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The Oresund: Where Denmark and Sweden interact

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Two landmarks — one old, the other new; one yin, the other yang — mark the entrance to the Scandinavian waterway known simply as “The Sound” — or Oresund.

At the north end of this strait that separates Denmark from Sweden looms one of the world’s most formidable symbols of dominance. Kronborg Castle, built by the Danes at the strait’s narrowest point as a medieval fort and toll booth, screams masculinity.

At the strait’s south end, an equally imposing structure of unbridled femininity has taken shape. Designed by superstar architect Santiago Calatrava, a190-metre tower called the Turning Torso appears delicate and draped in architectural finery. Above all, she turns her torso a full 90 degrees.

If this apparition looks eastward from her seaside perch near the city of Malmo, Sweden, she sees the Swedish province of Skane — rolling farmland dotted with castles, villages with 500-year-old churches and half-timbered houses, and a long coastline.

Looking west, the Torso eyes, at sea level, the 15.4-kilometre stayed-cable Oresund Bridge, appearing as finely wrought as a pen-and-ink Rembrandt drawing. On the strait’s far shore sits the Danish island of Zealand and the capital city of Copenhagen.

Long viewed as the “jugular vein” of Europe for its strategic importance as the only navigable route between the North and Baltic seas, the Oresund now unites eastern Denmark and southern Sweden into one region. The Oresund is doable in a few days.

From Copenhagen’s Central Station it’s a 45-minute train ride north to Helsingor. Blessed with a large harbour and massive brick buildings in the fanciful northern Renaissance style, this port city is inviting. But its glory, on a promontory where the Oresund is only 4.5 kilometres wide, looms Kronborg Castle.

In the 1420s, King Eric of Pomerania built a fort here and began collecting dues from boats negotiating the narrows. And although King Frederick II constructed a Renaissance castle over top of the fort in 1585, Kronborg never lost a threatening aspect. From here, Danish rulers lorded it over the Swedes and Prussians for five centuries.

Enter through an arch and you’re confronted with formidable walls and looming towers. Beyond ramparts and another set of gates is a large courtyard and a chapel with a dramatic tile floor and fine carved fixtures. The castle has few furnishings. An exception are seven glorious Flemish tapestries designed in the late 1500s for the great hall, and recently cleaned and returned to their rightful place.

Shakespeare set Hamlet in this castle he called Elsinore.

From Helsingor, it’s a 25-minute ferry ride across the Oresund to Helsingborg at the northern extremity of Skane province. Sweden’s second largest port, Helsingborg is known for its shops, restaurants, parks and gardens — particularly the 10,000-bulb rhododendron garden at Sofiero Castle.

Another 45-minute train ride takes you south to Malmo. In fact, you can travel around the entire Oresund, including Skane and Zealand, by train. Founded in the 13 th century, inner Malmo has an old-world patina. The market square, Lillo Torg, is filled with arty shops, outdoor cafes and a covered food market of stalls and take-outs.

Motoring, for an afternoon, eastward from Malmo into Skane, we passed through Skurup to Svaneholms Castle, where a gaggle of antique car enthusiasts were gathered around their perfectly coifed Lamborghinis and MGs.

In a light-flooded alcove in the castle’s restaurant, my companion and I dined on halibut, accompanied by a Chilean cabernet sauvignon and followed by white chocolate mousse. Driving away, we stopped on the opposite shore of the lake to admire the small castle perfectly reflected in the water.

Deeper into southeastern Skane, where windmill granaries still stand among the lush-looking farms, and grass-speckled dunes reach towards the Baltic Sea, we sought out the cottage that belonged to former United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold.

Left as it was when the Nobel-winning Swedish diplomat was killed in a plane crash in 1961, this cottage, known as Backakra, is filled with books and paintings from the likes of Picasso and Matisse. During our visit, Swedish school children ran about the hillside, and then thoughtfully explored a circular rock formation introduced on a grassy ledge above the sea, in the spirit of Hammarskjold, for meditation.

Above the fishing village of Kasberga sits a mysterious rock formation known as the Ales stones, carbon-dated to 600 A.D. Fifty-eight stones, each weighing four to five tonnes, create the shape of a ship. Some believe a Viking chieftain is buried here. Down in the village, a tiny plant prepares salmon, herring and eel for Scandinavian palates.

We slipped down to Ystad, a coastal holiday town of sandy beaches, rental cottages, cobblestone lanes and several hundred half-timbered houses. Every single night, year-round, from a 13 th century tower, a latter-day watchman plays a single note, at 15 minute intervals, facing the four cardinal directions. From the street you can reportedly see his long copper horn protruding from a window under the face of a clock.

From Ystad, a train travels hourly back to Malmo, and on to Copenhagen via the Oresund Bridge.

Passing through Malmo, I spotted, again, the Turning Torso. Embedded in limestone bedrock, the tower is wrapped around a huge concrete pipe. Wedge-shaped slabs create 54 floors; each floor is rotated 1.6 degrees. The building has an exterior spine. Thirty-eight horizontal and diagonal “steel cigars” add decoration and support.

Back in Copenhagen, I check into The Square, a minimalist-style hotel close to the train station and Tivoli gardens and amusement park.

With few embellishments, yet indisputably gorgeous, The Square, I decided, was a happy confluence of the tough, bare-bones Kronborg Castle and the flighty, filigree Turning Torso. I’d come full circle around the Oresund.

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For more, go to www.visitoresund.info. A two-day “Around the Sound” travel card offers train, ferry, hotel and shopping discounts from 27 Euros. The only condition is that you travel across the Oresund Bridge in one direction and by ferry between Helsingborg and Helsingor in the other.

For details on Skane and Sweden: www.skane.com and www.visitsweden.com; on Copenhagen and Denmark: www.visitcopenhagen.com and www.visitdenmark.com.

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