With an historic core exuding the romance a storybook village, Denmark’s third largest city, Odense, takes its name from Odin, the king of the Nordic god. But much of its more recent charm is built upon the stature of its most famous son, author Hans Christian Andersen. Just a 90 minute train ride west of Copenhagen, it was the legacy of the story-teller extraordinaire that had lured me to his birthplace.
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As much as Odense is a pilgrimage for H.C. Andersen devotees, the town never seemed to appreciate the boy until well after the world discovered his writing. There are some loose parallels with how Salzburg treated Mozart. The storyteller had a profoundly unhappy childhood in Odense and fled the city as soon as he was old enough to make tracks for Copenhagen. His cobbler father was always broke, and had been forced to marry Hans’s tempestuous peasant mother when she was 7 months pregnant.
Further up the food-chain, the Andersen grandmother was insane and, as Andersen wrote himself, was a pathological liar. But his depressing upbringing is long forgotten today and Odense is proud of its world-famous son, milking his legacy for all its worth. Massive building activity is radically changing the fabric of this ancient town, but its safe-guarded historic core still evokes the fairy-tale town that Hans would have known so well.
My first stop was a visit to Andersen’s birthplace, a small yellow corner house, situated in what was the poorest part of Odense. Born in 1805, the small, half-timbered house was bought by the city in 1905 to celebrate his centenary.
Next up, his modest childhood abode, where the fairy-tale writer lived from 1807 to 1819, developing his extraordinary imagination which ended up producing 156 fairytales, 14 novels, 50 dramatic works and over 1000 poems. Exuding a serene cottage charm today, the unpretentious house has incredibly small rooms and the “garden still blooms,” as in The Snow Queen. The garden is packed with plants that feature in his stories. The home has been furnished precisely as described in his biographies.
I also passed by the old town prison he would visit with his parents, who knew the caretaker. The atrocious prison conditions are described in his novel, “O.T.” Nearby, down by the river, his mother plyed her trade as a washerwoman and the austere conditions were the inspiration for his story, “She was Worthless.”
Recently opened, the most illuminating insight into the famous writer’s life story can be savoured at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. This colourful and imaginative exhibition is packed with personal possessions including his workshop, while also highlighting his love affair with poetical papercuts. They are enchanting fairy tales in themselves.
In the latter part of his life, Odense finally recognised his greatness and in 1867 he was made an honorary citizen of the city, despite leaving it many decades earlier. The torch-lit tribute took place in the gorgeous square fronting the Town Hall. Alongside it is the Church of Saint Canute, or Odense Cathedral. Hans was confirmed here and the experience inspired him to later write “The Red Shoes.’
Dating from the 13th century, this is the only purely Gothic cathedral in Denmark. It was named after King Canute, who reigned from 1080 to 1086. Admittedly, I had a ghoulish interest in heading down into the crypt to see his skeleton. This is the king who was slain by farmers angered at the taxes he’d imposed on them. He was killed just a stone’s throw from the church. Miracle healings supposedly occurred at King Canute’s tomb which led him to be canonised in 1100.
Hankering for some retail therapy, Odense is blessed with myriad design and gift stores. In the heart of town, pop into Inspiration Zinch, on Vestergade, brimming with a bumper selection of Danish design and handicrafts. All the big names are here, everything from Royal Copenhagen to Georg Jensen, but you will also come across younger and more modern designers. Opposite Hans Christian Andersen’s house, you’ll find a great display of Danish crafts and traditional Christmas decorations. Finally at Smykker, on Klaregadem you can buy museum copies of Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Viking jewellery — all made in gold, sterling silver, and bronze in the outlet’s own workshop.
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