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.