Out of Africa with Isak Dinesen: Her Museum
“I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller.”
By Laurieanne Wysocki
Isak Dinesen, best known for her memoir Out of Africa, also wrote short stories, among others, Seven Gothic Tales and Babette’s Feast, a novel, The Angelic Avengers, several essays and hundreds of letters which have been published in Letters from Africa, 1913-1931.
Born Karen Dinesen, she later married her Swedish cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke and began writing under the name Karen Blixen as well as the pen name Isak Dinesen and the pseudonyms Osceola and Pierre Andrezel.
When I was in Copenhagen recently, I made time to visit the Karen Blixen Museum which is just 15 miles north of the city and easily accessed by car, train, and bus.
The museum, located in Rungstedlund, the house where she was born, is delightful to visit, even if you’re not an avid fan of her work. The cottage-house is the perfect place to spend some time touring the rooms which remain just as she left them when she died in 1962.
Unknown to many, Blixen was a skilled draftsman, filling sketchbooks from the age of 14 with illustrations of places discovered on family vacations to watercolors of Paris, Rome, and Copenhagen where she studied art in the early twenties. Later in life, she mastered techniques in oil painting, creating perfectly rendered portraits of African Kikuyu and Maasai.
Kenya Coffee Plantation
In addition, she owned and operated a farm and coffee plantation in Kenya for 17 years. Unique friendships were made among the local tribes during these tumultuous last years of British colonial rule. She hobnobbed with European aristocrats and American socialites alike was famously photographed by Richard Avedon, and was nominated twice for Nobel Prizes in Literature.
Most impressive was how she hand-scripted all her books on lined paper, first in English which she then translated into Danish between the lines.
She endured an unhappy marriage to von Blixen riddled with his numerous cases of infidelities and syphilis, something she was treated for with arsenic and mercury. She attributed syphilis to her husband and never forgave him for subjecting her to potential insanity, a stance taken by early 20th-century medical professionals.
(Many years before, her father, Wilhelm Dinesen, also diagnosed with syphilis, hung himself before he could either infect her mother or go crazy).
While in Africa, Karen Blixen had a mysterious relationship – some say love affair with big game hunter and pilot, Denys Fitch Hatton (forever immortalized by the handsome Robert Redford in Sydney Pollock’s 1985 film version of Out of Africa) that ended traumatically when his plane crashed.
Yet through it all, Karen Blixen wanted to be known, quite simply, as a storyteller.
A Good Story
It was this facility for telling a good story that makes her a good travel writer and subsequently spawns my fascination with her. To read her travelogue of experience, written in a time when foreign women were not readily managing African farms by themselves, let alone publishing accounts of it, is inspiring.
Her prose beautifully evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of a landscape I’ve yet to visit. Through her powerful narrative, I’m halfway there.
Karen Blixen never returned to Africa. She would spend the next quarter-century in Rungstedlund reliving her African experience by writing about it, doing radio talk shows, giving dozens of interviews, or painting the Africa of her memory.
The walls of Ewald’s Room (named after one of the original residents of the house, the 18th-century poet, Johannes Ewalds), where she did her writing in the warmer months of the year, is covered with original African art brought back from Kenya. Animal skin drums sit on the floor beneath the bookcases.
Carved masks and wooden boxes inlaid with shells and animal bone cover tabletops. Hand-finished wooden shields hang on the wall behind her writing desk. In the middle of this display are twelve long spears forming an eerie ‘X’. Just above her head are two hunting rifles said to have belonged to Denys Fitch Hatton. His picture remains on a side table near the desk.
After a guided tour, I took a stroll out among the meadows and groves on the 40-acre estate. The property has been designated a bird sanctuary hosting 35 different species among the 100 nesting boxes and various tree holes.
I was happy to recognize nuthatches and tufted tits, robins, and wrens — the same birds I see in my own back yard in western Massachusetts.
A winding footpath leads to her modest gravestone beneath a sprawling beech tree at the foot of Ewald’s Hill. The poet also liked to walk among the gardens and groves and actually mentioned this particular spot in one of his poems.
Karen, inspired by his work and perhaps even by his ghost, named the hill after him and asked to be buried there. Alone, I stopped to pay my respects and felt a tingling chill in the breeze as I read her name on the stone.
Through the gardens on my way back to the cottage, I passed a few of the benches that Karen Blixen (in the habit of naming things), named after the people in her life to whom she was closest. One is for her mother, “The Lady’s Bench” the other, “Madam Carlsen’s Bench” is named after Caroline Carlsen who was for many years the housekeeper at Rungstedlund and allowed to remain in the house until her death.
A great day trip out of Copenhagen might include stops at the Karen Blixen Museum, the Kronborg Castle of Hamlet fame in Helsingør, lunch or a swim in the seaside resorts and fishing villages of Hornbbæk and Humlebæk, a ferry ride or across the Sound to Helsingborg in Sweden, and then a stop in for the excellent collection of art and yummy buffet at the Louisiana.
Not in a hurry to head back to Copenhagen? Stay in a holiday rental cottage by the sea or a youth hostel on the beach. There are plenty of hotels and motels to choose from in the area like Helsingør, the medieval town of Hamlet fame, now gaining a new party town reputation by the constant flow of Swedes who take the 20-minute ferry across to Denmark for a cheaper night of drinking.
A great choice for lunch in Helsingborg on the Swedish side is a place called Restaurang Terrassen, located beneath the 13th century Kärnan Tower on a hillside terrace above the old city walls. From the restaurant there are beautiful views across the Sound to Denmark.
The smoked salmon gravlax and grilled pork loin were delicious, although it was difficult for us females of the group to keep our eyes on our plates. The meal was delivered by a host of Swedish boys so handsome they could easily have been plucked from the pages of Calvin Klein magazine ads.
Trains run hourly and through the night from Copenhagen Central Station to Helsingør making stops near all of the above. For the Karen Blixen Museum get off at Rungsted Kyst Station; for the Louisiana Museum get off at Humlebæk Station. It is a 10-minute walk to the museums.
By car the fastest route through Zealand from Copenhagen to Helsingøris the motorway E47/E55. For a more scenic drive take the serpentine coastal road 152N which meanders through ‘I could live here’ residential areas and woodland parks.
Østerbro is the posh neighborhood on the northern edge of the city where the who’s who of Copenhagen resides. As the road winds out of the city, you’ll notice how all the homes have been built to face the Sound.
You’ll see refurbished 17th century thatched cottages with manicured window boxes as well as the more modern three-story brick and limestone villa, flamingo-pink hydrangeas bursting through hedgerows.
Throughout the drive, the Sound, known as Sundet in Danish or Øresund in Swedish is on your right as you make your way north to tip of Zealand.
At the mouth of the Sound is Helsingør with The Kronborg Castle, an impressive Renaissance castle and fortress built in the 15th century by Danish King, Eric of Pomerania.
He imposed a toll or dues payable to the Danish Crown on all traffic using the Sound to enter the Baltic Sea, making a deal that couldn’t be refused. Either pay or get shot at by cannons on both sides of the strait. As an economist, the wise king was ahead of his time. Instead of creating one set tax for all ships, he calculated a tax on the value of the cargo.
Many captains would claim that their cargos were of little value before learning that the king also had the power to purchase whatever he wanted. For over 400 years these tolls were collected providing Denmark with its largest source of income and thereby making it one of the wealthiest nations of the time.
For lots of really good information on Helsingør, read Jennifer Wattam Klit’s GoNomad article Helsingor, Denmark: Hamlet’s Home Town.
Since the Karen Blixen Museum opened in 1991 almost 1,000,000 people have visited the museum. In addition to touring the rooms of the private home, the museum has a photo-documentary exhibition, a gallery with Karen Blixen’s drawings and paintings, and a short film.
The Gift Shop offers books in several languages, CDs, posters, postcards, and films. There is also a simple café serving light lunches and beverages year-round whether or not you purchase a ticket to the museum.
Lousiana Museum of Art
Gl. Strandvej 13, 3050
Hours: Tuesday – Friday 11-22 Saturday and Sunday 11-18, closed Mondays
Admission: 95 Kr, with student ID 85 Kr. Children 18 and younger, free. The permanent collection contains over 3000 items including pieces by Picasso, Giacometti, Dubuffet, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg, Henry Moore, and more!
In addition, there are special exhibitions, films, lectures, and artist talks. Guided tours available. There is a Children’s Wing that includes free activities for children and adults to explore together.
Places to stay
Vacation Rentals in Hornbæk: holiday home Hornbæk, villa Hornbæk, apartment HornbækBook in advance over the internet. Prices quoted are in Euros.
Danhostel Helsingør Vandrehjem, Kr. Ndr. Strandvej 24? +45 49 21 16 40. This is a good youth hostel right on the beach with kitchen and laundry facilities. Rooms in the dorm at 175 Kr. A double room with/without bath at 475/350. Bike rentals and free wifi offered.
Hotel Skandia, Bramstræde 1, ? + 45 49 21 09 02. A family run hotel in the center of Helsingør. Dbls at 750 Kr.
Elite Hotel Marina Plaza, Kungstorget 6, Helsingborg is on the harbor, beside the ferry terminal. Rooms have great sea and city views in addition to a popular breakfast buffet. Dbls start at 450 SEK.
Best Western Hotel, Stortorget 20, Helsingborg is a grand 19th-century building near the Kärnan Tower. It is a 10-minute walk to the train and ferry terminals. Dbls start at 850 SEK.