We had two options for our planned Christmas/NY break – we could throw caution to the budgetary wind & head for the winter sun or we could check off a major item on the wish list & go see the Northern lights. Dreams of New Zealand for a dear friend’s wedding, the Caribbean and even the Maldives (really really not good for the budget!) flashed before my eyes but the draw of the Aurora was too strong and so we found ourselves stocking up on all things thermal and woollen in preparation.
Our story starts on Christmas day in Bergen in Southern Norway – and for obvious reasons it’s largely a ghost town. But that can’t take away from the charm of Bergen, cobbled streets and squares, Hanseatic wharfs in the beautiful Unesco World Heritage site area of Bryggen and a breath taking view from the top of Mt Floyen.
The funicular up to Mt Floyen is open all year round and you can walk up to the view point if you so wish, but we’re of the lazy persuasion and opt to take the funicular all the way up 320m above sea level and it’s well worth going up – the ride is fun and the view is simply outstanding. You’ll have to excuse my regular use of superlatives in this post, I really can’t think of any other way to describe the views – check out the photos below & see if you disagree!
That evening we say goodbye to Bergen and board our ship heading to the Arctic. We’re taking the iconic Hurtigruten on a round trip voyage heading northbound from Bergen to Kirkenes and back again. The route takes us all the way up the coast of Norway, around the North Cape (Highest point in Europe) and eastward to Kirkenes, a town a mere 6 miles from the Russian border, even further east than Istanbul!
Hurti-gruten means the fast route (Hurti meaning fast and Gruten meaning Route) and it has a special place in Norwegian history – running for 120 years, it is part coastal ferry and part vital lifeline to the small towns and villages (34 in all!) on the Norwegian coastline that rely on the Hurtigruten for postal services & cargo deliveries.
The rains are lashing down & we’re sailing into a Gale Force 10 wind and I’m starting to worry that this is all a terribly bad idea. My worries are allayed somewhat upon arriving at our first long stop of Day 2 – Alesund.
Alesund is best known for its art nouveau architecture, a fire in 1904 destroyed the original wooden houses and a group of over 20 architects from all around Norway drew inspiration from the works around Europe at the time to design Alesund. The town itself is small but perfectly formed and after admiring the quaint buildings & the dusky twilight showcasing the distant snow-capped mountains, we turn our attentions to a pub for a cheeky drink before heading back on deck.
Unlike other cruise ships, entertainment on board is DIY/BYO and after some competitive iPad scrabble (I lose, again!) it’s time for dinner and a stop in Molde where we have time to dash off and stretch those sea legs.
The ship stops a number of times, at all hours of the day and night – stops can be as short as 15 minutes or a few hours in the larger ports. The seas are calm on Night 2 and we don’t even notice the midnight dockings.
One thing we are finding it hard to adjust to is the dark, it is one thing to wake in the dark at 6am, but it feels rather strange to wake in the dark at 8am! On Day 3, we’re out in Trondheim watching the sun rise at 10am! And what a sunrise – the waterways by Gamble Brybro (Trondheim’s old town bridge) appear dipped in crimson and gold and for this alone, I’m glad to have weathered the stormy seas. (Famous last words I’m sure, I’ll be complaining again by the next lot of rough seas). Trondheim is one of the larger stops en route and while others are doing a formal excursion, we’re simply soaking up the sun we haven’t seen in a few days – we stop by Nidarosdomen Cathedral, built in 977 A.D over the grave of St Olav, Norway’s patron saint and the official consecration site of Norwegian kings.
Back on board, we’re whiling away the hours before our next stop admiring the views. A highlight was Kjeungskjaeret (I haven’t the faintest idea how to pronounce this), a lighthouse located on a small rocky island, a mere 20m above sea level with the rock itself flooding at high tide – the lighthouse standing only 17m above high tide. With a range of 13 nautical miles, the lighthouse was manned by keepers and their families from 1880 when it was built until 1947, when it was manned by keepers in shifts, getting electricity in 1965 and becoming fully automated finally in 1987.
Keepers and their families living on the lighthouse in the early years had no means of communication with the mainland, emergency messages were signalled in morse code, supplies were gotten from the mainland and children were tethered to the rock if playing outside and brought inside the lighthouse before high tide struck. A lot of history in this teeny tiny portion of Norway.
We crossed the Arctic circle early this morning which means our chances of seeing the elusive Northern lights are on the up, the forecast isn’t playing ball though – we’re expecting clouds!
On a meandering musing note, I’ve always known that Scandinavia feels very expensive for tourists, that much I had expected before arriving, but I never considered what sort of impact it had on the countries themselves. Fishing, shipping and oil are the mainstays of the very high quality of life here and Norway has an extremely strong welfare system with an enviable financial position – it saw very little impact from the global recession, unemployment is extremely low and this is noticeable everywhere we go, buildings and roads are maintained to the highest standards and there is a prosperous feel even in the smallest towns and villages.