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07/31/2003 Archived Entry: "Arctic Cruise"

Peter Walker in the Arctic

My wife and I recently returned from a wonderful cruise to the Arctic Circle and the Norwegian fjords. We embarked at Southampton and sailed up the east coast, through the North Sea oilfields. Our first stop was Bergen with its brightly painted, tightly packed wooden houses clinging to wooded hillsides. Among them I spotted the twelfth century St Mary's Church, the oldest in Bergen. The town is surrounded by seven hills and is considered the gateway to the fjords; once the capital of Norway, it is now Norway's second city with a population some 246,000.
The quayside, known as Bryggen, is distinctive with former warehouses built in wood, many now developed into boutiques, restaurants, antique and souvenir shops. Even so, a medieval atmosphere prevails and indeed the docks are now classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The market displayed an amazing assortment of fish (some swimming around in tanks), as well as fruit and vegetables and local handicrafts. We particularly admired the beautifully crafted woollen garments and souvenirs made from seal skin and reindeer horn.
Just outside Bergen, at the beautifully situated Nordaas Lake, is Troldhaugen, home and burial place of the composer, Edvard Grieg. The house is open for viewing and contains many original furnishings.
Our next stop was Andalsnes via Romsdalsfjord, a stunning ride with snow-covered mountains in the background, lots of tiny wooden houses along the shores and a glass-like surface to the water. The city of Andalsnes is very small (population 2500) and it was razed to the ground by the Germans in 1940, but it has been completely re-built without detracting from its ancient charm. From there, we took a coach through the Trollstigheimen Pass. "Beware of trolls!", said the sign. These legendary, small ugly human-like creatures with tails, are said to live in woods and cool, dark places in the mountains, but if a troll gets touched by the sun, it will turn into stone. If you look carefully, you’ll see lots of troll graveyards - places full of small stacks of lonely stones. In winter the snow here can be 25 feet deep, covering all the buildings. Stigfoss, a blue water fall, cascaded down the mountains from a base of snow and yet the lush valley below produces strawberries and cherries and offers superb salmon fishing.
Our next stop was Trondheim, where we found lots of green-roofed churches including the splendid granite Lutheran Cathedral. A Roman Catholic church until the Reformation in 1537, it was not unduly ravaged and has retained many statues, stained glass windows and other images. In the crypt there is an exhibition of tombstones found during excavations, some dating to the 13th and 14th centuries. From Trondheim you can also visit an old copper mine and the museum of musical instruments.
With three nights and two days at sea ahead, we cruised north, entered the Arctic Circle and eventually docked in Ny-Alesund on north west Spitsbergen, a mere 600 kilometres from the North Pole. Ny-Alesund is as far as you get by ship as it is literally the frozen north beyond that. Here we mailed our postcards at the world's most northerly post office and wandered around the village with its handful of wooden buildings, the North Pole Hotel and scientific monitoring devices. Ny-Alesund has been designated a centre for Arctic environmental monitoring and research, and the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Research Station was established here in 1968. The earth around the settlement looks somewhat barren as the only vegetation is the moss-like growth on the tundra where the polar bears prowl. Reindeer and Arctic foxes also inhabit the area and we were warned to beware of the Arctic terns which are known to attack humans with white hair in the belief they are polar bears. We were requested not to wander from the settlement as there was a genuine risk from polar bears and indeed a girl had been killed by one about three years earlier. With snow and glaciers around us, and temperatures just above freezing, we toured this lonely place - and found it fascinating. Here we witnessed the midnight sun and enjoyed 24 hours of daylight for the next four days.
Our slow return south was via a glacier with a nine-mile long face, through seas littered with icebergs and graced by whales and porpoises. We berthed at Tromso, where the museum has a fascinating exhibition depicting the life of the Sami people, an ethnic minority living mainly in the Norwegian county of Finnmark. Their old name of Lapps is now considered derogatory. Other highlights are the Wilderness Centre with its 100 Alaskan huskies and the Polar Museum. We also visited the Arctic Cathedral, an ultra-modern building symbolising Arctic ice. It is maybe not to everyone’s taste but the stained glass is impressive.
Next came the breathtaking Geiranger Fjord, with its seven sisters waterfall and little farmsteads stranded on terraces half-way up the rock faces 200 metres above the water. Families living there had to tether their small children to stop them falling over the sheer cliffs, but the farms are now derelict as the last tenants left in the 1960's. We had another coach trip up into the mountains, taking in 13 hairpin bends on the way; ‘not for those who suffer from vertigo’ advised the guidebook. Pausing for coffee at the Tystigen Summerski Centre, it was strange to see people ski-ing in blazing July sunshine..
And, finally, we sailed into friendly Stavanger and our giant cruise ship moored right alongside tiny yachts and fishing boats. Stavanger has retained its old-world charm, with narrow, cobbled streets of wooden houses and the prettiest of harbours. We would have liked to stay longer, to take in the majestic Pulpit Rock and Norway’s only surviving monastery at Utstein. Augustinian monastic life there came to an end with the Reformation in 1537, but in 1930 restoration work began and now this medieval treasure is again open to the public.
In a short narrative like this, it is difficult to portray the sheer scale of the mountains, the utter splendour of the fjords or even if huge distances involved. Norway, for example, is twice as long as England and Scotland put together and that is not counting the mileage of the shores of the fjords - some fjords, for example, stretch more than a hundred miles inland from the sea! Discounting fjords, the coastline of Norway is 1656 miles long, but those indentations increase the coastal length tenfold, equivalent to two-thirds of the world's circumference.
The most northerly part of the Norwegian mainland is Nordkapp (North Cape), more than 1600 miles from London and in the region of 900 miles from Oslo, each as the proverbial crow flies. And Ny-Alesund on Spitsbergen is a further 600 miles north of North Cape across the Arctic Sea.
One interesting discovery was the temperate climate of Norway. Despite its latitude, it is able to cultivate crops at altitudes which, in nearby countries, suffer a permanent frost. This is due to the Gulf Stream which brings millions of gallons of warm water every second into the sea around the west coast; with it come shoals of fish such as herring and cod, and in addition it produces warm air over the western coastline. During our visit, the local crops of strawberries and cherries were being sold in the markets; new potatoes were also on sale, while barley and apples were ripening among the mountains. We witnessed haytime too - the long lush grass was mown and hung over wire fences to dry, just like a line of household washing. And the entire countryside was full of flowers, including wild lupins, lilac and wonderful roses. Much of the vegetation is identical to that found in the UK, although there did seem to be a greater variety of wild flowers, all of which were flourishing and I noticed heather on the heights as well as some delightful ferns where we might expect bracken. The wild animals and birds are similar to those found in Britain - we spotted magpies, sparrows, finches, a pied wagtail, countless varieties of sea birds, including the Arctic skuas, and a huge eagle I was not able to identify. It was flying along the side of a mountain above a fjord and I caught only a momentary glimpse but, with a distinctive light tan back, it looked like a golden eagle.
Reindeer can be found living wild in parts of Norway but perhaps the most curious creature is the wolverine. This used to inhabit Britain until some 5,000 years ago but is now extinct here; it does, however, survive in remote parts of Norway and other northern regions where it can be dangerous. A large bear-like carnivore, it was once known as the glutton, but curiously it is a member of the weasel family - the largest such member in fact. It has a nasty habit of covering surplus food with a foul-smelling secretion, doubtless to ward off others which might steal its hidden cache. It is disliked because it feeds on small mammals, birds and carrion, while trappers hate it because it will steal from their traps, although the fur was once considered valuable.
We spent a fortnight enjoying these sights in an area of unimaginable beauty and the breathtaking images will remain with us for ever.

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