Tromsø – An Arctic Treasure

Have you ever been somewhere that is like no where you have ever been before. Like you have literally been plonked into a middle of a movie set? This is how I have felt the past four days. Like I’ve been living in a winter wonderland.

I arrived into Tromsø around midnight on Thursday. I had a short stopover in Oslo, where I witnessed the magic of snow firsthand. As we flew into the snow covered airport, I’m pretty sure I was the only one glued to the window – snow is rather common up here but to me, its the first time I had properly been in snow, so my excitement levels were off the radar. My second flight was quite short and I was lucky enough to witness glimmers of the Northern Lights as I flew in. It was like a big cloud, but constantly quivering and dashing across the sky. I had to keep wiping down my window because my breath kept fogging it up.

We landed and I found myself a taxi to the hotel, my friend B who arrived yesterday was supposed to meet me but because of the clear skies tonight he was told he would be crazy to miss hunting for the Northern Lights. So I got myself to our accommodation – the Smart Hotel and settled into the shoebox sized room. shortly after B came rushing in totally frozen from head to toe but ecstatic at what he had witnessed for the past few hours. Apparently the sky was the clearest it had been in a long time and the lights had been extremely active and strong. I was a little jealous I missed the main show but I hoped I’d get an encore performance in the next few nights. We chatted for a while and caught up with each other since it had been a month or so since we’d seen each other and then got some shut eye so we’d be ready to explore the next day.

We woke up Friday morning and I was eager to see the place. There was snow piled up outside our window and I felt it was beckoning to me to get outside. I hurried B out the door and we wandered down through the icy hill into the main street. Tromsø itself is in two parts – the mainland and the island where we were staying. There is about 70,000 inhabitants all up and a vast majority of them are students because Tromsø has the only university this far up north. And far up north were we – 350km into the Arctic circle and a mere 2200km from the North Pole. We were basically in Santa’s backyard! Surprisingly though, I didn’t find it too cold. I guess the bitter wind and chill of Holland has toughened this little black duck (wearing five layers of clothes sure helps though!)

We wandered past the Domkirke – which is the only cathedral in Norway completely made of wood and down to the Harbour where we were greeted with the spectacular view of Fjellheisen, the glorious snow-covered mountains on the mainland. Our main goal for the day was to catch the cable car up the mountain to witness Tromsø from up high. Before heading over to the mainland we thought we would see what we could on this side of the water. Our grumbling stomachs and need for coffee got the best of us though so firstly we stopped by a little cafe for some food. After our breakfast we wandered through the town towards the Polaria, which is the polar museum. The unusually designed building is eye-catching and rather random but the design inspired by falling dominoes certainly suits this quaint little city. We had a squiz through the museum which had a panoramic film about the Northern Lights and an aquarium hosting some polar sealife and four very playful seals, who seemed to enjoy showing off for their audience.

We headed back into town after our museum, past the Mack brewery – which is Europe’s most northern brewery and towards the bus stop to take us to the mainland and up to the cable car. The bus took us over the huge bridge connecting the two parts of Tromsø, past the Arctic Cathedral and up to where the cable car station was situated. There was snow everywhere which still amazed me, but the ice made walking tricky and hilarious – I had to stop laughing at people slipping and sliding because I knew karma would probably give me a dose of my own medicine without any warning. We bought our tickets for the cable car and waiting patiently until the next car was ready to go. The cable car itself was old fashioned and looked as though it had done many trips up and down the mountain. B, myself and a bunch of other tourists squeezed into the old car and slowly but surely we made our way up the top. We scored the view from the front of the car and our breath was taken away as we got higher and higher above the city. Once we reached the top we braced ourselves for the cold again and headed out onto the viewing platform. Despite the roaring winds, the clear skies had allowed a view that can only be described as phenomenal. We could see for miles and miles, snowy mountains surrounded us and I literally felt like I was on top of the world. Once our fingers couldn’t function anymore from the cold we headed back inside the cafe to warm up before going out behind the building into the snow for an even better view. There were no restrictions as to where you could go up here – I guess common sense is a given up here but unfortunately it was just too bloody windy and freezing AND snowing for us to stay out there long. We took some photos and we then raced back inside and warmed up with a hot chocolate and a reindeer wrap. We sat and watched the view for awhile before making our way back down the cable car to grab a bite to eat and shower before our night time activity – Northern lights hunting!

We met with our group an hour or so later and jumped on the bus ready for a night of searching for the elusive Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately it was quite cloudy and snowing so the chances of seeing them the way B did the night before were pretty slim but I kept my hopes up. We drove for an hour or so before our first stop and all piled off the bus to see if we could spot anything, no luck though so we jumped back on the bus and headed to another location. Again, no luck. We drove off again and this time they pulled the bus on the side of the road and for a short minute or so we witnessed the lights. It was short and sharp but we got a taste of what we had been searching for. We managed to get some decent photos though so we had proof there had been lights! They show up much more vividly through a camera, so to our naked eye it might appear there is no activity when actually the camera will tell you otherwise. It was a slightly disappointing night but I wasn’t going to let it dampen my spirit. I still had two more nights here!

The following morning (well almost afternoon – not getting sleep until 2:30am sure put us out good) we had breakfast at an adorable cafe called ‘Coffee by Elli’ and then decided to walk across the bridge between the island and the mainland to have a look at the Arctic Cathedral in detail. The walk across was beautiful and noisy, due to the cars and trucks whizzing by quickly but it was a great way to see both sides of Tromsø. We reached the Arctic Cathedral without falling over on the ice and bought our admission. The Cathedral is famous for having the largest stained glass window in Europe. Like the Polaria it is also unusually designed. The architect is believed to have changed his story in every interview he did so it is hard to define where he really drew his inspiration from. It has been likened to the Opera House in Sydney, which brought on a sense of home. It’s a beautiful building and the artwork on the stained glass window is remarkable. We sat for awhile reflecting (and resting our feet) before traipsing back across the bridge and to the hotel to freshen up before our night time activity – reindeer sleighing!

We were picked up by a Sami native named Tor at 6:30pm to be taken firstly to get some weatherproof clothing before being taken to the place where the reindeers were. The snow was starting to come down which added a nice touch to the evening but it meant no Northern Lights tonight. We met the reindeers, which much to our dismay, don’t look like the reindeers you see at Christmas time. They were small, with no antlers and they certainly didn’t look like they could pull us in a sleigh. But they were strong little buggers, we were taken through snowfields and it was rather peaceful. The sleighing lasted about half an hour and afterwards we took some photos with the reindeers and tried to make friends with them, but they are very timid animals. We were taken back to have supper in a traditional Sami hut, which is called a laavu. It is very similar to the Native Americans teepee and it reminded me of when I was little and my sister and I would have tea parties in a teepee my grandma made. We were served bidos – which is a stew with reindeer meat in it. It was actually delicious and tasted just like stew my Dad makes, the reindeer meat is very similar to lamb. I wouldn’t have known the difference if I hadn’t been told. While we ate some of Rudolph’s relatives, Tor showed us some Sami clothing and tools whilst telling us about the Sami culture. It was very interesting and definitely a memorable part of the trip. Afterwards we were taken back into town where we stopped for at a pancake house for a final bite to eat (I had a bacon and blueberry pancake wrap – delicious!) before retreating to our hotel for some much needed slumber.

Our third day being Sunday meant that Tromsø became a ghost town. Literally like a sleepy, fishing village. We grabbed brekkie and coffee at what seemed like the only place open in town and then did a little bit of souvenir shopping before meeting our guide for the days fun – dog sledding! We were driven about half an hour out of town where the scenery along the way was incredible – it almost felt like we were in Antarctica and the snowy mountains were giant icebergs. Its like a whole other world! The place where we were doing to sledding was in the most picturesque location. Plonked on top of one snow covered mountain and surrounded by many more. To top it off, the sun was starting to go down which created this ambience that you have to see for yourself to understand the beauty of it all. We were greeted by a lady who took us up to the puppy yard where we could play and pat all 300 of the dogs and get some super cute photos. The first group went sledding while we taken to see the younger puppies (so cute) and told about the dog sledding culture. Interestingly, they use Alaskan huskies instead of the stereotypical Siberian huskies which means they aren’t as beautiful as the Siberian huskies but due to all the years of cross breeding, the Alaskan huskies these days are finely tuned to be sled dogs. The first group had arrived back so now it was our turn. B and I jumped into the sled and were wrapped up in a big woollen blanket to keep us from getting cold. It was a lovely sunny day today but the chill from the snow had some serious bite. With a loud ‘yep yep’ our driver set the dogs running and off we went. It was lots of fun sledding through the snowfields, the dogs were very strong and super obedient. We witnessed another beautiful sunset and before we knew it the dogs were pulling us back to home. It was another amazing life experience that I never thought I would have done. We had a quick cup of tea and said our goodbyes to the doggies before getting the bus back to town.

It was our final night here and we weren’t sure how to spend it. Unfortunately the cloud cover was too thick for a good show of Northern Lights so we opted out of another bus tour and a boat trip – it was just too expensive to spend several hours of seeing nothing, so we grabbed a kebab and headed back up the cable car to see if we could spot anything up there, it was the cheapest way to see the lights. Just as we arrived at the cable car a quick flash of lights appeared in the sky right above us. It was brilliant. We got to the top and braved the bitterly cold weather but the clouds just weren’t going to play nice, so we got a hot chocolate and watched the city lights flickering in the dark until our yawning got too unbearable and we headed back to the hotel.

Our final morning we leisurely had breakfast and made our way to the airport, bound for London. I am staying with B until Wednesday where I make a quick dash to Paris before heading back to Den Haag.

Its funny how a month ago I had never even heard of Tromsø, let alone imagined myself ever travelling this far north of the world but it is definitely is a place I would happily go back to. Its a charming little city and the beauty of Scandinavia has pulled some of my heart strings and without a doubt in my mind, I know I will be returning!

From the loser who spent most of her time trying to catch falling snow in her mouth.

J. x

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