Royal Splendor, Hamlet & Rainbows – Kronborg Castle, Helsingør, Denmark
“Ål, du har røget ål?! (Eel, you have smoked eel)?!”
I was practically drooling as I said it. The skin was slightly cracked and the fish looked moist, a delicate smoke flavor emanating from the shop. It seemed like the real deal, exactly the way I remembered from our summerhouse neighbor who used to smoke it in his outhouse when I was a kid. The other stuff looked delicious too; smoked salmon spread with a rich red color, warm fiskefrikadeller (fishcakes), gravede laks (cured salmon) and of course home-made remoulade, the iconic Danish side-sauce for all fish dishes.
In a twist of chance, the lady behind the serving counter used to live in the USA. So as she loaded up my order we chatted about life abroad and coming back to Denmark, sharing that weird instant connection that so often happens when you’re on the road. What a small world we live in!
Back in LMB I laid out the exotic spread on our table together with fresh rye bread from the local bakery. This was a feast fit for a Queen (or King), the perfect flavors to accompany our rather fine view. The spires of Kronborg Castle glistened in our right side-window, their copper covering oxidized to green, guarding over the water and beach below. The coast of Sweden hovered in the distance just across the sound in our front windshield, and the bustling harbor of Helsingør (Elsinore) filled our view to the left.
We were in the city of fables, of Hamlet’s Castle, of stories past, Royal splendor and a legendary warrior who lies in wait and still guards Denmark to this day. I savored the eel like candy, letting the sweet smoky flavor linger on my tongue. Rain was on the way (lots and lots of it) but none of that mattered. We were back in our element and we’d landed another gem.
We were going to enjoy this spot exactly like the Royalty of yore.
First, We Visit My Cousin Near Copenhagen
The trip from S. Sweden back to Denmark was a quick one, another drive across Øresund Bridge.
As expected there was a border check coming into Denmark with agents stopping cars on the bridge to verify COVID Vaccination status (although they only stopped around half the travelers coming this way). Once again we sailed through without any issues thanks to our EU-valid passes.
The drive landed us right next to Copenhagen, the Danish Capital, and around half an hour later we were at my cousins place. It was another sweet family reunion with my cuz, her husband and young son, and her parents who come by that evening for a dinner. Folks we haven’t seen in years*. A great couple of days filled with lots of chat, too many Danish pastries and plenty of walks in the nearby nature preserve. Good times.
*My cousin is also staying off social media these days so no family pics here either, sorry…
Then, We Turn Our Wheels Towards The Danish Riviera
For our next mini-tour of Denmark we chose The North Coast of Zealand, a place I know almost nothing about.
It’s called the Danish Riviera, the spot where Copenhageners come to play, and its renowned for its sandy beaches and of course Hamlet’s Castle. I get the impression it’s a bit of a “rich and famous” place, kind of like Denmark’s version of California’s Carmel-By-The-Sea. But over the next week or so we also discover it’s so much more. From old fishing villages to Polar Explorer houses, lighthouses to micro-breweries, and even dense troll forests, there was way more depth to this area that we originally imagined.
In our typical slo-mo style we decide to take our time, planning a whole week to travel the mere ~65km coastline, a trip that could be done in a mere day on a bicycle (there’s even a bike path for that!). Technically the whole thing could be written up in one blog post too, but that would be skimming over the good stuff which is almost as bad as not savoring an expertly smoked piece of eel.
First Stop, Helsingør Marina
For our exploration of Kronborg Castle we chose to park at the Marina, the perfect location to enjoy it all.
It’s another typical Marina Motorhome parking area with several paved sites and electricity hookups, all of which you pay for at the Harbor Office. The price is DKK185 here, and both electricity and showers are an extra, small charge which debit off a plastic charge card (Tally Card) that’s also purchased at the automatic booth (just remember to return the card to get your deposit back before you leave!).
It’s a little pricey for what it is, but the location is perfect!
You’re right by the water with an awesome view of Kronborg Castle, walking distance to downtown, with a small grocery store, smokehouse and several restaurants in the Marina itself. There’s several other attractions in the area too, including a large Maritime Museum, a Cultural & Arts House, and a super-cool covered Food Market Hall where you can sample everything from burgers to ramen in cozy Scandinavian style. Plus of course there’s beach and the green park around the Castle, all of which are dog-friendly. Helsingør is an awesome town to visit!
The only thing that doesn’t cooperate for our stay is the weather.
After a month of solid sunshine and the most pristine Scandinavian summer I’ve seen in years, Thor finally decided to pay us a visit. It starts raining in sheets, with thunderstorms that roll through like giant tidal waves with almost no warning at all. We get caught out a few times as we’re walking the dog, and have to plan all our sightseeing around the few moments when the clouds part. Mostly we just huddle inside LMB and try to keep dry.
Oh, where has my sweet Scandinavian summer gone?
Kronborg Castle, The Renaissance Jewel
There’s a lot to be said for the oldest Kingdom in the world.
Denmark may be a small nation, but we have a long history much of which is still visible today thanks to an unbroken chain of Kings and Queens that stretch back over 1000 years. In historical terms Kronborg Castle is just a teenager, the current version dating back to only around 1658. She had several incarnations before this of course, first as a stone stronghold known as “Krogen” (the hook) in the 15th Century, then as a glorious Renaissance queen under Frederick II, and finally rebuilt by Christian IV after she burned down in in 1629 (only the original Chapel survived)
Her splendor in the day was unequaled, mostly thanks to her location on waters that for more than 400 years served as the main shipping route from the Baltic Sea to Western Europe.
Location, location….and tax money…..lots of it!
When Frederick II became King he imposed a tariff system that forced all traders to pay a percentage of the value of their cargo when they passed through. The Sound Dues became an incredible source of wealth that funded not just the King, but much of the magnificence of Kronborg. The money transformed the old fortress into a 3-story queen complete with light sandstone cladding, shiny copper roofs and a lavish interior that hosted banquets renowned across the land. And after she burned down, Sound Dues were simply doubled to restore her. It was quite the racket.
Her downfall came in 1658 when she was besieged, bombarded and captured by the Swedish King Karl Gustav X. Much of her artwork and interior was looted, and although she remained Danish she lost her Royal glitz. She became a military stronghold, fortified with a crown-shaped moat, a story that lasted right up until 1924 when the military moved out and the Castle was restored. In 2000, she finally earned her rightful place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the gem that we get to visit today.
Kronborg Is A Perfect Reflection Of Her History
All this mixed history is very apparent when you visit Kronborg.
Her magnificent exterior reflects all the glory of her hey-day, the renaissance spires, her tall stone walls. You imagine ladies in elaborate silk gowns, and royal banquets overflowing with food and splendor. At the time Denmark was the most powerful nation in Northern Europe and this was her castle.
Her interior is more muted, her riches lost from the lootings and military occupation, the Royal Chambers rather bare compared to the Castles that you might see in the rest of Europe. But she packs tons of interesting touches.
There’s a large exhibit of Royal attire through the ages, where clothes have been re-created for every King, Queen and consort since Harald Blåtand**. The work and detail that has gone into this is incredible, and it’s fascinating to see all the elaborate gowns and fabrics up close. There’s also another exhibit of Royal tapestries which were commissioned in 1581, of which only a few remain today. They tell stories of Kings past from the victorious to the cowardly, warts and all. A wonderful set of fables woven into silk and yarn.
Underneath the Castle is perhaps the most intriguing gem. Within the dark casemates, dimly lit and clammy damp is a statue of Holger Danske, the mighty warrior who sleeps with his sword. Legend has it he will take up arms and fight if ever Denmark is threatened. If you see him, you’ll know never to cross a Dane 🙂
**Do You Know The Story Of Bluetooth? Harald Blåtand Gormsson (Harald “Bluetooth”), was the Viking King who united Denmark and Norway from 958-986, also converting them to Christianity. Apparently he had a dead tooth that looked blue, and it became rather a defining feature. Either way, in 1992 his name was chosen for a new wireless technology that was to unite the PC & cellular world. Intel codenamed it “Bluetooth”, and its logo was a combo of the ancient runes for H & B. The codename stuck and the rest is tech history. So, whenever you pick up your phone or computer you carry a bit of Danish history with you. Pretty cool, right?
She Is Hamlets Castle Too
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”-Marcellus, Act I, Scene IV.
They were ominous words, and the prelude to a tale of madness and revenge written by none other than the bard, Shakespeare himself. Interestingly enough there’s no direct evidence Shakespeare ever actually visited Kronborg, but from the details of the play it’s absolutely certain that Hamlet was based here. Likely he was inspired by the Castle’s greatness, much like many of the day, and may have drawn from other written accounts to create his tale. Either way the impact was everlasting, and today Kronborg is as much Hamlet’s Castle as it is the castle of Danish Kings past.
Each August this is proudly celebrated with a Shakespeare festival (Hamletscenen) that draws famous actors and accesses from all over the world, a tradition that started over 200 years ago. From Laurence Olivier (Hamlet) & Vivien Leigh (Ophelia) in 1937, to Mikael Caine as Horatio in 1963, this is open-air theatre at its finest with Kronborg as the perfect backdrop.
We just missed the festival this year, but would have loved to attend. What an awesome tradition to experience!
A Final Rainbow For Our Last Farewell
Our last night in Helsingør we walk one last time with Polly on the castle grounds.
It’s rained again of course, but this time we’re gifted with a beautiful rainbow that shines over the spires, bathing the castle in brilliant color for one last time before everything fades to grey. That night I fall asleep to visions of kings and queens in gilded robes, and stories of intrigue and treason. Through the veil of my dreams the rain hammers the roof of the motorhome and the gulls cry in a frenzied disharmony, almost as if the ghost of Hamlet himself has come to hunt them down. In the morning everything is gone, the tale finished and vengeance complete.
As we drive off we glance one last time at the castle. She’s a magnificent icon, the first thing you see when you arrive in town and the last taste you have as you drive away. It’s been a wonderful visit despite all the crazy rain, and we wonder if we’ll ever come back. Perhaps one day, the fables will lead us here again.