The Gateway to the Arctic
Nestled a cool 350 km above the Polar Circle, between fjords, mountains and the wilderness, Tromsø is affectionately known as the ‘Capital of the Arctic’.
WORDS MONIQUE CECCATO
The Gateway to the Arctic
Nestled a cool 350 km above the Polar Circle, between fjords, mountains, and the wilderness, Tromsø is affectionately known as the ‘Capital of the Arctic’.
WORDS MONIQUE CECCATO
It’s just started snowing, depositing the beginnings of what will become a shoe-deep layer of white over Tromsø city centre. We tighten our scarves, bow our heads against the elements and plough on to Storgata, Tromsø’s main pedestrian street. To ‘fintrø’ (meander down the street slowly) is out of the question today.
Tromsø, Norway. Photo: Espen Mills
Ahead, we spy a chalkboard painted with a cursive promise of warm, spicy gløgg (mulled wine) and reindeer sausages. It’s promise enough to put a momentary pause on our visit to the polar museum, and reroute us to the front steps of the tiny Raketten Bar & Pølse. The kiosk sits on the fringes of Stortorget in the company of other bustling stalls and timber-clad stores. At no more than six square metres, it’s said to be Norway’s smallest bar – just big enough to house a sausage boiler, a simmering pot of spiced claret, and the vendor, who cheerfully exchanges it all for a few kroner.
The colourful main street of Tromsø.
Hot wine and reindeer hot dog? Only in Norway...
Norway's smallest bar, Rakketen Bar & Pølse.
Tromsø is the birthplace of ship captain and Hurtigruten founder Captain Richard With, a place that came into its own as an important city in the 1800s. Arctic hunts of seals, walrus, and polar bears saw expeditions stopping in at Tromsø from as far afield as Greenland and Russia. With the booming hunting industry came an uptick in trade, dependent on the 1,255 km shipping route from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the north. The unreliability of the route prompted Richard With’s founding of Hurtigruten. The inaugural voyage of DS Vesteraalen between Trondheim and Hammerfest in 1893 marked the beginnings of the first regular shipping route, and of the cruise and shipping company we know today. Shipping activity and the hunting trade continue to sustain the city – albeit with more focus on the likes of cod and halibut nowadays. In summer, your nose will tip you off to the thriving fishing industry, thanks to the giant cod-drying A-frames standing along the coast. However, Captain With’s legacy is everywhere too, with towering cruise ships docked just outside our harbour-side hotel.
The snow-capped rooftops of Tromsø, with Tromsdalstinden mountain visible in the background. Photo: Espen Mills.
We press on with our mission, down Storgata towards the waterfront Polarmuseet i Tromsø, passing row after row of historic timber buildings. As the snow falls harder, we head inside the museum to learn the sometimes harrowing stories of some of Norway’s most famed explorers, including Roald Amundsen, Fridtjof Nansen and Wanny Woldstad. The following day, with adventuring fresh in our minds, we set the GPS further afield. In the gentle pink glow of the midday sun, we take the cantilevered Sandnessund Bridge off the island and follow the curves and sweeps of the fjord-side roads westwards, past reindeer grazing in frosted fields, and toward a tiny cluster of islets where Norway edges the sea.
“When we arrive in the early afternoon, the sky is still candy-floss in colour.”
— Monique Ceccato
Following the fjords around to Sommarøy.
The islands of Sommarøy are low-lying and flat, save for the furthest out of them, Hillesøya. We hop from island to island via the narrow, one-way road, crawling ever so slowly to be sure we don’t miss a single sight. Even in the depths of a sunless winter, the shallow waters and bays around the islands feel like those you’d find closer to the equator, their turquoise hue begging us to come back and dip our toes under the summer midnight sun.
This area of the world is blessed when it comes to its skyline.
A reindeer under a candy-floss sky.
At the halfway point of the return journey, there’s a stop which a friend highly recommended: Bryggejentene. It’s a koselig (cosy) gift-store and café in an unassuming residential area at the base of the gaping Ersfjord. When we arrive in the early afternoon, the sky is still candy-floss in colour. Snuggled on a reindeer hide-swathed armchair with a beer and Norsk tasting plate, we lose ourselves in the view of the fjord and snow-dusted mountains beyond. In the warmth of the café, we wait for nightfall. Tromsø’s best Aurora Borealis vantage point is just around the corner – or so the barista tells us. The last of the sun has faded by 3pm, and by 6pm the barista is proven correct when the sky above erupts with a blazing green ribbon of light.
The famous northern lights are generally visible from October to March in Tromsø,.
Catch it on a weaker day, and the Northern Lights can often be mistaken for a milky and grey haze, but there is no mistaking this display. The flickering electromagnetic storm paints the sky in shades of green and purple, dragging even the most desensitised Tromsø locals out to watch the show. We jump and scream as we watch it dance across the sky, only retreating to our hotel when the biting chill of Tromsø’s winter air becomes too much. It’s a fitting finale to our time in the city, a colourful image of life in the far northern reaches of Norway forever emblazoned in our minds.