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.