Hanging out with Hamlet in Helsingor

One thing that Europe doesn’t struggle with is castles to tour. From the heart of Prague to the chateaux in France to the ridiculous number of fortified structures in the Irish countryside, there seems to always be a castle available when you’re looking for something historical to see. Denmark is no different with well preserved castles all over the country. There are a few right in and around Copenhagen that make for great visits when in the area. One of these is Kronborg Castle at Helsingør, home of the King, Queen and – in Shakespeare’s mind – Hamlet.

The courtyard of Kronborg Castle

Hamlet does not really exist in history so claiming that the castle is his home is rather off. But there definitely is a royal castle there and it setting works quite well for telling the tale. Plus, it makes for good business with drawing tourists to the site. The Danes have readily adopted Hamlet into their lore and are happy to tell his tale in Helsingør as long as you’re willing to show up.

Helsingør is about 40 kilometers north of Copenhagen, an easy ride of about 55 minutes on the train from one city center to the other. The castle Kronborg is just a short walk outside of downtown Helsingør and is easily accessible to take a tour or simply to wander around the grounds and bask in the glow of royalty. In fact, large parts of the castle grounds do not have any access controls or admission charges. There were a large number of folks simply taking advantage of the well groomed lawns as a site for their picnics and other summer fun. Certainly it is possible to get a good feel for the castle this way, but to truly experience it takes buying in for at least one of the three tours that they offer.

Of the three tours offered the most enjoyable and focused on the history of the castle is that of the Royal Apartments. As it would seem, the tour covers the residential areas of the castle including the royal chambers, guest facilities and the great hall that is still used even today for some royal events. It is also available to rent if you’re throwing a party, though I have no idea just how ridiculous the rates are. There are occasional guided tours of the Royal Apartments and we were fortunate enough to stumble onto one. Having explanations of the history certainly was better than simply walking through the rooms and seeing old furniture and whatnot.

There are plenty of placards around if a guided tour doesn’t seem to be in the cards, but the guided tour is definitely recommended. Taking the guided tour exposes you to such details as the fact that King Christian IV had “seven children by his first wife, eleven by his second wife and five on the loose.” So maybe half the fun of the guided tour is the translations but it was still rather useful information about the history of the castle.

A close-up of one of the tapestries. The level of detail is truly amazing.

The highlight for me of the Royal Apartments tour was the tapestries. They are incredibly detailed and ridiculously large. Some took four years to produce while others were made with threads of silk, silver and gold (that one is rather smaller). The fact that 500 years later they still show much of the same vibrancy and color is truly impressive.

Another impressive bit from the Royal Apartments was the globes they had on display. There are a couple that are about 500 years old and are not completely accurate but certainly give a great insight into how the sailors of that era navigated. Even with the less that perfect maps they seemed to do a pretty good job.

One of the 500 year old globes that they had on display. Truly amazing!
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Looking down on the courtyard from the tower in the Maritime Museum. Looking out through one of the leaded glass windows in the tower stairs.

In addition to the Royal Apartments there are two other sections of the castle that require a paid admission. One is the maritime museum. There is a bit of older history there but most of that museum seems to be a display of random models of ships. They are pretty neat but not all that compelling, particularly as many of them are from the modern shipping era. But the Maritime Museum tour does include access to one of the towers of Kronborg. I’m actually convinced that the only reason to pay for admission to the Maritime Museum is to gain access to that tower – the views from up top are pretty amazing. That, or you’re a big fan of Maersk and their history as a shipping company.

The statue of Holger, the basis of the Casements tour.

The other – and most strange – tour available at the castle is of the Casements. The Casements are essentially the damp, dank, dark basement of the castle. The folks running the show have purposefully kept the casements dark. As in black-out level. I actually used the flash on my camera to light up various areas along the way or I don’t think I would have been able to make it through. Of course they are happy to sell you a flashlight/torch as you enter the basement but it is very, very dark without a light. More than just dark, it is really rather strange. The entire area is set up as a tribute to the legend of Holger the Dane. The walls contain messages written in silver paint that tell the story of Holger, a great defender of Danish life and tradition. Still, without a light it is almost impossible to figure out what the hell is going on or otherwise enjoy the exhibit. Even with a light it still seems a rather strange way to experience the Casements, an area that has housed hundreds of soldiers at various times throughout history.

Beyond the Kronborg Castle there is really little else to recommend Helsingør. There is the church and a few other shops. And there is their single largest industry – selling booze to Swedes who come across to save money on the taxes. But otherwise Helsingør is pretty much just the town that holds Kronborg. Not a bad thing by any stretch, but don’t plan on seeing a lot of other things during the visit unless you head over to Sweden, too.

Note: This post is showing up a couple days later than it actually happened because I’m off in the middle of nowhere enjoying the fjords but didn’t want to leave the blog empty all week.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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