Moving through northern Norway in a ship serving the Arctic Circle towns along the way, gray and white give way to resilient rainbow houses and the flickering Northern Lights.
TODAY IS GRAY: The water is slate—that dark inky gray that, while meaning no harm, looks otherwise. The sky is a much lighter hue. It speaks of longhaired kittens and dirty gym socks. A man in a charcoal–colored toque stands on the ship's deck beside me, looking out at the snow–capped fjords through the binoculars strapped around his neck.
"It's barren," he says without turning towards me, "but it's pretty, yah?"
"Yah," I answer solemnly, even though I'm actually feeling quite happy. It's just that this moment—the grayness of it all—seems to call for somber.
Midwinter is a time of thought and reflection in northern Norway, when the sun doesn't rise above the horizon from November 21st to January 21st. (They appropriately call it their "Time of Darkness.") When I was visiting in early March, most of the Norwegians I met seemed done with winter and were looking towards spring. And following a particularly grueling Canadian winter, I was too.
So I climbed aboard the MS Trollfjord, a stunning new millennium ship in the Hurtigruten line set to steam up the North Atlantic coast of Norway, crossing the Artic Circle while making 34 stops along the way—some for 20 minutes, some for several hours, at ports both large and small. Hurtigruten has a contract with the government to transport locals and deliver mail and cargo to these fjordy towns year–round. (Note: Casually slipping "fjordy" and "Hurtigruten" into onboard conversations quickly became a favorite pastime. Incidentally, I made few friends.) My shipmates and I were explorers. And our adventure was about to begin.
TODAY IS RED: Raging fires, fresh cooked shrimp and rosy cheeks.
Fire and fish define the history of Northern Norway, especially the city of Bergen, where 90% of the brown, white, green, rust and ochre–colored homes lining the port area are made of wood—this in a city that has burned to the ground over 40 times in the past dozen centuries. (Um, who doesn't learn their lesson?) It's a beautiful spot though, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in fact. It also happens to be the gateway to the Norwegian Sea.
I sleep soundly my first night onboard, and the next morning spot my first blips of rock, just skimming the surface. Then, like the tail of a sea monster, the rocks become fjords, the fjords becoming bigger fjords, then fjords with fjord outcrops and finally, full blown fjordy cities. Our first sightseeing stop, Alesund, sparkles on the horizon.
Following a catastrophic fire in 1904—800 buildings burned within 16 hours—Alesund was rebuilt in just three years, reborn in the Art Nouveau style: handsome buildings done up in stone and granite with artful flourishes like pineapples in wainscoting and Norse mythology on the many turrets and spires. When we dock in the city center, the main street is just steps away. The town of 40,000 is actually comprised of three islands, and canals run through it a la Venice. We walk over footbridges to get from one corner to the next, all the while admiring the fishing boats bringing in cod and shrimp.
I see the finest example of Alusund's distinct architectural style at Jugendstilenteret, the Art Nouveau Centre of Norway. It opened in 2003 in the old pharmacy Suaneapoteket, the former business premises and home of Jorgen A. Ouvre, one of the town's wealthiest men. The other big draw in Alesund is Mount Aksla, with its Fjellstua and Kniven views, easily reached by trekking up the 418 mismatched steps from the main park. (You can also drive up; I won't judge.) Once we summit the staircase we're rewarded with panoramic views of this crayon box of a city, the scattered islands and the Sunnmore Alps.
Inside the cafeteria atop Mount Aksla, the open–faced sandwiches, featuring the indigenous bright red shrimp, prove to be as fresh as the views. "This is like a Swedish meatball," volunteers the local to my left, clearly enjoying what looks to be a grilled hamburger on a slice of bread. "But of course," he adds, "it is much better. Instead of many meatballs, you have one big one."
TODAY IS WHITE: Birch trees and snowy streets, peaks of whipped cream topping my hot chocolate. Santa land.
"There are 130,000 Norwegians with the name Knut, jokes our guide Knut in Tromso, as he directs our attention to monuments, schools, hospitals, and other interesting sites as our mini bus whizzes through this idyllic town to its outer reaches. "Over there we have a year–round beach," he says, pointing through the bus's frosty window, past a snowy field and towards the ice–rimmed harbor. "There is even a swimming club there called 'Ice Skin' in English. They meet here to swim every Friday between 5 p.m. and 5:02 p.m."
Knut the jokester is sharing the front of the bus with two kindly Sami women. The Samis are a semi–nomadic tribe known for their reindeer herding expertise and colorful frocks and they are making the most of our drive to their seaside settlement by welcoming us with magical stories, traditional songs, and dried fish snacks, for a fascinating introduction to their unique culture. Our driver Knut drops our guide Knut and the rest of us off for a hurried couple of hours of heart–warming fun. There are reindeer sleigh rides, sledding on animal pelts down a snowy hillside, and lassoing lessons using rope and reindeer antlers nailed to a post. Once we're cold enough, we head into a smoky yurt for communal drumming and singing, story telling, and coffee hit with whiskey.
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