Within The Circle

Last weekend saw an other couple of feet of snow fall in Oslo, after which a steady freeze has set in.  Hats off to the city authorities: they seem to have snow ploughs in a wide enough range of sizes to suit any road or pavement and the thoroughfares while becoming a little icy in places of late remain impressively clear.  They are however bounded by snow banks as high as my elbow that are little trouble for pedestrians but make life a challenge for anybody who parked a car on the kerb in certain parts of town during the snows.  I saw one man near our apartment spend near an hour digging his car out a few nights ago.

The aforementioned freeze is hovering around the minus ten Celsius mark in central Oslo, dipping to twice that just outside.  Leyla and I decided several weeks ago to leave the city for Valentine’s weekend.  We chose to seek the Northern Lights in Tromsø: a city historically known as The Paris of the North but also northerly enough to be well inside the Arctic Circle.  With the temperatures in the south being so low, what would we find in the polar region…

As it transpires, the coastal location of Tromsø makes it far warmer than the more inland capital.  It was a balmy minus three when we arrived last night and after checking in at the hotel I happily stepped out without an overcoat.  We have since learned that the lowest temperature yet recorded here is minus eighteen; surprisingly warm and seemingly very un-Arctic.

Tromsø also has a beautifully scenic location.  Our hotel is barely one hundred metres back from the fjord and the room has a clear view across the water (over the top of some rather trawler-ish vessels admittedly) to snowy hills and mountain peaks beyond.  Getting there from the airport involves the complete opposite however: a tunnel that is over a mile long and doesn’t just go from point to point but has a couple of junctions with roundabouts along the route; it makes Heathrow look a bit tame.

Twilight in Tromsø from a hotel window

The world’s most northerly brewery; Mack; is located here and a pint (well, a zero point four or zero point five litre) of the pilsner tastes far better in the local bars than it does in Oslo.  Brewery tours are only available Monday to Thursday though so that tale will have to be related anon.  There is also an aquarium here that doubles as an informative insight into the broader life and environment at the poles.

For those who are interested in the numbers, the Arctic Circle is drawn sixty degrees north of the equator and Tromsø is a few minutes south of seventy degrees.  This places the city firmly inside the boundary and equally firmly inside the zone of the Arctic winter, during which time little in any light can be discerned in the sky during day for two or three months.  At this time of year there is daylight but we couldn’t resist a dark laugh when sitting at dinner last night and The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” came over the sound system.

This evening we joined a guided trip to see the Northern Lights.  It involved a drive of half an hour or so out of the city to a Sami settlement where we sat round a fire in a traditional tent drinking coffee and eating reindeer soup before stepping out to watch the skies.

The clouds that were obscuring much of the view when we arrived had magically cleared during the intervening period, leaving a vista of stars to behold.  Hesitantly, a small glow of the very palest green started to form in the east before arcing above us to the far west in a band of light.  After a while a second band followed, the beginnings of a third later still.

While the ethereal glow spread, swirled and retreated above us, our guides started explaining how the colour and activity of the Lights runs in seven year cycles and how this year appeared to be the lowest part of it.  At that point, as if listening and insulted the heavens suddenly filled with shimmering, dancing, pink-edged explosions of effervescent light.  An all-encompassing, circling, spiralling pattern pulling the eye to all corners of the sky; dwindling softly yet almost as swiftly as it had arrived.  Genuinely breath-taking.

Monte Carlo or Bust?

Sunday night in the Marriott Riviera Porte, just across the road from Monaco.  Southern France isn’t always sun, warmth and perfume in the air: this evening it was raining at Nice airport and a near-English four degrees Celsius according to the thermometer in the taxi but having come here from a sub-zero Oslo, the change in weather is still more than positive enough for me to appreciate the difference.

My lodgings are genuinely on the invisible border between France and the Principality of Monaco, the two separated only by a couple of lanes of one way street.  In these days of open borders within the EU that we all now enjoy, the simple stroll across the road can be enjoyed all the more by those who may choose one side or the other of it.  I wonder how, if at all, the division was policed in olden days though…

For those who may be wondering, this is the beginning of a business trip rather than the end of a weekend break away.  A company contributing a significant piece of engineering to our project has its team based here and I am in town to offer them some encouragement in certain areas of their labours.

Before I came here I was informed by several colleagues that Monaco is dead during the weekend, with most people coming in to work the nine-to-five Monday to Friday and living elsewhere.  By and large, it looks they are right.  Sunday nights in Oslo are still remarkably quiet to me as a ‘Londoner’ but Monaco manages to be quieter still.  After an hour’s stroll across ‘town’ I think I encountered three dozen passing cars and fewer pedestrians; a notable proportion of who were uniformed policemen.

The furthest reach of my stroll was the casino, the lobby of which is an impressive piece of painted and gilt pink marble rather reminiscent of the Opera Garnier in Paris, with a Garnier Room leading from it that makes me wonder if the resemblance might be more than coincidental.  Leading south from the casino square is Avenue Monte Carlo, notable for its top drawer boutiques and the rather incongruous red and white Formula One kerbing in front of some of them (clearly Hamilton, Massa et al are looking to cut a good apex as they pass Prada and Lalique).

Yet more unexpected a sight on the Avenue Monte Carlo was that of used cars for sale.  In a place where everything is clean, tidy and ‘just so’ and super/luxury cars appear to be as commonplace as the Ford Fiesta used to be in England, it came as quite a surprise to find a ’99 Jaguar XJ8 and a ’96 BMW 320i convertible sitting by the kerb with “A Vendre” signs in their windows, while the latest from Gucci and Valentino were being displayed behind the glass on the other side of the pavement.  One can only surmise that the current economic downturn truly is global…

In the meantime, other car owners more certain of their machinery appear to be enjoying the Monte Carlo Classic Rally.  An Opel GT/E, a Triumph TR4 and a Lancia Stratos are parked just outside the Parc Ferme for no apparent reason (I fear they may be breakdowns) while the official listings posted on a notice-board nearby show that three hundred-odd competitors are in the middle of several days’ rollicking good fun and games.  Where they have all parked for the evening, who knows.  Advertising by the start/finish ramp declares that the third Monte Carlo Rally for alternatively fuelled vehicles will take place in late March.  For all the talk that has passed in Formula One on the subject, it is interesting to see that one of the worlds most famous rally races has already put its money where its mouth is in that regard.

In Oslo there is currently an ice skating rink for children on the main street between National Theatre and the parliamentary building.  In Monaco there is an ice go-kart track instead (using electrically powered karts I should add).  Vive la difference…