Star Of The North
The only way you’re ever going to get to Tromsø – unless you’re
a really obsessive railway user – is by cruise ship.
One of the very few major settlements actually inside the arctic circle, it’s
furthest ‘up’ of Norway’s cities, and boasts the world’s northernmost cathedral
and university. If you take the European definition of a city – a settlement
with a cathedral – it’s the most northerly city in the world.
And as you step off your ship on to the Lyngen peninsula where
Tromsø sits, you might be surprised by the temperature. For somewhere this far
north, it’s surprisingly warm. In the summer temperatures can get well into the
eighties, and the coldest temperature ever recorded here is only -18 Celsius
(around zero Fahrenheit). Compared to places much further south, such as
Moscow, even zero degrees is pretty balmy. The students at the city’s thriving
university don’t have to huddle together for warmth in their lecture halls;
they can enjoy the city’s superb nightlife all through the winter months.
The reason for the comparatively warm weather, of course, is the
proximity of the sea. Like most places on this coast Tromsø remains important
for fishermen – though most of the really big ships that call here either
belong the Norwegian Navy or are cruise ships rather like yours. The city is a
popular stop-off on the way to or from the North Cape, and during summer it’s
often packed with tourist cruisers.
One thing to remember about being inside the arctic circle: they
don’t really do day and night up here. During the summer it’s constantly light,
and winter is six months of more or less pitch darkness. Tromsø in winter is a
fascinating place, although the constant darkness can be a little unnerving for
those from more southerly locations. Most tourists come during the summer
months, finding it easier to adjust to conditions of constant daylight.
There is, however, one very compelling reason to visit Tromsø in
the depths of winter: the northern lights. These magnificent displays of lights
in the sky (also known by their Latin name, Aurora Borealis) are caused by
particles blasted from the surface of the sun being attracted to the earth’s
magnetic poles. The Aurora above Tromsø are usually green in color. They’re
certainly a sight you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
For many years Tromsø has been called ‘the Paris of the north’.
This is because, surprising though it may seem for such a remote location, the
city is a thriving cultural center. As well as having the oldest cinema in
Western Europe (the Verdensteateret, in continuous operation since 1916) the
city is a great place to listen to music. The Tromsø Symphony Orchestra
performs all year round, and the city’s ten thousand students ensure that there
is a wide variety of music on most nights.
Other Tromsø must-sees include:
The Arctic Cathedral. Built in 1965, the
pinnacles and pyramids of this most striking of buildings mirror the snowy
mountains that lie immediately behind it. It’s a typical piece of Scandinavian
twentieth century architecture – angular and beautiful. It also contains some
of the most spectacular modern stained-glass in the world.
Polaria. This display and adventure center
contains a series of exhibitions about north Norway, including an exhibition of
material on the northern island of Svalbard. Polaria is also home to six
bearded seals and an aquarium of exotic polar marine life, such as the wolf
fish. It’s not just in tropical waters where weird and wonderful animals roam
Storsteinen is a relatively small mountain of
only 420m. You can take a cable car to the summit and enjoy the panoramic views
over Tromsø city and its surroundings. Storsteinen summit is also a great place
from which to watch the northern lights.
Probably what makes Tromsø so special is the remarkable fact
that a settlement so diverse and rich can exist so far north. Those of us who
live in more temperate zones tend to think of towns within the arctic circle as
little better than shanties, populated by a few crazy scientists and seal
hunters on skidoos. Tromsø is not like that at all. Although not all of the
town is beautiful – the first requirement of buildings up here, after all, is
that they can survive wind, snow and cold – the local inhabitants have managed
to create a surprisingly rich and varied culture which is as much taken up with
local, polar concerns as it is with the cultures of those peoples further south
who might consider themselves closer to the heart of civilization.
As you sail out of Tromsø on your cruise
ship – bound for the Cape, or south for Stavanger, you’ll look over the rail
and see the receding city as genuinely being like no other place on the planet.