In the footsteps of

Hans Christian Andersen

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

A new trail is turning a fresh page in the life of Denmark’s great storyteller, guiding travellers around the places that tell his own rags-to-riches fairy tale

Words & photographs Sarah Baxter

The medieval merchant’s house at Nedergade 24 was showing its age. Kramboden, as it’s called, appeared to have been drawn freehand, its whitewashed plaster, timber frames and leaded windows all a little bowed or askew. Stepping inside, I found an Aladdin’s Cave of domestic items: chambersticks, oil lamps and dish scourers all dangled from the low, beamed ceiling; shelves jostled with whisks, scissors, balls of twine, wooden pegs, doorknobs and cakes of soap. Marvelling at this exceptional trove of unexceptional treasures, a line came to mind: ‘Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch.’

When Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote those words, this old store in Odense may have looked much the same. I like to think of a young Hans – who was born in 1805, only a few streets away – pressing his nose to the glass, conjuring backstories for the screws and teapots.

I’d come to Denmark to see what else might have inspired that imaginative boy, whose eventual canon would go on to include 800 poems, 158 fairy tales, seven novels, five travelogues and three autobiographies.

Kramboden is situated within a magnificent 16th-century merchant’s house

Kramboden is situated within a magnificent 16th-century merchant’s house

The sign on Andersen’s childhood home

The sign on Andersen’s childhood home

The Kramboden shop is filled with relics from another era

The Kramboden shop is filled with relics from another era

Item 1 of 3

Kramboden is situated within a magnificent 16th-century merchant’s house

Kramboden is situated within a magnificent 16th-century merchant’s house

The sign on Andersen’s childhood home

The sign on Andersen’s childhood home

The Kramboden shop is filled with relics from another era

The Kramboden shop is filled with relics from another era

Every story has a beginning

Located on the central island of Fyn (also known as Funen), Odense is Denmark’s third-largest city, and it has a curious relationship with its most famous son. Naturally, Andersen is used to tempt plenty of tourists – indeed, I had arrived to follow a marked trail linking up relevant sites from the author’s life: the church where he was baptised, the charity school he attended, the riverbank where his washerwoman mother once toiled. But, until recently, locals were a bit fed up with him.

The scenic cobbles of Odense are where the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen grew up

The scenic cobbles of Odense are where the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen grew up

“He was seen as cheesy,” explained Rikke From Larsen, who knows the storyteller’s work well. That opinion changed about a decade ago. Rikke works for HC Andersen Festivals, a community-wide cultural event that celebrates the writer’s creative world in innovative ways and is marking its tenth anniversary in 2023. “A decision was taken to get more pride back into the city,” Rikke said, “and part of that was bringing Hans Christian Andersen home.”

“New artistic interpretations are keeping him alive and relevant,” added Ane Grum-Schwensen, associate professor at Odense’s Hans Christian Andersen Centre. “The ambiguity of his tales is more widely recognised now. He’s having a bit of a moment.”

The recently opened HC Andersen’s House complex spans an underground museum, cultural centre, Andersen’s family home and a garden labyrinth

The recently opened HC Andersen’s House complex spans an underground museum, cultural centre, Andersen’s family home and a garden labyrinth

Indeed, Odense as a whole is having one. In the past few years, the major road that had divided the city – “like an open wound,” remarked Ane – has been sent underground. The historic middle, with its flower-lined streets and hidden courtyards, has been pedestrianised. Old neighbourhoods have been reconnected, attractive new ones created. The most eye-catching project amid it all is the HC Andersen House. Opened in 2021, this inventive museum is a maze-like, up-down swirl of larch cladding, glass and garden spaces; it also incorporates the simple yellow dwelling in which the author was born.

Wearing an audio guide, I followed the house’s spiral stairways and amusingly dry commentary (more suited to adults than children) into this evocation of Andersen’s brain, via holograms, paper cuts and inventive depictions of his fairy tales.

I liked Odense a lot: not too big, not too small; charm aplenty; good places to eat. But what of the lesser-explored island beyond the city?

“Fyn was extremely important to Andersen,” Ane had told me. “You can’t underestimate the influence it had. He drew on his childhood and returned a lot, regularly visiting the island’s manor houses.” Which is why I decided to make use of parts of the Castle Route, a 660km waymarked cycle tour, launched in 2022, that links the island’s bucolic countryside and its abundance of stately homes – many of which Andersen frequented.

This mural in Odense is just one example of the city’s newfound enthusiasm for its famous son

This mural in Odense is just one example of the city’s newfound enthusiasm for its famous son

I started where Andersen first departed. Nyborg, 15 minutes from Odense by train, is where ferries once left for the Danish island of Zealand. When Andersen arrived here in 1819, bound for Copenhagen aged just 14, he’d never been ‘a mile on this side of Odense before’. He wrote: ‘It was as if I was now sailing off into the great wide world.’

A good place for beginnings, then. Indeed, Denmark’s first constitution was signed in the town’s stocky castle, which I soon rode past, before continuing south into the joyous countryside, via bright, thatched houses and crop fields, verges ablaze with poppies, cornflowers and marigolds and honesty stalls touting bags of cherries.

Andersen once declared Glorup to be ‘just to my liking’, comparing its grounds to those of ‘English parks’

Andersen once declared Glorup to be ‘just to my liking’, comparing its grounds to those of ‘English parks’

Eventually, I reached the gates of Glorup. Built in the late 16th century but converted into a fashionable Baroque retreat in 1765, Glorup is the manor house Andersen visited most often. It’s not open to callers these days, although the surrounding parkland – which inspired his fairy tales – is open during summer. All was quiet as I wheeled my bike down the leafy avenue for a quick gawp at the elegant estate.

A kilometre or so on, I saw Glorup again. Inside the unconventional Brugskunst café and vintage shop, I found Ursula Dyrbye-Skovsted painting a mural of the manor onto the wall. As she downed her brushes and made me a coffee, she told me she’d never done a wall before: “I’m used to something smaller.” It turned out that Ursula usually crafts miniature furniture; past projects have included an inlaid cabinet for an exquisite 1:12 scale replica of Ham House, on the fringes of South West London. Definitely the stuff of fairy tales.

A windmill near Ærøskøbing (Alamy Stock Photo)

A windmill near Ærøskøbing (Alamy Stock Photo)

The princess and the castle

It wasn’t long before I entered a fairy tale of my own. That night, I stayed at Broholm Castle, a moated manor-turned-hotel that dates back to 1326 and looks like the kind of place a Disney princess would hang out – not a sticky cyclist like me. Nonetheless, I was shown to my tasteful room within the corner tower, fed a four-course feast fit for nobility and permitted to poke around as if I owned the place. I sat under the important-looking portraits in the sitting room, ascended the cast-iron spiral staircase, admired the wallpaper in the Chinese dining room and braved the attic, where nursery rooms were crammed with blank-faced dolls.

Peering through the windows of Broholm Castle, where Andersen was a frequent guest between 1836 and 1845

Peering through the windows of Broholm Castle, where Andersen was a frequent guest between 1836 and 1845

It seemed like it would be rich pickings for storytellers. And indeed, Andersen visited Broholm half a dozen times, its magical air undoubtedly creeping onto his pages. But his connection to the building possibly runs far deeper, at least according to Danish historian Jens Jørgensen. He reckoned Andersen was the illegitimate son of noblewoman Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig and Prince Christian – later King Christian VIII – and was born at Broholm before being given to the housekeeper to bring up. Records show an Anna Marie Andersdotter (the same name as Andersen’s mother) was a housekeeper at Broholm at the time, and that all traces of her are lost after 1805. Fact or fiction? It’s a story worthy of Andersen himself.

A delightful dinner at Broholm

A delightful dinner at Broholm

Despite the creepy dolls, I slept well at the castle and woke to sunshine and the sounds of ducks guffawing in the moat. Soon I was pedalling into the pretty fishing hamlet of Lundeborg, the roads empty save for a canvas-topped horse-drawn wagon that seemed wrenched from bygone folklore. The girl walking patiently behind it, brush and poop-scoop in hand, waved as I passed. From here I wound my way across the backroads of Fyn’s rural south-east and was soon pedalling along the harbourfront of Svendborg, a key port and gateway to the archipelago scattered off mainland Fyn. One of the closest islands, Tåsinge, is linked via the 1.2km-long Svendborgsundbroen bridge, which provided a wonderfully windswept ride, with fine views over the town, its St Jørgen’s Church and the ship masts passing below.

Broholm has been in the Sehested family for 13 generations

Broholm has been in the Sehested family for 13 generations

Andersen paid a pleasurable visit to Tåsinge in 1830, and was particularly taken by Valdemar’s Castle, on the island’s east coast. But this 17th-century manor is closed to the public, so I steered myself west instead to spend another rather magic-sprinkled night in the countryside, this time at Thorséng Nature Resort, in a billowy bell tent raised above the bushes, looking out to the lapping sea. Owner Rasmus Brems-Hulgaard has created this place to try to help people switch off from the modern world and better connect with the great outdoors. I thought of another Andersen line: ‘Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.’ I think Hans would have liked it here.

Parts of Ærøskøbing date back 750 years, though it has undergone a revival in recent times, with its once-redundant marketplace now the heartbeat of the town centre; pedalling the countryside of Ærø reveals a world of flowering verges (robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo)

Parts of Ærøskøbing date back 750 years, though it has undergone a revival in recent times, with its once-redundant marketplace now the heartbeat of the town centre; pedalling the countryside of Ærø reveals a world of flowering verges (robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo)

Happily ever after

The next day, I cycled across tiny Tåsinge and over another impressive bridge to the island of Langeland just in time to board a ferry to Ærø. I don’t know if Andersen ever actually visited this sleepy idyll of thatched and half-timbered houses, wooden windmills, waving fields and a manor house floating on its own lake, but that was just a technicality. By any measure, Ærø felt like something out of the great storyteller’s imagination.

The colourful huts that scatter the sands around Marstal are highly prized among locals

The colourful huts that scatter the sands around Marstal are highly prized among locals

The ferry docked in Marstal, Ærø’s biggest (though still tiny) town and once, unbelievably, the second-largest shipping hub in Denmark. I pedalled past the boat-chocked harbour and the historic shipyard, where a half-built wooden schooner gave a nod to the industry once so vital here. Opposite was Marstal’s Maritime Museum, crammed with eclectic mementoes brought back by the town’s intrepid sailors from all corners of the globe – enough to inspire a tale or two. Indeed, the shrunken head on display found its way into Carsten Jensen’s 2009 novel We, The Drowned, an epic fictionalisation of the fate of this legendary seafaring town.

Pedalling the countryside of Ærø reveals a world of flowering verges

Pedalling the countryside of Ærø reveals a world of flowering verges

If Marstal had a storybook feel, Ærøskøbing was the collected works. Often called the ‘Fairy Tale Town’, its cobbled lanes are flanked by superbly well-preserved 18th-century houses painted in candy hues, with no-two-the-same wooden doors, vintage bicycles leaning outside and foxgloves and roses rambling hither-thither. I noodled about in the sunshine, tucking into a fine fishy lunch, trying and failing to decide which house was dreamiest. Indeed, the whole island felt like some kind of Nordic daydream. The verges were flower-bright, the sand dazzling white, the cottages and beach huts – royal blue, daffodil yellow, apple red – too cute. By the time I arrived at my wooden cabin at idyllic Søby Strand Camping, in the island’s far west, I felt enchanted.

Savouring the many beaches of Ærø island (Rachel Jones/Alamy Stock Photo)

Savouring the many beaches of Ærø island (Rachel Jones/Alamy Stock Photo)

The next morning, I reluctantly left Ærø on the sunrise ferry from Søby to Faaborg, back on the Fyn mainland. The old town was largely quiet, though Vesterports Bageri was already open and doing a roaring trade in crusty loaves and cinnamon buns. I bought a pastry for breakfast that was so good that I immediately went in and bought another, then wandered across the street to Den Voigtske Gaard. This yellow-washed courtyard house once belonged to the town’s wealthiest merchant; Andersen visited in 1830 and was so smitten with the eldest daughter of the household, Riborg Voigt, that he proposed – but she turned him down. He never married, and on his death in 1875, he was found with a love letter from Riborg in a purse on his chest.

The port town of Faaborg is home to one of Denmark’s oldest marketplaces and scores of beautiful houses;

The port town of Faaborg is home to one of Denmark’s oldest marketplaces and scores of beautiful houses;

I headed east from Faaborg and, this being Denmark, was a little taken aback by the hills that lay en route to the Holstenshuus Estate. Though I should have known. On his visit here, Andersen wrote of its ‘lovely location between large hills and woods with views of the sea’, and gushed over its panorama – ‘as if one had been sitting on a mountain’. Mountain might be stretching it, but this was certainly the hilliest section I’d encountered so far. It was lovely though, with its fine National Romantic-style castle (closed to the public) sitting resplendent in its Rococo gardens, which are open to explore.

“By any measure, Ærø felt like something out of the great storyteller’s imagination“

From here it was a charming ride back to Svendborg, through whispering trees, along pretty Nakkebølle Fjord, past white-washed churches and rolling fields of happy hay bales. Then it was time to leave Fyn and, just as a young Hans did, seek new adventures in the big city. I hopped aboard the train to Odense, made a quick change, and two hours later, I arrived in Copenhagen.

The painting of a swan decorates a pebble left at Hans Christian Andersen’s grave

The painting of a swan decorates a pebble left at Hans Christian Andersen’s grave

The Danish capital is a fantastic city by any estimation. No wonder Andersen was drawn here – specifically to the Royal Danish Theatre, where he auditioned and worked. He spent much of his time in bright, bustling Nyhavn, where he lived in three different houses and wrote some of his first stories, and found inspiration in the carnivalesque Tivoli Gardens. I followed him around the city, watching Tivoli’s carousel twirl, dipping into the City Museum and enjoying – as he must have – the creative energy of it all.

My final morning here marked my last date with Hans. The residents of Copenhagen have been burying their dead at Assistens Cemetery for over 250 years. It was originally a pauper’s graveyard, removed from the centre’s thrum; now it’s a peaceful oasis enveloped by the city, housing most of Denmark’s great and good. As many do, I followed the arrows to Andersen’s tall, plain headstone. At its base, nestled among the begonias, someone had left a pebble painted with the image of a swan. ‘Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale,’ once wrote this ‘ugly duckling’ cobbler’s son who was born into poverty but died a national treasure. A man who made his own transformation and created his own happy ending.

About the trip

Glamping at the Thorséng Nature Resort

Glamping at the Thorséng Nature Resort

Hans Christian Andersen Trail app

The Hans Christian Andersen Centre and Visit Fyn have developed a free Hans Christian Andersen Trail app, with information on castles and manor houses that have links to the writer – many of which are visited on the Castles Route.

Accommodation

Hotel Odeon is a smart and friendly option in Odense.

Beautiful Broholm Castle has bags of character, an excellent restaurant and stylish B&B en-suite doubles. 

Thorséng Nature Resort on Tåsinge Island offers two-person glamping tents, including plant-based meals and wellness activities.

Idyllic Søby Strand Camping sits by the beach on Ærø’s west coast; it has simple cabins as well as tent pitches.

Coco Hotel in Copenhagen’s hip Vesterbro neighbourhood has a leafy courtyard and cool, bright doubles.

The author travelled with support from the Danish Tourism Board and Visit Fyn.