Two beers or not two beers?

David Whitley ponders the question as he soaks up the culture of Hamlet's home town.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark - the thirsty Swedish hordes have arrived and they're fully intending to ransack Helsingor of its precious alcohol.

Just about every shop around the picturesque ferry port is crammed to the gills with bottles of wine, cans of beers and litres of every spirit imaginable.

It's not difficult to see why. The Swedes have a vital football match to watch in the evening and are making their raid where the booze attracts considerably less tax than on the Swedish side of the Oresund.

For the Swedes, Helsingor is known as a place of plunder and a slightly less expensive hangover but to the rest of the world it is Elsinore, home of Hamlet.

A short walk along the waterfront from the crowded wine stores is Kronborg Castle, in which Shakespeare's famous play was set. It's a refreshingly proper castle with a big, winding moat and chilling green turrets giving it an air that its inhabitants are not to be messed with. All it needs is a portcullis and some helmeted types pouring down burning pitch and naptha from the walls.

Historically, it was more of a tollhouse than a fortress. Ships entering the Oresund - the stretch of water separating Denmark from southern Sweden - would have to pay their dues here. These days the revenue comes from tourists but, perhaps fittingly, it is fast becoming the hub for a burgeoning arty scene.

Nobody really knows why Shakey chose to set his play here - although in the 16th century, most Brits did erroneously think Elsinore was the capital of Denmark. The Bard certainly never set foot here and, in any case, the castle burnt down in 1629 and was completely rebuilt. Any descriptions from the play, therefore, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Shakespeare is honoured with major live performances at the castle each year (no prizes for guessing which of his works is staged) and some tremendous tat in the souvenir shop.

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But it's the other little shops that intrigue: there are art studios, ceramics workshops, textile and jewellery stores. One is more ham than Hamlet - the shelves are stocked with hundreds of quirky glass pigs.

There's probably no other town in the world that offers such a bizarre mix of culture vultures and booze cruisers. The town's pubs are a metaphorical mix of the beret and the Viking helmet, as arty manicured beards meet the unkempt, wild ones of the portly football fans.

But just in case the Danes decide it isn't nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous drunkardry from across the water, there are contingency measures. On one castle bastion, a lone soldier marches before the giant Danish flag billowing from a mighty pole. Behind him is a row of cannons, with balls next to them ready for firing. They point directly across the Oresund at Sweden, ready to repel the ferries.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

SAS (flysas.com) flies daily from Sydney to Copenhagen. Helsingor is less than an hour by train from Copenhagen.

Staying there

The Helsingor Tourist Bureau's website has numerous options, see visithelsingor.dk.

Further information

See www.kronborgcastle.com, visitcopenhagen.com.

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