I blame the American fascination with castles. I think because we don’t have any bonafide royal palaces in the States, we’ve developed an extreme obsession with them when touring countries abroad.
This was just the reason I found myself boarding a train on an early December morning, just after Christmas last year. The snow was light on the ground, a mere powdery dusting that seemed to contain all of the power of a frozen Denmark winter. I was alone in the streets, alone on the train, as I rode up to a city on the North Sea – a city with a castle.
And not just any castle, but the castle. The castle featured in one of the most well-known works of the most well-known playwrights in the English language: Kronborg, also known as Elsinore, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It is easy to reflect now, to wonder what in the world I thought I would find there. Hamlet was not a real person, after all, and there is no proof that Shakespeare even visited the castle. But if I had paused for even a moment to consider, I would have realized that an old Danish castle on the North Sea is not an idyllic retreat for December. In short, the plot of Hamlet became infinitely clear and plausible in my mind; of course murders would happen here. I would have killed someone for a blanket! Or their coat.
The castle was freezing: stonework and stone floors, positioned strategically on the sea in order to force ships wishing to pass safely to pay for the privilege. Kronborg was also an ideal vantage point for keeping an eye on Denmark’s longtime nemesis: Sweden. A true castle, designed for withstanding elements and war, built for defense and strength.
Within the drafty structure there was much to admire … bracing views of the crashing waves outside, and a magnificent ballroom, long and airy, where one could picture ladies and their lords dancing whatever steps that Danish royalty danced. Until I was told that the ballroom was a modern addition – a fact that put a damper on my wild imaginings, and for some reason made Elsinore even bleaker; not just as a royal residence, but also as a day-trip from Copenhagen.
I poked around in the catacombs and crypts beneath the castle, which were even colder than the castle itself. They were appropriately dark and dusty, and somewhere within the passages, stood a statue of Holger the Dane, a hero of Danish folklore. It is said that if Denmark is ever in trouble, Holger will wake and come to her rescue. It’s a lovely story; but by this time, I was hungry and partially frozen, and ready for some traditional Danish smørrebrød, something like open-faced sandwiches with smoked salmon or herring. I was in a castle, after all, and generally, the restaurants nearby will cater to silly American tourists who want to pretend to eat authentic fare.
But, it was the day after Christmas, and Danes don’t care about American tourists on holiday. As I trudged back to the train, I looked back fondly at Kronborg. Though it had been chilly and a little disappointing, the castle itself is imposing and quite beautiful. It seemed like an appropriate pilgrimage for a college student majoring in English. And though the Danes might not be open for business on the day after Christmas, a charming little falafel shop certainly was.
So, with falafel and pita in hand, I rode alone on the train back to Copenhagen, feeling like a queen.