In Search of the Northern Lights: Day 5

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Finnsnes Port Office

Finnsnes Port Office

After the excitement of seeing the glimmer of the northern lights last night, we are better prepared in case we get called in the night. Clothes are left out, fireman style, so all you have to do is jump into them and you’re off. Yes, they are yesterday’s and yes, they are creased and untidy but who cares. The important thing is to get to the open decks to get a good view as soon as possible. But there are no calls during the night and we reach the port of Harstad at 6.45am.

It being pitch black we could see little but a host of passengers joined us. It was surprising since the guide books don’t indicate that you should spend much time here. It has important oil connections but they aren’t as large as Stavanger in the south of the country. But from here you can set off in summer to go out to the island of Andoya, the starting off point for the sperm whale safaris in summer. The 90 minute stop may just be for some on excursions to catch up with us. To my surprise most of the people who joined us are only going as far as Tromso.

As dawn breaks, it is obvious that we have had a good snowfall during the night. The ropes used to tie us up when we reach port are almost covered and there is six inches of the white stuff in corners where the wind has blown it. But the Hurtigruten staff are out with scoops to either tip it overboard or to push it into corners where passengers are unlikely to walk. That is something I hadn’t expected to find. The crew double up in jobs. The lady who looks after our cleaning also works in the restaurant in the evenings. One of the pursers was also in charge of check-in back in Bergen. It wouldn’t surprise me if the engineers were those clearing the snow. Multi-tasking is not just for women! It’s also for Hurtigruten crew members.

Because the sun shone and the landscape was so striking, many were on deck armed with cameras. One passenger, Japanese probably as we picked up a large party of them yesterday, was out with his camera. He was clad in a ski jacket, beige safari trousers and flip-flops. No socks, just flip-flops. If I could have taken a picture of him as he paced in the snow I would have done for who would believe that anyone would be out dressed like that in this weather.

The weather is changeable. Squalls blow in with astonishing speed and, just as quickly, peter out. When we arrived at Finnsnes in the mid morning it looked clear. As though the Norse gods had decreed it, it snowed quickly and hard as we docked. But then, even though we were there for only 30 minutes, it cleared and we got off. The embarkation building, call it what you will, was an ordinary wooden house with a souvenir shop attached. Just warehouses were on the quayside where, once again, one man and his fork lift, snow shovel attached, came to remove the goods items from the hold. The snow was of a different sort, more fluffy than icy and it crunched underfoot. At the sides of the road where it hadn’t been cleared there was a good foot. Even the roads had a few inches for the snow ploughs – and I saw 3 of them working in this short time- couldn’t keep up with it. In such a short time I saw little of Finnsnes. It looked like many other small towns, functional rather than picturesque.

Sea Ice near Tromso

Sea Ice near Tromso

Leaving the town you pass under a very long bridge, one of the longest in the country. But as we embarked the clouds and snow rolled in again and any hopes of photographs were dashed. What you do see now is ice floating in the water, sometimes just a few small pieces and at other times collections that probably make up a patch tens of yards wide. The cold is obvious but when the sunshine comes out, you are in one of the best picture postcard sites you could ever wish.


Arctic Cathedral Tromso

Arctic Cathedral Tromso

Tromso, the largest town in the north is our next stop but before we arrive, we have to go through a narrow channel with a fast flowing current called the Rystraumen. It is actually just a little passage between two promontories and hardly worth the energy I exerted dashing up the stairs. Once again it is bright and no need for outdoor clothing. I bet that changes as we dock in Tromso.
No, we were lucky. Tromso has been the first place where we have had a reasonable stay where the weather has been kind. Clear skies and some sunshine made the town stand out. The first thing you noticed were the snow covered roads. Unlike ours where gritters would have been about, here there is a layer of compacted snow left after the ploughs have been. And some of the roads are so steep you wonder how any vehicle can get the grip needed to stay in a line. No problems so I suppose they all had winter tyres fitted. Not once did I see any chains.

There are many claims that Tromso can make. The northernmost university in the world, the northernmost brewery, (Mack, which is the largest employer) the northernmost catholic church, the northernmost theatre and the northernmost cathedral. The main tourist attraction is called the Arctic cathedral but it isn’t a cathedral at all. It was built as a church but because of its style and location, it stands out over other buildings. Supposedly influenced by icebergs and the triangular devices used for drying fish, the architect, Inge Hovig, has created a building as inconic as the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Gherkin or the Baltic in Gateshead. It came as no surprise to find out this was Tromso’s biggest tourist draw.

The Polaria is a natural history attraction for want of a better expression but guidebooks refer to it as an adventure centre. It is academic in nature as they study the animal and fish inhabitants of the Arctic so there are exhibits but also acquaria with bearded seals as well as different fish and king crabs.

The Polaria, Tromso

The Polaria, Tromso

Tromso bestrides a number of islands and has interlinking bridges. Just as Houston in Texas has tunneled shopping centers so that visitors aren’t overwhelmed by the summer heat, Tromso has the same but for the opposite reason; protecting visitors from the worst of the long winters. Snow begins in October and will last until Easter most years. But the temperature is milder than the hinterland because Tromso is protected by mountains and the warming effects of the Gulf stream.

It was here that the German pocket battleship Tirpitz was finally sunk in 1944. It was from here that Amundsen set out on his exploration to became not only the first man to reach the South Pole 100 years ago this year come December, but the first man to fly across the North Pole as well. What else did I learn about Tromso during the short 4 hour stay here? Enough to know that I’d like to come back for a short break and see it properly. This town has a ski slope that you can catch a local bus to and be there just after finishing work. And in 2010 people were skiing until May. There is the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, a art gallery specializing in Norwegian art and sculpture that I didn’t have time to see. Or the beach that is visited in summer by locals who only dip in the water because the temperature hardly ever rises above 8 degrees.

Only 2 more days and we reach Kirkenes. Probably then there are only 4 or 5 left to stand a realistic chance of seeing the northern lights. Will our luck tomorrow improve tomorrow? We need cold clear nights. Tonight it is cloudy so most have written it off already

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