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Bergen greets us with 3 degrees Celsius and rain, which is said to be normal. Nevertheless, the city seems to have trouble identifying itself:
On our way to the Hurtigruten pier we are driving through several long tunnels, so there is little to see. Our cabin on board is bigger than expected, although the bathroom is tightly arranged. On the first evening, they are serving an elaborate buffet. In fact, throughout the journey, we are treated to high quality regional cuisine, with local goods being delivered on the many stops on our way. Everything is delicious, except, alas, the coffee. After a general information session, we are positioning ourselves on deck to watch the ship’s departure, resolutely resisting both wind and rain as we are leaving the coastal city lights behind us and are moving through low-hanging clouds straight into what looks like a gigantic black hole. So we are on our way up north.
At 6.15 AM we are out on deck to get acquainted with the Norwegian fjords. It is still overcast, wet and windy; the hilly scenery is wearing a veil of snow. At some point, a sea eagle is passing by, on its way to one of the islands nearby. On deck 5, you have the opportunity to walk around the ship, provided you are ready to withstand the strong breeze that is awaiting you on the sea side. If you do, though, the coffee tastes much better afterwards.
Just as we are sitting down for breakfast, the ship makes its way offshore where the swell fits the weather conditions. We refuse to have it spoil this first meal of the day even though our stomachs give in to a somewhat queasy feeling. We are already missing lunch for we arrive in Alesund at midday and are immediately disembarking to go to the city park. Having wheezed our way up the 418 steps, we are rewarded with a breathtaking view across town:
The weather has improved significantly, offering 8 degrees Celsius and occasional sunshine. Somewhat reluctantly, we are retracing the steps downwards and use the remaining time to wander through town.
In the afternoon, the ship is carrying us past a range of snow-covered mountains. The sun shows itself more and more, so that the snow is positively glowing at times.
In every bay and on every island no matter how small, we are espying scattered houses, often quite isolated, with longs roads winding around the island to a far off bridge, if existent. We arrive in Molde about fifteen minutes early, providing us with three quarters of an hour to explore the town, which turns out to be unremarkable overall.
Once it’s time for dinner, the ship goes offshore again, but this time the rough sea fails to impress us. We are stopping in Kristiansund late in the evening, and as we don’t have enough time to disembark, we simply watch the new arrivals boarding the ship. (We will do this a couple of times as locals are using the Hurtigruten to make their way from one town to another, pointing to the company’s continued importance as a regional method of transport.)
At night, an announcement wakes us up, but not enough so we can make any sense of it. Was it that there are Northern Lights outside? Getting up seems impossible, so a look behind the curtain must suffice: A spectacular sky full of stars... What a sight! (The next morning we find out that we did miss the Northern Lights.)
After an early breakfast, we go ashore shortly after 8 AM to make the most of our stay in Trondheim. The weather is nice, but snow and ice along the way, and in all places outside the sun’s range, show that spring still takes its time. We cross the old town bridge and explore the borough of Bakklandet with its wooden houses that are built on stilts along the river.
At the next bridge, we are greeted by a student band playing a lively tune. Wearing their pants turned up and their caps striped, they are spreading cheer as if intent on chasing away any sleepiness affecting those passing by. We continue with a swinging step, heading for the Nidaros Cathedral. Gothic in style, it features elaborate paintings on each and every window, which, for all its beauty, dim out the inner rooms considerably. A large modern organ nestles perfectly fitted underneath the large round window above the entrance. Another organ, older and heavily decorated, can be admired on the other side. Overall, the building is truly impressive. Unfortunately, it is strictly prohibited to take photos inside.
The ship leaves again around midday. On our way, we are passing Munkholmen, an islet whose sole edifice served alternatively as a fortress, a monastery and a prison. While heading towards Rorvik, we are stunned by the fantastic deep blue color of the sea and even with decreasing temperatures, the sunny spots on deck are great places for lingering-
In Rorvik, the eldest ship of the Hurtigruten fleet has already arrived, coming from the opposite direction. While both ships are waiting to be loaded up, passengers have the opportunity to visit the other ship. Naturally, the old ship is the greater attraction and many of our fellow travelers make their way over. Meanwhile, we are scouting the local supermarket…
After a fantastic dinner, we are just enjoying a glass of wine at the bar when we hear an announcement that northern lights have been spotted outside. Suddenly everyone storms to the windows, outside, or to their cabin to get a camera. On deck, people are almost piling up on top of each other; those who were too late to get a place upfront stretching their necks from the side decks. Yet the only thing to see is a thin band of green light running across the sky. Disappointed, many of the eager observers withdraw again. We return outside a short while after, in hope of seeing another starry sky. As it turns out, we are just in time to witness the green band of light growing more intense and suddenly we are treated to a spectacular show with broad waves of white and green light swinging across the sky and blending with the sunset’s residual afterglow. Of course, we are unprepared for such a situation and have no idea how to photograph the northern lights and our spontaneous efforts capture no more than an optical echo. After a few minutes, the lights are gone and our fingers frozen. But that’s more than enough for one day. Tomorrow we’ll cross the Arctic Circle.
Night is over again at 7 AM: Now we have almost reached the Arctic Circle. Everyone arrives on deck 7 and at 7.33 AM we are passing the globe that marks the latitude of 66 degrees. The Hurtigruten knows how to cater to tourists: There are glasses of bubbly on sale – for 99 Norwegian crowns (about 10 EUR).
After breakfast, there is a crossing ceremony. For this, we receive a special guest: Njord, the god of the sea, whose goodwill you’ll need to cross the Arctic Ocean safely. In his presence, the captain personally “baptizes” volunteers by shoving ice cubes into their necklines. There is a surprisingly large number of volunteers and you get the distinct impression that the captain, who is quite reserved otherwise, enjoys this part of his duties a lot. We say “no, thank you” and instead take in the mountains and the deep blue water, both glistening in the sun.
Shortly afterwards, we are arriving at Ørnes, which sits in a most enchanting bay. The weather is still on our side and the mountains are reflecting on the calm water surface. The stop lasts no more than 15 minutes, but who wants to disembark anyway if presented with such a captivating scenery?
About 2.5 hours later, we have reached Bodø, the town of the sea eagles although we see nothing but gulls…. It’s an industrial town with functional architecture. Nevertheless, we take the opportunity to treat ourselves to some good coffee, which we enjoy, sitting on a bench in the sun, feet up on a pile of snow.
At 6 PM, we are entering the region of Lofoten and stop at Stamsund where the people seem to have given up on removing rock and simply leave it standing in their gardens…
Our stay is short, the forklift operators are jetting to and fro, then they unhitch the ropes, and we are on our way again.
While it’s getting cloudier, it’s not as cold as you would assume in this region, especially given that the snow is no longer limited to the peaks but reaches down to the water. The sea is calm; soft light threads its way through the clouds; the mountains are rolling down the horizon. Now and again, a small fishing boat adds a red or blue dot of color. Here and there you can also see a house or two.
Because we arrive in Svolvær with some delay, we only have about three quarters of an hour to explore the town. Our destination is the town church, mainly because it sits in an elevated location and should offer a good view. However, it must have been snowing recently as getting around proves to be quite difficult if you are a pedestrian. It seems that the sidewalks have become people’s favorite place for dumping snow from the streets. The market place is similarly buried under a thick white layer and only a single food truck testifies to its original purpose. The harbor is charming, though, nestled against the backdrop of imposing mountains.
At around 11.30 at night, the ship makes a detour to the Trollfjord, which connects the islands of Lofoten and Vesteralen. The fjord stands at the center of the so-called Battle of Trollfjord of 1890, when ordinary fishermen faced off big steam boats as they tried to block the entrance to the fjord and its many fish. Of course, it’s already dark, so the ship directs its spotlights towards the entrance while the surrounding, snow-covered rocks appear almost ghostly against the black sky. The fjord’s name already points to the fact that it is quite popular with Norway’s trolls, and the nightly excursion creates a fitting atmosphere – still, there is not a lot to see.
This morning we have nothing scheduled, so we find nice window seats for ourselves, watch the passing scenery, get up to date on the news and write some emails. In the afternoon, it’s time to don robust shoes and an extra layer of clothes in preparation for our arrival in Tromsø where we get an extended stay.
The sky is cloudy, and it’s a few degrees warmer than you would expect considering the masses of snow. It’s thawing and snow water is running down the sludgy gullies of the descending roads and digging deep furrows into the icy snow. Once again, pedestrians meet with some difficulties: Any sidewalks that do exist remain hidden under a thick layer of snow. One exception is the Tromsø Bridge, so we can cross it without problems, but on the other side, we are fighting our way through plenty of snow, even more sludge and many puddles until we reach the funicular railway and catch the last car up on top of the town’s local mountain.
Up there, we enjoy a breathtaking view across Tromsø and happily trudge through a knee-high layer of snow. Two men think that their female company would like to take photos of them if they just bare their torsos, but the women seem to have more fun building a snowman.
Back in town, we pay our respects to the Amundsen Memorial whereas the wooden “cathedral” is a temporary building site and cannot be visited. So we head to the Olhallen, the world’s northernmost brewery.
Afterwards, we leisurely return to the ship – just as the sun decides to come out after all.
Our arrival in Honningsvåg is at 11.15 AM and the majority of our fellow passengers has booked a trip to the North Cape. We are not keen on a cliff filled with tourists and explore a local tongue of land reaching far into the polar sea. Hard to say how it compares, but it is exclusive. Before that, however, we make friends with a (not so) little troll.
Not far away, we also find the statue of a dog with a sailor’s hat. The memorial plaque informs us that the statue remembers a Saint Bernard called Bamse, which was very popular with local children and, during World War II, became the mascot of the WikiPedia:HNoMS_Thorodd.
As in most towns along the coast, functionality is given precedence over architectural beauty. Statues protruding from the white layer of snow hint at the presence of public places; in the cemeteries, you can barely see the headstones.
Back on our way, we are apparently passing waters rich in fish, judged by the number of gulls bustling about at the foot of the mountains, in the water and in the air. In the evening, we enjoy the most enchanting evening glow. There are hardly any stars at night and some light lingers all the way through to the morning hours.
We are almost an hour late when we arrive in Kirkenes and, as usual, we are seeking a place high up. The sun is shining as if it were intent on finally pushing back the snow. Still, the big white heaps will need some time to disappear. The view upon the lovely bay is somewhat marred by the harbor’s industrial sites, but still worth a picture or two. As it has become our custom, we take a look at the local church as well.
At 12.30 PM the ship turns around and heads back south, with a range of new faces on board. We are still late, so we are unable to disembark at our next stop. The clouds are increasing. Initially, the sun manages to create some wonderful play of light, but very soon it’s overcast and we are experiencing another rough sea. The wind is howling and all passengers are careening as if they had already been at the bar.
The ship is see-sawing all night, but by the time we sit down for breakfast, the sun is shining again. Later in the morning, we are reaching Hammerfest. Off ship, we are immediately turning right and find our way along the pier and through some snowier shortcuts, allowing us to reach the local church before all others. Thus, we have some exclusive time with its beautiful glass painting.
Now going south, we get a chance to see all the things we passed during the night on our journey up north. In the afternoon, we thus admire the beautiful scenery along the way to Oksfjord: The mountains are stretching out towards the horizon, each one exhibiting its very own pattern, carved into the snow by the wind. Here and there, the hazy sun succeeds in adding a sparkle. Meanwhile the wind prevents us from ever forgetting that we are still cruising the Arctic Ocean…
And lest you think that there is no human life to be found here: Every twelve hours, we are meeting a Hurtigruten ship coming from the opposite direction. And there are some wind turbines, too.
While we are having dinner, we are traversing the Lyngen fjord with its majestic Lyngen Alps rising out of the glassy water. From a distance, they appear almost apparitional behind a thin veil of clouds, but as we are approaching, the sun struggles through and paints some peaks in a shimmering gold. Wherever the clouds are keeping together, the sky underneath takes on a subtle red glow and you can just sense the setting sun behind the mountains. This extraordinary play of light creates a magical atmosphere. There are almost no signs of human settlement; here and there ducks and gulls are crossing the scene.
Tonight, it’s a premier: we are actually joining an excursion. Late at night, we are taking the bus to the Arctic Cathedral to attend a midnight concert. Highly praised by everyone who’s been there, it does not fail to impress us either. Three performers, consisting of a soprano singer, a cello player and a piano and organ player, are offering a 50-minute mix of classical music, Norwegian folk and a yoik of the Sami people. The soprano sings her first song from the rear balcony, accompanied by the organ. Then, while singing the second song, she walks slowly down the stairs, through the nave and up to the front stage. Dimmed lights and flickering candles provide a fitting atmosphere. It seems to be a Hurtigruten exclusive as the only audience are the ship’s passengers, but of those the majority is present.
Having been out and about for half of the night, we are taking our time to start the day and have an extra cup of coffee. (Thankfully, the dining room’s coffee is drinkable without exception, unlike the coffee in the ship’s café, which is for emergencies only.) Meanwhile, we are entering the Risoy channel through the Risoysund and make a short stop at the trading post Risoyhamn. The channel, completed in 1922, creates an important connection between Risoyhamn and the rest of Vesteralen’s shipping traffic.
Our next next chance to disembark is in Stokmarknes where we arrive twenty minutes late. This time, however, they make an exception and reschedule our departure by fifteen minutes as well. We can’t help but wonder whether this has anything to do with the fact that this town is the cradle of the Hurtigruten operation: This is where Richard With founded the express route, a fact that is commemorated by a sizable museum located directly at the pier. As soon as the doors open, a long trek is marching towards the exhibition. We prefer to stretch our legs and wander around town instead. There is little to see in the town itself but a picturesque composition of clouds makes the harbor look like something from a fairytale.
In the afternoon, we come to one of the highlights of the whole journey as we are traveling through the Raftsund and pass the entry of the Trollfjord for a second time. While we didn’t see a lot the first time, it now presents itself in its mesmerizing, almost eerie beauty, particularly because of the snow and the still waters. Unfortunately, it really cannot be captured in photos (even though we tried again and again…)
In the evening, we also get another opportunity to visit Svolvær. By now, much of the snow has melted, the market place is visible again (although it still features one lonely food truck only…) and we are even able to reach the church this time. It is low tide, revealing huge amounts of seaweed and the smell of fish hanging over town is downright obtrusive. The gulls love it, though: They are displaying loudly and enthusiastically and even pose for us.
This time round, we also see the Svolvær goat, a rock column featuring two smaller columns on top that look like goat horns (if you use your imagination). Although it counts as Svolvær’s hallmark, it’s easy to miss. And finally, we see an adequate number of those wooden frames used for making stockfish or dried cod. After all, it is the main pillar of this region’s economy, next to tourism and so far, we only saw one or two here and there. Back on board, we are listening to the Legend of Utrost and end the evening with a glass of wine.
As we are crossing the Arctic Circle for a second time, we commiserate about leaving the magical world of the Arctic Ocean behind, even if the wind immediately feels less piercing. Strangely enough, we see more shades of brown and green before we pass the globe that marks the latitude; afterwards we are back to glacier-like mountains as if traveling into the wrong direction. This is short-lived, though, and soon there are more and more dots of color, not least thanks to some offshore islands that are in the wind shade of the mountains. The water is twinkling in the sun and if you keep out of the wind, it’s even warm enough to take off cap and gloves. The number of houses steadily increases as well.
Our midday stop is in Sandnessjoen, remarkable for its view upon the Helgeland Bridge, but we are already noticing a thin layer of fog, which later on thickens and prevents us from seeing the “Seven Sisters” mountain range. We have almost passed it when the fog briefly lifts to allow a glimpse before it thickens even more.
Two picturesque small islands with two or three houses herald our approaching Brønnøysund. They look a bit surreal with the surrounding area, including some sizable mountains, shrouded in fog. We take a stroll across a town that is almost free of snow for a change, and enjoy some ice cream at the harbor.
(In the background, you can see our ship with its broad red band.)
Aside from the fact that it marks the center point of Norway, Brønnøysund is also renowned for the Torghatten, the famous mountain. So as soon as the ship takes off again, we are strategically positioning ourselves on deck. Because of the fog, we are not too hopeful, but it gets even worse. Just before we reach the mountain, the sky suddenly seems to clear off and we have a great view – until we turn to pass the side with the hole. Suddenly, the curtain falls again and this time it’s for good. For the next few hours, we are accompanied by the ship’s foghorn. Unable to see anything, we use the time to read and surf the internet.
In the evening, while the ship is moored in Rorvik, we are served a special, 5-course menu to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Hurtigruten. We are seated by the window and have a direct view onto an incoming Hurtigruten ship, arriving from the opposite direction. It is heading directly towards our window, which makes us a little nervous, but its captain does, of course, precision work, regardless how close it looks. We also feel as if the passengers standing on deck have a great view straight onto our plates while, in truth, they are too far away. As was the case on our first stop here, you are able to visit the other ship. This time, however, the other ship is not the eldest one in the fleet. In any case, no one still seated in the dining room wants to miss out on the next course. By the time we take our evening stroll along the deck, the ship is on its way again and we have missed the sunset as well, but are compensated by an awesome afterglow.
Having arrived in Trondheim early in the morning, we are out to visit the city or a second time. This time, we head towards the center and discover some really beautiful buildings that we missed the first time around. By now, the snow is almost gone and city gardeners are busy with planting. The rest of downtown, however, does not wake up until we are on our way back already.
Our journey onward leads us through low hanging clouds, sometimes enshrouding the mountains and then again merely winding along the valleys like a gigantic cotton snake.
Late afternoon, we are stopping in Kristiansund, another town we only saw late at night on our northbound journey. We No disembarking this time either, but we notice that the city is much bigger than thought, stretching along both sides of the harbor. The houses are built wherever the rock permitted, often aided by concrete piles. We are struck by a compact church of gray stone and some mighty ships moored nearby.
Later on we are sailing offshore again.
Today, we have to bid farewell to a dreamlike scenery – and exquisite food. Meanwhile, the mountains around us are fully clothed in colors of brown and green, speckled with small trees and bushes, although, now and again, some snow-covered peaks are cheating their way in. The sky is layered with clouds, some lighter, some darker; it is misty and the ship is bobbing up and down on unruly waters, and yet it is beautiful. Nevertheless, we are hoping for good weather in Bergen (haha). After breakfast, we secure a window seat on deck 7.
We venture out again when we are entering the Sognefjord and passing through the Steinsund, a sea gate of about 60m. We spot a few houses and trees in those areas sheltered from the wind, but most of the islands consist of bare rock. The wind isn’t as cold anymore, but much stronger than we experienced up north. The gulls are literally flying backwards and two sea eagles need quite some time and several attempts to land successfully on a rock.
In the early afternoon, we are finally reaching Bergen again. (And guess what: we actually do have fine weather.)