Time travelling

Quaint destination

Time travelling

Den Gamle By in Denmark is a town that harks back to the time of writer Hans Christian Andersen with Victorian homes, shops and people representing the bygone era. Payal Dhar experiences the pleasures of the 1800s.

History seeps out of Denmark’s every pore — from the moment you get off at the Copenhagen Central Station to every time you walk down the streets of its well-known towns. But nothing else catapults you right into the middle of it as Den Gamle By in the heart of Århus — an open-air museum of urban history and culture that takes you on a magical journey through time.

Exhibiting 75 historical buildings from around Denmark, each carefully transported and reconstructed, Den Gamle By (the Old Town in English) typifies a 19th-century Danish market town — life in the times of author Hans Christian Andersen, to be precise.

When it first opened in 1914, it was the first of its kind in the world. Though the buildings themselves come from various eras and are of different styles, the narrow cobbled streets, the town’s layout and living history hark back to the 1800s.
It is futile to visit the Old Town without time on your hands.

You’ll also need a stout pair of shoes and a healthy dollop of curiosity — the kind that makes you want to peep into windows and try the doors of houses, shops and workshops, and strike up conversations with the ‘locals’, like the kitchen maid with basket in hand off to the grocer’s, the yard hand catching his breath by the fence, or the ponytrap driver clip-clopping down the street.

For the Old Town is a place of living history. Have a chat with the vicar’s widow as she roasts coffee beans for Christmas; spare a kind word to the cook at the merchant’s house and you might taste some delicious apple pancake; use the rope ferry to cross the pond; and drop in at the brewery to sample some freshly brewed ale.

Victorian opulence

Upon entering the Old Town, you’re greeted by a collection of homes and workshops from mid-16th century onwards, designed around a street scene of the 1800s and steeped in history related to Denmark’s favourite son, Andersen. Visit the Eilschou Almshouse, built for the poor but ‘respectable’ widows of the late 1700s, and you find yourself in a stark but neat living room. Go through to the bedroom, where the vicar’s daughter may be at her seat by the window, embroidery on her lap, or her mother writing letters by candlelight.

Past the cramped kitchen and pantry finds you out in the backyard, where chickens cluck and washing billows in the breeze. The outhouse is dry and inoffensive, but back in its day, the lack of sanitation might have made for a rather ripe odour. Later on, one also comes across the Privies — wooden toilet buildings from the 1850s that make you feel thankful for indoor plumbing.

Anyhow, it was in these almshouses that the young Andersen had his first introduction to literature — ask the vicar’s widow about that. Cross the street and peek into the pauper’s home. Could the Little Match Girl have lived in this dire dump, and is that snoring old man in a drunken stupor her father? Even as you ponder that, you can’t help thinking if these very gutters by the street — thankfully dry and stench-free in the 21st century — were the kind that the Steadfast Tin Soldier sailed down.

At the Bicycle Repairman’s Workshop, peep in from the window and admire his workbench, where it looks like he repaired not just bikes, but also lawnmowers and radios. His home seems definitely more upscale than the dreary dwellings of the working classes, and going by the mouthwatering Christmas Eve dinner laid out inside his house, trade seems to be thriving.

Similarly for the tailor — his opulent Victorian home a testimony to his success. You can only admire these displays from the outside, but the one place you are probably glad of the glass wall in front of you is at the Apothecary’s Dispensary, given its ominous skull-marked poison cupboard. The Apothecary’s Garden behind these premises still grows about 100 different herbs.

The front door of the Mayor’s House lies open, welcoming you into what is hailed as the best-preserved Renaissance building in Denmark. Originally built in 1797, this structure was rebuilt in Århus in 1909 as Den Gamle By’s first exhibit. The dozen or so rooms showcase interiors spanning 250 years of middle-class living.

The staircase might feel a bit cramped and the balcony rickety, but it is all quite safe. You may need to stand on tiptoe to look through the high windows of the remarkably authentic kitchen and pantry — you almost expect the cook to bustle in and stir something. You exit into the Mayor’s Garden at the back of the house, which is a good place to sit down for a rest. But don’t linger too long.

The main street of Den Gamle By holds a gift shop, but if you follow your nose, it will lead you straight to the bakery. Inside is the baker’s wife, peddling a variety of delicious wares — pastries, cakes, buns and breads, all prepared according to 19th-century recipes — souvenirs of a different sort.

Past perfect

The town square, the Torvet, features one of the most striking sights of Den Gamle By — the Mintmaster’s Mansion from Copenhagen, built in 1683 and faithfully reconstructed here in the 1990s. Its interiors are typical of upper-class homes from 1690 to 1768, and especially the Baroque staircase, the ‘avian ceiling’ room, the reception room, and the master and mistresses bedchambers speak of the affluent lifestyles back then.

The mansion also has its own taproom, the Wineke’s Cellar.
Apart from the 19th century townscape, the Old Town houses two ‘modern’ sections, both works in progress. The 1927 Quarter is a street from a thriving Danish town just before the 1930s economic slump. Pavements and closed sewers, electrical wiring and telephone lines make an appearance. Some of the shops are open for business — the ironmonger’s and the bookshop.

The toy museum here is a gem, with its collection of over 5,000 toys dating back to the 1600s.

Finally, in the 1974 Quarter, take a trip down memory lane at Poul’s Radio, where you might find the radio repairman at work. Chat with the shopkeeper about the latest hi-fi systems, or browse the shop’s modest vinyl records collection. The Danish Poster Museum is also to be found in the 1974 Quarter, with iconic Danish posters and travelling exhibitions from around the world.

The hungry and parched will find succour at the Entrance Cafe, a modern-day coffee shop, or Simonsen’s Tea Garden, with a more traditional menu. Picnickers have a designated picnic area, while a local market with a tea room are set to come up in the future. Note that Christmas at Den Gamle By is something special, with a seasonal market, traditional treats, and general festivity.

Inside every window, behind every door, through every alley, around every corner, Den Gamle By will never stop surprising you. It takes you into living rooms, bedchambers, kitchens, workshops, shops, gardens and museums; into the lives of the common folk, the craftspeople, the tradespeople and the upper classes in the 1800s, and rounds if off with a selective glimpse into the 20th century.

In short, you are guaranteed the best history lesson of your life. One that you’ll certainly want to come back to.

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