It is something we had talked about, on and off, for over 20 years since the last time we caught a quick glimpse of a green flash in the black sky on our way home, driving north from Oslo. It was just the one but it caught my imagination and ever since I have wanted to go north of the Arctic Circle and see the Aurora Borealis.
There has been a lot of talk about the Aurora the past four or five years as conditions have been particularly favourable for spectacular shows of the Lights. It has been preying on my mind until last autumn when I read that if you don’t go to see them this year, it will be another 11 years before the conditions are as favourable as they are now. So, without wanting to be morbid, I told my husband that we were going because if we didn’t, we would probably not be fit enough to go next time around. He grumbled and said he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, that it would be cold, snowy and dark – and more to the point, he was going to have to take TWO flights each way. And he hates flying. As usual I ignored him and booked it – flights from Barcelona to Oslo and then Oslo to Tromso. We had four days in Oslo to see the family, and allow Himself to recover before the second flight. I had booked accommodation through Airbnb which proved very successful. A lovely studio flat in a very nice part of Oslo with a very pleasant host, then a modern one-bedroom flat in Tromso within walking distance of the city centre, again with a very helpful host. Both at a fraction of the cost of an OK hotel room.
I had been to Tromso a couple of times (years ago) on business but, as I am sure all business travellers will agree, you really don’t see anything of the places you visit – just airports, hotel rooms, offices and, maybe, an exhibition hall. I was really seeing Tromso with fresh eyes and it was beautiful. We were incredibly lucky with the weather. I had expected it to be 24 hour darkness but it turned out that the sun reappeared on 16 January so by the time we got there at the beginning of February, there was about 6 hours of sunshine each day. There was a reasonable amount of snow, although nowhere near as much as they can get there – it has been a mild winter throughout Norway – but there was enough to make everything look bright, fresh and clean. And at sunrise and sunset everything was pink. Stunning.
The city of Tromso straddles the fjord and is surrounded by mountains. Everywhere you look there are snow-covered peaks contrasting with the bright blue of the fjord. A dramatic bridge joins the two halves, at one end of which stands the Arctic Cathedral – a modern structure designed to emulate the mountain peaks, nestling near the base-station of Fjellheisen, the cable car that takes you up to Storsteinen, some 421 metres above sea level. From here you can sometimes see the Northern Lights – or the midnight sun – have a meal in the restaurant (which probably has one of the loveliest views in the world); or for the energetic you can strap on snow shows or skis and get out on the mountain.
The weekend we arrived it turned out to be the Sami National Day (6 February). The Samis have quite a bit of autonomy in Norway and are respected by the majority of Norwegians. They have a very distinct way of life with their livelihood and wealth being derived primarily from their reindeer herds. To a certain extent they are still partially nomadic (although nowhere near as much as before as modern equipment such as snow-scooters allow for more efficient husbandry of the reindeer). They have their own language, learning Norwegian as a second language, their own parliament – Sametinget – a very distinctive form of dress; and their own culture, which includes joiking (or yoiking), a very specialised form of song.
On the Sunday, to celebrate the National Day the following day, the main street of Tromso was given over to reindeer racing, and in the square there was a large lavvu (a Sami tent similar to a teepee) with a roaring open fire in the centre. Here they sold hot blackcurrant juice, hot-dogs and waffles. Amazingly all the smoke rose up out of the hole at the top without the help of a chimney. There were also a number of stalls selling local products and everything reindeer (antlers, skins, boots, hats, steaks and stew).
The reindeer races went on for a couple of hours – heats, semi-final and final to find the 2017’s Nordic champion reindeer, with animals from both Norway and Finland competing. The course is about 300 metres long and the speed they reach, each with a “jockey” on skis behind them, is really surprising. It is a fantastic atmosphere with crowds of people cheering them on.
And so to the Northern Lights. Again, owing to our meteorological good fortune giving us clear skies, we were even able to see them from the middle of Tromso. We went up Storsteinen, had a meal and saw them again. But they were just tantalising – not strong enough to really feel you had been part of them. So we booked an Aurora Chasing trip in a small group (8) where we were driven out to the coast, away from the light pollution of the city. It was a full moon that was so bright there were strong shadows and the mountains dropped into the now-black water – with the lights of small coastal villages visible on the other side like strings of pearls. And then came the Lights – dancing over us. Always moving. Absolutely magical. Our guides built a small bonfire and served hot coffee, soup, reindeer sausage and the typical Norwegian caramelised goat cheese. Then we sat round the fire toasting marshmallows and chatting with our new friends. Sharing the experience. We stayed there until nearly 1am, taking photos and admiring the display. It is something we will never forget – but it is strangely addictive, I want to go back again.
The rest of the time we spent enjoying Tromso. It is a pretty city (population 80,000), with plenty to see and enjoy. Other activities include husky-sledging, whale watching, skiing, skating, and just sitting with a coffee enjoying the view. What, for me, was truly amazing was the transformation in my husband. From having been a little reluctant at first, he thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience . Despite being Norwegian he had never visited Tromso and like me, was taken aback by the beauty of the scenery – and, of course, the Aurora Borealis.
So we are already planning our next trip – we are hoping to spend August escaping the Spanish heat by driving up through Sweden, again to Tromso, to enjoy the tail-end of the midnight sun – and perhaps a trip out to see the whales.
I’ll let you know if we get there …