Category Archives: Denmark

• Kronborg Castle

Visit: 3rd January 2016

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Kronborg Castle was the second of the two WHSs Natalie and I visited on our New Year weekend trip to Denmark. It is a historic royal palace, most famous globally for being the castle in which Shakespeare set the play Hamlet. Indeed, the play about the Danish prince is based upon a local legend about a prince called Amleth. Shakespeare simply moved the ‘h’ from the end of the name to the start.

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Kronborg Castle is situated on a man-made peninsular beside the town of Helsingør. In English we call it Elsinor, and that is the name you will find is used by the Bard. Elsinor is a 30 minute train ride north from Copenhagen, and sits at a strategically important position on the west bank of the narrow Øresund strait that separates Denmark from Sweden. Putting aside the twentieth century Keel and White Sea-Baltic canals, Øresund is one of only three routes that shipping can take to get from the Baltic Sea to the rest of the world.

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In 1429 King Eric of Pomerania (a major character in the history of that other WHS we visited that weekend, Roskilde Cathedral) came up with a plan to charge a toll to traffic passing through the three straits. This worked immensely well for the Danes, so much so that by the 16th and 17th centuries shipping tolls made up some two thirds of Denmark’s state income. Kronborg Castle – the site at which captains were required to make payment – was built lavishly with the proceeds.

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We had spent the prior night in a hotel in Elsinor, so were up at the castle bright and early – easily in time for its winter opening hour of 11am. It was bitterly cold, with an easterly wind transforming the -4°C actual temperature into a ‘feels like’ at least 10°C lower. We walked around the perimeter of the castle and stood by the shoreline where the seawater had frozen solid to the rocks and shrubs.

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Inside the castle it was fairly typical of European palaces, though not as impressive as fellow WHSs Brühl, Würzburg or Blenheim. There were plenty of local paintings on the walls and some mocked-up royal bedchambers, but overall it was quite bare, with no ‘knockout’ ceiling frescoes or the like. The chapel was nice, but difficult to photograph internally.

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A good idea of somebody’s was to put photographs of the famous actors who have played Hamlet at Kronborg in what has become well established as an annual tradition. We watched a 1948 Lawrence Olivier film version as preparation for the trip, so it was interesting to see that he had also played the Dane in Elsinor itself, as you can see above. Other Thespians who have graced the castle’s lawns include Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud and Michael Caine (the latter as Horatio). I was temped to buy a novelty skull in the gift shop for a cheesy photograph, but it was just too cold for larking around outside!

24092468842_43db7f5838_bUpon finishing our self-guided tour of the castle (the colourful outbuildings above contain cafes and other modern facilities) we headed for the station and a train back to Copenhagen. I had been planning for us to walk through one of the parks that make up the newly-inscribed multi-site WHS, ‘The par force hunting landscape in North Zealand’, but our late-running train skipped the stop in a bid to catch up to its schedule, so that idea was rapidly canned. On the plus side, though, this gave us time for an unplanned visit to see the famous Little Mermaid statue on Copenhagen’s chilly waterfront.

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It is about the size I had imagined it to be, and easier to access. You could climb up to it and touch it if you wanted to (and I believe some people, including vandals, have done). Sitting there gazing out across the Øresund towards Sweden, it possesses a serene and dignified beauty. I was glad we saw it, I thought, as we walked back along the city’s quiet streets to the central station for our airport train.

The flight back was with a new airline for me: Norwegian. I was impressed with its modern 737 and low fares (it cost only £20 per person for our flight back to Gatwick). On arrival I was expecting a fairly miserable trip home because the London-Brighton line that passes through the airport was suspended for engineering works. We were therefore surprised to find out how quiet the replacement bus services to East Grinstead station were: we boarded a coach that had just pulled up at the airport only for it to be immediately despatched with the two of us as the only passengers aboard!

• Roskilde Cathedral

Visit: 2nd January 2016

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After a lovely Christmas week in Cornwall (on the way home from which we stopped to visit the Cornish Mining WHS subcomponent of Tavistock) Natalie and I went to Ross’s for New Year. He and Louise had prepared a wonderful Italian feast, and we watched the London fireworks on TV with a glass of Champagne. The next morning we were up early, leaving our sleeping hosts as we set off for Luton. Our flight was on New Year’s Day, but wasn’t unusually quiet as one might expect. We arrived into Copenhagen Kastrup in mid-afternoon with the sky already darkening and twilight taking over from the Sun’s direct illumination. This was a two-night trip: our first night spent in Copenhagen city centre and the second in the north Danish town of Helsingør. Despite it being the deep midwinter it was remarkably mild on arrival, with a temperature of about 6°C.

One year earlier we had been in Malta, and the contrast with Copenhagen was sharp. In sleepy Valletta I had been able to find nothing more than a newsagent open on New Year’s Day – and even that closed at 5pm! Denmark’s capital on the same day was a hive of activity, so we had no difficulty obtaining sustenance as we wandered about its busy streets. I had a place in mind that I had read about in a Guardian city guide (often a great source of tips on where to eat). The Isted Grill is a humble takeaway that has for many years served up a peculiar fusion of Danish and Chinese food. The embodiment of this blend of cultures is the flæskesteg – a burger-type snack consisting of a fatty cut of fried pork in a bun with mayonnaise, cucumber and red cabbage. Although the crackling on the outer edges was as good as the Guardian writer describes, we found the centre to be rather lacking in flavour.

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As we walked out of the hotel the next morning it became clear that the weather had turned. The wind had swung around and now blew from the east, bringing with it an icy blast from Siberia. For the rest of our time in Denmark it would be -2°C, with a wind chill factor taking it down to -12°C. Wrapping our scarves tightly we boarded the train toward our first WHS of the trip: Roskilde Cathedral.

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The city of Roskilde lies 20 miles west of Copenhagen and hosts the largest of Denmark’s twelve cathedrals. It was the first Gothic cathedral to be built of brick – that being a brand-new building material at the time – and is used as the official mausoleum of the Danish monarchy. Roskilde was made capital of Denmark in the late tenth century, following the successful union by Harald Bluetooth of Denmark and Norway. His previous capital had been on the Jutland peninsular at Jelling (which we visited in March 2015), but with the addition of Norway it became necessary to move the capital closer to the kingdom’s new geographical centre.

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In the fourteenth century Queen Margaret I – who had been acting as regent following the failure of her father to produce a male heir – adopted her distant relative, Eric of Pomerania, as her son and heir apparent. Margaret encouraged Denmark and Norway to join forces with Sweden in order to challenge the growing power of the Hanseatic League. She was successful, and so bequeathed to Eric what became known as the Kalmar Union. Although Margaret had requested that her final resting place be at Sorø – a small town near Copenhagen – King Eric moved her body to Roskilde Cathedral in order to make it clear that, as her heir, he was the undisputed monarch.

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Tomb of Queen Margaret I of Denmark

This marked the beginning of a royal mausoleum, which continues to this day. In chapels all around the cathedral lie kings and queens past, with the styles of decoration indicating which era they came from. For example there is the Baroque chapel of Christian IV, or the tomb of Christian IX & Louise. The latter is decorated with statues known as ‘the Mermaid’s sisters’ because they resemble the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen Harbour. And well they might, since they were the work of the same sculptor, Edvard Eriksen, and the model he used for the poses of all four was his wife.

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Grief, Memory and Love

Denmark still has a monarchy, and it has been decided that the tradition of interring monarchs at Roskilde will continue. One of the chapels there is empty save for a model of the sarcophagus that will be used by the current queen, Margaret II. She has chosen a very modern design with the coffin made from glass. It must have be very eery to choose, though I was relieved to read that the coffin itself will not contain the bodies of the Queen and her consort, but that they will be buried beneath it. The reason of the choice of materials is apparently to symbolise the transparency of Denmark’s modern democracy.

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Having gone around the whole cathedral it was time to head back to Copenhagen and then on to Hamlet’s castle at Elsinore. The weather was still bitterly cold outside so we stopped for a bite to eat along the way, where I had my first ever cinnamon roll. What a decadent snack it turned out to be – really delicious and just the right fortification for the Arctic blasts the Danes have to put up with in the winter.

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• Jelling Mounds, Runic Stones and Church

Visit: 1st March 2015

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The site of the Jelling Mounds, in central Jutland (the peninsular on which much of Denmark – but not its capital – is situated), was a sacred area for the Viking King Gorm the Old. The father of Harald Bluetooth, Gorm reigned from AD 936 to 958. He was the last of the pagan Viking kings, because his son Harald took the step of introducing Christianity into Denmark. To my mind the most significant element of this WHS is the carving on the rune stone below of Christ on the cross.  The significance derives from the fact that it is the earliest representation of Christ in all of Scandinavia, and it serves as a marker for the region’s transition from Viking paganism to Christianity. It is pretty hard to make out, but trust me it’s there.

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The two rune stones were primarily carved as memorials to Harald’s father (Gorm) and to his wife. They stand in glass cases to protect them from the weather, but you can walk all around them and see them from any angle. The inscriptions are very feint compared to the much earlier Greek carvings I saw in Athens, but I believe they become quite visible when lit up at night.

IMG_3849They would originally have been painted in bright colours, as this replica from outside the museum demonstrates. This is something that is easy to forget when looking at old carvings from many civilisations (do the Vikings count as a ‘civilisation’? – I’m not sure they do). You can see another coloured replica of the stone in London if you like, at the Danish Church, 4 St. Katherine’s Precinct, Regent’s Park.

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The north mound contains an oak burial chamber (the south mound does not). You can climb up on top of the mounds to get a good view of the church (like in the first pic above). The church is relatively recent, though a church has stood on the site since Harald Bluetooth’s day. Archaeological work has identified the remnants of three previous churches, each destroyed by fire before being rebuilt.

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Natalie and I visited Denmark for just one night, flying early doors on Saturday out of Stansted and returning (to the usual Stansted chaos) on Sunday night. We flew to Billund airport, which is basically in the middle of nowhere but serves as the main airport for most Danes living on the west coast of Jutland. Billund is a small town, though it has one attraction of note, for kids at least: it is the global headquarters of Lego, and as such features a LEGOLAND. We are a little old for that kind of thing, but it was amusing to see a Lego shop in the airport selling custom sets like a kit to build a replica Billund airport.

We hired a car and drove southwest to the coastal area known as the Wadden Sea. This is a transnational WHS that covers the intertidal mudflats and islands on the coast of the North Sea stretching from midway up Denmark down along the German coastline to halfway down the Netherlands. I’ll wait until I’ve visited another part of the Wadden Sea – famous for its birdlife – before writing it up fully, but I will say that the parts we saw were very pleasant.

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The four pictures above come from the Wadden Sea. Clockwise from top left: me on the long causeway that connects the island of Rømø to the mainland; typical Danish village of Ballum; flock of migratory birds above the marshland; Natalie on the beach at Rømø.

We stayed a night in Esbjerg, the headquarters of the Danish offshore oil and gas industry, where we ate a very nice meal at the dockside Restaurant Gammelhavn. We managed to grab on our journey three of the six Danish geographically protected foods (Esrom cheese, Danish blue and Lammefjord potatoes) as well as ticking off one and a third World Heritage Sites. For a 33 hour trip I think that was pretty good going.