It’s easy to forget, or simply not to know, that Denmark is made up of over 400 islands. ‘Only’ 70 of them are inhabited, but it means the sea is omnipresent. In the last year or so I’ve written about the gastro-wonders of Jutland, also here, but my latest Nordic exploration took me to north Zealand, i.e. the same island as Copenhagen.
The capital is now umbilically linked to Sweden by The Bridge, of addictive TV thriller fame. But the closest point to Sweden is in fact Helsingor or, as we monolingual Brits call it, Elsinore. And that’s where we went.
Elsinore castle (in reality Kronborg Castle, on the horizon above) rings a loud bell as the legendary home of Prince Hamlet, propelled to stardom by our very own Shakespeare. This year, 2016, sees a double whammy celebration: the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and, in Elsinore, 200 years since the play was first performed in the castle. The theatre festival lasts all summer, imaginatively run by Hamletscenen.
The 1420 castle was home to the royal family at the height of Denmark’s power, famously hosting a string of decadent parties until, in the early 1600s, they moved to Copenhagen. You can tour the echoing halls and chambers, though most of the original furnishings were destroyed in a fire, leaving substitute items beside some impressive, original tapestries.
Also in summer the castle stages Hamlet Live, short cameos from Shakespeare’s play acted out at different times and places inside; we watched a pretty convincing duel between Hamlet and Laertes in the Great Hall (above) – Gertrude choked nicely on the poison too.
But it felt more of a privilege to watch first-hand an outdoor evening performance, to stay at the venerable Maryenlist Hotel, a 1900s grande dame which sits on manicured lawns looking across to Sweden and along the coast to the iconic castle, and to indulge in predictably delicious Danish food served on Royal Copenhagen porcelain. (above).
Many illustrious Hamlets have stayed here – from Lawrence Olivier to Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh and Jude Law. Apparently it’s a rite of passage for any self-respecting Shakespearean actor. Nice footsteps.
At night we were lulled to sleep by the waves beneath our balcony, but before that we watched dramatic cloudscapes from our restaurant table – incidentally in a not so harmonious 1970s glass extension designed by Jorn Utzon, of Sydney Opera House notoriety; he lived just along the coast. Finally the late summer sun crashed and splintered across the horizon, leaving an explosion of light and cloud.
Dog-walkers sauntered by in the blue light, just a couple of yards away from my plate of tender poussin, corn and chanterelles. I almost expected to see Wallander walking his lab, on a quick visit from across the strait.
To the west lies the North Sea, to the east the Baltic; in between we’re looking at the Oresund Sound, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, whether cargo or cruise ships, many en route to Copenhagen. In the foreground sea-kayakers and the odd yacht slalom the waves, and a few brave bathers slip into the water. Apparently it’s warm, though I didn’t test it.
Every few minutes, sun and rain swapped roles, something we experienced to the full at the evening performance of Hamlet: who’s there? – a fresh, modern take on the classic by the English company, Flute Theatre. As the performance unfolded in the open courtyard (below) and the light faded (with distant church bells and sea-gulls adding authenticity), clouds again played hide-and-seek. Suddenly, rain was unleashed.
600 spectators took rapid flight to doorways, though we soon returned to our wiped-down seats to watch action impeccably resume – hats off to the cool (and wet) actors, though Queen Gertrude abandoned her stilettoes – too slippery by far.
With all this horizontal and vertical water, it’s hardly surprising that Elsinore is also home to the National Maritime Museum. But the thing is – you can’t see it. Two years ago, its exhibits were moved from the castle to a new underground home in what was once a vast dry dock; the museum is now cleverly wrapped around the walls below ground, linked by glass bridges. Architectural awards for the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) have naturally flowed.
From the entrance, the corridor of displays leads you down a gently sloping floor, working round the walls to finally end at an excellent café with a view (above). This innovative design is echoed by imaginative museography mixing tableaux of sailors’ lives with more classic exhibits in a moody penumbra – so no pics!
Children’s books, clips from films, sailors’ exotic souvenirs and letters, navigational tools, ship models – gradually you get the picture of what a major sea-faring nation Denmark once was. This model below could have been there, but wasn’t; it actually hangs inside Elsinore’s main church.
When finally you come to a huge installation of Maersk containers (the global Danish freight conglomerate) – you realise Denmark still is a major maritime power. Incidentally, for an illuminating insight into Maersk’s operations, read Horatio Clare‘s recent travelogue, Down to the Sea in Ships.
Out and about along this unspoilt, so-called ‘Riviera’ of north Zealand, life seems to have shrunk since those illustrious days. Coastal towns are small and charming, with dinky, half-timbered houses painted in mustard or red ochre and neat little gardens edged by picket fences. Between the towns are sandy or pebble beaches lined with dunes, pines or beech woods, with rosehip bushes flourishing in the undergrowth (their fruits soon heading deliciously for jam-pots).
Apples couldn’t be rosier. And it’s all incredibly quiet.
For example I waited several minutes to take this photo of a typical thatched house at Hornbaek – expecting a cyclist to peddle by to fill in a visual gap. But nobody came.
It’s all understated, like the country itself, but a sprinkling of large villas and packed marinas hint at the discreet good living and quiet prosperity of this corner of Denmark – the perfect escape from city life, only an hour away.
Though an injection of Hamlet’s angst and the odd rainshower are just the ticket to keep you on your toes.
I was a guest of VisitDenmark and VisitNorthsealand – see their websites for more info. The Hamlet festival programme is here. Rooms at the Maryenlyst start at £128 / €147 including gourmet breakfasts
Denmark’s stunning modern art museum, the Louisiana, is barely 20 minutes’ drive away – read my post here.