In Search of the Northern Lights
Our first long ocean cruise and on the Viking Venus on their voyage In Search of the Northern Lights! (See information about our ship!)
The reason we were on this cruise? To see Norway and the Northern Lights! We were unable to dock at our first port due to very stormy seas. (Thank you to a great captain and crew for making certain we were safe!) Traveling on water requires flexibility from the crew and from the guests as well.
Our first stop was in Trondheim, Norway, where we took a walking tour of the city with our Viking Cruise guide. (Viking includes a no-additional-cost excursion at every port, generally an overview of the stop.) The city, the first capital of Norway, is the home of the Nidaros Cathedral, the largest church in Norway. (Nidaros was the name of Trondheim under Viking rule.) The cathedral is built over the tomb of Saint Olaf, the Viking king who was instrumental in bringing Christianity to the country. Norwegian kings still receive their ceremonial blessings in the cathedral. The cathedral underwent renovation from 1905 to 1983 which resulted in an interesting note: Supposedly, the face of the archangel Michael is modelled after Bob Dylan.
We loved wandering around the town and over the bridge Gamie Bybro which spans the Nidelva River. The colorful wharfs lining the river provided wonderful photo ops. Not far away from the bridge is the world’s first bicycle lift--think a ski lift but for bikes--was invented and built in Trondheim in 1993. The lift now carries 20,00-30,000 cyclists up the extremely steep hill annually.
Our tour also took us past the Archbishop’s Residence (Erkebispegården), the Royal Residence (Stiftsgården), and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway’s largest university. (Knowledge and learning are of great importance in all of Norway, but especially in Trondheim.) Although we understood the need for strict safety protocols, we were disappointed that we did not get to wander around the city on our own but, instead, had to stay with a guide at all times. However, Viking did try to give many opportunities for exploration and included stops for snacks in places so we could try traditional foods.
Another momentous first for me happened the next day--we passed the Arctic Circle. Viking, in the long tradition of mariners, did not let the event go unnoticed. Traditionally, sailors would jump into the frigid waters to celebrate. Thankfully, this method was not utilized by our ship! Instead, the crew filled the hot tub with ice—lots and lots of ice—and anyone who wanted could jump in, jump out equally as fast, get their nose painted blue, and have a shot of aquavit. (Having your nose painted blue is part of the tradition. Viking used blue icing.) Drinking aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor, is another tradition. Those who did not want to take part in the icy plunge could still have aquavit and get their crossing certificate.
Tromsø, a place of education, science and medical services, was our stop the next day. Tromsø is actually on an island, the most populated along the coast. (With all its islands, Norway has one of the longest coastlines in the world.) Because of Tromsø’s island location, we found ourselves often on the 1,000-meter Tromsø Bridge that connects Tromsø to the mainland.
In the afternoon, my husband and I took an excursion that gave insight into the city’s history. The city, which is “the Gateway to the Arctic” is an interesting place to explore. We were excited to have a socially distanced shopping trip that the cruise line had arranged and we were able to walk around the square for a few minutes. (An interesting note: Tromsø was called the “Paris of the North” in the late 1800s because visitors came expecting residents to live in igloos and instead found many people spoke French, had a French style of living, and wore French clothing.)
The Fjellheisen cable car took us on a four-minute trip to the top of the 1,378-foot Mount Storsteinen for tremendous views of the fjord below. The views of the city and ships below and the snow-covered mountains surrounding them were beautiful from the top of the mountain. (There’s a coffee shop at the top if you need a break.)
Our tour also took us to the strikingly beautiful Arctic Cathedral, which is really a parish church but is called a cathedral because of its magnificence. (A cathedral is a church that has the seat of a bishop.) The simple modernistic church was dedicated in 1965 and holds a prized position that enables it to be seen from Tromsø Sound and from the old town.
Our excursion ended at the Polar Museum, located in an 1837 wharf house, that gave great insight into the traders and explorers who settled the area. So much of the history is related to hunting that visitors have to be prepared for many taxidermized animals, including many examples of cute fluffy harp seals. The history of Roald Amundsen, the first person to reach the South Pole, is also given. (Amundsen later disappeared in the Arctic while trying to rescue a friend.)
We drove back through the snow which began as a light dusting and quickly became a blizzard-like situation. One super interesting experience for us was going through a roundabout that is built within a tunnel. Wow! What amazing infrastructure!
Our ship was docked overnight in Tromsø, so the next day we had the opportunity to take a husky dogsled ride. We drove to the Wilderness Center where we were met with the barks of dogs, many of whom were perched on top of their houses while begging to be used on the next ride. Tove Sørensen, the owner, gave us a brief overview of dogsledding and who better to give us information than a person who has over 30 years of racing experience and has participated in the Iditarod?!?!
At last, we got on our dogsled and, with our musher behind us, started our all-too-brief trip. I cannot begin to explain the utter silence that occurred so quickly that it was if we had gone through a portal into a silent winter wonderland. The beauty of the scenery and the silence made the ride spectacularly memorable. After the ride, we were treated to a piece of traditional cake in a Sami lavvu. (The Sami are the indigenous people and a lavvu is a tent they used for living. The lavvu looks very similar to a teepee used in North America.)
Our next stop was Alta, the “City of Northern Lights”—and the city is cold. (Take layers if you make this trip.) They have snow for 6 months out of the year, October through April. They do not even clear the streets of ice. Instead, all vehicles have tire spikes, and many people have spikes on their boots. Alta was only declared a city in 2000, a relatively new designation.
Our first stop was at the Lutheran Cathedral of the Northern Lights, a striking structure built with titanium sheets on the exterior to reflect the Northern Lights and sunlight. Slate, which is mined in Alta, is also a major component of the cathedral. With its unusual shape, the building is reminiscent of a Sami lavvu. The interior, although minimalistic, is equally striking. The focal point is the statue of Jesus who, in an unusual pose, is looking upward to remind the people of hope and life. Instead of hanging on a cross, Jesus is, himself, the cross.
The next stop was at the Alta Museum which houses the largest number of prehistoric rock art carvings and paintings in Northern Europe. The works are more than 7,000 years old. The snow is not removed from the works that are still in their natural settings. In fact, the snow provides protection during the winter. The rock art has been named to the World Heritage List. The view from the terrace of the Altafjord are breathtakingly beautiful. The views change by the minute as the sun races across the sky. For many people, the days that we were in Alta, at the beginning of February, were the first time to see the sun since last October.
We traveled up the Finnmark Plateau to Maze to visit another group of Sami. The drive itself was stunning as we passed four natural lakes with sledders flying over the ice. Many people had two-part homes, a trailer and a tiny house. The sun set at 3:30 pm over the magnificent, snow-covered mountains.
First up for our trip was riding in a reindeer sleigh, which was more like the dog sled ride than a large sleigh that I had expected. (The ride was fun, but the dog sled was my favorite.)
After visiting Mr. A.’s home, which is very much like any traditional American home, we went to his lavvu where Mr. A regaled us with stories and facts about the Sami—clothing, food, and seasons (8 for the Sami, all of which are centered around reindeer). Children are given reindeer at a very early age and are given the responsibility of caring for them. Sami are not asked how many reindeer they have, because it is like asking someone in the US how much money they have. Mr. A also explained the practicality of their colorful clothing that serves to keep them warm during the long winters.
After dining on delicious reindeer stew and a cake with cloudberry whipped cream, we exited the lavvu to see the skies open up for a breathtaking Northern Lights display. The colorful greens streaked across the sky as we snapped pictures. Nature’s show lasted almost our entire ride back to the ship. (We had seen the lights previously while on the ship, but these lights were so vibrant. We had left wake-up calls on the ship so whenever the Northern Lights were spotted, we received a phone call and we dressed and raced to the top deck.)
Alta is an amazing city that gives tourists many options. For example, our friends stayed in an ice hotel overnight and enjoyed the unique experience. Another option that we experienced the next day in Alta was the Tirpitz Museum where we began to understand some of the impact of WWII on Norway.
The Tirpitz Museum, a small, private museum, is located in Kafjord outside of Alta. The Tirpitz was a large German warship that was docked in Kafjord in 1941 to deter and/or attack convoys heading to Murmansk, USSR, located about 400 miles away. (Germany’s largest naval base, outside of Germany, of course, was in Altafjord.) At the time of its construction, Tirpitz was the largest battleship built in Europe. Norwegians launched a strong resistance against the Nazis, and, after multiple attempts, the Tirpitz was sunk in 1943. As the Germans left the area, they destroyed as much as possible. Thankfully, no civilians were killed.
After leaving the museum we stopped by the Kajfjord Church that, stories have it, was built to make certain copper miners could go to church near their work and so make it back to work on Monday instead of being stuck on the other side of the fjord. The church is still used for special events such as baptisms and weddings. We made a quick photo op stop to see where the Tirpitz hid and then back to the ship.
Narvik, along the Ofotfjorden, was our next port of call. Narvik, founded in 1902, was originally built for shipping iron ore since it is an ice-free port. The city was invaded by 10 Nazi ships and 4,000 Nazi soldiers. It was in Narvik that Hitler suffered his first defeat. (Unfortunately, the French and Polish soldiers that helped in the battle were needed elsewhere, so the Germans returned and held Narvik until the end of WWII.)
We drove along the E6 highway by the fish market that dates from the 1700s to the Sami camp, Kvernmo, to meet Sami Shaman Ronald. We watched the Shaman perform a traditional Sami ceremony which always starts with drumming. The story of life is on the drum. The ceremony that we observed was celebrating the Northern Lights and our ancestors. It began with mushroom tea with honey and ginger after which we were given a piece of dried mushroom to hold as we thought of our ancestors.
We then threw the mushroom into the fire for the smoke to go up to heaven. Shaman Ronald also demonstrated the yoik, the Sami musical expression. A yoik is more than a song. It is a method of social interaction and a way to calm the reindeer. Every person has his own yoik and there is a yoik for every person, animal, and situation. According to some, yoiking is the oldest way of singing in Europe,
Sami were originally nomads who, like many other indigenous people, were marginalized for many years. New laws have now been made to protect and honor the Sami in Norway. (The Sami are spread through Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.) The 60,000 Sami in Norway can now learn the Sami language in school and have their own parliament. (There are actually 6 Sami languages depending on in what Scandinavian country they live.) In Norway, only Sami can own reindeer, and about 3,500 of the Sami work with reindeer. Each district of Sami has its own clothing. (An interesting fact: Frozen, the movie, is based on the Sami.)
The visit was over way too soon, so we headed back to the Viking Venus and on to our final stop of Bergen, Norway, which was founded in 1070 on what had been a Viking settlement. Bergen served as the capital of Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries and was a very important port for the Hanseatic League, a group of German and Northern European traders from the 13th to 15th centuries.
Our stay in the beautiful, colorful town of Bergen was too short, but we do look forward to visiting it again soon. We were able to hike to the top of Mount Fløyen on our way to the top of Mt. Rundemanen, one of the 7 mountains that surround Bergen. On the way we experienced sunny weather followed by rain, sleet, and snow before having the sun break through the clouds as we trekked through 12-24” snow to reach the peak. (I am not exaggerating! We found that layering was the key to comfort throughout the trip.)
The views of the fjord below made the hike up the 1,863-foot mountain worth the work and was a wonderful ending for our visit to the beautiful country of Norway.
The trek down the mountain was much faster than going up, naturally, and we made our way through the fading light to our van and then back to the ship for another wonderful dinner before flying home to prepare for our next adventure.
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