In the main square of Odense an elderly gentleman is chipping carefully away at a huge block of wax. The creation is nearly complete, and behind the sculptor’s meticulous movements you can see the distinctive nose and large forehead that could only be the city’s favourite author, Hans Christian Andersen. The work will be officially unveiled on April 2, the day the Dane, who penned such legendary fairytales as The Little Mermaid and The Emperor’s New Clothes, was born here 200 years ago.
While the bicentennial celebrations make it the perfect time to visit Denmark’s third largest city, there’s plenty to see in connection with the author all year round. Like Stratford-Upon-Avon with Shakespeare, and Liverpool with The Beatles, you can’t walk five metres without seeing Andersen, the face or the name but, unlike The Beatles and Shakespeare, you’re likely to know little more about the writer than the bedtime stories your mum read you.
The best place to learn about the man is his birthplace, HC Andersens Hus in the charming old quarter of the city. The area has been restored (and in some cases rebuilt) to resemble how it would have looked when the writer was alive, with cobbled streets and quaint, one-storey houses with orange tiled roofs. The result is an attractively sanitised version of what would have been the city’s poor ghetto during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Built onto the tiny dwelling where the writer was born is a museum so extensive you’ll feel like you’ve done a PhD in the subject by the time you leave. Usefully, there’s an exhibit that places Andersen in time by tracing the key events that unfolded during his life (1805-1875). Once you’ve travelled back to the 19th century, you’ll be in a good frame of mind for watching a video biography, reading the author’s letters to friends and pausing by the listening posts to hear gems like The Ugly Ducking and The Nightingale. One room displays his art (drawings and obsessively perfect cut-outs) while another his massive oeuvre that includes children’s stories, novels, poetry and plays in every language in which Andersen’s work has been printed (quite a few – only the Bible has been translated into more languages.
Like the streets outside, Andersen’s childhood home at the back of the museum has been restored to how it would have looked at the time he was born. As the son of a poor cobbler and washerwoman, his childhood was not one of luxury and the sparsely furnished rooms depict the poverty in which he lived.
Near St Knud’s cathedral is the house where the writer moved at the age of two. It’s similarly small and simply furnished and two rooms house an exhibit detailing the author’s attachment to his native town. Take the display with a pinch of salt. His destitute childhood was not a happy one and he fled from Odense at the age of 14 to seek fame and fortune in Copenhagen.
It’s difficult to imagine fleeing from Odense today. The small city is an idyllic collection of narrow alleys hiding art galleries and boutiques, and vast green spaces. HC Andersen Haven is a park by the river where you’ll find a statue of the author and, in summer, locals sprawled in the sun.
You can take a little covered boat down Odense’s river for an envious glance into the beautiful gardens of some of the city’s more wealthy inhabitants. Get off at Erik Bøghs Sti and it’s a 15-minute walk to Den Fynske Landsby, an open-air museum that recreates a country village as it would have looked, yes, you’ve guessed it, when Andersen was alive. Thatched houses line the main road, broken up by a windmill, watermill and a smithy which have been transplanted from the surrounding countryside of Funen. With flower gardens, orchards and farm animals surrounded by cultivated land, it’s as Anne Of Green Gables as Denmark can get.
Back on the boat, the scenery is only interrupted by monstrous swan-shaped pedal boats jolting along the river. In tracing Hans Christian Andersen’s footsteps round his city of birth, it’s hard to miss the irony that the first ugly thing you see is a swan.