Tuesday, May 04, 2010

To See Or Not To See

Denmark occupies a strategically important position at the entrance to the Baltic Sea that has been its major trump card throughout much of its history. At its narrowest point the Øresund straight that separates Denmark from Sweden and the Scandinavian mainland is less than 4km wide. In the 14 hundreds the wily Danish king Erik (good name that) decided to make use of this interesting geographical feature and decided to levy all passing ships to help supplement his coffers - a clever move which funded the kingdom for the next 400 years (during the Middle Ages the Sound Dues provided two thirds of Denmark's state income). To back up his toll requests he carried a very big stick in the form of two castles built on either side of the straights at Helsingborg and at Helsingør, which is also known in English as Elsinore. To classical literature buffs the name of Elsinore is indelibly etched together with English literature's most quoted and most popular character: Shakespeare's tormented Hamlet.
The imposing Kronborg castle defends the Øresund Straight, once the main source of Denmark's wealth.

A visit to Kronborg castle at Helsingør was therefore a must as it would be both a cultural and historical day out, plus I'm rather fond of the Bard. I was therefore slightly disappointed with old Will when I got to Helsingør and discovered that the legend of Hamlet was about a prince who lived some 600 years before the castle even existed. Had Shakespeare been around today I would have told him to do some more research, at least have a look at Wikipedia, or something. But as it was I didn't feel too bad as I wasn't the first person to have come there looking for Hamlet: such was the number of bardic pilgrims, even 200 years ago, that the canny locals even erected a grave for the fictional hero. And the castle itself is sufficiently imposing to warrant a visit too - it dominates the surrounding lines, and would certainly have made most captains think twice about not paying, with its batteries of cannons and 3 layers of moats.

In my further quest for literary sights I decided to turn to a more local author who wouldn't be so prone to just make things up. Since I couldn't find one I plumped for Hans Christian (known as HC over here) Andersen whose fairy tales are world famous and have become part of our popular culture. Copenhagen's most visited sight is a statue of the Little Mermaid, one of his best known tales thanks to Disney (personally I prefer the original version which doesn't have a saccharine, happy-ever-after ending). However even here I was out of luck because, for the first time in her 100-year history, the Little Mermaid is off on holiday and has been shipped, along with her rocky perch, all the way to China for Expo 2010. Ah well, no matter; from what my Danish friends have told me they're not particularly impressed with her and think she's a pretty disappointing tourist attraction. So instead I headed off for one of Denmark's safest attractions, one that I was sure would be there, one that is very real, one that is a true symbol of Denmark, and one that is particularly popular with their Swedish neighbours, who flock across the Øresund in their millions just to experience it ... and headed to the pub for a Carlsberg.

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