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A fairy-tale life

Priya Ganapathy, Dec 2 2017, 23:35 IST

Nyhavn in the maritime city of Copenhagen sits like a fairy tale 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 restaurants 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 a 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 fairy tales 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 fairy tale writer and poet who populated our childhood dream-scape with unforgettable characters led a life of 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 moneyed folks by pretending to be 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 The 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, a tailcoat and an 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 children's books.

The author was born in 1805 and died at the age of 70, leaving a body of work that continues to inspire generations.

Andersen was born to a poor family in the Odense countryside and raised by his shoemaker father and washerwoman mother. 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 Valdemar's Castle, inspired him to ink several of his stories. By 30, he had four fairy tales 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 H C Andersen evokes a wave of nostalgia. As the author of bedtime stories like Thumbelina, Tinderbox, The 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.

So the journey begins

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 29 times outside Denmark spanning 10 years of his adult life - to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Portugal and the West, up to 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 rock bed 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 a mature, physical or lasting relationship, people say he never really grew up. He wrote 1,000 poems, six novels, 40 plays and 175 fairy tales. "My whole life was the greatest fairy tale," he had once remarked, and it seemed true.

Bachelor's bust

Inside City Hall stands a wonderful marble bust of storyteller 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 fairy tales! Newly married couples often pose or clink champagne flutes against 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 neoclassical architecture around the Bridge of Sighs and the Old Fountain of Charity at Gammeltorv (the city's oldest market square), visited the lovely Cathedral of Our Lady nearby, and marvelled at the brick wonder of the University Library and the Law Faculty's vibrant 1850 wall frescoes before halting at The Round Tower or Rundetaarn, whose library hall became Andersen's favourite spot for inspiration. For 20 years, Richard had kept the city's visitors rapt with these stories. Indians love him as he shares a great love for our culture. And, he doffed his top hat with a familiar, "Achcha ji, namaste. Bhagwan ki marji, phir milenge. Uparwale ki daya?!" and left me agape.

Copenhagen was full of surprises! There was so much more to experience. But I stood by his large bronze statue on H C 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 fairy-tale setting to experience Den Flyvende Kuffert or The Flying Trunk, a classic Hans Christian Andersen ride.

The ride is named after the 1839 fairy tale 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, H C Andersen was definitely Denmark's national treasure who has inspired movies, plays, ballets, books, and will continue to delight people for generations to come.

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