Karl Baedeker, writing a hundred years ago about Norway’s remote northern provinces of Troms and Finnmark, observed that they “possess attractions for the scientific traveller and the sportsman, but can hardly be recommended for the ordinary tourist” – a comment that isn’t too wide off the mark even today. These are enticing lands, no question: the natural environment they offer is stunning in its extremes, with the midnight sun and polar night further defamiliarizing the often lunar-like terrain. But the travelling can be hard going, the individual sights geographically disparate and, once you do reach them, rather subdued in their appeal.
The intricate, fretted coastline of Troms has shaped its history since the days when powerful Viking lords operated a trading empire from the region’s islands. And while half the population still lives offshore in dozens of tiny fishing villages, the place to aim for first is Tromsø, the so-called “Capital of the North” and a lively university town where King Håkon and his government proclaimed a “Free Norway” in 1940, before fleeing into exile. Beyond Tromsø, the long trek north and east begins in earnest as you enter Finnmark, a vast wilderness covering 48,000 square kilometres, but home to just two percent of the Norwegian population. Much of this land was laid to waste during World War II, the combined effect of the Russian advance and the retreating German army’s scorched-earth policy, and it’s now possible to drive for hours without coming across a building much more than sixty years old.
The first obvious target in Finnmark is Alta, a sprawling settlement – relatively speaking, of course – and an important crossroads famous for its prehistoric rock carvings. From here, most visitors make straight for the steely cliffs of Nordkapp (the North Cape), ostensibly but not actually Europe’s northernmost point, with or without a detour to the likeable port of Hammerfest, and leave it at that; but some doggedly press on to Kirkenes, the last town before the Russian border, where you feel as if you’re about to drop off the end of the world.
The main alternative from Alta is to travel inland across the eerily endless scrubland of the Finnmarksvidda, where winter temperatures can plummet to -35°C. This high plateau is the last stronghold of the Sámi, northern Norway’s indigenous people, some of whom still live a semi-nomadic life tied to the movement of their reindeer herds. You’ll spot Sámi in their brightly coloured traditional gear all across the region, but most notably in the remote towns of Kautokeino and Karasjok, strange, disconsolate places in the middle of the plain.
Finally, and even more adventurously, there is the Svalbard archipelago, whose icy mountains rise out of the Arctic Ocean over 800km north of mainland Norway. Once the exclusive haunt of trappers, fishermen and coal miners, Svalbard now makes a tidy income from adventure tourism, offering everything from guided glacier walks to hard-core snowmobile excursions and husky riding: journeys that will take you out to places as remote and wild a spot as you’re ever likely to get in your life. You can fly there independently from Tromsø and Oslo at surprisingly bearable prices, though most people opt for a package tour.
As for accommodation, all the major settlements have at least a couple of hotels and the main roads are sprinkled with campsites. If you have a tent and a well-insulated sleeping bag, you can, in theory, bed down more or less where you like, but the hostility of the climate and the ferocity of the summer mosquitoes, especially in the marshy areas of the Finnmarksvidda, make most people think (at least) twice. There are HI hostels at Alta, Karasjok, Kirkenes, Honningsvåg, Mehamn, Harstad, Senja, Skibotndalen and Tromsø.Read More
One of Norway’s most celebrated sons, Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) was intent on becoming a polar explorer from his early teens. He read everything there was to read on the subject, even training as a sea captain in preparation, and, in 1897, embarked with a Belgian expedition upon his first trip to Antarctica. Undeterred by a winter on the ice after the ship broke up, he was soon planning his own expedition. In 1901, he purchased a sealer, the Gjøa, in Tromsø, leaving in June 1903 to spend three years sailing and charting the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Gjøa (now on display in Oslo) was the first vessel to complete this extraordinary voyage, which tested Amundsen and his crew to the very limits. Long searched for, the Passage had for centuries been something of a nautical Holy Grail and the voyage’s progress – and at times the lack of it – was headline news right across the world.
Amundsen’s next target was the North Pole, but during his preparations, in 1909, the American admiral and explorer Robert Peary got there first. Amundsen immediately switched his attention to the South Pole, and in 1910 set out in a new ship, the Fram (also exhibited in Oslo), for the Antarctic, which he reached on December 14, 1911, famously beating the British expedition of Captain Scott by just a couple of weeks.
Neither did Amundsen’s ambitions end there: in 1926, he became one of the first men to fly over the North Pole in the airship of the Italian Umberto Nobile, though it was this last expedition that did for Amundsen: in 1928, the Norwegian flew north out of Tromsø in a bid to rescue the stranded Nobile and was never seen again.
On and above the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line drawn round the earth at latitude 66.5 degrees north, there is a period around midsummer during which the sun never makes it below the horizon, even at midnight – hence the midnight sun. On the Arctic Circle itself, this only happens on one night of the year – at the summer solstice – but the further north you go, the greater the number of nights without darkness: in Bodø, it’s from the first week of June to early July; in Tromsø from late May to late July; in Alta, from the third week in May to the end of July; in Hammerfest, mid-May to late July; and in Nordkapp, early May to the end of July. Obviously, the midnight sun is best experienced on a clear night, but fog or cloud can turn the sun into a glowing, red ball – a spectacle that can be wonderful but also strangely uncanny. All the region’s tourist offices have the exact dates of the midnight sun, though note that these are calculated at sea level; climb up a hill and you can extend the dates by a day or two. The converse of all this is the polar night, a period of constant darkness either side of the winter solstice; again the further north of the Arctic Circle you are, the longer this lasts.
The Arctic Circle also marks the typical southern limit of the northern lights, or aurora borealis, though this extraordinary phenomenon has been seen as far south as latitude 40 degrees north – roughly the position of New York or Ankara. Caused by the bombardment of the atmosphere by electrons, carried away from the sun by the solar wind, the northern lights take various forms and are highly mobile – either flickering in one spot or travelling across the sky. At relatively low latitudes hereabouts, the aurora is tilted at an angle and is often coloured red – the sagas tell of Vikings being half scared to death by them – but nearer the pole, they hang like gigantic luminous curtains, often tinted greenish blue. Naturally enough, there’s no predicting when the northern lights will occur. They are most likely to come out during the darkest period (between November and February) – though they can be seen as early as late August and as late as mid-April. On a clear night the fiery ribbons can be strangely humbling.