I doubt there is, or ever will be, a more majestic toll gate than the Kronborg castle. In a manner of speaking. Kronborg Castle is located near the Sound, the narrow stretch of water between Sweden and Denmark that connects to the Baltic Sea. Around 1.8 million ships passed through this causeway every year between 1429 and 1857, and every ship paid a toll to Kronborg Castle. It is little wonder then that the castle and its fortress became symbolic of Danish supremacy.
But I am visiting for a different reason. Some say it was this town of Helsingør that inspired Shakespeare’s tragedy. (It’s pronounced “Elsinore”, which is the name of Prince Hamlet’s abode). But scholars are quick to point out that Shakespeare never even set foot in Denmark. The play, they say, actually draws from the play Ur-Hamlet, based on the Norse legend of prince Amleth.
Kronborg Castle has gained wider fame through the Bard and the management has thanked its benefactor by etching his portrait on one of the sandstone walls. The castle’s souvenir shop also sells miniature Shakespeare figurines.
Kronborg looms in the horizon soon after we walk out of the train station. At the entry stands a grandiose stone gate. Built by King Frederik II between 1574-84, the 14th-century sandstone castle is a Renaissance building with four wings surrounding a spacious courtyard, an exquisite banquet room called the Great Hall, and a chapel with wooden pews. As much as it was admired for its beauty, Kronborg was feared for its strength as a fortress. And yet, the moat around the castle could not deter marauding Swedes in the 1650s, nor does it deter tourists from visiting in hoards today. With swans bobbing around, the moat resembles a pretty collar around the castle. The guide tells us that the castle had just hosted the screening of the play (what else?) Hamlet, held every summer by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its porch houses cannons dating to the 19th and 20th century, when the castle was administered by the military. “These cannons still work,” our guide tells us. “They are often fired as a salute to the Queen of Denmark when she is at the castle on her way to her summer house.”
I stood on its bulwark where I was told, that on a clear day, the Swedish town of Helsingborg can be seen beyond the Baltic sea. The distance between Sweden and Denmark seems a tantalising short swim away, but waters are freezing at this time of the year and no one risks a dip, says our guide.
A crossing ferry disturbed the serenity and gently pulled us out of our Renaissance reverie. It was just 4p.m. and the sun had already begun to set. Gradually, we made our way out as the sky turned a shade darker. Soon the castle would be drowned in complete darkness. It wasn’t comparable to the heavy shadows that gripped Hamlet, but Kronborg Castle at dusk possessed a compelling air of its own.
The town of Helsingør is an hour’s journey east of Copenhagen by train, and is the last station on the railway line that runs along the Danish coastline. You can also take the road that runs parallel to the train track; a 45-minute journey by road.