Saturday, August 16, 2008

Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2006

I love the sweet wines from Sauternes, and I lived too long with the illusion that the wine growers in this region were the only that could produce sweet wine of such an outstanding quality.

This illusion was seriously challenged when I had my first taste of an aged Tokaji. This Hungarian wine had a slightly different taste but was absolutely equal to a good Sauternes. Then I tasted a bottle of Bru-Baché Jurancon la Quintessence 2004, and suddenly I realized that I lived in an illusion.

In July I tasted another variety, a Louis Freyburger & Fils Gewurztraminer 2001 Vendange Tardive at L'éveil des Sens. The name means late harvest, and refer to the fact that the wine is made from grapes that are allowed to hang so long that they start to dehydrate, thus concentrating the sugar.

The other day I went to my wine merchant, and found that there were no half bottles of Sauternes. To buy 75 cl sweet wine for three, would be an overkill. I asked the staff whether there was some other wine to serve to a bloc of duck liver. He recommended a bottle of Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria 2006. What a wine!

Even Sicilians may compete with Sauternes. It is made from 100% Zibibbo, or Moscato Di Alexandria. The producer states that the grapes are "ripened and dried in the wind and sun of the island. Sipping wine, perfect with herbed cheeses, foie gras, and sweet preparations of the Sicilian traditions. try it with guiandia."

Orange colour, wonderful and complex aromas of apricot, honey, and citrus. Hints of spices, nuts and minerals. This is a highly recommended wine, but it is expensive - close to €25 for 37,5 cl, but it is absolutely worth it.

It was perfect to the bloc of duck liver from Jean Larnaudie, a French producer from Figeac in the Mid Pyrenees.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A weekend in Yerevan

By guest-writer Øivind Grimsmo

Recently I spent a few days in Yerevan, capital of Armenia. Not your everyday tourist destination, and for me it was business, not pleasure, which brought me there. Still, I had some spare time to look around, and got pleasantly surprised.

Although Yerevan’s history is four thousand years old, it did not become a major city until the Soviet era, and almost everything is built after 1920 (most notable exception being a couple of churches). The city centre, transformed by the Armenian architect Alexander Tamanian, is built in neoclassical style, with grandiose official buildings, big squares and broad avenues. The Republic Square can be described as the heart of the city, a big semi-circular square flanked by government buildings, hotels and fountains.

After Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a new cathedral has been built, the Grigor Lusarovich (Saint Gregory the Illuminator) Church. It was finalised in 2001. The Armenian Apostolic Church is an independent church with its own rite and its own theological peculiarities, and it is also the oldest national church in the world: Armenia adopted Christianity as a state religion before the Roman Empire. I happened to visit the cathedral when a mass was being celebrated, officiated by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, as his title goes.

For more secular pleasures, you may go to the Opera House (below), another landmark building, where concerts, ballet, opera and theatre are performed. In front of the Opera House there is a statue of Aram Khachaturian, the world-known Armenian composer. On the back of the Opera House you will find a park with a small artificial lake, the Swan Lake. There are numerous cafés and bars where you can chill out on a warm summer day or evening with one of Armenia’s many excellent beers. At night it is one of the hot-spots for Armenia’s “in-crowd”. Of the beers I tried, I preferred Gyumri, a lager-type beer with an attractive colour and a light taste, rather neutral (not bitter), but with clear notes of barley. Other good lagers are Kilikia and Kotyak.

Getting there

No budget airlines go to Armenia, but several carriers operate direct flights to Yerevan from London, Paris, Moscow and a number of other major cities in Europe, Middle East and Asia. Check out on

Accommodation: I stayed at Ani Plaza Hotel, a decent hotel just ten minutes walk from both Republic Square and the Opera House. Best bet is to look around on the internet to see what offers you can get. It is recommended to stay in the city centre.

Transport: If possible it is advisable to arrange your transfer from and to the airport in advance with your hotel. Once in the city centre, most sights and attractions are in walking distance. Taxis are inexpensive, but it is worth agreeing the price with the taxi driver beforehand.

Security: There is very little crime in Yerevan, and as a tourist you have no reason to feel insecure when walking around. I did not get harassed once, and I have seen far more beggars and aggressive street vendors in rich Western European cities than I did in Yerevan.

Money: The local currency is Armenian Dram. Current exchange rates are:
100 dram = 0.20 euros or 0.33 US dollar. Credit cards are accepted at hotels, major stores and some restaurants, but local cash is preferred in many cases. Money can be changed in most hotels, banks and exchange boots.

Øivind Grimsmo is originally from Oslo, Norway. He is currently living in Strasbourg, where he works for the Council of Europe. He has also lived in Brussels, London and Valencia. He is married to Monica from Spain and has two children. Øivind has a degree in Romance Philology from the University of Oslo, and has a career mostly working with European affairs in international organisations.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Strasbourg – The Petite-France area

Strasbourg is located where the Ill River meets the Rhine. Here the two water ways form several small canals and small and large islands. The most beautiful part of Strasbourg is located on the South western part of Grand Île, the island where the historic centre if the city is located. The name of the area refers to the fact that it was the area where the prostitutes once worked. This as the Germans in Medieval Times referred to the oldest profession as the “French business.”

It is my favourite part of Strasbourg. Here you find strange, narrow streets and passage ways, and the most beautiful ancient half-timbered and stone buildings you may think of. Half timbered buildings as this one, Le Maison de Tanneurs, the Tanners building, built in 1572.

In Petite-France the old buildings line up along both sides of the canals and to see them even better it is a good idea to join one of many river boats that constantly drive along the banks of Grand Île. You will, on your river cruise see that most of the bridges along the canal are either draw bridges that may lift up, or may slide sideways to make room for the boats that pass. There are also other remains from the small enterprises that once were located by the rivers.

The canals have many locks as well, in order for boats to descend or ascend to different levels in the river. As they pass, people assemble by the canals to watch.

Petite-France is certainly the place to eat in Strasbourg. We had a great meal at L’Eveil des Sens, and I will later write on another great meal at the restaurant Au Pont de Saint Martin. The first time I visited Strasbourg I had another great meal here. To sit in such a historic setting made such an impression on a 17 year old college student, that hardly had been outside Scandinavia.

Another impressive monument in Petite-France is the medieval bridge Ponts Couverts. 4 tall towers crossing the river. This was a sight that made a very strong impression on me, during my first visit in Strasbourg as a teenager.

Another interesting sight close to the Post Couverts is the Barrage Vauban. This weir crossing the river Ill, was named after Marquis de Vauban and was built in the 17th century.

It is several stories high, and has a panoramic platform on top, where you have a great view to the Petit-France area, the Ponts Couverts and the tall tower of the Strasbourg cathedral in the background.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Oslo Opera House

April 12th, Oslo's new opera house opened, under much pomp and circumstance. As a large iceberg it rests on the water by what will be the city's new coastline in the future. The city will reclaim what until now have been inaccessible port areas. Here you will find apartment buildings, as well as office space and a promenade that will bind the Oslo fjord and the city. The opera is the first part of a transition. And what a transition!

A New Norwegian opera house had been long overdue. The first plans were launched as far back as 1917. Since then, the Norwegian opera ensemble has spent its life in temporary and often inferior locations. Slowly the plans materialized, and after 72 years - in 1989, the Opera started a work that would reach its conclusion after 19 years hard labour on April 12th 2008.

This painstakingly slow process deserves a short, political diversion. I am often ashamed to be a citizen in one of the richest countries in the world. Norway has voluntarily chosen not to participate in the European Union, and is swimming in oil revenue. This small insignificant country I am living in is also populated by an impressive number of culture dummies. During the deliberations in the Norwegian Parliament in 1999, Fremskrittspartiet, the rapidly growing Norwegian xenophobic tax party bitterly opposed the idea that Oslo and Norway should have a National opera house. Now this party may get most votes in the coming parliament elections, and may form a core in a new right wing government.

So much money, so little enlightenment!

Well back to the story. In 1999 Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament decided to build a new opera house at Bjørvika, based on designs by the world famous architects at Snøhetta. It was to be a monument, a formation and a building at the same time, and white Carrara marble would reflect the Oslo sun like ice. The price, as the building, was impressive. It was estimated to cost 3, 9 billion NOK (€480 million).

These last 9 years we have, in anticipation, seen the building rise like the fire bird Phoenix, from the ashes, and after it was opened the citizens of Oslo has flocked to walk on the building that provides contact with the sea. We strongly recommend the tourists visiting Oslo to do the same. And bring your sun glasses! The reflection of light from the marble may be hard for your eyes.

You may walk up the slopes on each side of the glass wing that make up the front of the complex, up to the roof. From here you have an exceptional view over the city with its tiny skyline, and all roofs and gables of old and new buildings of the city centre.

The hall is dominated by a large wooden structure that leads up to the different balconies of the large opera room. There is a striking contrast between the cold straight lines of the structure made from Carrara marble, the open glass window and the rounded walkway in light Scandinavian wood. It is a marvellous building!!!

For those of you visiting the building you may buy your own piece of marble in the opera gift shop (beware of luggage overweight), or enjoy a light meal (would probably be a better idea, since the airlines does not weigh you – yet!). The food is good, and if the weather is fine you may even sit outside facing the water. The Caesar salad is very good – I concluded.

But it is an opera. I have booked tickets both in October and November, and I will share my experience here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On ancient ground on the Fourvière Hill

This is a road built by the Romans over 2000 years ago. Paved roads like this are found throughout what used to be the Roman empire, and are as good today as they were when they were built. This one is found on the Fourvière Hill overlooking modern Lyon. Here the Romans built their first settlement in 43 AD and called it Lugdunum - meaning the hill fort of the god Lug.

It is easy to see why the Romans chose the Fourvière as its location for the first settlement. The Fourvière hill is steep, and easy to defend, and from here you have a great view over the plains of the Rhône valley beyond.

To make it easy for you, there is a funicular where you may ascend the steep hill without using too much strength. From the top you may reach the Roman remains and the Basilica de Fourvière, the bright white church whose towers are visible from most of the Lyon city centre

I chose the hard way, walking from the old city on the west bank, up the stairs, then up steep narrow streets, passing old buildings and walls, some may even date back to Roman times.

The walk up the Fourvère hill is hard labour. As I walked up, it was humid, overcast and 20 degrees on the Celsius scale (68F), and I was soaking in sweat as I reached the top of the hill. But it was a wonderful experience to gradually rise over the roofs of the old city, getting a view over Lyon and the large plain of the Rhône valley.

The original settlement on the hill covered more than 300 hectares and was the heart of Lugdunum for over four centuries.

Much of what once was Lugdunum, have now disappeared. Only a few walls of the city are still visible above the small Odéon (right).

The walls were even more visible in "Plan Scénographique de Lyon" from 1550, where most of the buildings of the renaissance city was depicted and described.

Up here you find remains of other buildings, a large amphitheater, public baths, a forum, and a temple.

The most impressive monument from the Roman era is the large amphitheater. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It must have been a very impressive building in its time. It is actually one out of two amphitheaters in Lyon. The other, l'Amphithéatre des trois Gauls" is found on the slopes of the Croix Rousse Hill, on the peninsula formed by the Rhône and Saone rivers.

Here you may walk up, past what used to be terraces. Parts of it are in fact still in use. As I was there they were rigging the scene for an event. 2000 years of entertainment - eat you heart out, Hollywood!!

To give you an impression, I took a short film showing the theater and its surroundings.

When visiting the city of Lyon, I highly recommend you to take the extra effort and walk up the Fourvière hill to see both the remains and the impressive Basilica. It is a walk up a hill, as well as a walk through history, from the renaissance city below, whose ideals built on the classic culture, back to the Roman era - its inspiration.

Lugdunum was also the starting point for four large routes. From here the Romans built main roads to Italy, Aquitaine, the ocean, and to the Rhine. So if you want, you may take a step or two on the Roman road, close your eyes, and try to imagine all those that once walked here.

I did!

Monday, August 11, 2008

And now to something completely different - pomology!

Pomology is the branch of botany that studies and cultivates fruit. This hitherto unknown word to me, was presented to me by my friend Terje, former gardener, now cook, during our walk through the gardens at Mårbacka - home of Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf.

We had this horticultural talk when entering the orchard. It consisted of many different apple trees / varieties, some old and some newer, some known and most of them unknown. This orchard was run commercially in Selma Lagerlöf's lifetime. Most of the trees that grow in her garden today, were not there when she lived. They were far too small.

I will lead you through the wonderful world of apples in this small lesson in pomology.

Åkerö (1759)

Åkerö is a variety that I actually know, but I did not know its history. It originates from the Netherlands and was imported to Sweden in 1759. From that point it was cultivated in Sweden for a century until it was named Åkerö in 1858. Åkerö is found in many sub varieties.

The fruit is medium large and has a fine balance between sweetness and acidity, ripens in November and may be stored into the new year. It is robust, but may often be attacked by a a cancerous conditions.

Risäter (1870)

This variety is local, named after Risäter farm in Norda Råda parish in Värmland county. It was created here and the variety started to spread beyond the farm in 1870. By 1940 the Risäter variety was grown all over Sweden.

It ripens in October to December, depending on climatic zone. It is a robust variety and resistant to pests.

Maglemer (18th century)

Maglemer is a Danish variety, but its origins are most likely found elsewhere. The oldest provenance of this variety was Maglemer on the Danish island of Lolland, where it was grown over 200 years ago.

In Sweden the variety has been grown since the beginning of the 20th century.

The apples are small with a succulent consistency. It grows very slowly and it take long tine before it starts to bear fruit. It may be harvested rather late, in November and may be stored for around three months.

Signe Tillich (1860)

There are several accounts of where this variety comes from. One is that it was propagated in 1866 in Horsens at Jutland in Denmark. From here it was spread to a nursery in Korsør on Zealand, to conquer Sweden where it became extremely popular in the 1890s.

It bears a large apple, succulent with a wonderful sweet taste. It may be harvested in November, but from then you should use it quickly, as it keeps around one month.

It is robust, but may get an illness created by a fungus Venturia dendritica.


Toddylunden is the oldest part of the park at Mårbacka. It was in fact created by her father Lieutenan Erik Gustav Lagerlöf. He died in 1885, and Mårbacka was sold. This part of the park predates the period when she bought the farm back and restored the gardens and the house.

Selma Lagerlöf tells of how her father commissioned the garden from an old gardener that had created many gardens in Fryksdalen. He recommended the lieutenant to leave the strict French style in gardening and commission an informal English garden.

Toddylunden is the only part of the old English garden left at Mårbacka.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A designer hotel in Oslo – at last

Danes and even Swedes have been in forefront of Scandinavian design, so also in the latest wave of smart designer hotels. The Danish capital Copenhagen, may boast of its Hotel Skt. Petri, where the queen of hotels, Paris Hilton strangely enough booked in with her boyfriend the other day. Swedes are even more chic, as their two largest cities, Stockholm and Göteborg may boast of two designer hotels – each! Now Oslo may boast of their first and only designer hotel, and the prestigious Wallpaper magazine has found it to be one of the best 50 designer hotels in the world for business travellers – and hey, there are no other Scandinavian competitors!

I have to admit that if anyone had mentioned Grims Grenka to me, I would have mistaken the name for an Icelandic dish, or an old Norse dance. It is, however one of the designer flagship for the First group, a Scandinavian hotel group running 47 hotels in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Grims Grenka presents itself as: “the only design hotel in Oslo and a member of Design Hotels. This five-star urban resort features sensual, colour-schemed accommodation in large deluxe rooms and suites – many larger than 70 m2 – and a range of sleek urban amenities such as an organic tea and cocktail bar and a rooftop lounge.”

Seasons and colour schemes

The hotel has been designed by Kristin Jarmund. It has summer and winter rooms reflected in different colour schemes and woods. It may even boast of its own rooftop lounge and private cinema for business use, and an organic tea room. It is located close to Oslo Stock Exchange and the Bank of Norway, in downtown Oslo.

Paying for design

Grims Grenka is not the cheapest option when booking a hotel in Oslo. I have visited their website and had a peek and it looks delicious. All the delicious design will however cost you, even in a city this expensive. From September 1st to 2nd, a room for one will start at NOK 1650.

Here are the rates for one night at these dates for one for different rooms available.

A summer room – NOK 1650 (€206)
A winter room – NOK 2050 (€256)
A winter lounge – NOK 2495 (€311)
A summer lounge - NOK 2795 (€349)
A loft – NOK 4995 (€624)

50 hotels chosen - 10 will fight to be the best business hotel

50 hotels are competing to be awarded the best business hotel 2008. Grims Grenka will have to convince a jury that it is better than hotels as New York Plaza, Ritz-Carlton Moscow, Hyatt Regency Kiev, Mumbai Four Seasons, and London Haymarket. In this company it is impressive to be among the 50. To become one of the remaining 10 would be a sensation, and a tribute to Scandinavian Design in general, and over all to the architect Kristin Jarmund herself.

Good Luck!!