Tromsö, midnight sun and the Hurtigruten
My trip to Norway in 2002 had been so awesome that for years I'd been reluctant to think about going back. The chances were it wouldn't be as good as the last time and maybe it would even be disappointing. But then one day I felt like going to the Arctic Circle, and flights to Tromsø were affordable.
So I flew to Oslo, and got a train into the city. I walked up Karl Johans Gate feeling nostalgic, passing familiar places and remembering good times. I walked down to the harbour and looked out to sea in the light drizzle. But before I could get too nostalgic it was time to go. I had to get a train to Rygge, to catch my flight to the Arctic.
I got to Tromsø at 10pm. It was raining heavily and yet daylight. I got a bus into the city, and I wasn't quite sure when we'd arrived in the centre. The driver said to me "This is it, you're here - you're in the middle of nowhere!". Fantastic, I said, that's exactly where I want to be. I got off and walked around. It had stopped raining, and it was surreal that it was daylight and yet almost 11pm. I found the bus stop I needed to go to the hostel I was staying at, a couple of miles outside town.
I checked in, and then went for a walk. The rain clouds were spent now, and were disappearing rapidly. As it approached midnight, only their last dregs remained as wisps of white in a clear blue sky. The sun was low in the sky, but at the stroke of midnight it was still sitting clear of the horizon over the mountains of Kvaløya to the north. There was not even a hint of sunset red in the sky. It hung steady for a while, moving neither up nor down. By 1am it was on its way up again. It was another Arctic day.
My day in Tromsø started badly. Somehow I'd imagined there would be breakfast at the hostel, and with breakfast one normally gets coffee. But there wasn't, and I had no supplies. I was a long way from town, and for a moment the day looked bleak. But then I found out that they sold bad coffee in the reception, at outrageous prices. I happily handed over a wodge of kroner, drank the mediocre brew, and then headed out into a bright warm day.
I had no plans, except a vague thought that I'd like to get a boat somewhere. I walked into the city, and down to the quay, but I couldn't find any useful-looking information about what was going where. Then by chance I wandered into the tourist information office, and by chance I picked up a leaflet about Skjervøy, a village to the north of Tromsø. It turned out I could travel there by bus, and then catch the Hurtigruten back down the coast. The bus was leaving in half an hour; I bought a ticket and headed north.
The best plans are those that are never made. Nothing is better than the spontaneous, and I knew straight away this was going to be an awesome journey. The bus left Tromsø and headed inland, first of all stopping at Breivikeidet where a ferry ran across the narrow fjord to Svensby under an incongruously hot Arctic sun.
Then from Svensby the bus carried on to Lyngseidet, rounding the fearsome looking Lyngen alps, snow covered and jagged. At Lyngseidet we boarded another ferry to Olderdalen. The first ferry had been cool; this one was awesome. Crossing a deep blue fjord surrounded by towering snowy mountains on a hot day in the Arctic Circle could not be anything else.
After Olderdalen the bus continued to Skjervøy. Somewhere along the way, it crossed the 70th line of latitude, an arbitrary, meaningless, imaginary line on the Earth's surface, but one I still thought it was awesome to be north of.
All was quiet in Skjervøy. The skies were blue and the sun shone. I wandered through the empty streets for a bit, stopped in a Narvesen and bought a coffee and an ice cream, and then sat outside in the sun, enjoying being way up here, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The peace was disrupted only when the Hurtigruten appeared. With a blast of its horn, it alerted the town that now was the time to head for the harbour if anyone wanted to catch it. I headed down and boarded.
Every day of the year, eleven boats are somewhere out at sea along the coast of Norway, on an epic voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. For a long time I'd thought I would like to make a journey along the coast of Norway, and today I could sample a small part of the route.
The boat that pulled into Skjervøy's small harbour was the MS Nordstjernen, the oldest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. I was lucky to have a trip on a boat like this. I'd seen massive and new Hurtigruten ships in Tromsø harbour, but the Nordstjernen was small, old and weatherbeaten. We chugged out of Skjervøy into a heavenly summer evening.
The deck was full of people enjoying the warm sun. I watched the coast slip by slowly. Gradually it started to cloud over, and as it cooled, the deck emptied. It was just a four hour run back to Tromsø and some of the people on board were no doubt in for a much longer haul than I was. I stayed out, listening to music and enjoying the ride.
After a couple of hours, another boat appeared on the horizon and closed rapidly. An announcement over the tannoy said that this was the MS Lofoten, another member of the Hurtigruten fleet. The crew of both boats appeared on deck, waving flags and cheering, and both boats sprayed fountains of water as they passed.
We carried on down the coast. Here and there, tiny villages dotted the shore. As we slowly approached Tromsø the signs of human habitation got more frequent, and eventually I saw the distant buildings of the city. We pulled into the harbour just before midnight.
I walked back to the hostel in the midnight daylight. The next day, it rained heavily all day, and I sat in a cafe watching the rain batter on the window and drinking coffee until I got tunnel vision.
The next day it was nicer. I walked across the bridge from Tromsøya to the mainland, and got the cable car up the hill to Storsteinen. It was a short ride up, and it wasn't cheap. Nothing is in Norway. But it was worth it. There weren't too many people around, and the views over the city and the mountains were pretty incredible.
Hiking trails led away from the cable car station up into the hills, so I decided to walk for a while. Quickly I was away in the quiet mountains. I headed up a steep path to a ridge, which looked like the highest point around, but once I got there I could see there was another higher peak further on. The path flattened and dropped, and then rose up to Mount Fløya, 671m above sea level.
The day had started out overcast but some sun had broken through the clouds. I was alone on top of the mountain, and I sat for a while, taking in the views over the wild countryside.
The only reason to come down was that I had to find my way to the airport for a flight back to Oslo. This was a very annoying business, first of all because I was extremely content up there and didn't feel like starting my journey back to London, and secondly because it was the World Cup final, and in a moment of appalling planning, I'd booked a flight that took off at the precise moment the game started, and would last for pretty much the exact time football games last for. I could only hope it would go to extra time.
We landed, and I got a train back to Oslo. As I walked through the station, I heard a sudden roar, and found a pub where the game was on. It had gone to extra time, and Spain had just almost scored. The Norwegian crowd was definitely backing Spain, and when they scored with just a few minutes to go the pub went wild. Out in the streets of Oslo, a car full of Spanish people drove around the block a few times, hooting its horn. If there were any Dutch around, they were keeping it quiet.