In the land of make believe

On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth, Ray Kershaw visits the Danish lakes that inspired the master storyteller

"OK, it's getting spooky now." A ground mist seeping out of the dusk is bleaching the dwarf oaks into menacing spectres. This is definitely not the Denmark of the Little Mermaid. Somewhere nearby, with a noose made from hide, a man had been slowly strangled to death. His was a sacrifice to aqueous gods, his body buried in the bogs of the sacred grove of Tollund - an anonymous Iron Age man whose haunting image would, two millennia later, become a universal ancestral portrait.

"OK, it's getting spooky now." A ground mist seeping out of the dusk is bleaching the dwarf oaks into menacing spectres. This is definitely not the Denmark of the Little Mermaid. Somewhere nearby, with a noose made from hide, a man had been slowly strangled to death. His was a sacrifice to aqueous gods, his body buried in the bogs of the sacred grove of Tollund - an anonymous Iron Age man whose haunting image would, two millennia later, become a universal ancestral portrait.

In the lonely Bjaelskov valley, among a scattering of tumuli and the glinting eyes of fen pools, it feels as though little has changed since. A rotting tree stump marks the spot where, in 1950, peat cutters' shovels returned him to the light. His brain, internal organs, hair and genitalia were so perfectly preserved that they thought he was a victim of a recent crime. Today few people come here. Suddenly an owl shrieks. As they say in Jutland, " mosekonen brygger" - "the bog woman is brewing her nocturnal vapours". "Shouldn't we be going?" It takes a woman to say what a man only thinks.

Still, the lovely Danish lake district - for most outsiders Denmark's best-kept secret - is more fairy tale than horror story. For Hans Christian Andersen, aged 45 and the international king of make-believe, it was love at first sight. The tireless traveller had discovered in his cosy homeland a likeness of the landscapes that had thrilled him on his 30 Europe-wide journeys. The Mid-Jutland Highlands may be vertically challenged, but their lake-studded forests and wide heaths drew him back repeatedly, funding many stories.

This was Denmark's Wild West. The region's capital, Silkeborg, now a vibrant lake-side town, scarcely existed in 1850 when Andersen arrived to stay with its founder, the paper magnate Michael Drewsen. Legend has it that Drewsen, scion of wealthy Copenhagen industrialists, launched his silk hat on the waters, establishing the town where the current beached it.

The author's favourite composition spot above the Almindso lake was installed with his now-eponymous bench. The story of Ib and Little Christina, the eel-boatman's daughter, is set in the area; others were inspired while he mused upon the view. He wrote: "Rushing water and the wild duck's call are the only sounds at Silkeborg. Few are the Danes who know their country's most beautiful region." A hollow tree on the town's outskirts is locally identified as the one from The Tinder-Box.

Today, Silkeborg's attractions make it, for Danes, one of the country's favourite resorts. Most foreign tourists come to meet its oldest inhabitant. Museum curator Christian Fischer believes his Tollund Man is the world's best-preserved prehistoric mummy. With morning stubble on his chin, you get a spine-tingling sensation that he might wake at any moment. Though tanned black by peat, his features are as ordinary as your next-door neighbour's. His brow is slightly furrowed but his expression is serene, as if dreams were erasing the worries of the day. Aged about 40, his final meal was wild-seed gruel - possibly a clue to why he was killed. With the Iron Age larder empty, he may have been dispatched to beg the fen gods to expedite the spring. The mummy being a Viking forebear, Fischer jokes that DNA tests might prove that half of Britain has genetic links to Silkeborg. Perhaps that explains why Jutland feels so familiar.

An English tourist, who in 1858 blazed an early trail to the embryonic town, wrote that "fourteen days in its wild beauty render unnecessary tedious journeys to the Rhine or Switzerland", predicting that "the English would flock there as soon as it was ready for civilised visitors".

Although the Silkeborg lakes are as far from the sea as is possible in Denmark, in these old Viking heartlands that is rarely farther than an hour east or west. The breezy North Sea coast (the West Sea for Danes) has seemingly endless sandy beaches and tiny picturesque fishing towns like Hvide Sande and Ringkobing. On the Baltic shore is Aarhus, capital of Jutland and Denmark's second city.

Aarhus's pine-fringed beaches look Mediterranean. It has an opera house and concert halls; its own Tivoli funfair, and even boasts a royal palace, the Marselisborg. The most notable attraction is Gamle By, a "town" comprised of salvaged ancient buildings representing Jutland's regions - and recreating a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale village. And at the Moesgaard Museum you will find more mummies from the bogs.

To understand how the bog people lived, we watch prehistory in action at the Hjerl Hede open-air museum. In a lonely heathland setting, summer-job students sleep in reed huts, cook gruel on peat fires and wear mere snippets of fur - the young bare-breasted girls insouciantly ignoring the wide-eyed German pensioners eager to video such historical fidelity.

At the hub of its constellation of lakes, Silkeborg has countless walks, a plethora of restaurants (the Danish cuisine rivals the French) and its citizens are, statistically, Denmark's most contented. A trio of music festivals - Riverboat Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, and Country and Western - cool the summer nights. The town's Geneva-style waterspout becomes a scintillating dancing fountain at dusk. At rustic lake-beach lidos, people swim in spring water. Bike paths through the forests wind to thatched villages with white-painted churches. Sunk into a lake-bed, Aqua is a vast fresh-water aquarium. Here we stroke gregarious monster-sized sturgeons. The harbour bristles with boats.

The principal lakes - Brasso, Borresso and Juleso - are strung along the Gudenaa, Denmark's longest river. To canoe to Randers on the coast takes two weeks. But the lake monarch is the Hjejlen - the "Golden Plover" - the world's oldest working steam-paddle boat that, since 1861, has been chugging to Himmelbjerget. Giggling Danes confess that means "The Sky Mountain". You can disembark at inns or isolated jetties for picnics in the woods, and when you want to return or sail a bit farther, hoist a pennant for the next boat to stop.

In 1853, Andersen joined the route's inaugural voyage on a steamboat called The Fulton. Enchanted by the speed and swiftly passing scenery - "like a modern rocket through a primal landscape" - he dashed home to pen a paean: "You river of Denmark! You Gudenaa! How lovely you are gliding among lilies beneath ancient elms and birch trees, from lake to lake between forests and heaths!" In the 21st century, the voyage seems charmingly sedate. The boat puffs smoke and steam, its whistle imperiously scattering canoeists. From the Queen's Saloon, used by Danish royalty, we watch the sylvan scenery in regal style - and try the royal loo that the crew calls the "queen's throne".

At 147m, despite Olympian aspirations, The Sky Mountain fails conspicuously to get near its epithet. But the view down the lakes from its heath-clad slopes beats that from many full-grown mountains. Following Andersen's lyrical portrayal of the hill as a homespun version of romantic grandeur, for a century the kingdom's artists and poets flocked for inspiration, and politicians came to hold speeches. The modest peak's image soon became a symbol of Danishness vaguely interwoven with notions of equality and democratic rights. Once in their lives most Danes make the pilgrimage, usually by water and often in the company of a personal crate of Carlsberg.

The boat's most popular landing is the venerable Eel Inn, where Gudenaa-caught eels have been fried for centuries. Ours though are a poor lot. But the lovely situation, copious fiery aquavit and local Neptun beer help us to swallow the bill as we reflect that both Hans Andersen and Tollund Man might have gnawed our meal's ancestors on this self-same spot. Heaving with fish, the lakes offer some of Europe's best and cheapest angling.

By the tranquil Slaenso Tarn - a silvery gem encircled by forest - we meet a solitary angler, Mark from Luton, and watch his fishing open-mouthed: every cast a bite. His enormous keep-nets bulge. "You get used to it here," he modestly admits. "It's the best fishing in the world - sometimes I've caught hundreds. The Danes think I'm mad, but no one bothers except for stuff you eat."

For 15 years Mark came angling for his holidays before permanently burning his Bedfordshire boats. By night he works in Silkeborg's John Bull Pub, by day he fishes. "When it's this easy, you could get fed up with it." He grins. "Hasn't happened yet."

Above the running of his reel nothing breaks the stillness but occasional falling leaves and the splashing of his fish. "It's not just the fishing," he gestures at the lake. "Paradise on earth, this."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The most convenient airports for Odense and southern Jutland is Billund - served from Gatwick by Maersk Air (020-7333 0066; www.maersk-air.com), and from Birmingham and Manchester by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Another useful gateway is on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to Aarhus.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Dania (00 45 86 82 01 11; www.hoteldania.dk) in Silkeborg. Doubles fromDkr1,345 (£125).

VISITING

Hjerl Hede Open-Air Museum (00 45 9744 8060; www.hjerlhede.dk) opens 1 April-31 October from 10am-5pm. Aqua Aquarium (00 45 89 21 21 89; www.ferskvandscentret.dk.aqua). The National Open Air Museum of Urban History and Culture in Aarhus (00 45 86 12 31 88; www.dengamleby.dk) The Hjejle Boats (00 45 86 82 07 66; www.hjejlen.com). The Riverboat Jazz Festival ( www.riverboat.dk) 16-19 June, the Lakes Regatta, 3-6 August.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Silkeborg Tourist Bureau: 00 45 86 82 19 11; www.silkeborg.com; Denmark Tourist Office: 020-7259 5959; www.visitdenmark.com

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