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Denmark

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Kronborg (Hamlet’s) Castle was the muse that drove me to Denmark, the Shakespearean work my compass to being too much in the sun. Hamlet is my favorite of the Bard’s plays, and I couldn’t wait to wrap myself up in its blanket of a dual mystical history: the history of Kronborg as Frederick II’s Renaissance masterpiece, and the history of Elsinore as Hamlet’s abode.

Helsingør is an forty minute train ride away from Copenhagen, a speedy trip that ventures into the countryside as you travel north. Kronborg castle is discernible on the horizon, rising up with braided spires on the lip of the water. From the station, I passed an outdoor flower market and walked along the water until the entrance came into view. Boats bobbed in anchor, and the wind picked up fiercely and didn’t loosen up until later in the afternoon.

The grounds, even from the walkway up, are stunning. Towering, powerful, a castle lacking its once-upon-a-time intimidation but overwhelming in royal charm, as strong as the expanse of sea. It feels like a passage through layers of style that are bright and, in a way, healing. It feels like a release, an escape somewhere exotic and calming.

No wonder Shakespeare was inspired by Kronborg. Though it’s not known whether he actually visited the castle, he must have understood its undeniable beauty and ideal atmosphere to set the stage for tragedy.

The Castle Grounds

The entryway opens up into the castle’s courtyard, from which the chapel, the Royal Apartments, the casemates, and other exhibits are accessible. A pathway outside of the grounds leads to the canons, still protecting their land.

Kronborg Castle was originally built in 1420. In 1574, the renaissance palace that stands today was designed and constructed, and served as the home of King Frederick II; it caught fire in 1620, but was identically reconstructed. It was a military stronghold as well, and fell under the army’s reign in the 1780s. Before that, though, the walls embraced the ruler’s loving marriage to his wife (and first half-cousin), Sophie, said to be the happiest royal union in Europe.

At 38, after leading his country in war and finally intending to be wed, he chose Margrethe of Pomerania and summoned her to Kronborg. She arrived with her entourage, a fourteen-year-old Sophie and her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Mecklenburg; and for Frederick II it was seemingly love at first sight. Margrethe, dejected, returned home as Frederick II and Sophie lived blissfully through marriage and eight children. Talk about a juicy love story!

The Royal Apartments are exquisitely decorated with tapestries commissioned for the castle, Renaissance works, twinkling chandeliers, and darkly wooded furniture set against white walls. And the windows! Oh, the way they let natural light in.

The winding halls and rooms lead you through to the grand ballroom, the grandest of its time. A typical party saw up to twenty-four dishes being served, and once the guests had left, it was used to store produce and building materials. It may not have always been a dance zone, but boy, wouldn’t it be nice to waltz around here?

The Scope of Sea and Sky

Take the 143 (fitting? After you see the view, very much so) steps up to a panoramic view of Helsingør and a look at the castle’s courtyard. The vantage point feels like that of a bird’s—a low-flying bird, but one sweeping over a spectacle of unannounced beauty.

It was crazy hair for me for the rest of the day, but so worth it. All of the videos I took from up there are bombarded with the sound of the wind powering through.

Below the castle’s bastions lie the casemates, a gloomy underground passage of tunnels that served as protection for soldiers during times of attack. I entered not having first read the description of the crypt-like darkness, and assumed that it had once served as some sort of dungeon. Far from it: the casemates stored six weeks’ worth of provisions for 1,000 soldiers, with plenty of space for both men and their horses to barricade themselves if the castle were under siege or battle. Resting here, according to legend, is Ogier the Dane, who remains in a deep sleep until the castle is attacked.

A Shakespeare Summer Festival

I was lucky to be there in the summertime, as the castle puts on Hamlet reenactments over the course of the season. Theatre is so important to me, an art that gives and gives of itself and exposes the human experience in deeply moving ways. Expression seeks feeling, and exposing myself to that is always cathartic. It is so welcomed, in fact, that I stayed at the castle for five hours instead of the three I’d planned, because I was caught under theatre’s spell.

Beginning at 12:30 in the afternoon, performers would take center stage in certain rooms around the palace and deliver Shakespeare’s lines in the setting of inspiration. I watched moments play out as close to imagined by the writer as possible and followed the trajectory of the story through the castle, bringing new life to the work and experience. (AKA, it filled my heart with so much literary happiness and I, at times, was close to bursting with how intimate theatre was.)

We were privy to interactive performances, the actors speaking to (and about) the audience in the same breath that they spoke to one another. Polonius, the ringleader who shepherded us from one place to another, told me through all of our run-ins that my outfit of a three-quarter length shirt and denim shorts worried him because of how chilly it was. I brushed him off every time, but silently wished I had his cloak on to shield me from the incessant wind.

My favorite scene performed was the coronation scene, where Hamlet hangs behind and recites his first soliloquy. The actor was so sullen, so bereaved over his stepfather’s ascent to the throne and King Hamlet’s death, and I was entirely in the moment. I had goosebumps (over the goosebumps from the cold) all over, hanging onto his words even after he walked away in preparation for the next scene.

I also loved the play within a play, from the deception Hamlet clued us in on to watching King Claudius’s jovial face slowly drop.

The Throes of Immersive Theatre

At some point in the afternoon, a member of the castle cried “Help!” from behind, after we had just witnessed a bout of Hamlet’s madness. Pivoting around, the group of us still gathered found him panting and gesturing to the arch he had just run through. “I’ve just seen a phantom… King Hamlet! Hurry, follow me!” He ushered the few of us that followed through a dark entryway, pointing to the end of the passage. “Over there!” He stammered. “He was right over there!”

After a beat, a ghoulish voice met us and echoed through the cave, a bluish white figure projected ahead an invisible screen. The voice of the actor portraying Prince Hamlet sounded overhead, and he and his father’s spirit exchanged words of vengeance for the king. I was living for the breathlessness of the Kingsman member, still stricken with fear over the conversation that just transpired.

There’s an exhibit housed in the castle about Hamlet and the number of performances that have occurred in the castle, including a BBC film, Hamlet at Elsinore, starring Christopher Plummer, made on the grounds. Sometimes I don’t think it could get any better, and somehow it always does.

Kronborg Castle is a literary paradise.

Spending the day in the palms of literature and history’s hands was so cool. I was coerced into staying longer by the scenes that I ran around to see, the ballroom Claudius’s place of worship, a game of chess in a small office before Hamlet’s puppet show, catching Ophelia and Hamlet in intimate moments that they had to steal in random spots. It had that double layer to it, blending the history of the royal family who hosted grand parties in their ballroom, who loved one another deeply, who probably looked out the windows and, no matter what circumstances were pressing on them, returned to a state of tranquility.

Kronborg Castle is the ideal day trip. It is a literary paradise, an interesting real-life story, a wind tunnel, and pure magic. It is an ecstasy of love.

Have you visited Kronborg Castle?

I was proud of this stupid joke I thought of while standing in a cafe at the Copenhagen train station, eyes wide as they trailed over pink-frosted sweets and shelves piled high with pastries. After ordering a sommerkaffe (mostly milk with a shot of hazelnut flavor and just a splash of coffee that still left my caffeine-sensitive body jittery), my scouring eyes landed on a raspberry danish, whose Danish name I didn’t need to know to point it out and order eagerly. Flaky, surrounding a bright pinkish-red center, and topped with almond slivers, it was, as Chandler Bing would tell you, perfection. I tasted the language. And that’s when I laughed around a bite.

Copenhagen was a brief, passionate rendezvous that left me dizzy with sunrises at 4:30 in the morning and sunsets still lingering in the sky at 11pm; bicycles that rushed away in blurs and make crossing every street a challenge accepted; sea greens and golds and pastels that linked arms with the water glittering along the edges of the city. I was there for one full day, spread out over three days, and wished for more time. There wasn’t enough of it to get to the statue of the Little Mermaid, or to see the Christiania district. Still, I had an amazing time doing things I love.

Like walking.

My favorite way to unpack a city is to hit the pavement, sneakers laced up and camera in tow, and stroll. That’s what most of my time looked like: walking, twirling around on cobblestoned streets to gaze at the architecture from ground to sky, taking photos of bikes. And the Bostonian in me made the effort to wait at crosswalks, as everyone did. I wound my way into passages tucked away from the public, and stumbled upon really neat public art and local shops. Still, it is awing at every corner.

Bike Travel: A Lifestyle

I made it my mission to take photos of as many bikes as I saw, which proved all too easy.

See?

My first day was also the day I arrived in Europe, first in London, then taking a flight (that I amazingly slept through) to Copenhagen. I found my way out of the airport, my suitcase by my side and backpack weighing on my jetlagged shoulders as I boarded a train, then a bus, to get to my AirBnb. My lodging was in an apartment complex that spanned blocks of identical buildings, which I looped around hopelessly to find. A crumpled confirmation email in my hand and sweat dripping down my back, I scanned and rescanned the numbers on the doors, confused when the numbers skipped over mine, until my foggy mind gently whispered, “Try the courtyard.” It worked, by joe! My room overlooked the canal that ran through the neighborhood and caught some gorgeous light.

Before I went back out, I took a shower, used the guest shampoo for yellow hair–something you’d only find in a fair-haired country like Denmark–slipped into sandals, and made it to the bus stop, only to realize I was just shy of the change I needed. The buses operate on coin payments, so I popped into a gourmet grocery store to buy two teeny squares of dark chocolate that awarded me the coins I needed–and a splurge to get my through my impending hanger.

The city as it surrendered to dusk exercised my imagination wildly. It was entrancing in early summer, still on the cusp of low tourist season, feeling a secret all its own. It cut edges, balancing classical architecture with contemporary art murals next door. I glided through squares and down streets near Tivoli Gardens, and settled at The Hungry Dane for dinner. A sign out front featuring a cartoon dog and advertising Copenhagen’s best burger did me in. I went with the prize-winning recipe: chicken soaked in duck fat (their signature confit), and reveled in every flavor of the brioche, the special sauce, the peppers that complemented the main event. Sitting outside on a wooden-slatted bench, overlooking the comings and goings of people through the square across from me, listening to the squawks of seagull lookalikes, letting the warm breeze swirl around me like dreams, I embodied contentment.

In the late afternoon the next day, I meandered along Nyhavn, the strip of pastel buildings that most often come up when searching photos of Copenhagen. It is recognizable to locals and tourists alike, and though very bright and very beautiful, felt in rhythm with the city on the whole. Nyhavn was not my first or last run-in with fantastically painted exteriors, but it still took my breath away. And there was a funky installation across from it, a brick building whose large windows were stuffed with hundreds of orange and black life jackets.

Walking up a block found me by the water, and I sat among families and friends celebrating (nothing in particular it didn’t seem–life?) with open bottles of wine and Carlsburg passed between them. My host told me I arrived here at the optimal time, and I could understand why: long, long days and sunny weather that lasted the entire length of my stay. The feel of the season was palpable; the happiness was wrapped up in good food, good drinks, good weather, and good people.

From there I began a trek back down Nyhan and to the King’s Garden, also sometimes known as the Roseborg Gardens, where I found Rosenborg Castle, a narrow structure built up like an Amsterdam canal house. The park was a beautiful escape of tree-lined walkways, floral mazes, fountains and sculptures hidden behind walls of shrubbery, and magpies fluttering onto the grass.

Money: A Sad Reality

Let me tell you how expensive it was. For the two and a half days that I was actually traveling, I spent close to $200–no alcohol, postcard souvenirs, very few to no snacks. I spent the equivalent of $15 on a virgin ginger beer and two fish tacos smaller than the palm of my hand. I stopped for a liquor-infused ice cream on the walk to the bus stop after that meal, because I wasn’t fully satisfied and I just couldn’t not, you know?

Would I do it again? You bet your bottom dollar. I spent my hours in the presence of places that didn’t cost anything, enjoying the roaming and the observing. Though I want desperately to go back for the castles and museums, I think this introductory lesson in Denmark was an insightful (albeit pricey) one. I didn’t purchase it, but a Copenhagen Pass will do wonders for the wallet.

I didn’t need money to end up at this installation, a house of mirrors pulled open and spreading the length of a block, splashed with abstract shapes and designs. And, of course, finished off with parked bikes.

Heeding the advice of one of my dad’s coworkers, I made a beeline for Sankt Peder’s Cafe on my final morning, housed in a sunset orange building on a quiet side street, one block away from Ørstedsparken. The window display could have kept me pressed up against the glass for the rest of the day, but I ordered one of their cinnamon buns and had to measure it to my face to confirm that it was, indeed, the same size or larger. Frosted thick with icing and delicately rolled, I sat on a bench in the park under a canopy of leaves and unabashedly moaned in delight at the first bite. It ranks as one of the best pastry-eating experiences I have ever had. Seriously.

The thing about Copenhagen is that it was unexpected, the way I had planned (or, I guess, hadn’t). With nothing set in stone here, I wandered to invaluable moments. Like live musicians in a plaza. A pig pile of bikes parked on sidewalks, unchained, left trustfully to remain where its owner left it. An art installation mimicking lily pads, set over a stream of water, for kids to leap between.

Copenhagen doesn’t have expectations of itself. Instead, it is humble in its own wake, impressive outside of its big spots. The side streets dancing in colorful exteriors were my favorite ones.

And the thought of those pastries makes me hungry to go back.