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Star Of The North

Tromsø, Norway

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 the deep!
  • 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.

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