The Sleeping Hero of Kronborg Castle

Hans Christian Andersen wrote a short story about Holger Danske, the sleeping hero that passes the centuries in the dark cellars underneath Kronborg Slot (or castle) in the town of Helsingor, Denmark. In the story Andersen relates the legend that Holger Danske sleeps there until Denmark has need of him as a warrior of great might and reputation.  “and he. [the hero Holger Danske]… nodded in his dream, saying, “Ah, yes, remember me, you Danish people, keep me in your memory, I will come to you in the hour of need.”

Kronborg Castle is a lovely and powerful sight, sitting in kingly fashion on the extreme northeastern tip of the island of Zealand at the narrowest point of the Øresund, the sound between Denmark and Sweden. Cannons are ranged all about it, illustrating its defensive status and history, (although today they are used primarily to salute the Queen and such decorative practices). But it is also a castle of story, and was an inspiration for Shakespeare, becoming Elsinore in his immortal play “Hamlet”.

As I wandered the upper stories of Kronborg, soaking up the sights of rich tapestries, storied paintings, and other incredible treasures from past centuries, I was spellbound. A troupe of actors performed scenes from Hamlet throughout the day in different areas of the castle and its grounds, and interacted with the guests as if they were indeed residents of the castle when they were in-between acts. I could almost imagine myself in another time, which is one of the most wonderful experiences travel can bring. But I had yet to meet the sleeping giant, and that has come to be the defining moment for me during my Kronborg visit.

Below the castle, a guest can take many musty steps downwards and explore the rough, dark hallways and chambers that were once the haunt of soldiers, kitchen workers and wait staff. The stony walls are damp and the floor is so uneven that a visitor must take care during their exploration; more than once I pitied the thought of those who must have rushed through these passages downstairs to bring food and drink to those upstairs, trying to maintain balance and not break anything while using only torchlight to do so. Many corners were blacker than night, and there were few single visitors – many of them opted out of this experience, apparently. I did connect with a tour at one point, but the guide was giving a small lecture of the abuse of soldiers throughout the castle’s history – I moved on. One could easily get lost under Kronborg if care is not taken (or so it feels), and I stayed alert to the sounds of other people so I could orient myself.

And then I entered a silent chamber and encountered Holger Danske, the sleeping hero of the Danish people. He is a massive stone sculpture, and has been here in this spot under Kronborg Slot since 1907. The air surrounding him is so heavy and still it’s almost as though you can feel him breathing, slowly and surely, in no hurry, biding his time until he is needed. I imagined for a minute what it would feel like were those eyes to open, to glare about and were he to draw a giant cleansing breath and stand, stretching and readying himself to go to into battle, called from his slumber by the need of his people…but for now, he is quiet.

I  stepped lightly as I left his chamber. Sleep well, Holger Danske.




One Traveler

In all my travels, whether at home or abroad, I have often found myself wanting to wander off the beaten path.

I mean, yes, I buy the tickets for the tours that guidebooks and travel websites suggest, and I have never been sorry to explore a castle or gaze at a famous painting. I know that there are sights in every city and country that demand my attention, and I would have regretted missing the Colosseum or the Tower of London while I was in Rome and London. They simply had to be visited, and that was that.

But my most poignant and powerful travel experiences have been the small moments I was graced with that showed me the heart of a place; bursting in on my imagination with a true sense of the history or the comfort of a place, those times took my breath away and left me with a desire to continue trying to capture travel experiences in such small and precious snapshots.

On a walk through Vedbaek, Denmark, while listening to the silky thresh of breezes on tall grasses and red poppies, I heard a cuckoo bird. I was stunned, because, while I had heard that call all my life in the chiming of a German cuckoo clock in my parents’ kitchen, I had never known that the cuckoo bird truly made that sound. I stopped in my tracks to listen while all around me were the cool woods, soft pastures and orderly fences of the Danish countryside, enthralled. What if I had taken the train that day?

On the Isle of Capri, my traveling companions and I, having ogled the Gucci and Valentino boutiques, oohed and aahed over the magnificent jewelry in the shop windows near the plaza, and having been stung by jellyfish in the Mediterranean all while feeling oh-so sophisticated, decided to take a detour and stroll down a small residential street that no tourists were paying any attention to. Much too small for a car, and even for more than two people to walk abreast, we journeyed down the twisting little stone path, past dentist’s offices and hair salons, their doors standing open to catch a breeze, peopled by shopkeepers visiting with their patrons. We caught bewitching glimpses of courtyards filled with flowers and vegetables; every home had a lovely terracotta name plaque at the gate, and every path to each door beckoned us, tantalizing us with thoughts of those who were lucky enough to live there, the scent of lemons and salt air and roses washing over them both day and night. We saw Capri that day in a very personal and intimate way, as a place one could call home even after the summer crowds had dissipated. That day we found the heart of the place by turning left instead of right.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry that I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth…”

Robert Frost, in his poem “The Road Not Taken” that I have cited above, says it perfectly. I find myself when traveling standing at the divergence of two roads, wishing I could visit them both and remain one traveler. But when I am given the choice, I, like Mr. Frost, will always choose the road less traveled.