MY FAVOURITE DANISH CITY IS CLUSTERED BY THE NARROW ENTRANCE TO THE BALTIC SEA. A PLACE FILLED WITH GRAND BUILDINGS WHICH WEARILY REFLECT UPON THE DAYS WHEN SHE WAS MISTRESS TO A VERY CUNNING IDEA – 400 YEARS OF LEGAL PIRACY.
The short crossing to Sweden from Helsingør has always been immensely busy, and as turbulent as the current which flows into the Baltic or out to the rest of the world. If you drag your hands through the shiny pebbles on the beach close to Kronborg fortress you will uncover a fistful of sea-worn treasure. From sandblasted glass to terracotta jug handles; tiles, red brick, patterned plate fragments and chipped memories of rustic medieval faience-wear. Last summer I was lying on the beach creating pictures of cloud galleons in the sky with my daughter, then casually remarked that I knew that I would find some treasure.
TIME TRAVELLING IN HELSINGØR
Minutes later, as I dredged the stones behind my head, I came upon a twisted pewter spoon. The story lies so close-by on this energy-charged shore and this place where we sweetly lay was composed of momentous events. With every turn past the redbrick battlements or ghastly dungeons of the mighty Kronborg fortress, you feel you might have glimpsed someone a second earlier. Layer upon layer of lives, all churned by the constant tide and scattered across the beach. You just need to know how to look.
Helsingør (or Elsinore in English) is situated in a crucial position, and once controlled all the shipping which passed to and from the Baltic. During the sixteenth century, Denmark was the most powerful continental kingdom in Northern Europe. The reasons for this rise to wealth, power and fame were conceived 150 years earlier by a young king, Erik of Pomerania. Fifteen-year-old Erik had the dizzy challenge of finding himself as the sole ruler of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, and Schleswig Holstein. A vast swathe of far-flung lands, that became immensely costly to rule. Previously, huge shoals of herring had more than filled the royal coffers, but these oily fish had mysteriously slipped out of his hands to move elsewhere. Young Erik tackled his changing fortune with genius and hatched an idea so brilliant that it has been described as 400 years of legal piracy. Erik informed the known world that henceforth he intended to levy a new toll; every ship wishing to sail past Helsingør would have to dip its flag, strike its topsails and cast anchor so that the captain might go ashore and pay a handsome toll – the Sound Dues.
Naturally, the horny crew would disembark and spend their money in whorehouses and taverns. Ship supplies would be replenished; ropes and sails mended, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker all visited. Often the paperwork would take weeks, the final flourish of this scam was that the ships would then have to wait patiently for the right wind to sail.
As you walk through the streets you’ll find evidence of how Helsingør became a boomtown; stately brick merchant houses, grandly wrought facades of embassies from the 16th century which nestle in-between more modest half-timbered taverns and chandlers. Underneath lie the grand old bones of these once noble buildings where garish liquor shops and discount stores now lurk. Helsingør has declined since its heady days as the Dubai of the renaissance times, but with a little imagination and the timely tolling of an ancient bell, you can easily slip into the past.
Today the city bursts with it’s past, and modern times grip you too if you close your eyes and hear the jolly “rattle, jingle and thump” of beer crates being pulled on trolleys across the old cobbles, as day-tripping Swedes purchase cheap Danish booze to take home. Summer café terraces are filled with their happy countrymen, as they dribble into their beer and marvel at the salacious nature of the city– a mere shadow of her former self.
If you’d like to explore Helsingør with Heather, then her tours are available at: Time Travelling In Helsingør at Airbnb Experiences.
On the 24thof August 2019, it will be the fabulous ‘Sundtoldmarked’, or Sound Dues market. It’s hard to encapsulate the charm this amazing historical re-enactment day, when a waterfront market and events around the venerable old city of Helsingør will thoroughly celebrate the heyday of the infamous toll in the 18thcentury. The atmosphere is perfect, as the proud citizens dress the part and revel in the glorious ‘400 years of legal piracy’ in which every ship passing the mighty fortress of Kronborg was demanded to pay a sizeable toll to the Danish King in order to pass in or out of the Baltic.