Sometimes, a year as European Capital of Culture can be an unfulfilling experience. It can be a burden, which asks too much of a city too small to do the title justice — or an unnecessary extra reason to visit a metropolis whose ready charms need no introduction.
But Aarhus may be a place of perfect size and stature fora 12-month stint in a spotlight that it’ll share with Paphos in Cyprus (there have been two European Capitals of Culture a year since 2007). Denmark’s second city is a sizeable port, with more than a quarter-of-a-million residents. It’s an enclave of Viking origin with 13 centuries of history behind it — where the art and food scene is already well developed.
Yet it’s also, due to the shadow cast by bigger, brighter Copenhagen, still something of a lesser-known prospect for travel. In terms of weekends away for curious tourists, 2017 will be its coming of age.
The planned programme promises a feast of flair. There’ll be performances, by the Royal Danish Theatre, of Rode Orm (Red Serpent) — an epic Viking saga of love and sword fights — played out on the colossal slanting roof of the Moesgaard Museum, a natural history institution six miles south oft own..
Oscar-winning Danish director Susanne Bier will see three of her movies — Open Hearts, Brothers and After The Wedding — reimagined as ballet, opera and musical theatre respectively at the Musikhuset concert hall. And The Garden will be the focal point — a three-mile visual trail that will curve through the centre and along the coast, examining man’s relationship with nature in a weft of paintings and installations curated by the city’s contemporary art hotspot ARoS.
This wonderful gallery is both key to Aarhus’s appeal and a sign that it had grown broad wings long before it received the Capital of Culture rubber stamp. Having opened its doors in1859, it’s the oldest public art museum in Denmark beyond Copenhagen, yet has shone unmissably since 2004, when it moved to a new building at the heart of the grid.
It’s hosted daring exhibitions (last year’s A New Dynasty compiled pieces by 21st-century Chinese artists to the irritation of Beijing) — but makes its mark most notably in Your Rainbow Panorama, a promenade on the roof, hewn from coloured glass by Danish-Icelandic genius Olafur Eliasson, which shows the city in changing shades of orange, blue and green as you walk.
Aarhus also intrigues at ground level. It’s been reshaping itself since the millennium, and the fruits of its labour are clear — Urban Mediaspace Aarhus, a grand revitalisation of the waterside with a library, cafes and children’s play areas; Godsbanen, a former railway warehouse reborn as bars and eateries; and Substans, one of three Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, where chef Rene Mammen crafts delicate morsels of haddock, pork, lobster and Scandinavian healthiness.
Being one of Europe’s poster cities of 2017 won’t be a fresh start for Aarhus, nor t he end of a process, but the continuation of something special.