I guess we didn’t have enough of castles the day before, because on Saturday, we hopped in the car and drove an hour north of Copenhagen to see Kronborg Castle, in the quaint seaside town of Helsingør. That’s the Danish name – the English-speaking world knows the castle for its more famous moniker, Elsinore, as immortalized by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. Contrary to popular belief, Hamlet did not live here – he’s a fictional character, remember? – and we smelled nothing rotten in Denmark (aside from some stinky seaweed on the beach).
The castle sits out at the northeastern tip of the entire island of Sealand – important location, as it once prevented ships from crossing from the Baltic through the sound, back when Denmark controlled both sides of the water. Now the other side of the water is Sweden, and the two countries get along fine. They didn’t at one point, of course – but more on that later after we get into the castle.
Kronborg literally means Crown Castle, a name it didn’t receive until 1577, about 150 years after it was first constructed as a smaller fortress. Over the centuries, the castle grew larger and more fortified, until it was finally encircled by huge battlements, cannons, outbuildings, and walls – which means that in 2015, it’ll take you a good 20 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the main gate. Nice stroll though, and time for the boys to inspect the cannons and get chatty with some of the local swans. Once we got close enough to the castle and its massive stone gate, we could finally see how gigantic and impressive it really was.
Inside, it was even more impressive – a central square surrounded by imposing towers and Renaissance-style masonry. Some of the guides were wandering around the courtyard in medieval garb, though we opted for the self-guided tour. It took us awhile to figure out where to buy tickets and get started! (You have to go through the gift shop – don’t do what we did and start going up one of the staircases, or you’ll be doing the tour backwards).
Although the castle is massive, with huge rooms and an absolutely enormous main banquet hall, it’s much more sparsely decorated than either of the castles we saw the day before. No big surprise, as Kronborg has weathered a couple more centuries than Rosenborg Slot, plus some back-to-back catastrophes in the 1600s – a fire that destroyed most of the castle in 1629, and then a Swedish siege and occupation in 1658. Today, that means that most chambers are fresh with white paint, wooden floors, and a few hulking pieces of furniture (most of it not actually from the castle), making it difficult to picture what life was actually like in the castle. Given that it was more a strategic fortress and not a summerhouse like Rosenborg, or the royal family residence like Amalienborg, it probably was never all that hygge to begin with anyway.
There were, however, some incredible and very, very old tapestries hung on the walls. They were fascinating to inspect, not just for their size and detail, but also their imagery and context. My favorite was the one depicting a rhinoceros, then considered a very exotic and little-seen animal to the rest of the world. Not many people on Earth, and certainly not in frosty Denmark, ever got to see one in the pebbly flesh, but if you were the king or part of his court, at least there was Tapestrygram.
The castle was also used as a prison from 1739 until the early 1900s, and the inmates certainly didn’t get to stay in the upstairs chambers. So down to the dungeons we went, to explore the dank, chilly, and dark labyrinth of tunnels below the castle. Somehow, B and I always wind up doing this kind of stuff wherever we travel. I’ve always been fascinated by caves and crypts and oubliettes and tunnels. (I once spent a happy hour alone in the Parisian catacombs, with only my headphones and 6 million Parisian skeletons for company.) Lucky for me, she likes it too. And it’s great fun and adventure for the boys, even if there really wasn’t a lot down there to see. But it was huge, and I think we saw almost all of it. Certainly not the kind of place you’d want to be stuck in at night, after the guards and crowds had gone home!
After we had seen most of the castle, we collected a few shells down on the beach, and then drove back into town to explore some more and find some dinner. Helsingør the town is much more charming than Helsingør the castle, all cottagey and colorful with narrow cobblestone streets and a central shopping and dining promenade.
We poked our heads into a few of the cafes, but decided we wanted something a little more out of the ordinary than your typical Danish fare – lucky for us, TripAdvisor showed a Thai restaurant in town! It was a tiny, unassuming place, but it was open, and tasty, and cheap compared to what you normally pay in any restaurant here. Plus we just sometimes have to remind ourselves how random life can be – a year ago, we might have been enjoying Thai takeout at our house in the East Bay/SF. Now we were having it in a tiny seaside town on the northeast corner of Denmark.
And that was it for our trip! Three jam-packed days, and a quick drive home the next day. Still tons to see in Copenhagen, I’m sure. Give us your tips and tell us what we missed for next time!
Here’s part 2 if you missed it: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/10/11/copenhagen-day-2-castles-coasters/
And part 1: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/04/14/copenhagen-canal-tour/