The Paris of the North
Tromsø lies high up on the northern coast of Norway. Far above the Arctic Circle, where Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Lapland meet. Like the rest of Norway, Tromsø was forged out of brutal nature. Here, rugged mountain peaks loom above crystal clear waters, fresh snow covers lush plains and everything seems to be framed by majestic green, red and pink curtains – The Northern Lights. No wonder lovers of life from around the world gather here. But it wasn’t always so. Founded in 1794, the city of Tromsø was first described as dark, poor, primitive and plagued by a terrible climate. Dubbed the “Gateway to the Arctic”, Tromsø was simply somewhere Polar explorers passed through at the start of an expedition.
But once word spread of the city’s ice-free harbour and abundant fishing, it wasn’t long before adventurous Central Europeans came to visit, laying the foundations for the cosmopolitan city Tromsø is today. By the end of the 1800s, local vessels and cargo ships from France, Germany and Britain crowded the docks as merchants traded freshly-caught seals, whale and even musk ox. When the Hurtigruten passenger ship started sailing in 1893, the city began playing host to tourists from all over the world. Americans, Danes, Brits and Italians, expecting to encounter an uncivilized, poor society, were delighted to discover how hospitable and cultured the Norwegians actually were. From this point on, Tromsø became known as the Paris of the North.
“Nature in Tromsø is awesome. But it isn’t any more impressive than the warmth emitted by those who live here.”
Communicate from the heart
When I arrive in Tromsø, a snowstorm is waiting to welcome me. I take a taxi to my hotel, which is on the harbour where the Hurtigruten passenger ship docks. Hundreds of travellers stream by, all speaking in different tongues but their body language is universal. With faces buried deep in the hoods of their brightly coloured winter jackets, they pick their way along the icy pavement towards the hotel entrance. They’re hypnotised by the weather. I don’t have time to exchange more than a few words with a group of Japanese tourists before I, too, have to stop and stare at the sky. A few minutes later, the blizzard has passed and we’re all left gazing at a perfectly still and clear, midnight blue.
With the decline of the fishing industry in the 1970s and 80s, Tromsø was forced to modernise. Today, it’s home to several regional hospitals and universities. As a result, the city’s population grows by about a thousand inhabitants per year and the city is enriched by a vibrant cultural scene. This is particularly useful in winter for fighting the boredom which can be brought on by the almost perpetual darkness. But the Polar night, which lasts from November 21st to January 21st, does have its own charm. Dawn at this time of year is something to behold – even though it passes in the blink of an eye. The Polar night also offers the best chance of witnessing the otherworldly dance of the Northern Lights. And Tromsø is one of the best places on Earth to see it. So, it should come as no surprise that large groups of tourists, eagerly chasing the aurora borealis, are a common sight here.
The next day, I climb into my XC60 and set off. The sun is blazing through the windscreen and the snow banks along the narrow road are almost two metres tall. It feels like I’m driving into a snow-blind tunnel to an undiscovered world. But Sommarøy is not undiscovered. Located just an hour’s drive from Tromsø, my destination is clearly marked on the navigation system in my Volvo. An oncoming car approaches and I hold my breath, slowing down almost to a standstill. But the other driver doesn’t seem to notice. He speeds by me, clearing my car and the snow bank with only inches to spare. My destination comes into view. Shallow bays glittering like aluminium foil in the sun envelop Sommarøy. The scenery is inspiring, almost spiritual and perfectly accompanies the crisp, electronic music that fills my car.
Although we are 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, the climate here is relatively warm thanks to the Gulf Stream. These kisses blown from Mexico keep the average temperature in midwinter around -5 degrees Celsius. But winter is long and unpredictable and it’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day. I continue to navigate around Sommarøy and, without warning, find myself covered in a dense and fierce darkness. I am once again in the middle of yet another blizzard.
Courage in its DNA
Tromsø is a city of social activism, and women may be the biggest reason why. While the men were away at sea, the women stayed home and breathed life into the community. It seems people here value human interaction and real community involvement. Tromsø’s shaky beginnings have taught modern residents to take advantage of every opportunity. Their forebears, so many of whom were forced to make do and improvise a living without a safety net, seem to have passed down a certain resilience and willingness to experiment. In 40 years, the population has tripled and now stands at around 70,000 people. As the city has transformed into a high-tech mecca, it has attracted immigrants, entrepreneurs, tourists and researchers from all over the world. Over 120 nationalities are now represented here. A friendly city, Tromsø recognized early on the value of openness. Its residents are interested in visitors and welcome the influence of new cultures.
The kingdom’s crown
As I look out over the fishing boat’s cold railing, I know that I am no fisherman. I haven’t inherited hundreds of years’ worth of steel nerves to master the icy sea. My eyes are not programmed to scan nature for danger or quickly identify opportunities. Nature in Tromsø is majestic and noble, upright and shimmering blue. Maybe I am no fisherman, but the sea here is a catch that everyone can enjoy. Nature in Tromsø is awesome. But it isn’t any more impressive than the warmth emitted by those who live here. Nature in Tromsø is a kingdom. And the people of Tromsø are its crown.