Wednesday, July 15
Knowing now the correct bus time for the Lofoten Express (versus local ones), we made sure we reached the stop way ahead of scheduled departure time. Also hearing there was no toilet aboard, I knew only a few sips of water would pass my lips for the next nine hours.
A young Swiss traveller joined us as we waited. She had recently quit her engineering job and was exploring Scandinavia for the summer knowing she had marketable skills for finding another job back home. We mentioned we had missed the bus the day before while it was in sight no less. She told us the Swiss actually are so use to exact arrivals and departures they complain if a train is even one minute late. No wonder they’re known for their time pieces.
Within at least ten minutes of stated time, the bus comes to the stop and we all hop on. A lot of seats were taken by windows so we headed to the back and stretched out, unpacking our picnic breakfast, snacks and lunch (by now you must realize we rarely go anywhere without food!), but, boy did I miss my coffee fix.
Our backpacks were stowed in the luggage compartment and I told Max I forgot to take the camera out of his for the bus ride. He looked at me and said, ‘The camera? I didn’t pack it in mine.’ I replied that he had done so yesterday. Then comprehension dawned slowly as we simultaneously remembered we had taken it out for our day exploration in Svolvaer. Dang! Heading to Tromso and NO CAMERA. I knew then my lack of coffee is a very, very bad idea. At least we had Max’s iPad. I resigned myself to no photographs and settled in for the first half of our journey to Bjervik where we had a five-minute transfer for the next four hours to Tromso.
I also adjusted my attitude regarding being camera-less. At times having one requires constantly looking for the best photo-op. In the midst of happily snapping pictures my mind is also registering that I’m experiencing a second-hand view because I’m always behind the lens. In short, I’m not truly ‘in the present moment’ front and center.
Frankly, being camera-less made me appreciate not feeling obligated to document the moment but rather sit back and just absorb it. I must admit, though, I still missed the camera, and, I’m certain Max also missed my missing the camera since I would point and ask if he could snap an iPad shot… often.
After eight hours of winding roads, going through tunnels, and gazing at mountain-embraced waterways we crossed the bridge, one our brother-in-law Craig had passed under with his grandfather in 1972 aboard the TS HAMBURG (later sold to the Russians and renamed MAXIM GORKY), onto the island city of Tromso.
From small towns and quiet anchorages, we now were in a city of 70,000.
We headed towards the Tourist Information (TI) office only to find it so crowded we decided to go directly to our hotel (the one good thing from missing our Tuesday bus was we had booked a room for the first night). Although this is a city it’s extremely easy to find one’s way, especially since many of the hotels are clustered in the center.
I must say we’ve been happily surprised to find hotel rates really reasonable. Of course there are the REALLY nice ones, but then there are the economical ones that are cropping up to serve the growing population of backpackers and budget travelers like ourselves. Our hotel was City Living Hotel, and when we checked in the young man said we’d been upgraded to an apartment versus a small room with a fridge. An apartment?! We asked if we could reserve it for the next two nights knowing we might need to cancel one of them if we decided to do a day trip to Spitzbergen/Svalbard (Chris said he had noticed a way to see it for only $200 and sent us the link.). No problem, he said just let him know before tomorrow afternoon what our plans were.
We turned to pick up our bags only to notice something scurrying from under the garbage bins sitting beside the entrance door just outside. Chattering among us stopped only to be broken by Max commenting on what a cute little… and he quickly said ‘mouse’. I said that was not a mouse. We pivoted toward the desk clerk who announced he’d already called pest control and was waiting for them to appear. I mentioned it was a city and rats are found all over. With that, we took our bags and headed out, avoiding the bins where the cute little rat just left and thinking, ‘TripAdvisor DID give this an excellent rating, TripAdvisor DID give this an excellent rating….’.
And, when we reached our hotel apartment, our mantra paid off. I hadn’t had this much room in a long while! Counter space to actually cut on without first doing a spatial calculation on which ingredients get shifted to which side? A shower that doesn’t explode all over the head so you end up spending as much time wiping it down as you did when you got it wet? Beds where eight limbs aren’t boxing for stretching rights? Changing space that allows for a two-foot stance versus a one-foot balancing act? Use of a laundry area FOR FREE if needed? Clean, bright, and quiet? And, all less than the hostel price for two?! Pinch me for I thought I was in heaven. Rats be damned.
Still a bit stunned with our initial view, we stowed our belongings and found a grocery store for our breakfasts, picnic lunches, and dinners.
After a fairly early supper and bedtime, we were woken by the phone ringing at 11:30p. The desk clerk had been mistaken. There were no rooms available the next night, but he recommended two just down the street. Okay. So much for too good to be true. But, the next hotel, Comfort Express, was just as clean and friendly but much more basic. However, I must say the Norwegians don’t stint on wonderfully, pressurized hot showers or uncluttered, sparkling rooms. And, always, the welcome is warm and helpful information provided. We reserved for two nights knowing, again, we could cancel the third by afternoon if need be.
Thursday, July 16
After checking into our new hotel we did some research only to find that the $200 for Svalbard was the boat ride once you arrived (again, too good to be true, which we had thought all along but had to check); yet, we were happy to have more time in Tromso than the one day if we had managed to go further north.
At the TI another extremely helpful young woman provided us with several options for returning to Tromso: we could take a bus back (FYI: there was a toilet aboard after, although, at another stop along the way all the women availed themselves of a building’s restroom, and the driver does wait); fast boat to Harstad, then bus to Svolvaer; the Hurtigruten.
Considering all the choices along with timing and fares, we selected saving one night’s hotel cost and taking the Hurtigruten beginning at 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning. We weren’t required to take a cabin (she told us we could sleep in comfortable chairs), so we opted out of that. I did notice a reasonable buffet breakfast, and I told Max we should get that. Afterall, not knowing just how comfortable we’d be sleeping in chairs after boarding at 1:30 in the morning, I definitely wanted a good stream of hot coffee and food. Plus, we could make sandwiches for later. Even better, there was a hot tub aboard we could use. I’m always up for a hot bath.
After getting tickets for our return as well as for Thursday’s midnight concert at Ishavskatedralen (the Arctic Ocean Cathedral or Tromsdalen Church) and armed with museum information, we began our 30-minute walk to the Tromso Museum at the University. Right in town we noticed some brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk. They were exactly like the ones we saw in Germany last fall, and they offered a sombre moment to an otherwise easy and light-filled walk.
I also noticed a great manhole cover for our friend Ellen.
The walk was easy and I enjoyed seeing where people live as well as spotting some humungous weeds almost taller than Max.
In addition to the natural science exhibits, the museum had an excellent display of Sami (Laplander) culture, featuring many artifacts from the early days to the current political situation. Basically, the Sami, who call their land and nation Sapmi, were a nomadic people. Herding reindeer across the upper regions of Norway, Finland, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula, they managed a self-sustaining lifestyle using the reindeer for food (milk and meat), clothing, and tools. After WWII the small population scattered across the top part of the Scandinavian countries began to coalesce into a political nation through shared interest and culture.
A keystone was the conflict over the damming of the Alta River in Finmark during the 1970-80s when many Norwegians joined with the Sami to fight the dam’s construction. They didn’t succeed in stopping it but the protesting helped build a stronger national identify among the Sami. This led to an amendment to Norway’s 1814 constitution giving the Sami’s limited self-rule. The first Sami parliament was held in Karasjok. Sixteen years later in 2005 a controversial ruling transferred state-owned land (basically, 95% of Finnmark County) to a private landowner governed by a six-person board, three representatives appointed by the Sami Parliament and three appointed by Finnmark County Council. In short, it recognized that Sami hold land rights due to their long history associated with the area.
Leaving the Tromso Museum we set off for our second one, the Polaria, which proclaimed to have an excellent IMax-Type film of Svalbard and an aquarium.
Sitting outside eating our lunch we noticed a lot of young families going in and coming out. That should have been our clue. Unlike the one we had just left, the Polaria was void of any exhibit we felt, as adults, worth the cost of the ticket. However, the film was beautiful, so I take half of that statement back.
Back outside we decided to visit a 1939 boat that was included in our Tromso Museum ticket (the ticket also covered admittance to the Polar Museum, which we’d see on Friday). Taking advantage of a statue of Helmer Hanssen, one of Roald Amundsen’s fellow explorers to the South Pole, I asked Max to pose for a shot. This guy actually asked Amundsen to go ahead of him when they were approaching the exact location of the pole so Amundsen would be the first to reach it. That’s what I call being a good sport.
Now, that was definitely worth seeing. The ship was called MV POLSTJERNA;
and, not only did the included audio guide give us an idea of just how life aboard a sealing ship was but the photographic display of polar explorations on the bottom floor was wonderful.
Details, such as why you don’t want to cut off those silly-looking fringes on your anorak (keeps the seal hide from curling upward, thus maintaining one’s body heat), fascinate me. Not only is it interesting in its own right but also demonstrates how something so simple can make a huge difference in how well-prepared one is for a polar expedition.
I also appreciated the dry sense of humor displayed in large quotes throughout the exhibits, such as this one of Helmer Hanssen’s.
Exiting we left with an increased interest in tomorrow’s Polar Museum visit.
After deciding on salads for dinner from a local grocery store’s salad bar, we picnicked outside then returned to our hotel until it was time to walk over the bridge to our late-night concert at the cathedral.
The walk across was chilly but didn’t really require the long johns we’d added to our outfits. Once there we waited with a growing group of concert goers until the door opened at 11:00 p.m.
The inside was simple and stunning, just what one would expect of a church whose roof was built to symbolize how the snow and Northern Lights brighten up Tromo’s winter months. The church was consecrated in 1965 with a soaring (75-ft) stained-glass window forming the wall behind the alter.
At 11:30 p.m. a startling rich soprano voice launched into a Norwegian folk song accompanied by a haunting saxophone and piano music. Talk about goose-bump music. For the next thirty minutes Norwegian tunes, both traditional and modern, riveted us along with the other 30 or so attendees. We asked about a CD but none were sold so we knew a hunt for one would be on during our Norwegian travels.
The walk back seemed both shorter and warmer, and we reached our hotel before 1:00 a.m. filled with yet another reason why wintering in Tromso would be beautiful.
Friday, July 17
In the morning our day was dedicated to the Polar Museum and locating the Tromso branch of the Redingselskapet (the RS), the Norwegian volunteer, sea rescue service. After getting hot water down in the lobby for our instant coffee (which Max then brought back up to our room), we struck out for our next museum tour.
The Polar Museum was our favorite Tromso Museum with its wealth of information covering Norway’s polar explorations. In a small red building this museum packed with artifacts provided detailed explanations of living above the Arctic Circle on Svalbard and of voyages by Fritjof Nansen (1861-1930) and Roald Amundsen (1872-1928). Nansen, after being the first to cross Greenland in 1888, tried to then reach the North Pole by drifting with the polar ice in 1893, then on skis. It didn’t work, but he along with Hjalmar Johansen did survive several winters and set the record of being the furthest north at latitude 86º 4’ N.
in 1905 Amundsen accomplished another polar goal: completing the North West Passage after three years in the ice up there. Six years later he reached the South Pole on December 14th, 34 days prior to the English explorer Robert Scott. Furthermore, Amundsen and his companions lived while Scott and his fellow explorers tragically died on the return journey within 11 miles from provisions and shelter.
The stories of these polar expeditions fascinated me, but more so Max who took a bit longer in his travels through the cramped but well-documented rooms. What was interesting to me was reading about some of the folk who lived in the arctic such as the first female, Manny Woldstad (1893-1959). She hunted alongside her hunting partner, and later with her two sons. She also happened to have been Tromso’s first taxi driver in the 1920s using her own car. Quite the woman but not a life I’d appreciate living.
Right around the corner from the Polar Museum we found the RS. Although it was vacation month we were extremely fortunate to find Adine Wenner, a young woman who had just started working there six weeks prior. As the one holding down the fort she went out of her way helping us navigate the website and payment options for this service. During the time we were camped out in her office she told us how she had previously worked on a tall ship, s/v SORLANDET, first as a volunteer and then as paid crew. SORLANDET is the oldest of Norway’s three tall ships and the oldest one in the world still sailing fully rigged. Alesund was one of the hosting ports this summer, and we wish we could have seen them there.
With the end of must-see sight-seeing we repaired back to our hotel to hang out in the lobby until time to leave for the Hurtigruten. We made a quick foray to the grocery store for our salad, picnicking on a street bench where Max shot a well-deserved payback of me with my mouth full of food.
then returned only to find the lobby beginning to fill up with young kids from all over the world. Inquiring at the front desk we discovered these kids were representing their countries (Italy, Turkey, etc.) at the 7th European Open & Youth Bridge Championship. Evidently, Tromso hosts many of these types of competitions (an International Chess Tournament was recently held here). Pretty amazing for a relatively small city.
By 11:30 p.m. we headed for the dock for our trip on the Hurtigruten ship, the TROLLFJORD.
We boarded, checked in, then proceeded to scout out possible sleeping areas.
Trying several we finally landed on the second to the top floor, deck 8, with gorgeous views 3/4’s of the way around. Here was our ‘cabin’.
Max went off and surprised me with an offer of a G&T. Hell, yes, I’ll take one of those. And, with that we toasted our good fortune of being on such a ship.
One hour later we joined others, who, like us, had declined cabins. For the next six hours, we flopped like dead fish on comfortably padded benches while snoring sounds echoed throughout this glorious lounge.
We couldn’t believe they’d let us do this! All Max and I could think of was of those who paid a hefty price for a beautiful cabin only to find us hobos snuffling, snoring and yawning while sprawled all across prime seating areas. (Later we found out the company does make one take a cabin if they’re boarding before 10:30 p.m.; however, since this ferry service began as a simple water bus, its mission of serving the coastal folk means it also retains its very reasonable approach to passengers hitching a ride between ports.)
Around 8:00 a.m. I woke him up with coffee. We had splurged on our first-ever restaurant meal purchased in Norway since we landed a month ago in Alesund. We grazed and munched our way through breakfast into making excellent sandwiches for a snack later on.
We hot tubbed it with cheap suits we had quickly purchased in Tromso for the occasion. We asked a mother and her two daughters to take our photo with the snow-capped mountains in the background while we did the same of them.
We had shriveled enough so we hopped out to eat our sandwiches, one of which (mine) had a bit more altitude thanks to stuffing it full of more ham and cheese than Max’s.
Prior to our landing in Svolvaer the ship entered one of the spectacular fjords, which our ship happened to be named after: Trollfjord. It’s one a lot of ferries enter because it’s a short fjord (unlike the one Max, Chris and I took from Alesund up to Geiranger) and narrow. The width causes a lot of oohs and aahhs by passengers as a ferry our size manages to turn around. At one point if looks less than three yards to each side of the fjord.
Prior to landing we saw a map of the coast and used it to point out just how far JUANONA had sailed since landing June 19th in Alesund. (Tromso is a bit further north than my right hand, which is on Svolvaer where we left JUANONA.
Back on land we tried finding both a bus back to Kabelvag and, when that looked unlikely, starting hunting for a cab. That, too, didn’t seem to be happening, so we asked directions to the main road and starting walking. When we arrived at the tunnel entrance, we stuck out our thumbs. No luck so we just kept on walking. Finally about halfway to Kabelvag this car stopped and offered us a ride. The driver was a Somalian whose family had immigrated in 1991. He couldn’t have been friendlier during the short time we spent together. As Max noted, people who’ve had to struggle to just have the basics that many take for granted are the ones most likely to have the most empathy.
Reaching the dock we saw JUANONA survived our absence just fine. Now, getting ready for Betsy’s arrival!