Saturday, May 28, 2011

Denmark, here we come

Up early this morning to have breakfast with our lovely hosts and drive to Helsingborg for the ferry to Denmark. We originally were going to take the new Oresund Bridge, but I'm glad that we took the ferry and spent the morning in Helsingor instead.

I don't like boats, really. And I really don't like boats that you drive trucks onto -- that just seems like a recipe for disaster, you know? The ferry is enormous, and does the trip every 20 minutes, and I don't remember any recent issues with ferries sinking, but still! We arrived about two minutes before the 8:20 ferry left, drove on and had just enough time to sit on the deck and swap out our Swedish Kroner for Danish Kroner and pack the envelopes back in my bag. it was a bit too cold and windy to stand on the top deck and see Kronborg (Elsinore/Hamlet's Castle) as we neared Denmark. It's practically a short-enough distance to swim (about 4.5km). We parked the car near the station and took off walking into town.

Helsingor is fabulous - the first thing we see coming across the street from the car park, is a slightly leaning, whitewashed half-timbered house in the medieval town center...followed by an entire street of them. The town was made very rich by the fees/tolls they charged for any ship passing between Sweden and Denmark, and it shows in the really grand houses that line the older part of town. We just poked around in the alleys and main streets before ending up at the Saturday morning street fair in the main square of the town. By lunchtime, nearly every shop had racks and tables of things out in the street and there were tents nad tables in the main square--we weren't really sure if this was a regular occurrence or not, since we had just gotten used to deciphering Swedish signs and Danish is enough different that we're a bit flummoxed by things. Luckly, we did figure out "one way street" before we messed up and drove the wrong way.

We walked along the harborfront to Kronborg Castle--which is a huge tourist draw for Hamlet fans, since the rumor is that Shakespeare based his play Hamlet not only on a Danish story about Amleth, but also sited it at this particular castle. Probably he heard about it from a traveling troupe of actors who performed here, but the story definitely stuck. It's an interesting castle, although no my favorite; there is a lot of art contained in the castle, but the rooms themselves are plain white and lack most decorations, probably because the castle was garrisoned by the Danish Army and then taken over by the Germans in WW2. The only room that is still in the same shape it would have been in the 16th century is the chapel -- which is pretty cool, I'll admit. We toured the casemates under the castle bastions and the state rooms, and Mark had to carefully inspect all the cannons lining the steep earthen defenses.

Of course, the first thing that he asked when we approached the castle to see the grass-covered banks was "how do they mow the grass on them?". The sides are probably 60 degrees. My immediate response? "Sheep. They lower them down on ropes..." I thought he was going to have to sit down, he was laughing so hard. The fact that we actually did see a rope and pulley system a bit later had us both wheezing with laughter.

Helsingor is only a few minutes from Fredensborg Slott, which is a royal residence and not open to tourists (at least, not today). We walked up to the gate and watched the very serious guard in his giant fuzzy hat walk back and forth a few times, and snapped a few pictures of the castle. It was still raining a bit, but we walked up the hill to the castle gardens hoping to see the sculptures, but everything is in the middle of restoration work and so we merely trekked around to the back of the castle, saw more fierce-looking young men in fuzzy beefeater hats marching smartly around in their tap shoes (seriously, they have metal bits on their shoes so they sound snappy when they march on pavement, like tap shoes). Oh! And we saw a dozen or so monuments in the back garden that look for all the world like giant erections. Yup. A field of penis sculpture. Closer examination shows them to be some sort of obelisk-like things with draped ivy on the bottom, but...well, I'll post a few pictures when I get through them and you'll think the same thing I did, I guarantee it!

Frederiksborg Slott, on the other hand, is stupendous. The rooms are carefully and completely restored, the art on display is great, and I spent the whole time walking around looking directly UP at the ceilings, which ranged from a rather sedate coffered ceiling with gold medallions to a ridiculous, over-the-top, frou-frou concoction of rococo decorations in a dozen different colors. I actually was laying on my back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling and trying to figure out how to take a good picture...the docent of the museum was a bit surprised. I think he was sure I'd fainted or something. The grand ballroom is a riot of colors and i can't imagine having a huge ball there with women in multi-colored dresses and men in their equally colorful finery (remember, this was the 18th century, they were dressing in the french style) might actually be nausea-inducing.

Many of the rooms have the best trompe l'oeil work that I've ever seen --the "marble" walls are simply paint, expertly done, and you've pretty much got to press your nose against it to realize that it's not real.

Mark also enjoyed identifying pictures of Christian IV (I think?) all over the castle, because the portraits,all of them, show a man with a very tiny head and a very large behind. Even if you grant some leeway to the artists for messing up the perspective, the guy in the paintings is pear-shaped. "Yup! Another one! Tiny head!" After looking at rooms of 16th and 17th century portraits, you realize that a lot of the faces look the same and the stylized clothing and expressions cover a multitude of artistic failings. Seriously - a lot of these portraits of women look like men in dresses, and we found at least one painting where every single person in the frame seemed to have exactly the same face. Maybe they found one guy who could paint faces really, really well...but he could only paint ONE of them. I don't know.

The GPS once again got us into Copenhagen and to the hotel without a single hitch. We're staying at the Hotel Kong Arthur, which is right on the canal (not the main canal, Inderhavn, but one of the smaller "so"s to the northeast) and we even scored a parking space in the small courtyard. We're on the fourth floor, which has a few angled beams in the room, but we can open the windows and lean out over the road and we've got a ton of space. Nice.

Scouted out a bakery for breakfast tomorrow (the hotel doesn't include breakfast, which is a change, and I refuse to pay $30 a head for a breakfast buffet that isn't so stellar that I'll write songs about it) and as we were discussing what to do for dinner, we both smelled Perfect, hot, garlicy pizza. We just followed our noses to a little downstairs hole-in-the-wall pizza joint run by an energetic Italian guy and absolutely packed with people. Always a good sign, when you can barely squeeze into the place. When we travel, we try to find the places that people are lined up outside of, or that are packed full of people -- usually they are the best places to eat. The fancy places with candles and white tablecloths can be great as well, but so far, we've had great luck with the local favorites.

I promptly took a bit of just-from-the-oven pizza...and burned the roof of my mouth. I hate that.

And tomorrow? Off to explore Copenhagen -- the three palaces in the city, dozens of churches,the pedestrian-only Stroget that covers most of downtown. And bakery. Don't forget the bakery -- the quintissential "Danish" pastry is pretty dang tasty!

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