“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
Norway – Land of the Midnight Sun
by Barbara Barton Sloane
The sun never takes a break here in northern Norway. The country, called “the world’s top destination” by National Geographic Traveler Magazine, has always been known as “the Land of the Midnight Sun” and its light never fails to inspire.
I feel inspired right now as I recline on a deck chair gazing up into a ghostly pale sky studded with dark, brooding clouds and surrounded by majestic gray cliffs. Although it seems like midday, it’s actually 10:00 at night! I am aboard the MS Nordlys on its Coastal Voyage cruise. Webster says that “cruising” means “moving along in an unhurried or unconcerned fashion.” Exactly the way I prefer to navigate. I’m there!
I am with a group of 8 companions, and we will travel south from Kirkenes near the northern-most point on the continent to Bergen. Along the way, we will stop at many ports, each town or city unique in its landscape, traditions and way of life. To begin our journey, we fly to Oslo and then on to the top of the world, Kirkenes, to board our ship. Before leaving Oslo, we take a tour of Norway’s capital city. Formerly called Kristiania, the royal family lives here sans fanfare on Oslo’s best-known street, Karl Johan.
Small enough to be intimate, squeaky clean Oslo offers world-class dining and appealing attractions, including countless parks and recreation areas. We take a stroll along the very bridge which was the inspiration for Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream.” A large and imposing modern white building has just been built which will open its doors in early 2008 – the Oslo Opera House. As the first opera house in Oslo, its opening is awaited with great anticipation. There are some 45,000 students in Oslo, so you can count on finding trendy boutiques, good music and clubs as well as displays of Norwegian design, important collections of the explorers Amundsen and Heyerdahl, the Munch Museum, and the Vigeland Sculpture Park, a not-to-be missed experience. The park covers an area of 80 acres featuring 212 bronze and granite sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland. These works of art are divided into six sections, each part displaying sculptures depicting life’s stages from birth to old age. Walking through this park is a moving and poignant experience.
A two-hour flight brings us to Kirkenes, a city lying just 6.2 miles from the Russian border. It is exciting to be here, and even more exciting to see before us the beautiful MS Nordlys in its entire white, red and black splendor. The gangplank lowers, spirits soar, and our six day, five night fjord cruise is about to begin.
A little information about our ship: It is considered a “working vessel” as it conveys cargo to 34 ports of call all year round. This does not mean, though, that luxury or comfort are sacrificed aboard the MS Nordlys, as we are about to find out. To make our voyage all the more interesting, there are several land-based tours and excursion opportunities during the sail and each port visit is unique, differing in landscape, architecture, food and traditions.
Once on board, we rush to check out our cabins. They are small, as cabins on ships typically are, but our porthole looking out to the open sea staves off any feelings of claustrophobia. The bathroom is doll-sized. Our miniature shower is hard against a tiny sink, and at first I can’t imagine how to make this work. As it turns out, it is entirely adequate and functional. After all, when in a Lilliputian environment, think small!
Salute to the Sun
Four hours after departing, we arrive at our first port: Vardo. We clamor off ship and jump into a van which takes us to visit the Vardohus Fortress, built in the mid-18th Century for a Danish king. Today, only four soldiers and one commanding officer hold down this fort. There they execute a special salute that is done nowhere else in the world. On the 21st of January, when, after two months of darkness the sun can be seen once more above the horizon, the soldiers salute and kids get the day off from school. Sun-Day!
Breakfast on the Roof of Europe
The next morning at 5:45 a.m. we’re bright-eyed while most passengers are still sleeping soundly. We arrive in Honningsvag, and debark to board a bus to the North Cape Exhibition Center in West Finnmark. A reward for rising so early: we have the very special privilege of breakfasting 1,000 feet above the churning Arctic Ocean with dazzling sunlight dancing across the horizon. We view a film about life on the North Cape throughout all four seasons. The morning is crisp, the sky a piercing blue, and the air sparkling and fresher than our citified lungs have ever known.
We hike up a rocky path leading to the Oscar Memorial, a stone monument raised by King Oscar II of the Union of Norway and Sweden in 1873 to mark the Union’s northernmost border. Here, too, we find a monument created in 1989 by seven children from different parts of the world to symbolize cooperation, friendship, hope and joy across all borders. Towering above the entire area, a mammoth globe, the symbol of this dramatic land, the North Cape.
What Makes Sami Run
One of the neatest things about North Cape – its reindeer. Wherever one looks, it’s wall to wall reindeer grazing in herds, their impressive antlers touching the ground. These surprisingly small animals climb steep, craggy rocks as surefooted as mountain goats. And, where there are reindeer, there must be –no, not Santa but Sami! The Sami are an ancient people whose main source of existence are the reindeer. They keep herds of them, and make use of every single part of this animal. The site called Salen is where we find the traditional Sami goahti (a turf hut or earthen lodge), constructed just as they have been building shelters since time immemorial. The Sami serve their traditional delicacies: reindeer meat, smoked fish and local cloudberries. I find myself longing for the divine repast I know awaits me onboard ship. But before we depart, I have the chance to get up-close with my own personal “Rudolf”. Petting his head makes me think Christmas can’t be far behind!
Magical Mystery Tour
We arrive at the port of Tromso, known as the “Paris of the North” near midnight. But go to bed? Not on your life! Outside, it’s still twilight so we decide to do a walk-about in this, the largest town on the North Cape. Tromso, quaint, bathed in a pearly light, is magical. Back on board, we’re too jazzed to think of sleep just yet so we decide to have a nightcap. The Nordlys has on-going entertainment in its nightclub. Tonight, it’s a charming gentleman, a kind of jack of all instruments, who accompanies himself while singing Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash tunes. There’s also a dance floor, and despite the late hour, we give it a whirl. Returning to my room, I can’t resist a last peek at the beauty just outside my porthole. We glide silently by countless tiny islands in the icy, slate gray water and the gentle motion of our ship leads to a deep and peaceful sleep.
Our next port is Harstad and our land tour here takes us to the Trondenes peninsula, a medieval Viking region. This was a military area during World War II and some of the barracks can still be seen by the lake. In the Trondenes Museum, we view church sculptures from the 16th Century and other ancient artifacts. We visit the Trondenes Church which dates from 1250 and was, at the time, the most important Roman Catholic church in northern Norway. The resident priest, an affable young man, conducts a brief service for us and then leads us in “Praise to the Lord”, one of my favorite hymns.
O Captain, My Captain
Now we head southeast, seemingly straight for a wall of mountain and ahead a majestic sight: the narrow Trollfjord where only one ship can pass at a time. But, not to worry. We are in the hands of our experienced Captain and he steers us skillfully through a lake that fills with chunks of ice even in summer. Sky high cliffs with their sheer sides seem to pose a permanent threat of rock falls. Our Captain reassures us that the Trolls sleep for 1,000 years after their midday nap and before they start throwing stones at the ship!
Jonathan Livingston & Friends
Once through the Trollfjord, we leave our ship through an underground passage to immediately step aboard a boat, the Sea Eagle Safari. This is one of the highlights of our voyage. Happily, the crew on the Safari has thought of everything. It is chilly so they give us warm jumpsuits to keep us toasty. For those that are game, there’s a bucket with fish to hand out. The aggressive seagulls swoop down and grab fish from our hands! We’re on a White-Tailed Sea Eagle watch, and we are not disappointed. One of the crew yells “there!” and soaring majestically above us two beautiful birds with massive wing spread. They glide and dip, and although they don’t come close enough to take the fish we’re proffering, they pierce the water gracefully and come up with their catch. After this bout of sheer excitement and thrill, we return to the Nordlys tired but happy.
Mmmm, Dried Cod
Early evening, we come to Svolvaer in the beautiful Lofoten Islands, and visit the fishing village of Henningsvaer. There are red and gold cabins, white sand beaches and a countryside dotted with wooden racks upon which the fishermen hang cod to dry throughout the winter. In spring, when the dried cod resembles small gray planks of wood, it is shipped world-wide as an edible delicacy. An acquired taste, I’m sure.
On day five, we are now in pretty Trondheim, a historic city and the original capital of Norway, founded in 997 by the Viking King Olav. By Norwegian standards, Trondheim is a large city but it has the intimate feel of a small town. We visit one of Norway’s cultural treasures, the Nidros Cathedral built over the burial place of St. Olav, the country’s patron saint. Construction of this enormous Gothic church began in 1070 and it is considered the most beautiful in Norway. Trondheim marks the last of our land excursions. Tomorrow we pull into Bergen and from here we have a stretch of open sea till morning.
Bergen. Bring Your Brolly!
As we pull into port and stand waiting for the gangplank to lower, there’s an almost palpable feeling among all the passengers: Too soon. Must we really get off now? Sadly, the World’s Most Beautiful Voyage has come to an end.
Our ship, the MS Nordlys (which means Northern Lights), is part of the Hurtigruten fleet of 15 ships which operates along the coast of Norway. The entire staff onboard has been warm and professional, eager to assist whenever the need arose. Our meals were exceptional. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style, and the dinners were one of the highlights of our day. We had the chance to visit with passengers at nearby tables, some who traveled with us from the start, some who joined at various ports of call -- a convivial atmosphere in an attractive setting. I enjoyed a dish to remember, the ultimate comfort food called, intriguingly, Rommegrot Og Spekemat. Doesn’t that sound mouth-watering? It is! It’s a sour cream porridge swimming in butter and eaten with smoked, cured ham. I adored Rommegrot and think of it still, but where shall I find it in Westchester?
It’s now time to bid adieu to the Nordlys. We step off to terra firma in Bergen. Three words: Bring your brolly. Due the city’s placement between high mountain peaks it rains well over 200 days of the year. No surprise, it’s raining right now!
Between rain drops we have a tour of this ancient city founded in 1070, walking through its famous fish market and through the UNESCO World Heritage house of “Brygge” (the wharf). We take a funicular to the top of Mount Floyen and have a spectacular view of narrow, cobbled streets and brightly colored wooden warehouses that huddle around the harbor below. There are fine restaurants here and I’d venture to say that one of the best, the Floien Folk Restaurant, is like none that you’ve ever experienced. It dates back centuries and is completely made of wood (www.floien.no). I’d recommend, as well, the Noboen Restaurant, very trendy, elegant and modern. (www.grannen.no).
If you plan to travel in winter your voyage will be greatly enhanced by the Northern Lights. You will experience the Polar Night and celestial displays of greens, yellows and reds that dance in the wind. In winter, you’ll also have the opportunity to see pods of Orca, have a dog sled safari, snowmobile across frozen tundra, check out ice caves in search of Polar Bear and for the very warm- blooded, you can spend a night in the Alta Igloo Ice Hotel. There are special activities geared to the winter holidays. If you choose the Northern Lights Voyage departing on December 21, you’ll enjoy a traditional Christmas with a holiday dinner and music. Imagine – hot toddies, making friends with a reindeer, carol singing under an Aurora Borealis sky! Dreams are made of this.
Planning to go?
Oslo: Clarion Hotel Royal Christiania, www.royalchristiania.no
Bergen: Neptun Hotel, www.neptunhotel.no
Norway Tourist Information: www.visitnorway.com/us
Hurtigruten Group: www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.us