In the constant light of summer, Tromsø is an extraordinarily civilised place from which to visit the wilderness, discovers Harry Mount
‘Why do the British look so ill?’ I was asked by a 23-year-old woman at a dinner party in the Arctic Norwegian city of Tromsø. ‘Is it because they have chips for breakfast?’ She seemed to have steered clear of the chips herself; her skin looked like it had been put on fresh that morning. ‘Why do Norwegians look so good,’ I asked back, ‘when they drink even more than we do?’ The answer lay on the plates in front of us: reindeer sashimi followed by grilled whale, then seal, moose, cod and herring — all straight from the fjords and the frozen tundra.
One of the wonders of Norway is that it’s cracked the question Britain has so disastrously failed to answer — surely a country surrounded by oil and fish can only end up rich and healthy? While Britain has gone bankrupt and got fat, the Norwegians are lithe and extremely well off.
Norway remains a country unusually blessed by nature and sensible government, despite the twin tragedies of the summer: the killing by a polar bear of an English schoolboy, Horatio Chapple, and Anders Breivik’s mass murder. One former conservative cabinet minister I met, on the remote western island of Sommeroy, said that one of the genuine problems the government faces is not knowing what to do with all its oil and fish cash. While we splurged our money during the good times, the Norwegians saved it up for a rainy day, in their Petroleum Fund, worth over £300 billion, which, with a population of 4.9 million, means a surplus of over £60,000 a head. And the money’s still pouring in — right in the middle of Tromsø’s bay there’s a thwacking great new oil platform, sucking billions more kroner from under the ice.
The only downside of the frozen promised land is that things are tremendously expensive, because the Norwegian currency is in such good nick. The beer in my hotel minibar — from the local Mack brewery, the world’s most northern brewery (there are a lot of ‘world’s most northern’ things up here) — cost 59 kroner, or £6.60. When it came to the whale and the reindeer in Emma’s Drømmekjøkken, the best restaurant in Tromsø, it might have been cheaper to hire my own harpoon and rifle for the day.
Anyway, at least the light is free, and there’s endless amounts of the stuff. In summer, the northern lights are still blazing away, but you don’t get to see them, with daylight continuing through the night. Constant light has its own spooky fascination. Most of the time, it wasn’t so much land of the midnight sun as land of the midnight cloud. Still, there’s something surreal about going to bed at 1.30 a.m., in broad daylight — as I did after the midnight concert at Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral, a 1960s nest of white concrete triangles, a sort of scaled-down Sydney Opera House. Rather than energising me, light in the small hours made me feel even more tired than usual. My British inner circadian clock was still ticking away — instructing me to feel tired as midnight approached, while going completely haywire at night’s insistent refusal to fall. It didn’t help that the curtains in the Thon Hotel were made of thin, translucent, green rayon, hopeless as blackout curtains. But then the north Norwegians, after several months in the pitch black of winter, love the constant light of summer: my 23-year-old neighbour took her leave of our dinner party at 1.30 a.m., to begin her evening in the clubs of Tromsø.
Even in the middle of the night, it’s jacket or jersey weather here in summer — no need for thermals, although there’s still snow on the mountains in June; right into August, sometimes. Beneath the snowline, a skirt of pine trees runs round the mountains’ waists, scarred with waterfalls. Scenic stuff, much appreciated by the first artists to come this far north in the early to mid-19th century; those featured in the National Gallery’s recent show Forests, Rocks, Torrents. This was wild country in the days when Thomas Fearnley (Norwegian, but with a grandfather from Yorkshire), Johan Christian Dahl and Peder Balke did their sketching around Tromsø and to the north. Several of their pictures are on show in the charming Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum.
Outside Tromsø, the wilderness they painted remains pretty much untouched: birch trees on the valley floor, clustered round the narrowing fjords; gentle green hills at the coast, building further inland into jagged-edged mountain ranges, fringing deep pouches of snow. Even in the remote spots, man has settled here and there for over a century. By the fjord edge are 19th-century fishing warehouses, roofed with diamond-shaped slates. Further up the hill are shepherds’ barns, made of pine, painted deep red. Moose and reindeer — herded by the indigenous Sami people — wander through the fields and villages. Summer houses, too, are dotted around the place, well-sited for the slim, crescent-shaped beaches of white, coarse-grained sand.
However warm it gets outside, and it never gets very warm, the water remains pretty icy. Norwegians develop a keen eye for the tidal movements of the fjords — when the water covers sand freshly heated by the sun, you get a little temperature boost. Swim outside those mini-sun baths, and the coldness whacks you right in the chest.
Tromsø has been the main jumping-off point for trips to northern Norway for over a century and a half; and not just for Norwegian artists in search of the wild. It was from here that the great polar expeditions of the 19th and early 20th century were launched. Roald Amundsen is the local hero; his bust stands outside Tromsø’s Polar Museum. He flew from Tromsø in a seaplane to meet his death in 1928 — his body was never found.
And it’s in the Polar Museum that Amundsen’s triumphant journey to the South Pole is commemorated in artefacts, including his compass, and photographs. It all makes for sobering viewing for anglophiles brought up on the national legend of Captain Scott, the centenary of whose death falls next year. Scott barely figures in the museum and you can see why — he did come second, after all.
Tromsø was also the gateway to northern hunting country, in the search for Arctic foxes and polar bears. That’s why the Polar Museum is home to what the Lonely Planet Guide to Norway declared to be the third worst museum display in the world: a mannikin in a white parka raises a club above his head, with a fluffy seal cub at his feet, eternally awaiting death.
A bit unfair of Lonely Planet, I think. Norway’s animal rights reputation suffers only because it’s filled with creatures that top the cuteness scale — no one objects to city farms in London or the Chatsworth Farm Shop. Long before poor Horatio Chapple’s death, the people round here knew polar bears well enough to know they’re more ferocious than fluffy. It says something for this blessed frozen miracle of a country that its biggest problem is that its animals are too huggable to be clubbable.