My Travel Map

My Travel Map

04 February 2014

Tromsø, Norway

North to Tromsø.  This city sits in the Arctic Circle, near the very top of a long, thin Norway.  The flight from Oslo only took a couple of hours, but to drive, it would take over 22 hours.  The city had an immediately noticeable remote feeling about it.  Considering its large distance from Oslo and most of the rest of Europe, Tromsø is actually a much larger city than I had expected.  The place is quiet, and its people are pleasant and very enthusiastic about the great outdoors, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that Tromsø sits in the middle of some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth.

Taking the bus from the airport to downtown, I was shocked when we entered the network of tunnels that run beneath the low hill that the city is built on.  These weren't your everyday tunnels either... there are multiple, wide lanes that stretch for several miles underground in beautifully clean, bored out tubes through what was solid rock.  I was blown away when we went through the first intersection down there... that's right, they had multiple traffic circles in this system... all underground.  Amazing.  When we re-emerged into the open air and I was dropped off beside my hotel and the old cathedral in the center of town, I immediately noticed how clean and crisp the cool air was.  It was the definition of refreshing.  The views across the water, as seen above, weren't bad either!

The Tromsø domkirke (Cathedral), built in 1861.  This was located just across the street from my hotel, and served as a great landmark for finding my way back.  Tromsø is a bit spread out, but everything is pretty easily walkable, even the longer distances if you're willing to take some time and enjoy it (especially if the weather permits).  Conveniently, there were also some great restaurants, bars, and cafes nearby too.  The Norwegian beer is very, very good, and the Mack Brewery (the Ølhallen, or Beer Hall), which claims to be the northernmost brewery in the world, was incredibly warm and welcoming and only a few blocks away.  Another place nearby was the Skarven Bar and Restaurant, nautically themed and also a great environment to enjoy some crisp ale or lager.  Conveniently, just across the street from the Cathedral was also an outdoors shop and a great little deli and cafe that had the most delicious sandwiches.  I ate there for lunch several times throughout the week, taking the food to go to sit outdoors in the Cathedral park or along the water.

Wandering around town, I noticed immediately how near perfect the light seemed to be... all day long.  Of course, I realized that being so far north in mid-September meant that the sun stayed pretty low on the horizon throughout the day.   So, the light made for some extra photogenic scenes around town, especially considering the bright colors used to paint so many of the buildings.  As I also found in Ireland, Newfoundland, and a few other places, the people of Tromsø seem to enjoy bright, technicolor buildings.  Like in those other places, the color probably takes a bit of the edge off of enduring the more unfriendly weather and darkness that engulf the town during the other half of the year.

Tromsø is an island, one of many in a maze of fjords, inlets, and islands, so boats are pretty important up there.  Throughout its early history, Tromsø also served as a major northern base for fishing and hunting, the spoils of which can still be sampled at restaurants all around town.  The first meal I had up there was a reindeer carpaccio starter and arctic char with potatoes for the main course.  As I had already found in Oslo, the quality of the food, both in the fresh ingredients and the delicate preparation, was just about as high as I've ever found.  That was the first time I'd ever eaten reindeer, and I really enjoyed it.  The meat was a deep dark reddish brown with a full, almost smoky flavor and buttery texture... delicious, especially with the toast and fresh red onion and spicy greens it was served with.  The char and potatoes in a white cream sauce were delicious too!

Anyway, I was talking about boats.  Tromsø has a lovely and lengthy waterfront area.  The place obviously caters to some wealthier travelers too... the boat seen here is not a fishing vessel.  It has been converted into a pleasure cruiser.  Inside you'll find luxury cabins, a quality galley, and even a wood fired hot tub on the back.  Their advertising propaganda featured young, attractive (and obviously wealthy) couples hanging out in the hot tub with drinks under the northern lights.  It definitely looked kind of awesome to me... though I doubt I could afford an overnight cruise with them anytime soon.

Did I mention that perfect light?

Things around town certainly were pleasant.  It was quite idyllic there.  I'm sure that the weather helped a lot... we were very lucky to get several days of clear blue skies and relatively warm temperatures.  The leaves were all turning on the trees too, which added some bonus splashes of color.   

Looking across the sound from near my hotel.  Some friends and I decided to walk across the bridge (off to the left as seen here) to explore the other side.  The town has sprawled to the other side, and there is also some great hiking and attractions over there.   

The most noticeable attraction is the Arctic Cathedral.  This modern landmark and place of worship is definitely distinct.  It is one of the symbols of Tromsø and is featured on many postcards.  I found the place to be much better from the outside... there is a huge and interesting stained glass window visible from inside, but other than that, it is pretty boring in there.  From outside though, the enormous, scaled A-frame is unmissable from most of the city.  Another main attraction can also be seen in this picture, at the top of the small mountian seen here...

That building at the top of the mountain is one of the two termini of Tromsø's cable car.  For a hefty price, you can take a ride up the mountain to enjoy the views from the top.  People also use the system to bring their bikes or skies up and enjoy the rides down the easy way.  We also met a woman who was bringing her dogs up for a hike the long way down the backside.  If you're not the adventurous outdoor type, there is still something for you.  The building at the top is fully equipped with a restaurant, bar, and great deck area with seating overlooking the city.

On a clear day, the deck at the top of the cable car run offers views like this of Tromsø and the surrounding area.  These two are looking northwest (above) and west (below).

I was amazed and exhilarated by the ruggedness of the surrounding mountains and the complexity of the broken coast.  The combination of sea and mountains is my favorite in the world, and Norway has it in abundance.  The view above is also looking down on central Tromsø.  The island that the city sits on wouldn't fit into a full frame, but you can mostly make out its shape from the last two shots.  Norwegians in Tromsø and the rest of the country have a great affinity for the outdoors.  I met plenty of hikers and hunters (the local mountains are apparently very good for game foul) and even one guy who rode a bike from the very top of Norway to the very bottom... a journey of close to 2000 km!!!  It's no small wonder though, that with a country that beautiful, you get a lot of people who like to be outside.

In addition to its natural geographic beauty, Tromsø is even more special because it sits in the Arctic Circle.  It is the land of the midnight sun during the summer months and more than a month of only darkness in the winter.  This big mosaic downtown is testament to the unusual light shows that the northernmost latitudes experience.  The city is also located right under the typical auroral oval, and we were in Tromsø for exactly that reason: a chance to enjoy the aurora borealis.  

We got lucky: as in Alaska earlier that year, nature decided to grace us with clear skies and several of its beautiful light shows.   We walked over to the southern end of the island several of the nights we were in town.  The point is parkland, so many of the city lights are blocked by trees and the island itself.  Other than the first night we went, when a Norwegian film crew showed up to film a horror movie under what seemed like unnecessarily bright spot lights, the skies were dark enough to make out even faint arcs, like the one seen along the northwestern horizon here.  Another neat feature was how the glow from the city lit up the undersides of some of the clouds... leaving them with a warm rosy glow to contrast the electric, alien greens of the aurora.

The aurora are just absolutely stunning.  Pictures do so little justice compared to watching those spectral shapes dance and evolve before your eyes.  The shapes and complexity of auroral activity confounds even those (like me and my colleagues) who study it professionally.  This "S" shape reminded me a lot of a serpent (maybe for Slytherin if there are any Harry Potter fans amongst my readers)... it's no wonder that ancient people associated these dancing lights with animal spirits and gods.

This is my UFO shot... that cloud in the lower middle had a completely different glow about it... reflecting light more from the Moon than from the city.  Add a well formed auroral arc to the shot and you have one of my favorites from the trip.

This graffitied boathouse made for a nice foreground.  I couldn't get over how lucky we were to be in that place at the right time for several nights... to have the bright red boathouse, epic mountains, puffy clouds and clear skies, plus bright enough aurora to actually get reflections in the water... unbelievably lucky.

This one shows some of the complexity within the arc... note the twisting, almost braided features.

These pictures are completely unaltered... those clouds really were glowing like that from the lights of the city beneath them.

The Moon was full, which lit up the clouds and much of the scenery, but the aurora was still bright enough to light up the sky and cast its reflection in the sound.

This is probably my favorite shot from the Tromsø auroras... that swirl was huge, taking up a big swath of sky.

We also caught the last cable car up the mountain one night, and were lucky to catch some activity from the top (seen here and in the first picture of this post).  It was brutally cold up there though and very windy.  The hike down the front of the mountain was quite fun, though it was pretty steep in places.  We brought headlamps with us though, having planned ahead to do the hike down since we knew the cable car wouldn't be running.  I'm quite glad we brought them... despite the full Moon, the narrow path got very dark once we were in the trees.

As part of the meeting, we also got out into the next big valley East of Tromsø.  On the bus ride, I noticed this epic peak, with one of the sharpest summits I've ever seen.  I was amazed that there were so few snowfields or glaciers up there.  I had underestimated the combined snow-melting effects of the jet stream, which bathes Norway in warm air from lower latitudes across the Atlantic, and the power of nearly perpetual sunshine during the summer months.  It was crazy to think that all of this would be covered in thick snow in only a few months, and even crazier to think that it would shed all that snow again the next spring.  With so much heavy, periodic weathering like that, it is no wonder that the mountains were often so jagged around there.

We made the trip into the valley to take a tour of this facility: EISCAT.  EISCAT stands for European Incoherrent Scatter Scientific Association.  It is a scientific facility and part of a network of three such facilities in Norway, Svalbard (islands far north of Norway), and Sweden.  The pictures seen here are of a large radio antennas, used to study Earth's ionosphere and its connection to the magnetosphere and the Sun.

A side-on view of the antennas... they are huge.  The railing seen at the bottom right is actually a staircase, and a person can walk into the rightmost part of the structure as seen here!  Note the camper trailer that is parked in the left foreground here too.... and that is sitting much closer to me than the antennas were from this viewpoint!

Another radar dish at the EISCAT site.  
Tromsø was a beautiful place to visit, though I have to admit that I got tremendously lucky with the weather while I was there!  The town further strengthened my appreciation for the Norwegian people and way of life, and the landscape made me start to fall in love with the country.  That fall was completed on a road trip to Lofoten that I took with a couple friends after our work meeting ended... but for more details on that, you'll have to wait for the next couple posts.

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