Beauty, life and lights in the Arctic Circle

Beauty, life and lights in the Arctic Circle
The rugged mountains of Lofoten Islands are a favourite with hikers and mountain climbers in the warmer months from May to September.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Ice, grey skies, a desolate landscape in a sarcophagus of snow.

What do you expect to find deep in the Arctic Circle?

Not Tromso, surely, a multicultural Norwegian city of more than 70,000 people known, in charmingly tongue-in-cheek fashion, as the Paris of the North.

"No one knows exactly how the name came about," says Ms Evgenia Egorova, who works at the local tourism board and is taking me on a tour of the coastal city's old town.

There are wooden buildings painted red, white and mustard, which seem ideally suited to the autumnal colours of the surrounding hills and trees; traditional wood-bottomed fishing boats docked next to sleek luxury sailboats in the harbour, all reflected together in a glass-like sea.

She adds: "Some people say it is because of Norway's strong coffee culture and the number of cafes where people can spend all afternoon talking.

"Or that it started when European sailors arrived here in the 19th century and were surprised to see so many lights so far north."

It is September when I arrive for a four-day tour of Tromso and the Lofoten islands, two highlights of Northern Norway.

While most people fly here to see the Northern Lights, the region is filled with cultural riches and staggering beauty, so there is much to see and do, even if the aurora is not in your favour.

More than 100 nationalities live in Tromso, which, at latitude 70 deg and 350km within the Arctic Circle, is the northernmost city in the world.

The city owes much of its population and culture to the University of Tromso, the northernmost tertiary institution in the world.

When it opened in the early 1970s, it brought youth, liberal ideals and diversity to Tromso.

As we walk through the old town, Ms Egorova points out the city's library (Gronnegata 94, 9008 Tromso), with its facades of floor-to-ceiling glass, sheltered beneath arching shells of steel.

It was a cinema before it was converted into a library in 2005 and is now one of the most-visited sights in Tromso and a favourite local hangout.

Incidentally, Norway is the second-most well-read country in the world, behind Finland.

We pass Our Lady Catholic church (Storgata 94, 9008 Tromso), the seat of the world's northernmost Catholic bishop, and the Lutheran Cathedral (Sjogata 2, 9008 Tromso), the only wooden cathedral in Norway and the world's northernmost Protestant cathedral.

"You will hear it a lot in Tromso, northernmost this and that," Ms Egorova says with a laugh.

A traditional holiday home on a small, private island in Lofoten, Norway.
Photo: The Straits Times

In fact, the city holds close to 50 such titles, for anything from northernmost mosque, symphony orchestra and 18-hole golf course to northernmost Burger King, 7-Eleven and Harley-Davidson retailer.

In January every year, 60,000 tickets are sold for the city's annual International Film Festival, also the world's northernmost.

Many foreigners come to Tromso and find reasons to stay. Ms Egorova is originally from Russia, for example, and I meet a few more of Tromso's diverse inhabitants when I connect with Wandering Owl (wanderingowl.com), a firm started by an Italian, a Finn and an Argentine which provides hiking, camping, snow-shoeing and Northern Lights tours in the area.

I join them for their newest product, a traditional wooden sauna on wheels that can be moved from one scenic location to another.

We meet on the banks of a placid lake, rugged mountains rising on the opposite shore.

We are a 30-minute drive across the bridge from Tromso on Whale Island, named for the dozens of orca and humpback whales which swim into its fjords from October to January every year to feed on herring.

This is where they breach and sing, I'm told, their calls echoing through the glacial valley.

But it is September, a few weeks too early, and I content myself with the beauty of the changing birch leaves, a rustling of amber, marigold and rust across the landscape.

The sauna is like a small pine cabin, beautifully crafted with a changing room and a wood-burning stove inside, and windows through which I can admire the sun as it sets behind the peaks.

The lake's pure water is poured onto hot coal and the room fills with steam, temperatures rising 60, 70, 80 deg C before we run outside, down a muddy slope and plunge into the lake with a scream, steam rising from our bodies like escaping souls.

It is my first time using a traditional sauna and I have never felt so revitalised, so reborn.

Later, I dig into a bowl of ratatouille which our guide had cooked over a campfire.

And as we sit around the pop and crackle of the burning wood with mugs of tea and hot cocoa warming our hands, we watch the moon rise and hundreds of stars appear in the cloudless sky.

It is about 10 deg C outside and at this time last year, Tromso had already had its first snow, but temperatures have hovered unusually at about 15 deg C.

 In this part of Norway, 15 deg C is the average peak temperature in July.

I am amazed to learn that, despite its latitude, winters in Tromso are relatively mild. In December, temperatures range from -5 to 1 deg C. By comparison, at the same latitude on the other side of the mountains in Finland, the temperature often drops to a bone-chilling -45 deg C.

For this, Northern Norway can thank the Gulf Stream, which pushes warm water and air up the Atlantic Ocean from Mexico.

It is also the reason Norway enjoys such fertile fishing grounds full of haddock, salmon, herring and cod.

Fish are so rich in Tromso's waters that I catch five cod in an hour of fishing.

I, who have never fished before, do little more than drop my lure into the water and reel the fish in.

Northern Lights over Tromso, Norway.
Photo: Yngve Olsen Saebbe

I have joined a fishing tour with Arctic Cruise In Norway (acinorway.com), a company which provides high-end boat tours for fishing, whale watching, sightseeing and overnight Northern Lights experiences aboard a luxury catamaran.

At the beginning of the tour, as the captain of the boat, Mr Kurt Arild Larsen, steers us through the fjord towards a mountainous island about an hour's distance from Tromso, he tells us he will cook what we catch for lunch.

"The motto of this trip is 'No Fish, No Food'. I can say that because I have never taken out a trip where we haven't caught anything," he says.

We catch much more than we need, so some of the cod are thrown back into the water while a few are boiled and served simply with parsley, salt, pepper and lemon.

For proof of the abundance here, one needs only to look to the Lofoten, an archipelago of islands 230km south-west of Tromso.

Lofoten is a nature lover's paradise, with some of the best hiking, and rock and mountain climbing in the world.

In addition to fish, sea eagles, cormorants and puffins thrive here and companies such as Lofoten Explorer (www.lofotenexplorer.no) take visitors out on the water in high-speed boats to see the birds up close.

The two-hour sea-eagle tour takes us deep into fjords and past idyllic islands where fortunate families have summer homes perched above white sand beaches and the clear Norwegian sea.

I am mesmerised by the water here, which is teal in the shallows, inky and dark in the depths.

At times, it is remarkably still, reflecting light and images with a mirror- like quality until boats pass, creating small waves which rise, solid and sleek, like shards of obsidian.

Around 40,000 tonnes of Atlantic cod are fished each year, much of which is turned into stockfish, a type of air-dried fish that is popular in Italy, Spain and Portugal.

In Norway's oldest commodity, the fish are gutted and dried on towering wooden racks called hjell, as they have been for more than 1,000 years.

The hjell are seen all over Lofoten, particularly in the town of Svolvaer, where they line the shore next to wharfs and rorbuer, old fishermen's cottages.

You can stay in a rorbuer on Svinoya (www.svinoya.no/en), a walkable island connected to Svolvaer by bridge, where sanguine fishing cabins have been converted into quaint and comfortable lodgings.

Svinoya was the birthplace of Gunnar Berg, one of Norway's foremost painters, who dedicated much of his short life - he died at age 30 - to capturing the unique light and dramatic scenery of his homeland; jagged peaks and fjords, uninhabited islands and Lofoten fishing villages as they were in the 19th century.

You can see some of his work and the work of other artists from the Golden Era of Norwegian painting - from 1880 to 1930 - at the Galleri Lofotens Hus (www.galleri-lofoten.no/en) in Henningsvaer, a fishing village that is a 30-minute drive from Svolvaer and a cultural highlight.

Thousands of kilograms of cod still land on Henningsvaer's docks every year, yet the remote fishing village has become the unlikely location of an artistic community.

The town is dotted with artists' studios selling handmade candles, ceramics and blown glass made on the premises.

On the village edge, with a spectacular silhouette of Lofoten's peaks rising in the distance, is Kaviar Factory Gallery (www.kaviarfactory.com), a world-class contemporary art gallery housed in an abandoned caviar factory, which has showcased pieces by artists such as China's Ai Weiwei.

The pink light of sunset behind the Kaviar Factory art gallery in Henningsvaer, Norway.
Photo: John Stenersen

That the work of such an acclaimed artist would be exhibited here, in a gallery in a fishing village in one of the most remote regions on earth, is incredible to me.

And yet, when I arrive to see "above the ART ic circle", an exhibition of 38 female artists from 21 countries, I see the names of other renowned artists such as Marina Abramovic and Cindy Sherman on the walls.

When the docent learns I am from Singapore, she excitedly leads me to an installation by French artist Marguerite Humeau, titled King Cobra.

"This piece came to us directly from Singapore," she tells me.

"It was part of an exhibition at Lasalle College of the Arts." Another surprise.

Who would have thought I would find a Singapore connection here?

Outside, the sun is setting, turning the sky a delicate rose hue I admired in the golden era paintings I saw an hour before.

Full of light, life and art, there is nothing desolate about this place. It is so much more than snow.

•The writer's trip was hosted by the Northern Norway Tourist Board and Lightfoot Travel.


This article was first published on Oct 16, 2016.
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