We had a pleasant hour-long train ride from Copenhagen to Helsingør and Kronborg, passing by some really fine residential neighbourhoods along the Øresund and interspersed with fine views over to Sweden. The main attraction on this northern tip of Zealand is Kronborg Castle, the world renowned Elsinore of Shakespeare’s “The tragedy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark”.
The short history of Kronborg
Around 1425, King Erik of Pomerania started building the first castle on the grounds, named Krogen (The Hook). Around 150 years later, in 1574 King Frederik II initiated the construction of a new Renaissance style castle here, Kronborg. It burned in 1629 but was rebuilt a few years later, it was sacked by ravaging and pillaging Swedes in 1658, and it was abandonded as a royal residence in 1785.
In the last hundred years or so, after serving as military barracks for a hundred and fifty years, the castle was gradually restored to its historic magnificence. In 2000 it was rewarded with a listing on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
If you have read Hamlet, you could try to speculate on what was the result of Shakespeare’s free imagination and what was based on facts. In any case, the world’s most famous quote (“To be or not to be…“), from the world’s most famous play (“Hamlet“), by the world’s most famous playwright (William Shakespeare), was set here at Kronborg. I would believe this fact is a major reason why Kronborg receives so many visitors each year.
Outside the castle
Kronborg castle is an easy ten minute walk from the railway station in Helsingør. The castle is seen from a distance towering behind the fortifications and the bridges crossing two moats. The fortifications were initiated in the 1420s and were expanded several times over quite a large area. After the first moat and entering the first walled entrance we turned right and followed the “World Heritage Route“. I would recommend this, contrary to what most other visitors did – head straight left for the castle entrance.
Our route led us round the castle giving us a superb view of the castle, its walls and nearest moat all the way. We passed by some old houses and military barracks now being occupied by resident artists.
When you have walked about halfway around to the entrance you walk up on the ramparts and face the sea with the castle behind you. Here you will realise the full significance of Kronborg’s strategic location – how important it used to be in controlling the ship traffic in the Øresund. The view across the Sund to Helsingborg in Sweden is fantastic. The passage is not wide, only 4 km.
All vessels sailing to the countries in the Baltic Sea has to pass through here, and has done so for thousands of years. It was no wonder that the Danish King Eric of Pomerania in 1429 saw the potential in levying taxes on passing ships – for their protection. The Sound Dues was, in a way, the real “to be or not to be” question: Pay or get bombed. With the Danish King controlling both sides of the sound he was in a position to enforce it as well. This of course made Helsingør a very prosperous and lively trading port.
The attractions inside the castle
It is the location, the fortification and the size of the castle/fortress that make Kronborg outstanding. The interior squared yard and surrounding quarters are fascinating but constitute no more than just another world class Renaissance castle. Be sure to purchase the admission ticket for a guided tour or on-your-own walk in the palace anyway. At least you should not miss the tapestries, the large banqueting hall, the royal chambers and the chapel.
Tapestries and Banqueting Hall
The tapestries: Of the original 40 most have gone missing or burnt years ago, and seven have been moved to Copenhagen. Seven of the original tapestries are still hanging in Kronborg, and they have also other tapestries typical of the time in various quarters of the castle. On our visit the castle had on loan one important object taken as a war bounty by the Swedes in 1658, King Frederick II’s table canopy. It had been kept well in Sweden and has maintained an astonishingly good condition, as well as being of a very high quality in the first place. (The canopy is on a four year loan from 2012, so there will be ample opportunity to have a view of it.)
The Banqueting Hall at 12×62 metres is actually the largest in Northern Europe. It has an odd checkerboard floor.
Royal chambers, chapel and casemates
The royal chambers are always interesting to visit in palaces and castles like this. Dating back to between the late 1500s and 1700s it is obvious that the standard of living even for royals was quite rough. A curiosity: A dinner table is presented with apparently royal food: Lobster and oysters. Our guide asked us what we would believe was the most precious item on the table. Most participants gave the wrong answers. The correct answer was lemon. In Northern Europe in those days, they would pick oysters and catch lobster every day. Lemons was an import from faraway countries. One lemon would cost the same as a cow, our guide told us.
The chapel’s main attractions are in my opinion all the carved faces in wood adorning the seat rows in the rather little chapel.
Do also pay a visit to the dark, damp and low-ceilinged casemates (cellars) and be sure to have a flashlight app on your smartphone. I can’t really make up my mind about the statue of Ogier the Dane (Holger Danske in Danish). It comes somewhere in between of silly and unimportant. The story goes that he will wake up and fight the day Denmark is threatened. Nice for the children, I suppose.
Holger Danske has not risen to the support of Helsingør. The town has become one of many has-beens. There is still an important ferry connection to Helsingborg, and Kronborg’s reputation draws 200,000 visitors each year. On the other hand there is now a bridge across the Øresund further south, between the large urbanities of Copenhagen and Malmo (Sweden). That bridge draws a lot of transport, trade, jobs, investment and so on away from Helsingør and Kronborg.
Visitors to the mighty Kronborg Castle should allow plenty of time in the town of Helsingør as well. The centre is full of history, colourful houses, old pedestrian streets and an easy-going atmosphere.
We enjoyed it very much but was not rewarded with the lunch we sought. It was probably the wrong day. Here are a few pictures from Helsingør.
“Kronborg Castle” is no. 696 on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It is famous for being the setting of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and an important symbol to the Danish people. In addition it played a key role in the history of northern Europe in the 16th-18th centuries.
This is the second entry from my visit to Copenhagen around New Year 2012/13. Read the first.
Have a look at my story about Kronborg’s place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.