The Swedish Twin
Swedish locals boast that their beloved Helsingborg is the twin sister to Denmark’s Helsingør, also known as Elsinore as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In fact, they claim that these two thriving, historic cities are the oldest twin cities in the world. It’s not a difficult concept to accept when you realize that they’re separated by a mere sliver of water, that of the Øresund.
They’ll go on to explain that all this seems to stem from the word “helsing”, which is the translation of “narrow passage.” And that it is. It’s so small that you could almost fling a herring across it. The zippy 20-minute boat ride between the countries is over before you can ask, “Is this seat taken?” That’s the good news. The bad news is that this close proximity set the scene for bloody conflicts throughout the ages, like teenagers sharing a bedroom. That story follows.
Political Ping Pong
Military strategists, governments, and enterprising merchants have long understood the importance of controlling waterways. And maritime geographical chokepoints take on a disproportionate importance. Think of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, the Strait of Hormuz, and the English Channel. What will be revealed before you in Helsingborg is yet another example, this time for the Baltic. That’s why, as early as 1085, Helsingborg was officially founded when King Canute the Holy gifted land in a place called Lund to the St. Laurentius Church. On May 21st. At least that’s the date generally considered to be the city’s birthday.
In the early 15th century, Danish officials placed a levy on all merchant vessels that sailed through this busy sound. These fees were called “Sound Duty”. Bureaucrats knew all too well that this money would bring power. Power would then bring privilege. These funds soon found their way into the coffers of the Danish Crown. All the while, trade flourished between the European continent and Scandinavia.
Conflict ultimately became the new norm. Flags were raised and lowered as Helsingborg was alternately controlled by the Danes and then by the Swedes. After a significant loss of life on both sides, again and again, a final push occurred. An important battle ensued in 1710, the result of which was Denmark’s final retreat from this land. It became forevermore Swedish and the guns of war were blessedly stilled.
A stone watchtower, known as Kärnan, looms above today’s Helsingborg and bears silent witness to these unfortunate events. Dating from the 14th century, this tower was once a segment of a larger, powerful fortress. A spiral staircase leads up this 100-foot tall structure offering a fine view of the city. It’s found in Slottshagsparken, atop the Terrace Steps, and can be reached by a series of walkways leading up to Stortorget from Helsingborg’s main square
The Past and The Present
In addition to the Kärnan tower, several other historic structures in Helsingborg still stand, many restored over time. Among the older examples is the 14th-century St. Mary’s Church, known locally as the Sancta Maria Kyrka or Mariakyrkan. Its bold brick Gothic façade and 15th-century altar screen are worth a look.
Contemporary times are more directly represented by the addition of a bustling harbor to handle the shipping activities; an efficient railway system linking Helsingborg to cities beyond; commerce in many forms; even a thriving rubber factory that brought great wealth to an industrialist named Henry Dunker. Along with this newly found wealth came cultural advantages. Concert halls and museums grew tall against a growing cityscape. Meanwhile the population reached the 100,000 mark.
Helsingborg residents are never far from the sea and enjoy summer days at the shore. For recreation and a respite from the daily routine, they also visit a place called Sofiero with its manicured garden. Dating back to 1864, it was the home of King Oscar II and Queen Sophie as well as their son and future monarch, King Gustaf VI Adolf and his English wife Crown Princess Margaret. Until 1970, these were the palace grounds and summer home for Swedish royalty. Sofiero gained acclaim and recognition when it was named “Europe’s Best Park”, a category rich with a long list of potential winners. Gardening enthusiasts will enjoy, among other delights, thousands of colorful rhododendrons. It’s an ideal spot for a picnic amongst the rainbow of blossoms.
To See or Not To See: That Is The Question:
If you get a move on it you can actually visit two Kingdoms in a single day. Swedish Helsingborg and the Danish capital city Copenhagen. Rarely can even the most intrepid traveler experience such an adventure. Thanks to the Øresund Bridge, opened in 2000, you can. You can also visit Kronborg Castle, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Pick up a copy of this riveting tale and read it once again when you’re back onboard, nestled into a comfy deck chair, the sea just beyond. Will you see yourself as Hamlet or Claudius, Ophelia or Gertrude? And will you at long last be able to discover if there is truly something rotten in the state of Denmark?