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Out of Africa, back to Denmark

© By Ann Wallace
  As you walk through the peaceful gardens and adjoining forest land, the tourist tape plays a piece of her favourite music, Max Bruch's hauntingly beautiful Violin Concerto. You take your time, pause and watch birds in their sanctuary. Beside her grave, a simple stone bears a large yet informal flower arrangement, the flowers from the gardens, the sort of arrangement she might have composed. You are in the Danish home, turned museum, of Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen, a woman who was well known and much loved in literary circles long before the film Out of Africa. Life came full circle for this daughter of Denmark here at Rungstedlund, 25 km. north of Copenhagen, when, after her sojourn in Kenya, she returned to the home owned by her family since 1879.
     The house has a much longer history, well known in North Zealand around 400 years ago when it served as an inn, conveniently situated on the Shore Road, the shortest route from the capital to Elsinore, an important trading town and port. Over the years the Inn housed the famous and infamous, offered "ale and food of good quality, hay, oats, straw, beds and chambers" as a respite from the rough, muddy road and the winter winds that blow down the Swedish Sound.
     Late in the 17th century it was granted a license to establish a brewery and distillery on the property, and a French Ambassador en route from Copenhagen to Elsinore was prompted to record in his 1702 diary, "It is the finest inn in the district with a very beautiful garden at the rear, filled with fruit trees and innumerable flowers. There is a hill on the far side of the garden, and a little further off there is a forest which extends two-thirds of the way from Copenhagen to Elsinore."
     Today, the road is paved, the railway passes through the nearby village, and a marina full of sail boats lies just outside the entrance. However, the gardens and grounds remain as the ambassador described them nearly three hundred years ago.
     As Karen Blixen neared the end of her life, she became concerned over what was to become to Rungstedlund. She discussed the matter with her close friend, Knud Jensen, who was to become founder of the nearby Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and together they decided to establish a foundation to preserve the property. In collaboration with the Danish Association of Ornithology, the grounds became a bird reserve while the house was maintained for cultural purposes. "In this way it will remain true to its tradition of uniting nature and literature," wrote Blixen.


     The foundation was to be financed by monies from the posthumous sale of her books and by the Danish public, to whom Blixen appealed for donations that raised 80,000 kroner. But by the time Blixen died in 1962, the foundation was deeply in debt and for nearly 25 years, it struggled to maintain the property for the purposes intended. Suddenly, everything changed.
     The 1985 Oscar-winning movie, Out of Africa, created a far wider readership for Blixen's works, and the Foundation acquired enough money to restore the buildings. In May 1991, the Danish Minister of Culture declared the Karen Blixen Museum open. The west wing, formerly stables and granary, is now a small museum housing manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia from Blixen's life.
     It is the house itself that is evocative of her life, combining much that is typically Danish and European with artifacts and memories of Africa. Here is furniture from all over Europe: an English mahogany dining room table surrounded by Danish Christian VIII chairs, Louis-Seize furniture in the drawing room, a collection of old Danish and Norwegian stoves and the desk at which Blixen used to write. In Blixen's childhood playroom hang some of her own pictures, including a selection of the African portraits she painted while in Kenya.
     In the drawing room, is Denys Finch Hatton's favourite chair from the Kenyan farm and the famous gramophone, his gift to Blixen. Elsewhere in the house is the grandfather clock that played its part in the movie, French screen with oriental figures that Blixen sometimes used to illustrate her fireside stories and African brass-bound chest given to her by her faithful Somali butler, Farah Aden. Today, and every day, a flower arrangement in Blixen's style sits atop this chest. The house is not large, but every corner holds something of interest.
     Visitors leave by the south door in the east wing. It is at this door, atop the six entry steps where Karen Blixen used to stand every night after her return from Africa. From here she gazed towards Kenya, also her home with many sweet but fleeting memories.
     Runstedlund is reached by frequent train service from Copenhagen Station. The journey takes 40 minutes, and signs outside the station direct visitors to the museum, a 10 minute walk. The museum contains a pretty coffee shop with a terrace overlooking the gardens. Tapes are available in many languages to guide visitors around the property. Buses pass the property on the coast road, which takes travellers the few miles to the Louisiana Modern Art Gallery and for Shakespeare fans, even further to Elsinore and Hamlet's castle.

Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.

Photo Credits
Ann Wallace

If you go
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Denmark Tourism: http://www.visitdenmark.com/usa/en-us/menu/turist/turistforside.htm
Karen Blixen Museum: http://www.karen-blixen.dk/engelsk/default.html

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