Steve’s Sojourns – Sunbathing at midnight
As we slipped gently out of Bergen harbour on the evening tide the sun began to wash the city with a soft orange almost golden cast. There a few finer sights in life than a sunset at sea and tonight was proving to be one of the finest.
I had come to take Norway’s Hurtigruten cruise to see the Midnight Sun just as many others take it to experience the Northern Lights. For over a hundred years the Hurtigruten ships have been sailing between Bergen in the south to Kirkenes on the Russian border deep inside the Arctic Circle. However if you are a dedicated cruiser then you must expect something different here for the Hurtigruten is not so much a cruise as more a way of life.
What I found here was a bus and postal service with goods and people getting on and off at every stop. Most of the Norwegians I met were desperate to try out their usually perfect English on me and I was soon holding a conversation with a charming young couple visiting
Because these vessels are a cross between an arctic explorer and a cargo ship I soon discovered I had to make my own entertainment. Don’t think however you’re on a rusting tramp steamer here though, as the company’s newest vessels have all the mod cons of a contemporary cruise ship.
The next morning after a typical Scandinavian breakfast of sliced meats, cheeses and yoghurts I made my way back into the lounge to chat to my two young Norwegian friends only to find they were no longer on board. During the night the ship had docked at two small settlements and they had disembarked.
An hour later we docked at Alesund and taking advantage of the one hour stop I strolled into town to look at its world famous, fascinating Art Nouveau style architecture. So fascinating in fact that I had to sprint back to the dock to get on board before departure. The Hurtigruten is a working voyage with a schedule to keep and will wait for no one. There are many stories of people missing the ship and having to pay thousands to meet up with it by taxi or plane further along its route.
At any given time there are eleven ships plying their way up and down and clever timing means that the ports visited by day going north are arrived at by night going south and vice versa and to many people the full twelve day return journey is the ultimate in cruising.
The Hurtigruten has been called the most beautiful cruise in the world and I soon began to see why when we travelled down the 10 miles of the fiord that lead to the World Heritage site village of Geiranger. Cliffs that are thousands of feet high with waterfalls cascading down almost the same distance, glower over you and dwarf any ship beneath them. All this against a backdrop of blue sky and white clouds whilst Sea Eagles drifted nonchalantly past to keep us company.
On most cruises you get one stop a day on the Hurtigruten you can get five. Most of the stops are no longer that half an hour except at the bigger cities and towns but the joy of leaning over the rail and watching what is being loaded and unloaded and who’s getting on and off is a hard to beat.
This is a good feature of the trip as the bridge would let us know if there were sea eagles or whales around or we were passing some interesting landmark or building. What they weren’t so good at telling us was that King Neptune was aboard and had come to christen those who had not crossed the Circle before. A point I was not that happy about as the melting ice cubes trickled down the back of my neck.
The excursions that the company offer really help you get under the skin of this wonderful country. So late morning in a moment of madness I found myself and five other thrill seekers standing on the dock at Bodo wrapped head to toe in a bright orange waterproof suit wearing goggles and a hood. Ten minutes later we were roaring across the sound clutching the aluminium handle in front of us as our rubber inflatable skimmed across the
We now headed out into the vast open spaces of the Arctic Ocean as the captain decided we should go and see The Seven Sisters a group of stunning rock formations that are iconic for Norwegians. The sun now had become a pale lemon disc and it suddenly dawned on me that it had not moved for about an hour and was quite happily sitting just above the horizon.
Peeling back the layers on my wrist I discovered it was 12.30 in the morning so I had at last seen the Midnight Sun. More to the point I had been a member of a group consisting of seven nationalities who had stayed up this late, endured the cold chill on the bow, laughed and joked to keep our spirits up for this moment, who needs politicians?
Tromso is a delight and we had a five hour stop here. Forget the coach excursions and walk down the gangway to explore this lovely time capsule on foot. From the bright yellow wooden cathedral to the exquisite wooden houses and shops in the centre a short walk takes you to the Polar Museum well with a visit with its aquariums and fascinating artefacts. Across the water is the modernist Arctic Cathedral. Do check out at the local tourist centre what’s happening though as I felt so sorry for Pauline from Milton Keynes who took the local bus over what must be one of the most impressive bridges in Europe only to discover there was a wedding on and she couldn’t get in.
The next day Eric, a sprightly octogenarian from Bath and I went to mainland Europe’s most northerly point and encountered all four seasons in the half hour it took the coach to reach the top. Rising some 307 metres almost vertically from the cold Arctic Ocean the North Cape was memorable for the way the tundra crunched under my feet and the cold ‘lazy wind’, it tries to go straight through you rather than around you, made me wonder how anything can live here.
This part of Norway is still inhabited by the Sami, reindeer herders who have been here for thousands of years but they too are succumbing to the “westernisation” of the human race. My last afternoon was spent coughing as the wood smoke filled my lungs inside a traditional Sami tent. The reindeer are kept here only for the summer and are taken across a wide channel to their winter quarters. “In the old days we’d swim them across” said one of the old men. ”Now we put them on the ferry, it’s a lot easier.”