27 October 2009

Iceland escape

So, the reason I was in Norway a few weeks ago was to start the next phase of the Norwegian project in Trondheim. My colleague had told me that I'd like the place, and my Norwegian friend K had lived there for three years, coming away with many good things to say. After my time in Oslo I was starting to think that Norway was a rather uncolourful and serious place, but my time in Trondheim has rather changed that perspective.
It's one of the oldest cities in Norway, with structures going back to the time of Iceland's founding a thousand years ago, and it's obviously been a significant place since then. The starting point is a great location, on the coast and ringed with mountains, laced through with a wide river that meanders around the center of the town. Then there are the buildings which span generations of architectural styles, painted in the colors of Indian spices- the deep yellow of turmeric, the rusted rich red of tandoori spice, the pale fresh green of the cucumber yogurt sauce, and the deep brown of curry. Finally, since it's a university town there's a special fizz of youth that makes the place a bit more spunky.
Some more details:
Getting there and back
Trondheim's got its own airport with an Akureyri-style landing strip, so the arrival offers a sweep over the town, and then some disconcertingly close-to-the-water flying before touchdown. From there the easiest way to get to town is the SAS bus. Cabs are expensive and require pre-arranging with others and the train only goes once an hour. The bus stops frequently along the way into town, a detail that was explained to me by some friendly locals in the next seat from me.
On the way back I also took the bus but I was not fully clear on where it picked up so I ended up getting to the airport only a half hour before my flight. Thanks to SAS's excellent self-service check-in and the extremely short security line this was actually plenty of time.

Staying in Trondheim
My colleagues and I were fortunate enough to be staying at the Hotel Britannia, a 100-year old establishment in the center of town. When I trundled my suitcase towards the place I was a bit surprised to see a red carpet and a horde of teenagers hovering near the door since it looked like a rather grand place. Turns out the reason was because Beyonce, Jay-z and posse were there for a student festival concert later that day. The hotel was small enough that we kept running into people from the group, and left for dinner through a gauntlet of paparazzi and fans who were disgruntled that we weren't Somebody Famous.
In most respects this is your standard Norwegian hotel- crappy overboiled coffee at breakfast, variable rooms (mine was splendid, a colleague got one that wasn't quite so nice) but the real selling point, aside from the grand public areas and central location, is the spa. It just opened this year and contains more variation in sauna than I've ever seen before. There's a hot-stone-seat sauna, a eucalyptus sauna, a burnt-essential-oils sauna, an ice fountain, foot baths, and a wonderful jacuzzi with a ceiling sprinkled with constellations and a light that mimics the northern lights (of course on the northern side). Entrance is free for hotel guests so I went so frequently I never used the shower in my hotel room.

Good eating
I was surprised to find that Trondheim was bursting with excellent places to eat, so armed with suggestions from my friend K and a few other sources, we went forth to try as much variety as we could. The two important factors were a colleague that is not fond of fish (how does this happen to a seaside dwelling Icelander?) and another who brews his own beer and is extremely fond of sampling all that is obscure or IPA style. Here's where we went:
  • Ai Suma: A short walk from the hotel, this place is decidedly a steakhouse with some peculiar decor that at least makes for a good start to the conversation. The wall we sat next to was covered in halved wine barrels, topped with a frilly gold crown molding. Further down the wall began to sprout white hands, and above us a clear plastic box housed a collection of table lamps. I chose the risotto scallops as my appetizer, a mouth-party that definitely put me in the right mood for the main course, a massive steak served with perfectly cooked potatoes and vegetables. The steaks there were much too large for any of us to finish but we all agreed that they were mostly excellent. One colleague would have preferred his steak to be a little less cooked.
  • Dråpen: This one was a suggestion from my friend and required a bit more walking on a rather Icelandic-style evening (windy and wet). We were initially seated immediately next to the door on wobbly tables that got freezy when people arrived or departed, so we requested to move to a more cozy spot after appetizers. To start with I had the langoustine with accessories, which were all good flavors but I felt lacked cohesive working-together spirit. I like a dish where you can mash all the elements together and find that the sum is greater than the parts. This was not so- the caperberry had too much attitude to go with the delicate langoustine, and there was too much of the saffron mayonnaise to work with the amount of langoustine that had been served. I finished it feeling a bit sad. All was redeemed during the main course though, hot smoked reindeer slices with horseradish potatoes and a divine port-chocolate sauce. All three of us had ordered the same thing and all three of us were in ecstasies over the meal. For afters, I went with a coconut orange cake that rounded things off well, while my 2 colleagues asked the waiter for "strange beer" and were rewarded with two bottles of Russian mystery that pleased them well.
  • Den Gode Nabo: This place was on the wish list of my beer-loving colleague who'd found positive reviews of the place and its vast selection of beers, so we waded through the night after our dinner at Dråpen. It's across the much-photographed old bridge, in the lower half of a building that's hanging directly over the river. The inside is a rambling warren of rooms, low ceilinged and drunken of floor, populated by roaring groups of student types, almost exclusively blonde and square-jawed. The first table we sat at gave us the distinct impression that we were either at sea or well into our cups- I sat leaning sideways while another guy was tipped acutely forward. We relocated to a cozier windowside seat with better foundations and enjoyed sampling their various wares. My colleague enjoyed selecting for us and came back with oddities such as a Scottish elderberry beer.
  • Jonathon: The restaurant in the basement of my hotel had been recommended by a few people so I went with high hopes that were slightly dashed by their offhand treatment of me as a solitary diner. I waited for 15 minutes to be seated, and then was put at a seat in one of the quieter, emptier areas of the restaurant. I went with a final steak as my main course (continuing the theme) and while it was good, the overall impression was of a slight excess of salt, and inconsistently cooked veggies. Most were overcooked but the two asparagus spears were undercooked. At least the sauce was decent. I don't think I'll be returning there thought.
Trondheim's happily compact, and the center of town is corralled by the river so it's easy to wander mapless and not find yourself in any trouble. I took a wander that started at the hotel, went down a large shopping street, detoured through some nice antique-looking alleys, paused at the lovely Nidaros cathedral, then along the riverbank, across the old bridge to inspect the world's first bicycle lift, through Bakklandet and across the bridge again, ending with an inspection of what the local H&M was carrying. All the right elements.

The cathedral is rather remarkable, first for its diminutive scale when compared to the vast antiquities in places like Paris, and second for the beautifully crisp carving on its facade. Maybe it's a harder type of stone they built with there, maybe it's due to the undoubtedly cleaner air there. Whatever the cause, it was a delightful building and I wished I could have gone inside. Moving on, the riverbank offered excellent panoramic views of the town as a whole, including the fort high on an opposite hill.

The old bridge is for pedestrians only, delivering yet another scenic overview of some of the older buildings that hover over the river on a forest of pilings. Just across it is the bicycle lift that saves cyclists from having to pedal up a particularly steep hill, something I had to photograph for my friend C, a bicycling blogger in Boston.

Then to the left where a street of short buildings was bursting with cafés and cozy little shops, most of which were closed by my dusk-time walk. It's one of the small frustrations of work travel in a particularly delicious place. I'm grateful for the opportunity to see these places and experience them from a more internal perspective as I meet and work with people who live there, but then I rarely am able to see the things that cause most people to visit a place. I've heard of the great museums in Trondheim and the extensive swimming pool complex but there was just no time for that. Our work's not done in Trondheim though, so I am hoping that in future visits I'll uncover more thrills in this charming town.

oh, the tragedy

yes, the news reports on MSN and.. pretty much everywhere are true. Iceland is losing its McDonalds as of the first of November. The import costs what with the brave new exchange rate could no longer be justified, since they would have required a Big Mac to cost the equivalent of a rather decent meal downtown. Bargain meal no more.

Since neither S nor I had ever tried McDonalds here in Iceland we decided to swing by the one in Skeifan just to see what the woot was about. As we approached the fabled golden arches, I caught a glimpse of the line to the counter which stretched out the door and through the parking lot, then we got tangled in the takeout line which was winding round the traffic circle nearby, probably about 15 cars deep.

We abandoned that plan, first thinking KFC would satisfy our bizarre Tuesday evening whim for American fast food, but it seemed that we weren't the only ones with that thought, as the line there also stretched out the door. So, onto the much-lauded Saffron, a place with iffy service that we had tried some months ago. Inside, the high ceilings and noisy crowd gave the vibe of a fuglabjarg (squawking bird cliff), so we retreated to my favorite Bulgarian restaurant downtown, where we toasted our excellent decision over savory and delicious dishes where we were the only (and extremely happy) patrons.

so much for mcd's.

12 October 2009

gale force arrival

On Friday I was due to fly back to Iceland but had heard from several people that the weather was not supposed to be particularly friendly, so when I landed in Oslo I started checking the airline website. Everything was cancelled going in or out of the domestic airport, but as far as I could determine there was no disruption whatsoever in the international arrivals.

So off we went and just before landing the pilots said that there were "strong easterly winds" so things might be just a bit bumpy. That's how the Icelandic pilots describe the gale force winds that were sweeping over most of the country, strongest in the south (where the airport is so conveniently located). Oddly, the landing was almost totally normal- a bit bumpy but none of the stomach-dropping quick descents, and the only chaos from passengers was the drunken Norwegians in the bag getting squiffy.

All well and good until the drive from the airport. The road is notoriously exposed, winding along the sea through completely treeless moors, at the mercy of both the howling winds from the highlands (in excellent form that day) and the roar from the ocean (also kicking up at times). It's also just winding enough that it's hard to keep a consistent grip on which way you're headed when there's wind.

I've never driven in weather like this- it was a constant calculation to figure out how to compensate for the roar which was hell-bent on sweeping me, the car, and everything else around me directly into the sea. In the few places where a hummock sheltered me, or when passing the many cars stopped alongside the road, the sudden letup of wind caused a momentary swerve in the opposite direction. In spite of all this I did manage to admire the effect of all this exciting weather- the mountains to the right glowered beneath a fresh coat of wet snow and low hanging clouds, and off to the left, the sea was heaped high and frosted with white that sparkled in the sun. At the juncture of the two, a massive rainbow hovered over Bessastaðir. Welcome to Iceland.