As you walk through her peaceful gardens and adjoining forest land, the tourist tape plays a piece of her favourite music: Max Bruch’s hauntingly beautiful Violin Concerto. You can take your time; pause and watch the birds for whom this area is a sanctuary, or ponder the mysteries of life and death beside her grave. Here a simple stone bears a large but informal flower arrangement. The flowers have been taken from the gardens. It is the sort of arrangement she might have composed.
You are in the Danish home, turned museum, of Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), a woman who was well-known and much-loved in literary circles around the world long before a period of her life was immortalized in the film Out of Africa. Life came full circle for this daughter of Denmark here at Rungstedlund, just 25 km north of Copenhagen, when, after her sojourn in Kenya, she returned to the home that had been owned by her family since 1879.
The house itself has a much longer history. It was 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, who were 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. But the gardens and grounds are just as the ambassador described them nearly three hundred years ago and today’s visitors are just as welcome to enjoy them.
As Karen Blixen approached the end of her life she became very concerned over what was to become of Rungstedlund after her death. 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 were to be a bird reserve, while the house was to be 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 was a struggle to maintain the property for the purposes it was intended. Suddenly, however, everything changed.
The 1985 Oscar-winning movie, Out of Africa, created a far wider readership for Blixen’s works than had ever been enjoyed before and soon the Foundation had acquired enough money to restore the buildings. In May 1991, the Danish Minister of Culture declared The Karen Blixen Museum open.
The west wing, which had been stables and granary, is now a small museum housing manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia from Blixen’s life. Yet it is the house itself that is more evocative of her life, combining as it does so 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 some of the African portraits she painted in Kenya.
In the drawing room is Denys Finch Hatton’s favourite chair from the Kenyan farm and the famous gramophone that was his gift to Blixen. Elsewhere in the house is the grandfather clock that played its part in the movie, the French screen with oriental figures that she sometimes used to illustrate her fireside stories and the African brass-bound chest that was 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. All is as she left it.
Visitors leave by the south-facing 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 would look from her Scandinavian home towards Kenya, a place that had also been her home and which held for her so many sweet but fleeting memories.
Ann Wallace is a Toronto writer, and editor of TravelScoop.
If you go…
Runstedlund can be reached by frequent train service from Copenhagen Station. The journey takes about 40 minutes and signs outside the station direct visitors to the museum which is a 10 minute walk away. The train fare and entry to the museum are covered by the Copenhagen card, which can be purchased for up to three days and which covers museum admissions and transportation in Copenhagen and environs. 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. Busses pass the property on the coast road, which will take travelers on the few miles to the Louisiana Modern Art Gallery and then on even further to Elinsore and ‘Hamlet’s Castle’. All this makes a wonderful day trip out of Copenhagen (and the Copenhagen card can be used for all the admissions and transportation).
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