Monday in Tromsø

Today it’s raining. Tromsø was already hard enough to get around but now there’s slush, there’s snow, there’s sheet ice, there’s combinations of all three. There are also patches of completely clear pavement in places, clear and dry. No idea how that’s happened.

In the summer I’d happily walk out of town to Polaria but in winter, it’s too slippery just to get around the city centre, which is why I’ve spent this morning in the library writing the weekend’s blogs while listening to some gorilla on the computer behind me grunting and snoring and eating salami and breathing like a walrus with a rope tied around its neck and I’m so glad I’ve nearly finished this blog and can leave. Not that there’s anywhere to go. It’s raining and it’s slippery and I’m definitely not walking over the big bridge to see the Arctic Cathedral again. I could desperately do with something to drink, so I’ll find somewhere for that, and then maybe I’ll go and appreciate Tromsø’s cafe culture by drinking hot chocolate somewhere with a Nice view – not that any of the views are particularly Nice when there’s a cloud hanging over the city.

After I’d stumbled down to the harbour again, muttered rude words at the ice and failed to find anywhere undercover to eat my bread and cheese, I found myself a street away from the big Spar and I knew that was close to Polaria so off I toddler on fairly ice-free streets, until that ran out and I was back to picking my way along with one hand on the nearest drainpipe. I spotted that the opposite pavement was clear so it was time to cross the road. The road itself was ok but here’s the thing. It’s ok because they pile the ice and snow and grit up next to the pavement and that little mountain did not prove easy to cross. I put a foot on it and a hand on a parked car but it was too slippery. Could I jump and hope I landed on a dry patch? I was just considering my options when a lovely Norwegian came along with his hands held out to help me over, which was lovely.

Polaria… doesn’t have much to recommend it. The Svalbard panoramic film is nice but only about ten minutes long, the cafe didn’t object to me eating my bread and cheese in there and then there was only the seal show left.

They have four seals, two large bearded seals from Svalbard called Bella and Mai Sann who are 600+kg and two harbour seals called Lyra and Loffen who are only 60-70kg. Actually, the bearded seals must be wrong, they couldn’t be ten times the size of the harbour seals. But they were pretty big. They scrambled onto the edge of the pool, they fetched toys, they jumped through a hoop, they swam around a buoy, they jumped right up to a buoy hanging from the ceiling.

I made my way up the bus stop, having dodged the Over 50s group in Polaria (they were wearing lanyards and they didn’t know that you take Yaktrax off inside! Oh, the clatter. Oh, the wear on the floor. Oh, the likelihood that one of them was going to fall over because metal studs don’t grip hard floors, didn’t your tour guide tell you that?

There was a fluddle at the bus stop. It looked surprisingly deep so I tested it with my foot. It was surprisingly deep. My foot got wet. I wasn’t sure whether the Flybuss would stop there – the timetable said yes but there was no mention on the bus stop so I jumped on local bus 42 which definitely stopped there and definitely went to the airport. Admittedly, it dropped me downstairs at the car park rather than at the terminal door but that was fine. I checked in, got randomly drug-tested at security and now I’m sitting at a gate wondering why everyone at this airport breathes so loudly.

Reindeer sledding

After the late night, there was another relatively early morning, another relatively difficult journey down to the harbour and another drive out to Whale Island. It earned its name – in daylight, we could see whales! They make a big dark circular patch, whale spots, and then suddenly a bit of whale lurches out of the water. The tails are easiest to identify. There are a lot of orcas about but these were humpbacks and we didn’t even have to go on a whale-watching trip to see them.

We went back out to the lavvu basecamp to put on warmer layers and then back five minutes up the road to the reindeer farm, inhabited by three Sami, Ula, Nils and Inga. The Sami are the native inhabitants of Lapland (which stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia). There are now seventy thousand of them, of which thirty thousand are in Norway. Some of them are/were fishing people, some hunters and the rest reindeer farmers. These days only 2,500 still farm reindeer and none of them live in the lavvus anymore. This is the twenty-first century and even the Sami live in houses and drive 4x4s and snowmobiles and they’re not nomadic anymore because they’re not dependent on the grazing land because you can just buy reindeer food just like you can buy food for other farm animals.

We were introduced to our reindeer (I need to email Trine and ask her for all their names because it’s impossible to remember and most of them had Sami names. I can remember Guttorm, the lead one, but not the others) and then we got into the sledges and off we went. It’s definitely much more sedate than dogsledding. The reindeer walked along with Nils leading Guttorm and they don’t follow each other in a line. Each reindeer walks beside the sledge in front of it so we had a one-antlered young reindeer walking beside us, pulling faces. Occasionally they’d scamper or startle but mostly it was just a walk around a nice flat circuit. I suppose this is just the way the Sami used to travel. It was a walk, not a race.

When we got back, we took photos with the reindeer, we were allowed to touch them (you have to hold their rope nice and tight so they can’t pull away from you) and they’re really soft and their noses woffle when they eat, it’s really cute. Then we went into the lavvu, which was a proper tent (although one covered in labels that suggested it definitely wasn’t homemade) and there were reindeer skins to sit on and a nice fire in the middle and Inga, in her Sami finery and non-traditional glasses, sang us a joik.

We went back outside to try lassoing a silent reindeer – a pair of antlers mounted on a tree stump. I can coil the lasso pretty well but I’d have lost all my reindeer. I tried again and again but I didn’t manage to catch so much as one tiny prong. The ropes, by the way, again, non-traditional. They’re made of rubber which doesn’t freeze, which is handy.

When we’d all been to visit the reindeer while they had their lunch, it was time for us to get back in the minibus and go for our own lunch, back to the basecamp wooden lavvu. There was hot chocolate as well as the tea and coffee and then there was bidos, vegetable soup with reindeer meat and then marshmallows again. I hadn’t realised how easy it is for people to set fire to marshmallows, I’ve had enough practice to not do it (and also it doesn’t taste nice, Rangers, what is wrong with you?)

I had another go at sledging on the hill, took photos of the place in daylight and then we went back. It was early afternoon but it was cold and wet and windy and cloudy in Tromsø, it was Sunday so everything – but everything – was closed and there was no point in doing anything except going back to bed.

Harstad to Tromsø

I was up much earlier than I would have liked to on Saturday, especially after being up at 5.20am on Friday. I packed, I declined to go and pick up some breakfast from the breakfast room (yes, open it ten minutes early specially for me, so I can look at pickled herring and black bread and decline it…) and then went down to the harbour. It was very easy to find the MS Nordlys – indeed, I could see it from my window, but finding the way to Board was harder, since she was parked behind a warehouse. I followed a taxi and that turned out to be right. Then I walked up the gangplank, since there was nothing stopping me and that turned out to be right also. There was a gleaming reception desk and I presented my piece of paper and was given in return a plastic boarding card with my name, booking number, start point and destination. Then I was pointed at the luggage room and I packed anything important or valuable and went off to explore.

I’d found the outside decks, the one on deck five that runs around the entire ship, the little sundeck on the back of deck six and then big helicopter pad on deck seven and I began to think about finding something to eat or at least to drink, since I’d finished my hard-won bottles of Ribena by now. In the search, I discovered the restaurant, discovered that it served breakfast 7.00 – 10.00 and decided to test it. You just scan your boarding card as you go in and mine flashed green and didn’t object, so I took that to mean I was allowed breakfast. I had nice crusty rolls with butter and pineapple juice – in typical hotel-fashion, the glasses were tiny so I had a second glass and also a mug of apple juice and then I borrowed a couple more rolls for later on.

We set sail while I was still eating but I got onto the deck in time to see Harstad fading into the distance. On our port side we had gleaming white Mountains, on the left an orange and gold sunrise silhouetting black jagged mountains.

I couldn’t have had a more beautiful day for the boat trip. The sky was absolutely clear, the sea was like glass and the sun slowly rose for the first couple of hours, turning the sky all sorts of interesting colours. The moon, a colossal glowing orange circle, gradually set on our port side and Mountains and fjords appeared on all sides – the Hurtigruten makes its way up Norway’s west coast but by the time it reaches the Lofoten and the Vesterålen, it’s making its way through islands and jagged bits and it’s never on the open sea, really, for the rest of the Journey all the way to the Russian border.

It did get colder somewhere around our first stop, at Finnsnes, at around eleven o’clock. I’d fetched my hat from the luggage room about ten minutes out of Harstad and at Finnsnes I fetched my gloves – very handy, the luggage room being always open. I’d noticed at reception they were selling Hurtigruten lanyards, really for hanging your boarding card on if you were travelling more than the six hours I was – the full journey, Bergen to Kirkenes to Bergen is a little over eleven days – but I found it much handier to hang my camera on than having to keep getting it out of my pocket.

I spent a little while every now and then in the Orion lounge at the front, to warm up or to eat my rolls and cheese or just to look at all the People sitting in their chairs in front of the big panoramic windows. Good place to see the view, maybe, but not as good as feeling the wind in your hat – and such a problem my long-tailed hat was! There’s a strong breeze around every outer door, you haul them back and then throw yourself in and the door slams behind you and that hat – the tail streams out behind me and it got caught in just about every door I tried to get through.

As we approached Tromsø, maybe half an hour out, maybe an hour, there was a lecture on the deck seven sundeck, a nice man from the expedition team, whose name I can’t remember, who told us all about the narrow sound we would pass through and about the island in the middle. You can buy it if you want, for twelve million. He didn’t specify twelve million what but it was probably kroner (£1.2m) and may or may not include a few musk oxen. There were once thirty-odd of them there but no one’s sure if any are left now. The island belongs to Tromsø university at the moment.

Under the water is a sunken ship that broached in the fast tidal current in that narrow passageway. The Freya, coming at it, made no effort not to ram it and the dying ship cracked in half, sank, and then exploded. It’s still down there.  Those tidal currents are so powerful that they considered generating power with it but since that’s a big expensive project, it never got off the ground. The nice man doing the talk thought it was still plausible, though, since it’s deep enough there that the turbines wouldn’t disturb either shipping or fish.

Once we were past all that, Tromsø itself came into view, or at least the Arctic Cathedral did. It’s very distinctive and visible quite a long way away, long before I could make out anything else, even the famous bridge which is right next to it. It’s nearly three-quarters of a mile long, 38 metres high – which is frighteningly high if you cross it on foot – and joins the city centre to the Mainland, since Tromsø itself is actually on a triangular island, 10km long by about 3-4km wide.

I’d been looking forward to going under the bridge – indeed, I’d spent some time trying to work out which way we’d go under it. When I was at the Arctic Cathedral at midnight in May 2011, I’d seen a Hurtigruten go under, cathedral on the left, town on the right and yet by my calculations, it should be the other way round – well, that boat had been southbound and we were northbound and anyway, the bridge is north of the dock. As I had at Finnsnes, I enjoyed watching the docking procedure – a huge yellow rope is tied to a small green rope with a rubber ball on the end, that ball is thrown on the dock where someone grabs it (they missed terribly at Finnsnes on the first attempt) and pulls in both ropes to tie the big ship up before throwing the ball and the green rope back on Board.

It was only mid-afternoon and I’d only briefly seen the sun creep above the horizon and already the daylight was fading. I took photos of the ship and then made my way into town. This wasn’t easy – Tromsø’s streets are icy in places. Not everywhere, there are plenty of clear patches but enough to make getting around difficult and I didn’t remember my way around all that well and got a little bit lost.

My hotel, up a very difficult bit of hill, was… well, there was nothing wrong with it. But there was also not much right with it. It was all decorated in black and white and concrete with graffiti-lettering on the doors and directions, there was nothing in the way of storage in the room and although I found the bed very nice and big, they consider these beds doubles as well as singles.

It had already been a long day and I’d had two early mornings in a row so I had a little nap before going back down to the harbour to be picked up for the Northern Lights tour. I’d paused at a supermarket on the way for food and drink and I arrived at the quay just in time to see Nordlys depart.

The Northern Lights trip was over on Kvaløya, Whale Island, Norway’s fifth largest island. We drove through the tunnels on Tromsø island, past two of the five roundabouts, across the bridge – not the big famous bridge but a pretty similar-looking one on the opposite side of the island – past the airport and the famous Airport Art (a multi-million kroner sculpture that looks like nothing more or less than an incredibly expensive version of the traditional Fish drying rack that you see all over the country. The locals are not particularly impressed), onto Whale Island and then up to the basecamp, a set of wooden lavvus, the traditional Sami dwelling, only these aren’t tents.

The Lights were already out, not particularly impressive or indeed particularly obvious to the naked eye. We were lent tripods, Christina helped people work out their settings (I already knew where mine were) and we took photos of the sky. Yes, there were lights. We went down to the beach and took photos of the lights over the sea (which I thought was a lake) and the mountains and then we retreated into the lavvu, where there was a bonfire and tea and coffee and marshmallows to toast. There were always people outside and occasionally we’d venture out to see what there was to be seen. I learned the art of the Aurora Selfie – I was using the two-second self-timer to make sure there was no camera shake when I took my long-exposure photos but when it occurred to me that I had a ten-second timer, I could take photos of myself, provided I could stand reasonably still for thirty seconds.

Christina produced some red plastic discs and some of us climbed up the hill to sledge back down – that was good fun, although the shrieks were misinterpreted inside the lavvu as “there are Lights!” when actually they were just “this is fun!”. It’s hard work climbing the hill – in fact, it’s just hard work getting around because the snow is pretty deep and it’s coated in a layer of ice. If you’re careful, you can walk on it but it doesn’t take much to fall in and I was always falling in.

But the Lights came out properly at last, bright enough to see clearly with the naked eye and they twinkled. Not for long, just long enough to take two or three photos before fading back to the very slightly visible whitish glow. They look much more impressive on camera than they did in real life, I assure you.

When we’d taken all our photos and the lights had faded away, we got back in the bus for our long drive home, interrupted twice. Once by a wild reindeer crossing the road and once because the lights were looking good again. Of course, by then the tripods had been handed back so I couldn’t take any photos of them but yes, they were looking ok.

It was half past one by the time I got home and it had been a very long day.

Heathrow to Harstad

The flight from Heathrow to Evenes was largely uneventful, give or take the woman in front of me – at the back of the plane no less! – who brought two babies with her and drove out the passenger who’d been quietly sitting in her rightful seat next to the window so that the car seat could go there – the car seat that the baby did not spent most of the flight in.

(By the way, if there are weird typos in here, it’s because this Norwegian Library computer is set on putting Capitals where I don’t want them and auto-corrects in ways that just can’t be undone)

When I got to Oslo, I discovered two things. One was that it was really cold and snowy – I don’t know why I never expect it to be snowy there when it always is. It was also so cold that you have to breathe through your nose because air that cold hitting the back of your throat hurts. The second thing I discovered was that the way to transfer from international flight to domestic one is to go through passport control, exit through customs and then re-enter the airport through security. Not anticipating this, I’d bought two lovely bottles of Ribena at Heathrow and I wasn’t going to surrender them without a fight. I thought about just drinking them both in the airport before going through security and then decided I just could’t do that. So I checked in my bag – which I had the right to do, but since I had to travel home on hand luggage only, I’d thought I might as well travel out on hand luggage only. But I checked it in. I wandered Oslo airport, drooled over the smell of pizza and then got on my plane. And also enjoyed The Ballet of the Thirteen Snow Ploughs – thirteen snow ploughs running endlessly around the airport in a long line,
one after the other, all flashing lights and waves of shredded snow.
Considering the distance from plane to terminal is about fifty yards, it took a ridiculous amount of time for the baggage to arrive. The plane had already been late leaving Oslo (“due to absence of crew”) and I didn’t particularly enjoy hanging around at the airport for half an hour for the bag I shouldn’t have checked in in the first place. The plane had been reloaded and had probably left again by the time our luggage arrived.

When I went outside, there was a bus waiting next to a sign that said Harstad but I wasn’t going to fall for this again. Too many times have I got on the wrong bus. I went round the front of it and checked that it had Harstad on the front of the bus too. It did so I boarded, paid 230kr for the journey – that was quite the shock, since I’d been expecting 70ish, but it only comes to about £18 which I suppose isn’t so bad for a journey across the Westerålen of nearly an hour. I arrived at the central bus station, having been expecting at least two hotel drop-offs on the way, neither of them any good for me. I’d planned to go to the bus station anyway but I was lost and confused because what I was seeing didn’t really match my map. So I asked the bus driver, who added further confusion by pointing towards the harbour and saying “that way. Just walk. Quicker than walking.” Did he mean it was quicker to walk? Did he mean that the bus was quicker? Who knew? I set off into the polar night – it was about half past seven and pretty dark and I very soon spotted the Thon Hotel. I know from experience that Thon hotels are always very happy to give you directions, often with a map, but by the time I reached it, I could see my destination.

Harstad is odd. I have never been anywhere in Norway where it feels so small and quiet and yet has so many people stumbling out of bars at relatively early hours. It doesn’t feel threatening exactly but it gives it more of a big city feel than anywhere I’ve been in Fenno-Scandia. Everything was closed, there was no bread anywhere, so I went home, had a bath and went to bed.