When your Copenhagen hotel menu advertises "sliced witch", you know you have arrived in the land of fairytale. On April 2, Denmark celebrates the 200th birthday of one of its most famous sons, Hans Christian Andersen, beginning a feast of events continuing to December 6.
The man who called one of his four autobiographies The Fairy Tale of My Life wrote the truth. This son of a poor shoemaker set out at 14 from his home in Odense to make his fortune in Copenhagen, with little money or schooling but a wealth of imagination, ambition and determination. His father had died and his mother, an illiterate washerwoman, had taken to drink. Andersen knocked on doors until people recognised his talents and sponsored his education. He tried to become a dancer, then an actor, but the big-nosed, gangly lad was a failure: the original ugly duckling. Only when he began writing did the swan of Denmark emerge.
Most of us remember Andersen, not for his plays or travel writing, but for the 156 fairytales he left behind, which have been translated into almost as many languages. The cobbled streets of Copenhagen's pretty city centre are still lined with the houses of the well-to-do on whose doors Andersen must have knocked. Around Nyehaven, the 350-year-old "new" harbour, filled with tall-masted wooden boats, are three of the houses where he lived, number 67 still displaying its "gossip mirror", a device that meant the householder could see into the street without having to twitch the curtains.
Across the Kongens Nytorv square, the Magasin du Nord department store looks wholly modern inside, but between China and Bedlinens on the third floor you can step back through the centuries into a room where the ever-restless Andersen once lived. Like all his homes in Copenhagen, it is a short walk from his beloved theatre. The bare garret is now an official museum, and flanked by exhibits putting his life in historical context. Nor has the Tivoli Gardens, whose owner was one of Andersen's many, many friends, forgotten him. Among its rides is the Flying Trunk: climb inside one (children under three go free) and be whisked through "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", "The Nightingale" and 30 more stories. Summer nights, meanwhile, will see fireworks and a fantastical parade of five-metre high puppets in A Tivoli Fairy Tale, staged in tribute to Andersen.
No one should leave Copenhagen without visiting the statue of the Little Mermaid, who now has a new opera house to gaze at across the water. But to get a handle on Hans a trip to Odense is essential. It took the young Andersen 36 hours to cover the 158 kilometres between his home on the island of Funen and the capital in Zealand. Today, it takes a little over an hour by train or road, and there is the elegant Great Belt Bridge across the water. Walk around Odense and see the fast, cold river where his mother washed clothes and it is easy to understand why her life turned out the way it did, and why Andersen wanted to escape.
The modern buildings of the Hans Christian Andersen Museum wrap themselves around his childhood home, a little yellow house into which five families were squashed. The wonderfully comprehensive museum is full of quirky facts and humour, and includes many of Andersen's possessions, such as the coil of rope he always carried to help him escape in case of fire, and some of the intricate papercuts and silhouettes he made to entertain his hosts in grand houses all over Denmark. Next to the museum, the Tinderbox (Fyrt?jet) is Odense's children's cultural centre, which caters for all ages. Tickets are pound;6 "for persons 3-69 years of age, free for all others". Each year, about 25,000 children pass under the flight of wild swans hanging from the ceiling. There are storytelling sessions in English during the summer season, but the story at the heart of the Tinderbox is the visitor's own to create. Begin by collecting a suitcase containing, among other things, a leaf to hang on the wishing tree and a mirror to witness your transformation with crowns, robes and make-up.
There is only one reason to leave this magical world and it's signalled by a cannon in Lotze's Garden fired by men in the regimental outfits of Andersen's brave tin soldier. An immediately recognisable chorus of "the King is in the altogether" begins and there, in the Hans Christian Andersen Parade, are all his characters, from the Little Match Girl to the Princess with her pea on a velvet cushion, though fortunately the king retains his regal drawers. Led by Torben Iversen as Andersen, a local company of all ages, word-perfect in English and German as well as Danish, sing all the popular songs. Have your photo taken with tiny Thumbelina afterwards (she says she's nine), but don't make the mistake of the American cruise-ship passenger who, says Iversen, asked: "Is that the original pea?"
Maersk Air flies daily from Gatwick and Manchester to Copenhagen (www.maersk-air.com). Information: www.visitdenmark.com; www.visitcopenhagen.com; www.hca2005.comThe Rough Guide to Copenhagen (Pounds 19.99, www. roughguides.com) includes pages on Odense