To celebrate tonight’s longest night, I’m going to take you on a little trip back in time, to May 2011 when I went to the Arctic Circle.
For reasons I can no longer remember, I made it a two-centre trip. I started with a few days in Trondheim, in middle Norway (a tale for another day), and then flew on to Tromsø.
Saying that, I am going to start this story in Trondheim after all. I was flying SAS and when I got to the airport, they offered me the option of a boarding pass or my fingerprint. That is a stupid question. Of course I’m going to fly on my fingerprint! I spent the first half of that flight just staring at my magic finger. The flight was a bit like a bus. I’ve been on flights that require me to change planes but I’ve never been on a flight that just stops somewhere on the way to let passengers off and new ones on. Bodø, the bus stop in question, is unimaginably beautiful. We descended among snowy rocky mountains and islands and I’ve never seen anything like it that wasn’t CGI.
Not that Tromsø is 100% ugly either. It wasn’t as spectacular as Bodø but it was satisfyingly Arctic, with snowy mountains on the horizon easily visible from the airport and a good bite in the air.
Anyway. Getting from Tromsø airport to Tromsø city centre requires taking the bus through the tunnels – and not just tunnels! This is an underground road network, with junctions and roundabouts and everything. As per usual, I got lost. Norwegian flybuses tend to drop off at all the major hotels. I thought I knew where I was going and I didn’t. I found myself strolling through the streets, utterly bewildered, and finally resorting to stopping a stranger and putting their English and their local knowledge to the test.
When I’m in Norway, I tend to stay in a Thon hotel. It’s a chain, but a chain with a few different levels (but the same wifi username and password in all of them, which is why one of their cards lives permanently in my travel wallet). I stay in the Budget, which is obviously the cheapest of the three “concepts” but when I get lost, I invariably stumble across one of its more expensive sisters, who always know where the cheaper one is and can point it out on a map or give me directions. In Trondheim, I’d been in a tiny attic room with a ceiling that sloped down so sharply that I was kicking it all night. In Tromsø, I had a comparatively huge and luxurious room complete with underfloor heating in the bathroom.
But getting lost isn’t a terrible thing to happen, especially if you’re only pulling a small suitcase. I had the opportunity to prowl Tromsø for a little while before getting settled in so by the time I’d dumped my luggage and changed into clothes more suitable for the weather I already had a fairly good idea of what was where – believe it or not, despite the bite in the air, despite being over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, despite the ring of snowy mountains on the horizon, I was far too hot and changed into t-shirt and sandals before going out properly.
Tromsø’s number one attraction, other than the scenery and the setting, is the Arctic Cathedral, a triangular church built in 1964-65, on the other side of the fjord from the main city, on the mainland. In actual fact, it’s not a cathedral, it’s just a parish church but it’s much more striking than the real cathedral. In fact, more than four years on, I’ve only just learnt that the pretty yellow church I took a photo of while lost is the actual cathedral.
As I said, it’s on the mainland. Other than swimming, the only way to get across is by the bridge, which is fine in a vehicle but a somewhat intimidating proposal on foot. You see, large shipping has to pass through that particular strait and rather than messing around with lifting or opening bridges, it was decided to simply make the bridge high enough for the largest ship to get underneath. The internet says it’s only 38 metres – 125 feet – at its highest but that feels very, very high when you’re walking across it on a breezy afternoon, and it’s over a kilometre long, so it’s not like you can just shut your eyes, take ten steps and have the ordeal be over. My diary at the time says it took about twenty minutes to walk across it. In my couple of days there, I reckon I walked over that thing at least five times. It doesn’t get any less scary.
Having had my photo taken on that Arctic background and seen the special church, I went back and saw some of the town and then went home and debated whether or not I had the energy to go and see the Midnight Sun. I decided I didn’t have to go very far and therefore I’d make the effort and was delighted to get down to the harbour and find the Hurtigruten ship MS Midnatsol was in, so even if it was cloudy, I’d seen the Midnight Sun anyway.
The Hurtigruten are a fleet of… well, cruising ferries, I suppose. They’re more ferry than cruise ship and they go up and down the Norwegian coast. If it wasn’t for the emetophobia, I’d love to do at least a few sections of it. The full round trip, Bergen to Kirkenes, right up at the Russian border, and back takes twelve days but you don’t have to do it all. Imagine sailing along the northern coastline in the winter, with the Northern Lights over the water. I turn into a bit of boatspotter where the Hurtigruten ships are concerned. I’d seen Polarlys and Nordnorge leaving Trondheim a few days earlier and I saw them both arriving in Tromsø, twenty-six hours later according to the timetable on their website. As I hadn’t seen Midnatsol before, I conclude she was doing the southbound journey rather than the northbound one.
By now I knew I had to see the sun in the sky and I knew the best place to see it from. You know too, don’t you? The bridge! The trouble was, it was already ten to midnight and it was easily that far to the bridge, plus another ten minutes to the top. I ran. I made it to the bridge – the wrong side of the bridge – and ran up as far as I could and then I stopped, took off my watch, held it up the sky and took a photo showing midnight and a glow in the clouds behind it. I can’t in all good conscience say it’s really a photo of the Midnight Sun but it was a good try.
I had a good idea for the second night. There is a mountain behind Tromsø and a cable car which is open until 1am for this very purpose. I took the bus over that terrifying bridge, took the cable car up and got in position. Far too early. Oddly enough, it’s freezing up a mountain in the Arctic Circle at 11pm, even in May. It was a nice view but it was far too cold to wait up there for a Midnight Sun I might not even see through the cloud. I descended, opted to walk back to the Arctic Cathedral rather than wait half an hour for the bus and was in position to catch the Sun. In fact, I was there at least twenty minutes early, hence the series of “Nearly Midnight Sun” photos I took just in case, and I also witnessed MS Vesterålen sailing under the bridge and demonstrating exactly why it’s so high. It’s very weird to look at the photos, of an acceptable summer early evening and know that this was all happening at midnight. There had been a Midnight Concert in the Cathedral so there were dozens of us enjoying the Sun. And then guess what? We all had to walk home over that accursed bridge again.