Once upon a time in Odense… Journey into an enchanting Danish city where fantasy and reality co-exist.
A distinct whimsical air drifts through Odense. Etched into cobblestones are red footprints which guide you down nooks and crannies in search of historical landmarks. Lining narrow streets and alleys are 16-19th century candy-colored cottages with maroon-colored timber, brick chimneys, and peaked roofs made of terracotta shingles. Violet flowers, purple tulips, bluebells, and white blossoms frame doorways and gardens.
Sculptures of mermaids intertwined with other fabled characters form pillars on Claus Bergs Gade. A one-legged statue of a brave tin soldier stands watch along Overgade Street. A stainless steel model shaped like a paper boat sits quietly in the river Odense Å which flows through the city.
One gets the feeling that this small city of roughly 175,000 in southern Denmark has blended reality with fantasy so perfectly that its residents exist in both worlds as if they were the very same. “Many visitors think these are just colorful models,” shares local resident Lone when I asked her about its fairytale-like houses. “They are in fact residential. People live in them.”
A ninety minute train ride from Copenhagen brings you to the island of Funen and its capital, Odense, which lives and breathes the fables of its native son – prolific 19th century Danish author, poet, and artist Hans Christian Andersen.
Chances are you’ve probably thumbed through one of his fairytales as a child. His timeless sagas include The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the Brave Tin Soldier. During his lifetime, he produced over 156 classic fairytales, 14 novels, over 1,000 poems and more than 50 works of drama.
Born in 1805, Andersen grew up in Odense right at the transitional cusp from the 18th to 19th century – an era where rampant poverty and high childhood mortality rates prevailed despite progress in science and technology. So Andersen’s imagination soared.
His mind began to create alternate worlds inspired by daily life in Odense and these fantasies would later manifest as popular tales we know so well today.
To follow his story through the city, you have to look down. Down at red slender footprints that mark a 3.1 kilometer long trek around Odense. These footprints take you to 13 icons that played a significant role in Andersen’s life and relationship with the city.
Your first stop along the route is his birthplace – an unassuming ochre-colored cottage with walnut-brown timber– which he shared with six other families for the first two years of his life. Once located in the slums of Odense, his birth home has been physically woven into the modern steel-and-glass H.C. Andersen museum which chronicles his personal and professional life from 1805 until 1875 when he died of cancer. It was within the museum I also discovered Andersen “The Artist” who made intricate paper cuttings with nothing more than a crude pair of scissors.
A quick dash across a small courtyard with red oversized funnel-like figures takes you into the Tinderbox which is a cultural art center where children can live out his stories by becoming characters themselves. Neon colored spotlights illuminate wooden stages that bring makeshift worlds to life with costumes, props, and makeup.
The next stop is Sortebrødre Torv (Black friar’s Square) where farmers gather to sell produce every Wednesday and Saturday all year round. The square dates back to the 12-13th century and was named after Black friar monks who once ran a monastery in Odense.
Today, farmers sell all sorts of fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers in addition to freshly caught fish, brown eggs, and artisan cheeses. Brightly colored orange carrots, red cabbages, pink rhubarb stalks, and purple grapes glisten under the sun with equally colorful brick houses in the background.
“Some farmers have been at this market for generations,” shares farmer Carla Lang Nielsen, pointing over to a couple herb and vegetable vendors. “Like Merete who makes wool jackets, sweaters, and dresses from wool sheared off her own sheep.”
Originally from Canada, Carla Lang Nielsen moved to Denmark 20 years ago and now runs a pig farm called Hindsholmgrisen. She has been selling organic pork products at the market for the last three years. Graham Smith, a local cheese maker at the market, is also a transplant to Odense from Scotland. He moved to the charming city 40 years ago, leaving his career as a horticulturist behind – a tree surgeon, he says – to pursue his dream of making cheese.
I noticed this common thread of people leaving past lives to live out their dreams amidst the fairytale heart of Odense. Sortebrødre Torv was where Andersen himself often daydreamed of performing on the local stage theatre as a teenager. He lived in Odense until he was 14 when his undying passion for acting and theatre moved him to Copenhagen to join the Royal Danish Theatre.
There are several markets on Saturdays including flea markets where you can buy antiques amidst a sea of porcelain knick-knacks and eccentric Danish designs, and a children’s toy market on Flakhaven where kids can sell their used toys and buy new ones.
Following Andersen’s footsteps around town, you trace his childhood route as well as his 19th century playgrounds. From the white workhouse with brown wood paneling where he studied as a pre-teen to the washing site along the river’s bank where his mother washed costumes and clothes for Odense’s upper class citizens.
The washing site was one of his makeshift playgrounds as well as the elegant Odense Palace where his mother also worked as a washerwoman. His playmates included fellow servant children as well as crown prince Frits who would later become King Frederik VII of Denmark in 1848.
Today, Odense is Denmark’s third largest city after Copenhagen and Aarhus with a slew of activities, festivals, and parades that pay tribute to the author. During the bicentennial celebration of his birth in 2005, metal sun faces made to resemble paper cuttings of Andersen’s face were erected all over the city in his memory.
His sagas seem to permeate every pore of Odense. From traditional Danish restaurant Den grimme ælling – “The Ugly Duckling” – which serves a variety of potatoes and roast meats to abstract paintings of ducklings adorning the walls of upscale restaurant, Pasfall which serves new Nordic cuisine.
A leisurely 30 minute ride onboard the Odense Aafart takes you down river with overhanging tree branches, past luxury manors and gardens, and through narrow waterways that evoke a sense of cruising in a fairytale. You arrive a short 20-minute walk from Funen Village – a rebuilt open-air museum with over 20 rural structures from the 18th and 19th centuries. Timbered buildings, cultivated farms, and livestock such as pigs, horses, geese, cows, and chickens give you a glimpse into a world that inspired Andersen.
“Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale”, he shares in the story, What the whole family said. Even though Andersen would eventually move away from Odense, his dynamic tales continue to live on in this little city where fantasy and reality seem one and the same.
H.C. Andersen Events in Odense
Parades – Catch the Hans Christian Andersen parade daily as well as the “20 Fairytales in 20 Minutes” show (Summer)
Plays – The H.C. Andersen Plays performs fairytales at the open air museum, Funen Village (Summer)
Festivals – The Hans Christian Andersen Festival will be held with over 270 events including cabaret, concerts, and performances (Summer)
Markets – During the first two weekends in December, Odense’s old quarter transforms into a traditional Christmas market with decorations, festive booths, and seasonal vendors.
Where to Stay
Consider bedding down at the First Hotel Grand – an iconic fixture built in 1897 which has played host to Danish royalty and aristocrats over centuries.
View more photos from Odense, Denmark, in my image bank. This piece was originally written on assignment as the cover feature story in the July 2015 issue of Malaysian Airlines‘ Going Places Magazine.