A Good way to Avoid the Heatwave (Arctic Norway)

I can hardly believe it is really ten years since I ventured pole-wards with my good friend Chris to visit Tromso, which at 69.6 degrees is still the northernmost city in the world. Our short visit must have made such a deep impression on me that I found myself telling Grahame how wonderful it had been more often than was strictly necessary. All the same, when I first thought of taking him to the Arctic for a birthday present (a man can get so sick of socks and ties!) I had been exploring the possibility of a trip to Murmansk. Then a sudden downturn in our diplomatic relations with Russia put those plans on hold for the time being so Tromso it would have to be.

While the Gulf Stream continues to flow the summers up here in north Norway can be exceptionally mild but since we were leaving behind the enervating weather of a record-breaking heatwave we were none too disappointed to find it overcast and chilly on our arrival. In the event, we didn’t see the midnight sun once throughout our whole week’s stay and cloud cover also made it impractical for a repeat of the whale watching boat tour out through the neighbouring islands. Nonetheless, we certainly found plenty to do and, with the economies of AirBNB, a weekly bus ticket and regular trips to the supermarket for self-catered meals, we were able to enjoy ourselves without breaking the bank. Hot chocolate and slice of cake for two in a restaurant can cost upwards of £28 so it definitely pays to plan ahead.

We took a bus ride down to the University Museum at the southernmost tip of the island and had a look around the models explaining the aurora borealis, various dioramas demonstrating examples of arctic wildlife (stuffed) and a number of rooms containing displays of various Sami costumes and artefacts. Without adequate explanation, the latter seemed rather disappointing and I caught myself hanging onto the tail end of a cruise ship guided tour to try to listen in for any useful snippets of information. However, in the manner of cruise ship groups the world over, this one passed through the gallery at whirlwind speed and so, coupled with the fact that my eavesdropping was hindered by a limited understanding of Italian, this turned out to be a pretty fruitless exercise.

But help was at hand when we found our way outside to the “living exhibit” of a rather pissed-off student wearing full ethnic regalia and tending the fire in an authentic sod-covered hut. We were able to overcome her initial hostility with a few more intelligent questions and less patronising observations and she offered to arrange a proper guided tour of the exhibits for us if we were prepared to come back on the following day. It wasn’t hard to feel for the girl, probably an anthropology undergraduate or some such, having to cope with inanities of a new batch of tourists arriving every day of the summer season to “do the Arctic” in a day and a half.

The Sami reindeer herders have eight seasons in their calendar and midsummer is a busy time when visitors are not welcome out on the pastures so we could not go for a visit ourselves. However, back at the museum on the next day the culture came to us in the person of another, altogether more enthusiastic, student who went to the trouble of bringing a bag of her own personal treasures to enliven her tour. The intricacies of duodji (wood, bone and antler tools which are often highly decorated but always completely utilitarian) and the practicalities of traditional clothing so came to life with her vivid explanations that our half hour tour stretched out to take up much of the afternoon.

Only about 10% of Sami people live by reindeer herding although up here in the Northern region the proportion is considerably higher. Fishing, farming and other less nomadic livelihoods have been the mainstay of these indigenous Arctic people for thousands of years but they have never been reticent in adopting innovation and some of the traditions most beloved by visiting tourists are quite recent imports. I particularly love the story of the consignment of bright blue woollen cloth intended for French naval uniforms which found its way North by accident some time during the early nineteenth century. I had long suspected that the brilliant shade of scarlet used in Sami accessories was not the product of roots and berries alone but now I at least know where the blue comes from.

Nor is much traditional Sami music of any long standing. The sacred drum was used in ceremony without the addition of other instruments and the adding of song lyrics and musical accompaniment to the joik (a high-pitched animal herding cry) has only been around since it became famous on TV by a few handsome heartthrobs who made it big in the 1960s. Later, I rather regretted asking how they got the hair off of the reindeer skins to make the finest bags and shoes that no self-respecting Sami woman can be without. The time-honoured method seem to have involved burying the hides under the floorboards or leaving them to soak in a freezing lake but apparently nowadays you just wrap them in some plastic bags “until they really stink”. We were told that each girl learns to make her own accessories (or at least those who are as talented as our guide) but even she had to revert to conventional stuffing for her slippers when the other students complained about dried grass getting all over the place.

The bus tickets enabled us to get around as much as we liked and over the next few days and we took in the Polar Museum (which more than lived up to expectation) and the Polaria Arctic aquarium (which did not). The University Botanical Gardens were an experience to be treasured even if one is not a keen horticulturalist (and I’m not) and seeing these exquisitely delicate plants in flower more than made up for any disappointments on the cetacean front. There are specimens from other extreme environments all around the world: treasures from Svalbard, Patagonia and the Himalayas, some so rare that there are still only a few individuals known to science. It was a special privilege to be able to wander around them at liberty (and for free) with just a few polite reminders not to leave the path. And there were waffles with fresh cloudberries for sale in the cafeteria.

This time we didn’t bother with the Arctic cathedral as I’ve discovered since my last visit that it is actually only a church and the real cathedral, the Domkirk, was closed for renovations. We did, however, take the cable car up to the viewing platform on the top of the opposite islands and our view out over the fjords helped to set the bleak, rocky landscape in perspective. And to confirm that a boat trip would have been a bad idea. We decided against trying out the “Midgard” takeaway pizza restaurant and found the doors of the “Ragnarok” cafe and burger bar firmly closed but, despite these lapses in good taste the city displayed less of the anomalous Viking paraphernalia than one finds in many other Scandinavian destinations.

Altogether more charming was the way in which local women feel comfortable to adopt traditional Norwegian folk costume for special occasions such as a Saturday night restaurant visit and the flattering combination of bold felt waistcoats, embroidered lace blouses and shimmering silver jewellery was not an unusual sight. If you want the full-on Nordic fantasy, nonetheless, you could not do better than to visit the Tromso Bruktbokhandel: without a doubt the best sword wielding, dragon-slaying fantasy comic book and DVD emporium within the Arctic Circle. The proprietor was away when we popped in to replenish our reading material but his teenaged son came to my rescue when I got lost among the labyrinthine shelves of doorstop sized sagas and trilogies, quadrilogies or whatever. Not the worst way to spend an Arctic Winter, I suppose.

On our last day we climbed to the natural lake which has been extended to form a huge reservoir and paradise for visiting sea birds. These are not so easy to photograph as the flowers but we saw an otter, terns and cormorants and some (probably) rare varieties of duck while we had a very enjoyable bit of exercise without risking getting lost on a proper hike. The greater black-back gull is enormous and pretty intimidating close up and, when we got to the other side of the lake we found out why some of the birds had got so tame. Here an elderly, Chinese gentleman with a straggly beard was carefully fending off the larger birds to feed a few of his favourites. Smallish, with black feathers and yellow rimmed eyes: they definitely weren’t ravens but otherwise don’t ask me what they were. We started a conversation and he shyly invited us to partake at his restaurant down in the town but when I asked who he was he replied enigmatically “I have many names”. He wasn’t wearing a cloak or an eyepatch but I did find myself checking whether or not it was a Wednesday.

Categories: Arctic, Europe

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