Today I went to the magical land of Helsingør, a city of about 46,000 people on the north west coast of Zealand (Zealand coincidentally, is the particular island on which I currently reside). There sits the castle Kronborg, which just so happens to be where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was set. It is an amazing building, centered on a sprawl of land that is a sight to behold – both from the ground and from above (See Picture). The thing I tend to forget about these amazing buildings is that they served not only as residences, but also as fortresses. While I am not sure about the beating the building itself could take, the grounds are built to ward off intruders from any direction. Don’t get me wrong, it is a huge stone building, but it has a lot more glass and ornamentation than the images that come to mind when I think of a medieval castle with arrow loops and such. This is a palace as well as a military installation.
Kronborg is not a medieval production. The earliest fortress on the land dates back to the 1420’s, but the palace is clearly a renaissance affair. It was built originally and expanded upon through the 1570’s and 80’s. From the elevated position of the castle, you can see everything in all directions for miles. There are outcroppings for armaments on all sides of the building, and there are only a few entrances from inland, each designed to be closed off at a moment’s notice. Probably all pretty handy features, as the building was constructed (and reconstructed) in a time when the Danes and the Swedes like to kill one another with what seemed to be a good helping of reckless abandon. Helsingør, and in turn Kronborg, held strategic value for the short distance it was from Sweden across the channel, though when the original fortress was built, Denmark controlled the land on both sides of the channel.
Helsingør: The city itself is beautiful. The central rail station is amazing; grand in appearance, even stately – though in truth, not at all large. It sure looks big though. I believe it serviced only 4 sets of tracks, which compared to the 20 or so in Copenhagen and the 12 or so in each of the “ports” of the city, this is not much. The walking street is lively and had many different cafés, butcher shops, bakeries, boutiques, and the like. It was an impressively sized street, especially considering the relatively low number of people who call Helsingør “home”. . . To compare, Birkerød where I live, there are approximately 25,000 residents and our business district (the retail center of town or “walking street”) is kind of sad and limp. It has a single bakery (that sucks), one nice café, a few pizza/gyro joints, and a smattering of other retail. The vacancy rate is approximately 25%. The bike shop and its staff is awesome, just so we are clear. I hear the movie theater is nice, but I really haven’t seen anything playing yet that makes me want to spend the money. With a population less than double my own town, there is a business district that is easily four times the size. Granted, I know that there is a much larger tourist draw to Helsinør, but the tourists are not really a year-round economic boon.
The city again reminded me that there is something here that I have a hard time explaining. I have gotten an impression of a different sense of history, both here in Denmark and when I was in Amsterdam several years ago, as it relates to the environment in which we live. . . I do not mean“environment” as in the political issue “environment” (though that is VERY important here too), but the cities, buildings, and the lands around us. They seem to have lives too here. There is an effort to preserve history, and we live surrounded by it every day. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there were periods in modern times where amazing things were torn down in the name of “progress,” but I always get the impression that there is respect for the structure, and that we should somehow bend to the structure as we need the structures to bend to our needs. Many things are repurposed here. Theaters that were once stages became movie theaters, stables became diners, staff quarters became shops. . . This seems to be a constant, at least it is the best I can tell from my relatively superficial understanding of the way of life here. The original notes from which I write these words were written sitting on a street that has been here since before there were white people in America, in front of a building that has stood since the American Civil War.
There is an amazing mix of the old and the new in Denmark. Modernness seeps from every pore, yet all in a setting that has been here longer than any of our families have been in the United States. Part of that is the circumstance of just how long Denmark has been populated, but a big part is Danes being consciousness of the surroundings. Remove the street lights and the cars and there are huge swaths of Denmark that would be indistinguishable from that of a hundred, or even two hundred years in the past. I think about the tragic loss of the American “downtown.” We venerate small town America and yet we do little to preserve it. It has taken us 50-plus years of wrecking our city centers for us to feel the need to stop it from happening. Life is in these cities. It makes me very happy to think of the efforts going in to revitalize places like Downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. While much has been lost to the wrecking ball, much has been saved. Slowly, business is moving in to the downtown and I really wish it the best, because there is nothing like the pulse of a living city. There is hope and purpose in a place where you live and work within reasonable distance of each other. There is a vested interest in the success of both your job and your home, as they are in a sense, connected.