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Counting the Krone in a Norwegian winter

Trondheim is an ideal gateway to Norway and all its delights, roughly located in the middle of the Nordic country with easy and reasonably priced train links both to the remote lands beyond the Arctic Circle and the stunning Fjords in the South.

From London’s Stansted Airport (UK and EU citizens do not need a visa to travel to Norway) I boarded Norwegian Air Shuttle’s miniscule 1970s airplane. It carried me across a landscape dominated by frozen mountains that looked impressive even from high altitude. 

Less than 2 hours later I was standing outside Værnes airport asking a taxi driver how much it would cost to get to the Radisson SAS. “But that’s in Trondheim!” he exclaimed, and I immediately panicked, thinking that in spite of months planning I had somehow managed to fly to the wrong city. Luckily, what he meant was that we were about 16 miles away from Trondheim and that I would be better off catching one of the waiting shuttles just up ahead. Indeed a taxi would have cost around £35 where a ticket on the ‘Flybussen’ set me back a mere £9 for a single ticket (welcome to Norway!) and dropped me right at my hotel’s door.

It was snowing heavily and the traffic went along at a steady slow pace. Signs everywhere warned of Elks crossing the road, but in spite of pressing my nose against the window for most of the journey I wasn’t meant to see any this side of the Arctic Circle. It was late November and at 4:00 PM it was already dark, which didn’t help my nature spotting.

Our hotel was a striking greenhouse-like building with its glass front sucking in all available light – which at this time of year is not very much. Our room was adequate rather than luxurious, but it had an excellent view of the city and by sticking my head out of the window I could see the river Nidelva running below and the snow-covered boats moored along the wharf.

In the morning we were confronted with what I’m told was a typical Norwegian buffet breakfast, where the amount of cured and cooked meats, cheese and eggs done in every way imaginable are enough to trigger chest pains. I tried the local specialty cheese Gjetost (pronounced yet-oast) which has the look and texture of fudge, and is a weird gastronomic journey in itself. The first taste that registers with your brain is the sweetness of toffee, swiftly followed by the flavour of cheese, and the alternating waves of information continue to assault your taste buds until you get a bit dizzy deciding what in the world you are actually eating. I stayed away from what I came to call ‘toffee-cheese’ after that.

In spite of grey skies, the streets of Trondheim now seemed to glow with light reflected and magnified by the snow covering everything. Around the corner from the hotel is the Old Town Bridge that spans the sluggish winter waters of the Nidelva and where locals often spot salmon and otters. All I could see were rocks on the bottom through the crystal-clear water, but the view of the riverfront warehouses and 17th century Kristiansen fortress more than made up for the absent wildlife. The Warehouses, which are still functioning as homes and businesses, are beautifully preserved and carefully painted in traditional Scandinavian hues. Although not as famous as their equivalents in the Bryggen area of Bergen, these warehouses are just as picturesque while mercifully lacking the endless swarms of tourists and industrial cranes obstructing the view.
Heading uphill from the bridge I walked around a residential area offering a stunning panorama of the snow-clad town and its exquisite timber houses. Trondheim exuded a feeling of quiet and reserved welcome, with candles burning in the snow in front of shops, inside windows and on every café table. This candle obsession is a very Scandinavian fad, adding to the scarce light of winter months and projecting warmth and hospitality.

I then walked through the town centre towards the squat yet strangely graceful Nidaros Cathedral, which is said to be built directly over the burial site of King (and Saint) Olav Haraldsson. After successive fires very little of the original 1030 construction remains, but the restored building maintains a grandeur befitting its history with some of the most impressive stained glass windows you’re likely to see anywhere. Like every other building I visited in Norway, the cathedral was efficiently heated, which meant it lacked the distinctive musty smell that I’ve come to associate with old churches everywhere.

On the same grounds as the cathedral is the 12th century Archbishop’s palace, the oldest secular building in Scandinavia. Today it is no longer the home of high-ranking clergy but rather a museum that houses the Norwegian crown jewels, archaeological artefacts, and works of art.

In winter many attractions are closed, as is the case with the Royal Residence, the Ringve museum with its collection of rare musical instruments, and the outdoors folk museum, which follows the curious Norwegian trend to preserve entire historical buildings as exhibits. Even the winter attractions have much shorter opening hours, so it is wise to schedule cultural visits carefully. Luckily for shopaholics the malls such as the Trondheim Torg, with its Piccadilly Circus vibe, tend to stay open until at least 8:00 pm.

Choose your purchases carefully, though, as prices are generally at least 30% higher than in the UK. Our standard double room cost over £160 and a cup of coffee is often as expensive as £5.

Eating out is no exception, and the local obsession with Italian food means it is sometimes difficult to sample the traditional Norwegian fare. Seafood fans can head to Fru Inger, close to the train station and facing the river (Fosenkaia, N-7030 Trondheim, +47 7351 6071). For a late lunch I went to the fish market at Ravnkloa. Perched on a historic wharf, you’ll know when you find it by the large bronze statue of a Viking and an outdoors grandfather clock. The glass-fronted building has an amazing deli and sells fresh fish and simple dishes that can be eaten at their canteen-style tables. I had the traditional Bacalao, a type of stew made with tomato and the dried salted cod that is still a major Norwegian export.

As I waited for my meal, a small fishing boat docked and the old bearded skipper put up a sign advertising his wares – I didn’t need to reach for my Norwegian phrase book to guess he was selling fish –  and promptly some locals came around to take away some of his catch.

From May to September this is also the departure point to the main outdoor playground in Trondheim, Munkeholmen (Monk’s Island). This used to be home not only to an 11th century Benedictine monastery, but to the local prison and execution ground as well. Today people go there to picnic and enjoy swimming in the warmer months.

As I ate, the sky outside turned a most intense shade of sapphire, and I wondered how a dreary grey day could produce such a magnificent sunset. While the signs that Norway comes alive at summertime are everywhere – from the Norwegian obsession with camping to Trondheim’s Flower bridge with its inbuilt troughs just waiting to be planted – this doesn’t mean the country hibernates in winter. The chill lends this land of extremes a quiet and special beauty that is not to be found in the summer euphoria.

And the fish was not bad either.

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