TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
... AND WAR
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Norway.
“The world turned upside down, the world turned upside down...” The lyrics from the musical, ‘Hamilton,’ were thrumming through my brain as I cruised the newsstand at Dublin Airport. Two days earlier I had awoken at Ashford Castle to learn that Russia had invaded Ukraine. Now, the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the London Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times blared bold headlines describing the barbarity, the senselessness, the horror of bombing the likes of which Europe hasn’t seen since 1945. It doesn’t seem possible that this kind of Blitzkrieg brutality could be happening in 2022.
I had just calmly checked in for my SAS flight to Copenhagen, connecting to an onward flight to Norway. The check-in clerk was affable and showed not the slightest interest in examining my proffered vaccination card. As far as Scandinavia is concerned, Covid-19 is now just considered “sniffles,” no longer a deadly pandemic. Which is interesting in that, in
March 2020, the three main countries of Scandinavia had each reacted to Covid differently. Denmark acted like most of Europe and America, and pretty much went into two years of on-and-off hibernation. Conversely, the Swedes opted for a “we can tough this out” approach, assuming it would take years to develop a vaccine and choosing to aim for herd immunity, no masks, no nothing – which they later came to regret as infections soared. By 2021, King Carl XVI Gustaf admitted the error and in January 2022 he and Queen Silvia tested positive for omicron. Even more conversely, neighboring Norway took the Australian route – hermetically sealing its borders to all foreigners for close to 22 months.
With Norway finally open – I could make my way to Trondheim, just 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle, on the chilly western shore of Norway. Why would I be choosing to be traveling in the depths of winter to the frozen north? Because my company represents the city’s epic, 150-year-old Britannia Hotel, and I’ve made a point of trying to visit most of our clients during 2020 and 2021. Damn the pandemic: full-speed ahead.pl
Sitting in the Airbus to Copenhagen, I read details of what is happening in Kyiv and Kharkiv in the Daily Telegraph. And I realized that even though Ireland remained neutral during World War 2 (don’t get me started on that topic), both Denmark and Norway were occupied by the Germans, with the occupation of Norway and the city of Trondheim, particularly odious and cruel. Don’t just take my word for it: click ‘on demand’ for PBS’ “Atlantic Crossing,” or the 2017 movie, “The Twelfth Man,” starring The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a rabid Nazi officer hounding Norwegian partisans. And, of course, lest we forget, the very northeastern tip of Norway has a 120-mile border with the very same Russia whose tanks are currently slamming into its southern neighbor.
Even though SAS requires all passengers to wear a mask, once I was in Copenhagen Airport, Covid barely seemed to exist. Maybe 5% of the crowd were masked. Copenhagen Airport is a shopper’s paradise and walking on its teak floors is less tiring than the usual marble. I spent a couple of hours catching up on emails in the SAS lounge, where odd combinations of food were offered: hot dogs, strange salads, vegan soups, the bland Danish cookies we buy in large round tins for $4.99 at Christmastime...and plentiful Carlsberg.
The evening flight to Trondheim was aboard an SAS Embraer commuter jet, with two seats on each side of the aisle. As we taxied to the runway, the captain spoke lengthily, with a startlingly seductive French accent, about our journey, and the “hazards” (he used that word!) of our descent through a snowstorm to land in Trondheim. He warned us there might be terrific turbulence and we should be tightly belted. I am not a nervous flyer, but the sense of drama was, shall we say, more than a mite alarming.
The flight seemed surprisingly smooth until the descent began. The wing-lights caught gusts of the snowstorm and there was turbulence – but nothing like I’ve experienced in a clear sky over Kansas. Once through the clouds, the snow-covered landscape was beautiful, like a Christmas card, and my seat mate who was seated at the window video-ed the entire descent. I asked her to send it to me, which she did, and I posted it on Instagram. We landed gently and descended the airplane stairs into the snowstorm. We from Oslo landed at the same time as a Norwegian charter from the Canaries – and there we stood huddled in coats, next to blond families with sunburns, waiting for our luggage.
For some inexplicable reason, after reclaiming one’s luggage at Trondheim airport, there’s what feels like a 12-mile hike to the exit. But the hike was worth it because there stood Haakon, in his chauffeur livery and cap and his ultra-formal dignity. He bowed, and guided me to the Britannia Hotel’s limousine which, charmingly, is a brand spanking new electric-powered London black-taxicab – perhaps the most comfortable car on earth, and certainly the easiest to enter and exit. Haakon’s dignity and courteousness stems from his previous career as driver for His Majesty King Carl. And he drives the taxi with a calm and grace: never a bump, never a veer, never too slow, never too fast. At 10PM, the snow-filled landscape is lit by the moon, mountains to the left, the fjord to the right. We pass dozens of countryside houses. Norwegians don’t close their drapes at night and so there are countless views of cozy living rooms and the reflection of roaring fires.
Trondheim is Norway’s fourth-largest city, home to 200,000 people, plus the 40,000 students at Trondheim University, Norway’s largest. Even though Oslo is Norway’s capital, it is in Trondheim’s 11th-century Nidaros Cathedral – the world’s northernmost cathedral – that the nation’s sovereigns are crowned. It feels like a small town, with few buildings more than four stories tall, many masterpieces of art nouveau. The Royal Palace is in the center of town, a vast wooden structure. A block away is the Hotel Britannia, founded in 1870 as a retreat for aristocratic Brits coming to fish for salmon in the Trondheim Fjord. In 1897 the original hotel was replaced by today’s Victorian pile, and every prestigious visitor to Trondheim, from the Crown Prince of Thailand to Queen Elizabeth II, has stayed here. In 1951, a baby named Odd Reitan was born in Trondheim, and at fourteen he dreamed of one day owning the Britannia. Fast forward to 2016, and Odd Reitan, now Norway’s richest tycoon, bought the Britannia, closed it, and poured hundreds of millions of Kronor into its restoration and beautification. The spanking old-new Britannia reopened in April 2019, just eleven months before its series of on and off closures due to the coronavirus.
It was 11PM on a Friday night, there was snow on the streets, and Haakon noiselessly steered the London taxi to the grand entrance of the Britannia. The uniformed doorman opened the door. “Welcome to the Britannia,” he announced, and then, surprisingly, wished me “Shabbat Shalom.” I entered the white and gold lobby and was wafted to my third-floor suite. It’s vast. Before I could take in its details, the doorman arrived with my luggage, and wished me “Laila Tov,” the words Israelis use to say “good night.” I’m not Israeli, but my career has long been connected to Israel - as google has apparently told him. More than a touch surprised that a middle-aged Scandinavian hotel doorman would greet me in Hebrew, I asked him “how come?” “I spent two years in my teens on a kibbutz,” he answered, “the best two years of my life.”
Before departing he tells me, “this is Mr Reitan’s favorite suite,” and I understand why. The living room has couches, chairs, a giant coffee table, a dining table, a desk, and a kitchen counter complete with a stainless-steel Nespresso machine that looks like something about to be launched from Cape Canaveral. The walls have shelves of coffee-table art books. The coffee table has piles of coffee-table art books. There is a white Britannia shopping bag awaiting me in which I find one of 1,638 copies of the Britannia’s very own coffee-table book, whose cover portrays the Queen of England arriving at the hotel in the 1960’s. The book is gorgeous, bound in green fabric, and has to weigh at least five pounds. The bedroom walls are papered with flowers and branches in Thai silk, a tribute to the 1905l stay at the Britannia by the Crown Prince of Siam. Every room at the Britannia is furnished with an astronomically priced Swedish Hästens bed, arguably the world’s most comfortable (take a look at hastens.com and you’ll see what I mean). A giant TV emerges from an upholstered shroud at the base of the bed. The closet has every amenity, including pairs of shoe trees in assorted sizes. The bathroom is large enough for a small cocktail party, and contains not just two sinks, a shower, a separate toilet-and-bidet room, but also a gold-leaf bathtub that had to be winched into the hotel with a crane. This is not Motel 6.
After a blissful sleep atop my Hästens mattress, I descended to the Palm Court (Amundsen lectured here after his return from the South Pole) where hundreds of Norwegians were breakfasting. Ever since the onset of Covid and Norway’s closure to foreigners, The Britannia has been Norway’s hotel of choice for a weekend in bliss. The buffet is monumental – with every possible delicacy – and coffee is served by smiling servers.
Crammed full of granola and gravlax, I decided it was time for a stroll. I’ve been to Trondheim before, so I knew that the hotel sits amid a grid of streets full of fashion boutiques, Michelin-starred restaurants, bookstores, and glam coffee-houses. On this visit, I also learned what many of the city’s residents must do in their leisure-hours, because Trondheim is home to what have to be more sex-shops per capita than any city on earth. Curiosity is my middle name and I discovered that a block from the Britannia is a store that sells far more than the customary array of condoms and vibrators. This store’s “specialty room” stocks an array of implements and paraphernalia that make the sex dungeons of Berlin look like a Disney Store, and 50 Shades of Gray like an episode of Sesame Street. No wonder everyone in Trondheim seems so calm and collected. And all along, I’d thought it was because of the sea air and the gravlax.
Staggered by my visit, I slid across the snow to Trondheim’s main square where there seemed to be a large crowd listening to speeches and flaunting blue and yellow flags. Yes, in Trondheim too, there was outrage at what is happening to Ukraine. Hundreds of people listened to fervent speakers, waved flags, and applauded. Nidaros Cathedral is gothic and vast, and I wended my way across the Nidelva waterway to the old town, with its quiet streets of wooden houses, wooden stores and wooden coffee houses. Despite my fur-lined boots, shearling coat, cashmere scarf, cashmere hat and lined pigskin gloves, I was chilly. Throngs of Norwegians were wearing tee-shirts, ripped jeans and sneakers, because for them, apparently, 30 degrees Fahrenheit is summery.
I was warmed by Moules Marinières and Hansa Borg beer in the Britannia’s brasserie - so chic it could have been on the Left Bank or in Soho - and packed for Saturday lunch with Trondheim’s ladies who lunch. I spent the afternoon – along with dozens of Norwegians young and old, sampling the hotel’s pool (yes, indoors), and its spa’s sauna, steam-room, ice-room and chaise-longue lined relaxation room.
I walked with the Britannia’s delightful Marketing Director, Peter André
Tjerde, and its 30-year-old sommelier, Henrik Dahl Jahnsen (repeatedly voted Norway’s #1 wine expert) to dinner at Bula Bistro, a few blocks from the hotel. To call Bula a bistro, is akin to calling Claridge’s an inn. Yes, it’s casual, with cheery servers who enthusiastically present and describe each of the dinner’s ten courses, and its paired wines, with an endearingly youthful charm. And yes, the restaurant’s wine cooler is a clawfoot bathtub filled with ice cubes and bottles. And yes, the bathrooms have murals of the Virgin Mary over the toilet. But this is seriously serious food. We ate oysters, duck, salmon, trout, beef, salads, tofu, ice-cream, each course exquisitely prepared and presented, and each paired with a different wine and a lengthy explanation. Dinner lasted three hours and cost a mere $1,400. We tipsily strolled back to the Britannia where Peter and Henrik assured me it was not bedtime, and we should visit the bar. The Britannia bar was, on a Saturday night at midnight, thronged, but because we were mightily important, the bar manager, Øyvind Lindgjerdet, had kept a table reserved for us. The cocktail menu is extraordinary, with a unique set of cocktails dreamed up by Øyvind himself. He’s affable and camp and describes each cocktail in theatrical detail. After two “Origins” (barrel aged gin, green chartreuse, Ayala Britannia Champagne, and red apple cordial) - on top of the dinner’s wine pairing, and after goodnight hugs, I somehow made it to suite 312 and my extravagantly expensive Hästens bed. I think I didn’t even undress.
Whenever I tell Americans I’m bound for Trondheim, I’m invariably greeted with a glimmer of "where?” And, probably, in 1930, when Winston Churchill told friends he was bound for ‘Marrakech,” they looked equally quizzical. Because, of course, it wasn’t Marrakech to which Churchill was heading, it was a hotel called La Mamounia. And it was La Mamounia that transformed Marrakech from a sleepy imperial city into a “destination.” And my sense is that the Britannia will have the Mamounia effect on Trondheim. Indeed, it’s already begun.