'Castles of North Sealand' day tour brings 'Hamlet' to life

Associate editor Carla M. Clark explored the castles of Denmark on a recent visit. Her report follows:

Copenhagen, Denmark -- There certainly was something rotten in Denmark the morning I boarded a bus out of Copenhagen -- the weather. But the cold air and shrouding fog set the stage perfectly for a day tour of the Castles of North Sealand.

The Copenhagen Excursions tour book said my bus would go to Elsinore first, the site of Kronborg Castle that William Shakespeare chose as the setting for "Hamlet."

Kronborg Castle in Elsinore has an engraving dedicated to Shakespeare, who set the play Then we would wind our way through the hillsides to see Fredensborg Palace (the Danish queen's summer residence) on the way to Frederiksborg Castle, which serves as a national historic museum of paintings, furnishings and tapestries.

The coach was full of people of different nationalities, from diverse settings such as Germany, Asia and the Mediterranean as well as a fair portion from the U.S. The tours were mainly conducted in English, with occasional translations by our multilingual guide.

Upon leaving the city, we headed north along the eastern coastline, with the Oresund strait -- the mouth of the Baltic Sea -- just to our right, and beyond that a misty view of Sweden.

The 95-mile drive to Elsinore was tempered by the guide's commentary about the surrounding sites, from the navy barracks and industrial area on the city's border to the manor houses and former royal summer house farther north.

Upon first seeing Elsinore, there was a bit of disappointment. Rather than finding a castle standing out on the landscape, there emerged a bustling port town -- the castle sits on its edge. Set on the narrowest point in the Oresund strait, Elsinore is in a strategic position and acts as a gateway to the region.

Today, there are ferries and trains crossing the waters between the town and Sweden. But when Kronborg Castle was built in the 15th century, the site was more a fortification than a gateway. The castle and its inhabitants were well armed to monitor and charge traversing ships as well as provide defense against then-enemy Sweden.

The ballroom at Frederiksborg Castle is saturated with ornamentation, and is still used for political functions. Crossing the double moats and circling the castle swept time back to that period, and the bustle of the modern town disappeared. The sea, the mist and Sweden were all that was in view as I passed through the entryway.

There is an engraved stone between entry gates in the likeness of Shakespeare, commemorating the honor he did the castle. (Although there was never a Prince Hamlet at the castle, legend holds there was a Viking prince of Jutland named Hamlet.)

The fancy renaissance renovation of Kronborg in the 17th century was designed for King Frederik II and his wife, Sofia. The main -- and enormous -- courtyard features many stone-carved facades showing an entwined "S" and "F."

Although most of the rooms are bare, the church retained its original ornamentation, and a few paintings remained in the queen's gallery, which is the hallway leading from her chambers to the ballroom. The ballroom itself is of note as it was, in its time, the largest in northern Europe.

I was particularly swayed by seven original tapestries displayed in a room off the ballroom. They are only a few of the many that once adorned the castle's hall of kings, and are the same type through which Hamlet mistakenly stabbed Polonius in the play.

Another highlight in the castle is its catacombs, or dungeon. The passages are dark, low and winding, and end in a triangle-shaped room in which prisoners were tortured by darkness, claustrophobia and deprivation -- and out of which they never returned.

Emerging into modernity again was a treat, as a smorgasbord lunch was arranged at a small restaurant on the property. Everything from salmon to sausages to desserts was available on the all-you-can-eat table for about $15.

After an ample rest period, we drove westward through farmland and rolling hills, with beechwoods and mustard fields streaking by.

The tour was running a bit behind schedule, so we only paused briefly for picture-taking at the royal family's summer residence at Fredensborg. The palace is in the middle of a park bordering Esrum Lake.

Our final stop on the day was Frederiksborg Castle, built on three islands connected by brick and iron bridges.

We piled back in the bus, grateful for the chance to let the visions of the past sink in on the ride back to present-day Copenhagen.

The Castles of North Sealand tour lasts from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and costs $50, not including lunch.

It runs Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays May through mid-October; Wednesdays and Sundays October through April, and Wednesdays only in January.

City and harbor tours also are available as well as tours with themes such as Legoland, Hamlet, the Vikings and Hans Christian Andersen.

Tours are conducted on a show-and-go basis, but advanced bookings and commissions are available for groups.

Copenhagen Excursions
Phone: (011) 45-32 540-606
Fax: (011) 45-32 574-905
Web: www.copenhagen-excursions.dk

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