The European neighbourhood that declared independence

"I'm Swedish. I got lost. They picked me up from the gutter and I found my way here."

We nod our heads in sympathy at this hard-luck story, related by Nina, our Christiania tour guide. An ageing hippie leading the tour from an ungainly tricycle cart, she seems a worthy object of our pity.

Then she laughs, delighted at how effectively we've been taken in.

"It's not true," she says. "I was just fascinated by the lifestyle." Then she trundles off, leaving our group to catch up on foot.

There's more to Nina than meets the eye, and the same could be said for Freetown Christiania.

After idealistic squatters moved into this abandoned military base in the heart of Copenhagen in 1971, it became infamous for the open dealing of cannabis.

Because marijuana use is illegal in Denmark, there's still an air of tension when entering Christiania's Green Light District, centred on the aptly named Pusher Street. Here photography is forbidden, and the dealers standing by their stalls wear masks to defy identification during police raids.

The rest of Christiania, however, is a different world. With restaurants, bars and craft shops scattered through old military buildings painted with street art, it's like a mellow theme park dedicated to a fading flower- power idyll.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a resident of the enclave takes the curious on a tour through its grounds.

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Nina starts us off at the Loppen ("Flea") building, its art gallery currently showing work from Christiania's young people. There are about 650 adults in the neighbourhood and 130 children, she says, though the kids attend school outside the gates.

After a browse through the arts and crafts store next to Cafe Loppen, a surprisingly stylish restaurant with mood lighting beneath timber beams, we're off into the drizzly outdoors.

As we walk, Nina explains that Christiania is divided into 14 communities along both sides of a long lake.

Residents' rules ban private cars and hard drugs, the latter having caused too many problems back in the '70s. Sadly, the residents cannot grow vegetables here, she adds, because of the polluted soil.

From time to time we break the walk at another craft business. The first is an all-women blacksmith's forge, selling all manner of objects from candlesticks to jewellery. Later we peer through the windows of a shop selling customised bicycles, and Nina points out two old ovens that were rented to one of the Harry Potter movies as props.

The commercial enterprises scattered through the Freetown are confusing. Isn't Christiania a commune, we ask?

It is, says Nina, though a deal brokered in 2012 means the collective is slowly buying the estate from the Danish government. Utilities such as electricity are charged to the whole community, with each resident paying a monthly levy. Privately run businesses pay rent.

Funds are also earmarked to various communal projects. As far as housing goes, however, residents fund their own improvements to the ex-military structures.

"In the beginning there wasn't much electricity," Nina recalls. "So I made a fortune selling candles." Not everyone has a bathroom even now, she adds, pointing out a shared bathhouse.

As we head further from the hub, we encounter more greenery and water views. On this cool Sunday afternoon we pass locals relaxing, chatting, cycling. Occasionally, the aroma of marijuana drifts through the air.

Despite the chilly weather today, it seems an extraordinarily relaxed place for an inner-urban neighbourhood. I'm beginning to glimpse what the long-term residents see in it.

Further on, we drop in to a cheery general store, pass a vegetarian restaurant, admire a Buddhist stupa, and end the tour at the Grey Hall, a performance space once graced by Bob Dylan.

I shout Nina a coffee afterwards, curious to learn more about her home. Has Christiania changed much since the 1970s?

"It's not like it used to be," she says. "We are like a mirror for the society outside. In the beginning people were very idealistic and thought we should change the world. Now it's different. We've been more normalised than we wanted to."

I suggest it's been a long experiment in how humans can live together differently, though with some rules.

She brightens at that. "This year we are 45! Yeah, of course, we need some rules. We are not on another planet."

But sometimes, it must feel that way.

TRIP NOTES

More information

visitcopenhagen.com

Getting there

Qantas and Emirates fly to Copenhagen via Dubai, see qantas.com.au

Staying there

Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, radissonblu.com Stylish accommodation in a central location. From $300 a night.

City Hotel Nebo, nebo.dk Well-maintained budget option in lively Vesterbro. From $100 a night.

Touring there

Guided tours in English take place at 3pm each Saturday and Sunday from Christiania's main entrance off Prinsessegade. Fee $10, rundvisergruppen.dk

Tim Richards paid for his own travel.

See also: The Auxit: Inside the region that declared independence from Australia

See also: A perfect place to recoup on a European tour

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