Something is rotten in the state of– the thirsty Swedish hordes have arrived, and they’re fully intending to ransack Helsingor of its precious alcohol.
Just about every shop around the picturesque ferry port is crammed to the gills with bottles of wine, cans of beers and litres of every spirit imaginable. It’s not difficult to see why. The Swedes have a vital football match to watch in the evening, and are making their raid where the booze attracts considerably less tax than on the Swedish side of the Oresund.
For the Swedes, Helsingor is known as a place of plunder and a slightly less expensive hangover, but to the rest of the world, it is Elsinore, home of Hamlet.
A short walk along the waterfront from the crowded wine stores is the castle in which Shakespeare’s most famous play was set. It’s a refreshingly proper castle, with a big, winding moat and chilling green turrets giving it an air that its inhabitants are not to be messed with. All it needs is a portcullis, and some helmeted types pouring down burning pitch and naptha from the walls.
Historically, it was more of a tollhouse than a fortress. Ships entering the Oresund – the stretch of water separating Denmark from Southern– would have to pay their dues here. These days the revenue comes from tourists, but perhaps fittingly, it is fast becoming the hub for a burgeoning arty scene.
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Nobody really knows why Shakey chose to set his play here – although in the 16th century, most Brits did erroneously think that Elsinore was the capital of Denmark. The Bard certainly never set foot here, and in any case, the castle burned down in 1629 and was completely rebuilt. Any descriptions from the play, therefore, should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Shakespeare is honoured with major live performances at the castle each year (no prizes for guessing which of his works is staged) and some tremendous tat in the souvenir shop. But it’s the other little shops that intrigue; there are art studios, ceramics workshops, textiles and jewellery stores. One is more ham than Hamlet – the shelves are stocked with hundreds of quirky glass pigs.
The castle also hosts art exhibitions. Currently, 13 artists are “creating a dialogue between traditional interiors and the modern art scene.”
There’s probably no other town in the world that offers such a bizarre mix of culture vultures and booze cruisers. The town’s pubs are a metaphorical mix of the beret and the Viking helmet, as arty manicured beards meet with the unkempt wild ones of the portly football fans.
But just in case the Danes decide it isn’t nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous drunkardry from across the water, there are contingency measures.
On one castle bastion, a lone soldier marches outside the giant Danish flag billowing from a mighty pole. Behind him is a row of cannons, with balls next to them ready for firing. They point directly across the Oresund at Sweden, ready to repel the ferries…
This article was originally written for the Sun-Herald in .