At first, I thought I’d made the worst New Year’s Eve decision of my life. I’ve attended celebrations in New York, Strasbourg, Paris and Amsterdam. Of course they each ‘see in’ the New Year in different ways. Drinking, partying and queuing at bars features prominently in all of those cities. And I love it. It’s all about the atmosphere and the anticipation. Although I’ve never been an all-night party animal I was expecting Aarhus to be full of life, lubricated by Denmark’s greatest export. For many years the Swedes labelled the Danes as ‘accomplished drinkers’, and that’s being kind. The stereotype suggested that they filled up their Volvos with lower duty vodka and treated Copenhagen like Brits once viewed Calais, crossing the Øresund on booze cruises and carting back crates of Carlsberg. So surely Aarhus, Denmark’s second-city, would be hopping on New Year’s Eve?
A lunchtime stroll around town revealed that many shops and bars were shut. “They’re having a lie-in,” I told myself. By 6pm, I was expecting revelry to rival the Millennium Eve. Deciding to do-as-a-Dane would, I turned the hotel room TV on for the New Year’s Eve speech by Margrethe II. There were no English subtitles but I didn’t expect them. It’s the Queen, not ‘The Killing.’ Danes place bets on the topics their monarch will mention as she reviews the year’s events. Apparently, Denmark’s equivalent of Coral made lots of Krona on the subject of hoverboards this year. And, most importantly to me, the end of her speech signals the start of schnapps and celebrating.
I headed out but the city’s winding lanes and wide town squares were simply deserted. It was like 7am on New Year’s Day, rather than 12 hours before. Even ‘The Old Irish Pub’ in the main square of Kannikegade had its lights off and bar shutters down. I contemplated writing to the Irish Embassy demanding revocation of their association with Ireland. The pub wasn’t what it ‘craic’ed up to be after all.
Like most European places with flowing water running through the centre, bars and nightspots have sprung up alongside the riverside in old warehouses. But all the bars were shut there too. There was nothing but the occasional sign advising of a ‘Privat Arrangement.’ The tuxedo and little black dress wearers silhouetted in the candlelight were having their own pre-booked fun and they weren’t sharing. After two more circuits of the city centre I stumbled across a tiny Mexican restaurant. Brits, bemused by the lack of ale action, had seized most of the ten tables. I was served a passable shrimp enchilada and tried to make it last. Forty chews. But eating as slowly as I could, I had still finished at 8pm. I left hoping I’d now find an open pub. You could call that a glass half full approach.
By chance, I came across the city’s second Irish bar, Tir Na Nog. Wikipedia tells me that means, ‘the land of eternal youth.’ What I found was a few rather old men dotted around the bar, staring glumly into their Guinness. Do they have trade descriptions in Denmark? My idea of a New Year’s Eve doesn’t included listening to the maudlin music of Christy Moore. I decided that my one drink would probably be my last of 2015.
It was now 8.50pm and the city centre still looked like the kind of post apocalyptic wasteland where Bruce Willis emerges in a clean, white vest. Empty. Just before I headed back to the hotel I noticed a glow in the window of a building at the end of the street. I’d followed the clues and deduced that an English pub, The Sherlock Holmes, was open. I went in but my heart immediately sank as I surveyed the row of empty bar stools, seats and tables. It was empty. Okay, the pub was warm and cosy and appeared very British, decorated with dirty red wallpaper the colour of a Sarsons vinegar bottle and movie posters and plenty of items offering homage to the fictional detective. It was another themed pub. I’d swapped Emerald Isle ephemera for deerstalkers. A gleaming row of pumps promoted imported Fullers beer and behind it, neatly ordered rows of specially sourced Walkers crisps lined the walls. Not the distinctly Danish venue I had in mind.
But the barman, a bearded Scotsman called Paul, was welcoming. And as he pulled my pint he offered a better explanation of why the streets of Denmark’s second city were deserted at 9pm. Paul has lived in Aarhus for over 20 years and, like most adopted-Danes, is passionate about the country he has chosen as home. He told me that tax is high, at 46%, and there’s a 200% mark-up on car import prices. But the quality of life is good. Friends and family take precedence. And that influences how people celebrate the New Year. People attend private house parties until midnight. Some premises bizarrely open at 12.05 am and they remain open until dawn. The most British of pubs, The Sherlock Holmes, would be serving drinks until 6am! How distinctly un-British.
As the bar filled up, I realised this wasn’t Paul’s sales pitch to keep my business or retain some ex-pat company. By 11pm the pub was getting busy with a mix-of relocated English regulars and some locals who had taken a shine to Paul’s dry, Scottish wit. I shook hands with Allen, a chef who moved from Rochdale twelve years ago and we had that Brits abroad ‘catch-up-on-home’ conversation. The only thing he misses is the telly. And, strangely, the chat moved on to discuss the Mrs Merton show.
At midnight all the customers were given free champagne – a nice touch. The Danish version of Big Ben’s chime is a clock in Copenhagen that nobody could name. Or maybe they could and didn’t want to. Rob explained that there was fierce competition between the capital and Aarhus. “It is like the English versus the Scots, but more bloody,” he joked. So maybe it was fortunate that the attempt to relay the chimes Danish national radio station P1 failed. There was no Auld Lang Syne but we heard Abba’s Happy New Year and just like you’d expect to find 600 miles away in Britain, the partying got underway.
“You thought Aarhus was going to be quiet,” said Allen’s partner Gudrun as she beckoned me outside onto the side street. The night sky was a blaze of colour – a sulphury, smoky, firework fog filled the air. Danes can only let off fireworks on six days each year. They made the most of the double opportunity between the 31st and 1st. Back inside, the pub rocked with a big bang and burst of brilliant white light. “Probably a detonator,” said Paul. Compulsory national service means that determined Danish revellers can get their hands on the serious stuff!
In the quieter moments when bar queues subsided Rob explained how Aarhus has a bustling nightlife because it is a university town. Danes are offered grants for eight years of higher education. Again, that impacts on the New Year celebrations as bars can be quieter when students return home to the family for the holidays. But if this was quiet, the town must be a freezing Faliraki in term time! At 1am I stumbled back to the hotel, through the streets littered with dozens of discarded confetti cannons, burnt out bangers and pyrotechnic packs. I drifted off relieved in the realisation that I’d not made a bad New Year’s destination decision after all. And if the year ahead brings such pleasant, unexpected surprises and friendly faces, it may be the best one yet.
Ryanair fly direct from London Stansted to Aarhus with flights starting at £31.