THE SPIRIT OF NORWAY
Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
I stay up all night to babysit the sun. At midnight its glow is faint, but the sky is still bright enough that I can read a newspaper without a flashlight and see the shore without squinting. By 2:00 a.m. the darkest part of the night has passed, and the light of the sky matches the white of the snow-covered mountains. The day that never ended has become the morning that has just begun.
I’m traveling up the coast of Norway on a mid-sized cruise ship, the MS Polarlys, and early this morning, as we cruised past a stylized globe that sits atop a small isle of rock, we officially entered the Arctic Circle.
I am now in a place where winter days are cloaked with a Polar Night, during which the sun never rises above the horizon, and summer nights glow with a Midnight Sun, during which the sun never drops below it. In other words, I’m headed to the top of the world.
To call the MS Polarlys, one of the recently refurbished ships owned by Hurtigruten Cruise Line, a cruise ship is to miss the point. It’s a lovely vessel, awash with sleek handsome wood that has a distinctly Nordic sensibility, and it spoils its cruise passengers — at least those who like fish fresh from the sea and locally-grown vegetables — with insanely good meals.
But its real mission is to deliver goods ranging from food to furniture to remote villages and at the same time to help the local residents travel to other coastal towns. (Think FedEx blended with Greyhound Bus.) Although the company was founded in 1893, cruise passengers weren’t welcomed aboard until the 1980s, when the company saw it as a way to make full use of their ships.
Between never-ending hours of daylight and the slow speed of the ship — Hurtigruten ships can be outpaced by an average dog or reasonably fit cyclist — we have plenty of time to ogle the scenery.
On our first night after entering the Arctic Circle our captain takes us for a midnight ride into the Trollfjord, a channel of water so narrow that it’s off limits to larger ships. I forget to be tired as I gaze at the snow-capped cliffs that tower above us, outlined by the dusky light of the midnight sun.
On a typical seven-day cruise a Hurtigruten vessel visits 34 ports, most for only a few minutes, but several for three or four hours. We disembark on the longer stops and, on occasion, treat ourselves to a ship-sponsored excursion.
Our first extended stop is in Alesund, a small city that is filled with Art Nouveau buildings. This is unusual for Norway, but happened because of what can only be called a fortunate disaster.
A fire ravaged the town in the early 1900s. While only one person was killed, more than 800 buildings in the downtown area were destroyed. Architects and builders from around the country came to the rescue, but as they rebuilt the town they eschewed traditional architectural styles, instead using the then-fashionable style of Art Nouveau. Alesund now emits a fairytale glow and is recognized as Norway’s National Center for Art Nouveau.
During other excursions we hear a concert of Nordic music performed in an architecturally handsome and acoustically excellent stone church, climb 418 steps to see a panoramic view of a city built on seven islands, visit a cathedral honoring Viking King Olav Tryggvason, and ride in a rubber boat to the edge of the world’s most powerful whirlpool.
But we spend much of our time relaxing in the ship’s Panorama Lounge, where we become hypnotized by the passing scenes of small villages. Some are perched on rocky outcroppings, others are tucked into the hills, all are dotted with small houses, most of which are painted in tones of red and gold. The traditional colors date back to the time when red was made from the blood and oil of codfish and ochre was produced from minerals found in the soil.
Mostly we explore the villages on our own — engaging people in conversation and absorbing the rhythms of their life. In Skarsvåg, a gathering of 40 people that may well be one of the smallest communities north of the Arctic Circle, economic conditions caused fish processing plants to close and young people to search for jobs in larger towns. As the town dwindled to one third its former size, the woman began knitting thick scarves and socks that they hoped to sell to the few tourists they could entice to come their way.
It will take a lot of scarves to save the village, but when you live in what they dubbed the “world’s northernmost fishing village,” resilience is bred in the bones — or, pardon the pun, knit into the fabric of your existence.
As we leave Skarsvåg clutching our bag of warm mittens, we see our first reindeer.There are 100,000 reindeer in Norway, some that roam free but most of which belong to the Sami, an indigenous people who have traditionally worked as reindeer herders.
Later we visit a Sami summer camp. Members of the Utsi family, who are dressed in traditional attire, welcome us into an oversized lavvu (tent) and as we sit around a fire, they tell us stories and show us some of their old-time crafts and practices. They teach us to play Sami tunes on a handmade drum, show us how to make thick boots and coats from animal skins and demonstrate how to lasso a reindeer. Finally, before we leave, they give us a taste of homemade reindeer broth.
On our way back to the ship we see North Cape, the northernmost outpost in Europe. Only two tiny islands separate us from the North Pole.
This obviously deserves a toast. We go up to the Panorama Lounge and, with our fellow passengers, cheer the fact that we’ve truly reached the top of the world.
To learn more go to www.hurtigruten.us and see the Napkin Notes section of this website.