye. It is difficult to imagine his life and his feelings as he met his nasty death, the subtle features of his face capture an apparent peace. The level of preservation is striking – the fingernails and toenails, the thick hair, the twisted torso amd the lean smooth-skinned body.
Århus is a surprising city, compact and lively, yet packed with cultural gems that highlight the rich Danish history through the various ages.
As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.
- Extract from “The Grauballe Man” by Seamus Heaney