The first thing that strikes you about Ron Mueck’s Boy is how massive he is. Crouched over like Gollum in a corner of the gallery with something like pain and remorse in his piercing blue eyes, the Boy was what they call a hyper-realistic sculpture, crafted from silicone, resin and synthetic hair.
As we took in the lifelike folds that make up the Boy‘s freckled body and the veins and wrinkles on his feet, my slightly stunned 4-year-old whispered, “Mommy, is he trying to poop?”
We were in Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, and its 10-storey modern art museum, ARos Aarhus Kunstmuseum, has surprised us so far with its boundary-pushing, thought-provoking artworks.
Now I’m no prude; I think silent films of hairy, naked Danes frolicking in a garden are amusing as they are harmless, but the art installations at ARos are more than just close-ups of frizzy pubes in balmy weather. It ranges from the mildly disturbing, like Tony Matelli’s Fucked (Couple)…
…to the outright grotesque, like Jake & Dinos Chapman’s mini diorama, March of The Banal.
It’s ironic how the museum provided us these beautiful STOKKE strollers to get around with when what we really needed were blindfolds.
For the children.
Because they were enthralled.
The most child-friendly exhibit was, without a doubt, Olafur Eliasson’s Your Rainbow Panorama, which isn’t really an exhibit, but a circular multihued walkway that allows visitors a glimpse of this bustling university town. From up here, the city doesn’t look terribly impressive, but its tidy streets hide some of the best restaurants, museums – and people – in Denmark.
The annual Aarhus Festival 2018 is on full swing, and we exited the museum to find ourselves in the middle of all the creative action. Artists were spray-painting graffiti artworks on giant canvases while kids are encouraged to join in by scribbling the streets with chalks.
Nearby, a pop-up street food market with everything from Spanish empanadas to beer-battered fish and chips has found its temporary home in what looked like a former church. But of course it was the food truck selling salmon avocado don that reeled us in like fish.
God, it was lovely to have finally some rice, even if it was prepared by a white brother in dreads.
Dusk sends a stream of university students pouring out onto the cobblestone lanes of the old town. Lebanese families picnicked with kebabs and pomegranate juice in front of the Aarhus cathedral, while an ebullient chain-smoking crowd gathered under a tent in the heart of the Latin quarter to watch a band perform the blues.
Guitar riffs and drum beats bounced off the walls of medieval half-timbered houses, galleries and restaurants, and we walked and Googled, before settling in for dinner in Mefisto, a cosy candle-lit eatery specializing in petite portions of seafood (as we will discover later).
I certainly hadn’t expected chowing on Canadian lobster in a Scandinavian town, but it was the best I’ve had – and I’ve been to Vanuatu, where these lil’ suckers are plucked directly from the sea bed.
The next day, we started our day in Den Gamle By, an open-air museum that offers visitors a glimpse of past eras. The Aarhus of yore is very atmospheric: we dove into the labyrinth of well-restored paupers’ homes, stately mansions and shops (including a real bakery that hawks tasty treats using recipes before the 1800s and a shop that sells vintage toys) and was fascinated at every turn.
You were welcomed to snoop inside some buildings and have a chat with the “landlady” or a “shopkeeper” (whoever thought 19th century Danes spoke such perfect English?), sniff out medicinal herbs at a real apothecary garden, take a spin on a horse cart and – for South Koreans or those with morbid inclinations – try a coffin for size in the carpenter’s workshop.
Ah, those good old days. When you were not busy dying of TB or the bubonic plague.
The newest section of Den Gamle By, which wasn’t fully completed at the time of our visit, is a typical city block that one might encounter here if one time traveled back to the 1970s – it had the uber cool Pouls Radio Shack and even a gyneacologist’s office (although I had some trouble explaining what that was to the children).
But of course our favorite section was the mini fairground – instead of roller coasters, screaming kids and crappy hotdogs however, this one had hand-operated rides, (impossible to win) games like stilt-walking and the horseshoe toss and mood music courtesy of a vintage fairground organ.
For lunch, we headed for Aarhus Street Food, the city’s version of a food court. Located in an old bus depot (because I’m assuming a regular building is not edgy enough) and offering over 30 types of ethnic street foods that simultaneously confuse and delight, this place is every hipster foodie’s wet dream. It also has an adorable little play area to keep the kids occupied while you stuff your face.
The duck kimchi ramen was weird as hell but still nice, as was the tarteletter, a messy but extremely satisfying Danish pastry that’s bursting with creamy chicken and asparagus sauce. (Although might want to wipe your mouth after you’re done, lest other people mistake it for something else).
At the end of the day, our accommodation, the grand ol’ Helnan Marselis Hotel, offered a fine respite from the city because this big ugly cuboid structure sat, resplendently, right by the sea. It looks a lot better inside, I promise: most rooms have a splendid view of the ocean and, when you’re not staring in awe at some hypothermia-resistant swimmer in skimpy swimmers toweling themselves off, you can wage your own battle with the cold in its small indoor pool.
A network of walking paths from the hotel take you past a forested coastline peppered with sculptures and shops. Armed with a few overripe apples we have gathered from the backyard of our Odense apartment, we headed for the Marselisborg Deer Park, an unmissable attraction for all animal lovers.
Set on the rolling hills outside Aarhus, this sprawling woodland park is the home to free-roaming sika and fallow deers, as well as a group of wild boars. The deers feast on chestnuts and acorns that litter the ground, and seemed much less aggressive compared to their Japanese counterparts in Nara – until we spotted a rogue deer chasing after a terrified tourist, who was sprinting downhill, clutching a bag of goodies to his chest.
Since the prospect of getting mauled by a greedy rampaging deer didn’t seem too hot, we quickly hid our apples away and – gingerly treading over huge piles of deer poop – skulked to a herd of deer which were already feeding. Very cautiously, our four-year-old held an apple out to the cutest, smallest, most non-threatening deer he could find and it immediately vanished inside his itty bitty mouth.
My two-year-old however was terrified and refused to walk no matter how much we cajoled him. But after realizing that he probably wouldn’t be devoured by a deer, he began to love them.
As for me, I’ve fallen in love with Aarhus, and I couldn’t think of a better way – or city – to end our road trip in Denmark.
Unless, of course, one of us stepped on deer poop.
Helnan Marselis Hotel Just a five minute drive away from the city, this old-school hotel offers expansive views of a swimming beach as well as facilities like a gym and swimming pool. Rooms and public areas might be dated, but are well-functioning and clean. Be sure to request for a private balcony when booking a ‘sea-view’ room – several of these are located on a public balcony. And beware of the ‘forest view’ rooms as these face the carpark. Breakfast is included, though of poorer quality. $$$
- You need at least two nights in Aarhus or more, especially if you want to visit its top-rated attractions: ARos, Den Gamle By and Moesgaard Museum. Better yet, go on a festival day to really get a feel of this city.
- Many restaurants in the Latin Quarter aren’t really geared to children – those with kids might just want to explore the area and have dinner elsewhere.
- Den Gamle By is great for kids, but its cobblestone streets is a nightmare for lightweight strollers. You can rent sturdier wagons from the tourist office but just inform your kids to brace themselves for a bumpy ride. The best way to explore the place is to walk. There are plenty of places in the museum to stop and rest those weary feet, including benches and restaurants.
- The Marselisborg Deer Park is not a place to don your most expensive shoes – unless you fancy a shiny coat of deer poop on it.