PRIYA GANAPATHY steps into the life of Denmark’s famous fairytale genius and poet HC Andersen on a canal ride and guided walk around the old city of Copenhagen
Nyhavn in the maritime city of Copenhagen sits like a fairytale, with its gorgeous coloured houses, leaning against each other like old friends. Many of these old sailors’ quarters have been reimagined into trendy cafes, hotels and resturants offering superb views of sailboats in the waters below. I was on a floating picnic in a solar-powered GoBoat.
As we glided along the canals, our host Guiseppe Liverino pointed to a lovely tall white house wedged between a brown building and cream one. “This is the home of Hans Christian Andersen, who lived in Nyhavn between 1845 and 1864.” I couldn’t believe I was staring at the house of Denmark’s gift to world literature. Marked No. 67 with a plaque honouring him, I almost expected words and fairytales to waft out of its tall windows. Apparently he lived in House No. 20 earlier where he wrote “Tinderbox” and “Little Claus and Big Claus”.
Ironically, the legendary fairytale writer and poet who populated our childhood dreamscape with unforgettable characters, led a life of utter penury. So poor was he, that he was kicked out of the home I was staring at, because he couldn’t pay his rent. He then moved a few hundred metres across to the other side, to live in a red house No. 18 where he met the same fate after two years!
Without a penny to his name, Andersen allegedly sought out monied folks by pretending to be very rich. Eventually, when the wheels of fortune turned, he was too old! There was something tragically beautiful about his story and I wished I could step into his ‘Galoshes of Fortune’ to discover his Copenhagen. I had the perfect opportunity the following day.
If there is one guided city walk you need to do in Copenhagen, it should be the Hans Christian Andersen Tour. Run by guide Richard Karpen, who literally transforms as he dons a top hat, tail coat and old world umbrella, and insists you call him ‘Hans’! American-born Richard may be from the NY Bronx, but is a Dane at heart who stays in character as he gives insights into the life of Copenhagen’s most famous writer of childrens’ books.
The author was born in 1805 and died at the age of seventy leaving a body of work that continues to inspire generations. “Andersen surprisingly wrote fairytales for adults.” So, if you read him as an adult, a more sophisticated deeper message would emerge in his stories (called eventyr in Danish) that perhaps children could miss. A bit like watching a Shakespeare play or listening to Mozart.
Andersen was born to a poor family in the Odense countryside and raised by his shoemaker father and washerwoman mother. After seeing a theatrical show in his town, he heads off alone to Copenhagen with dreams of becoming an actor, armed with 10 Danish shawls, a belief in himself and a great soprano voice. He joins the Royal Danish Theatre, but fails as an actor, singer and ballet dancer.
After someone says he would make a good poet, he embarks on a career of writing. His early life in Odense and subsequent travels around Funen Island (Fyn) where he lived in various manors and castles like Broholm Castle, Hindsgavl Castle and Valdemars Castle, inspired him to ink several of his stories. By thirty, he had four fairytales under his belt and the rest is history.
His books have been translated into every major language in the world, so when Richard said, “Each year, the only books in more publication are the Bible, Shakespeare and the IKEA catalogue”, we believed him. The very name HC Andersen evokes a wave of nostalgia. As the author of bedtime stories like Thumbelina, Tinderbox, Ugly Duckling, The Princess and The Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Little Mermaid (which inspired Copenhagen’s most recognised and famous landmark on a rock at Langelinie promenade), he created characters and tales that left many enchanted.
Having penned many long travelogues and the most unforgettable quotes on travel, it wasn’t odd that in his autobiography The Fairytale of My Life he wrote, “To travel is to live” which became his motto for life.
Andersen travelled twenty nine times outside Denmark spanning ten years of his adult life –to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Portugal and west upto Norway, by horse carriage and the Far East by ship! Though he never married, he fell in and out of love, often with ladies way out of his league. Living in a classist society, women wouldn’t marry him because he was too poor. But a broken heart is often the bedrock of a successful poet or writer.
By the end of his life Andersen was rich, famous and welcomed into the homes and feted by royalty. However, he was too old to marry. Having been denied of a mature, physical or lasting relationship, people say he never really grew up. He wrote 1000 poems, 6 novels, 40 plays and 175 fairytales. Perhaps his child-like innocence was the key to why his writings and fairytales could be understood and appreciated by children. “My whole life was the greatest fairytale” he had once remarked and it seemed true.
Inside City Hall, stands a wonderful marble bust of story-teller extraordinaire Hans Christian Andersen. Though a life-long bachelor, the latter’s bust was placed near the civil marriage ceremony room perhaps to bless relationships to turn into fairytales! Newly married couples often pose or clink champagne flutes against the City Hall’s alluring backdrop after signing their marriage contracts inside!
We walked around the old city, along its cobbled paths and ancient landmarks. We found Neo-Classical architure around the Bridge of Sighs and the Old Fountain of Charity at Gammel Torv – the city’s oldest Market Square, visited the lovely Cathedral of Our Lady nearby and marvelled at the brick wonder of University Library and the Law Faculty’s vibrant 1850 wall frescos before halting at the Round Tower or Rundetarn, whose library hall became Andersen’s favourite spot for inspiration.
For 20 years our guide had kept the city’s visitors rapt with these stories. Indians love Richard as he shares a great love for our culture. He confessed how India brought him and his Danish wife together 30 years ago. She is a pracitioner of Bharatnatyam and he, a classical cellist (among his talents) who lived in Varanasi to learn Indian music. Before disappearing into the crowd like a magician, Richard doffed his top hat with a familiar “Achcha ji, namaste. Bhagwan ki marji, phir milenge. Uparwale ki daya?!” leaving me agape. Copenhagen was full of surprises!
Yet, there was so much more to experience – the HC Andersen museum near the City Hall or a trip to see his birthplace Odense and the manors he stayed in at Fyn, or stepping into the sculpture of his huge galoshes in Roskilde… But I stood by his large bronze statue on HC Andersen Boulevard, that sat gazing at Tivoli Gardens.
He had a book in one hand and a cane in the other and his knees shone from people repeatedly sitting on his lap for an archetypal selfie at Copenhagen! I didn’t need another prompt to enter the ornate gateway of Tivoli Gardens and its fairytale setting to experience Den Flyvende Kuffert or The Flying Trunk, a classic Hans Christian Andersen ride.
Who could resist being a child again, to trundle down a dark tunnel and relive his 32 fairytales in a seven-minute ride? With the cutest mobile models and a tableaux of superbly designed ever-changing sets, mood music and atmospheric commentary, this is a huge attraction for people of all ages. The ride is named after the 1839 fairytale of a young man who squanders all his money.
Left with only a few belongings, he gets a magical trunk that transports him to Turkey where he meets the Sultan’s doomed princess locked in a tower. After impressing the Sultan and his queen with his stories, they agree to let him marry the princess despite a curse of unhappiness. The excited lad buys fireworks, flies around the countryside, setting them off in celebration. One spark tragically falls on his trunk, burns it to ashes and he can never fly to meet the Princess in the tower again. So he wanders the world on foot, telling stories.
And telling stories was all that Andersen did right up till his final resting place at Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen where I paid homage. As a writer and poet, HC Andersen was definitely Denmark’s ‘national treasure’ who has inspired movies, plays, ballets, books and will continue to delight people for generations to come. Just before his death, Andersen advised a music composer on what to play at his funeral: “Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps.” He once remarked, “Enjoy life. There is plenty of time to be dead”.
Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways and other airlines have daily flights to Copenhagen from major Indian cities via Dubai, Frankfurt or London. The journey time varies from 11 hour 45min to 12 hours 15min. Air India will soon launch direct flights to Copenhagen from Delhi thrice a week initially, starting September.
Where to Stay:
Award-winning boutique hotel with cosy simple stylish Danish design rooms in the heart of Norrebro, close to the metro with organic breakfast and signature wine hour at the bar. Ph: 0045 35373111
Brand new upscale boutique hotel in a historic neighbourhood close to City Hall Square and Tivoli. Has a rooftop bar and terrace with great views, fab indoor and outdoor dining options. Ph: 0045 33114806 www.brochner-hotels.com/hotel-danmark
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 3 December 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.