We are on the shuttle bus from the parking lot to Schiphol Airport. I am sitting next to the driver, one of those chatty Amsterdam semi-retired people. He tells us that it must be very beautiful where we are going, but also rather cold and if we would like to call this number on the return trip when we arrive, but first pick up the suitcases and then stand ready on the umpteenth floor just before the turn and wait for a blue bussie of the brand so-and-so… Anyway, he talks. And I take notes. The alarm went off at five this morning, there was no time for coffee. I struggle.
“It’s all on the ticket too you know!!!” he says.
“Actually, my wife is the travel organizer of our family,” I confess. It’s best to be clear about it.
“It seems BEST to ME then that YOU DO NOT interfere with the travel organization.”
Bam. He hits me with some good old Dutch directness and sniggers.
He probably knows that in a few hours we will find ourselves among Norwegians, and they are by no means known for their profusion of words. Norwegians seem to be excellent diplomats. Speaking is silver, silence is golden – that kind of stuff. A roast from a complete stranger? That´s the last thing I expect to get exposed to in Norway.
After a stopover in Oslo, we land in Tromsø around 4pm. Outside, it’s already getting dark. And it’s snowing. Wet snow, but snow nonetheless. The airport is small; the arrivals hall is barely bigger than a soccer canteen. In silence, everyone waits for their luggage. In a small wooden building next door, we pick up our rental car.
It’s Saturday, and tomorrow all the stores are closed. So our first off-airport experience above the Arctic Circle is shopping. Dull? Well no, not at all! In a supermarket you get to know a nation, it´s like glancing at someone’s bookshelf to get a sense of their life. We feast on exotic terms like kjøttpølse, fløtepoteter, fartdempere and brødsmørrieprøt. I admit that last one was born from my imagination, but it’s amazing how many different types of tubes of cheese spread there are on the shelves. And one of the nicest things about a Norwegian supermarket is that you get to put your own bread (and your fingers) in a bread slicer. I guess it’s a Scandinavian thing. If I understand correctly, Danish toddlers are given a knife set to take to daycare to play with. Our own adolescents are seeking their thrill in other things. They have apparently made it their goal to exchange their entire vacation pocket money for Pokémon cards and stuffed animals within an hour after landing. Responsible parenting requires us to object slightly before respecting their choices.
I must say that Norway has a reputation for being extremely expensive. In terms of cost of living, it ranks in the absolute world top. The prices in the supermarket are not too bad, at least for a week, provided you are careful with what you put in your basket, but the catering industry is something else. We will go and find out. The first night we sleep in a hotel “so we are allowed to dine out”. We’ll be cooking at home for the rest of the week.
The little downtown restaurant we choose to spend our money looks atmospheric. We check the menu. The main dishes – burgers and such – are pricey, but come on, YOLO, you only live once. What really jumps out is the price of the drinks. A glass of wine: seventeen euros. And that’s a small glass of nineteen centilitres. If you are thirsty and order twenty-five centilitres you pay a whopping twenty-one euros. And then you get nothing special, I suspect, but we won’t test that assumption. Seize the day? Sure. But with prices like these, I’d rather seize another day. Around us Norwegians are dining away, while downing several glasses of wine. One by one, they walk up to the bar to refill their own glass, paying immediately. Buying rounds of drinks for everyone at the table is apparently also too expensive for them. It’s carpe diem Norwegian style.
Interesting fact: according to city marketers, Tromsø is the Paris of the Arctic. Those boys and girls in advertising however do not refer to baguettes or a replica of the Eiffel Tower (quod non), but to a vibrant nightlife. Yes, Tromsø is said to be a party town. There are hard figures to show for it. Tromsø, for instance, has the highest pub density per capita in Norway. In my opinion, though, you’re setting the bar rather low in that case; Norwegians are not Brazilians, nor am I going to call the only hilly area we have in the Netherlands ’the Tibet of the Low Countries’. There is no doubt they are hoping for self-fulfilling prophecy. If you repeat it often enough those bachelorette parties will follow naturally. And once that starts happening, you’ll even have to be careful that it doesn’t become like Sodom and Gomorrah, that you won’t slip on puke and syringes and other party rubbish on every street corner. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The bar in our hotel lobby is deserted. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling. It gently rocks back and forth in the draft. It looks a bit like the canteen at my high school in the late 1980s, a bit desolate. A small disclaimer is in order. It could be that our timing is wrong. Maybe the party will burst into life as soon as we are under the covers. We are not going to test this hypothesis by any means either. If we had come here to party, we would have gone to Paris.
So what do we come here for? For the Norwegian nature, of course, including snow and cold and all that, to go hiking in the mountains, and to maybe get a whiff of Scandinavian culture. And the next day it becomes clear that we get what we hope for. Whereas yesterday it was just wet snow falling from the sky, today “dry” snow is swirling down. And all this while we are eating a copious breakfast buffet, with all sorts of pickled fish and exotic Norwegian cheeses in addition to bread and pancakes. Some people get sick of such things in the early morning. I say: feed yourself as you feed your toddler: you have to taste everything at least once. For us, this is also a bit of practice for our next trip to Japan. The far north and the far east of our planet have more in common than you might think.
In our rental car, we leave the Boreal City of Light. We drive to Svensby, about thirty kilometres to the east. We are in the northernmost regions of Scandinavia. A few hours from here lies the border triangle where Norway, Sweden and Finland touch. That other neighbouring country, Russia, therefore seems pretty close, but appearances can be deceiving: it is still a thirteen-hour drive to Murmansk. This part of Norway is a mosaic of islands and peninsulas. Near Breivik, we have to cross the channel by ferry. Fortunately, after a short while a ferry actually appears. This kind of thing remains exciting; it would not be the first time in our travel history that we waited in vain for a ferry. We don’t have to pay (yet); the bill goes directly to the rental car company.
Let’s talk about that snow for a moment. We have been given a perfectly good car, a Suzuki SX4 4WD. It is equipped with studded tyres, for a better traction in the snow. During our first drive however we skid once, a small adrenaline moment. It’s a reminder to stay sharp – as our Amsterdam shuttle driver would say: it seems best to ME that YOU DO NOT get behind the wheel in this snow. But generally the roads are fine and the studs (and my wife, who as always is the designated driver) do what they are supposed to do. One feature we are less enthusiastic about is the warning beeps and pop-ups that come up on the dashboard. Every few minutes we are warned that we are approaching something important, like a school building. Another warning that keeps coming back is not to click on the display while driving. It is my job to click away those pop-ups; it would be somewhat ironic if the driver had to do that.
Before heading to our accommodation in Svensby, we put on our trekking shoes for a hike. After all, that’s what we came here for, isn’t it? After a bit of a search, we find the Blåvatnet trail head. We leave the hiking poles in the car; it’s just a warm-up hike, four kilometres to a small lake and then back again. But it’s a bit of a letdown. Snow, hail and blue skies alternate quickly. The weather feels bleak. And we are walking mostly on slippery large boulders that gradually get covered in a layer of snow. As a result, the pace is slow; we miss our hiking poles. And we have a deadline: sunset. After three-and-a-half kilometres, with the finish line in sight, we decide to turn around. We are the only living creatures out here. Wise people have figured out that when in doubt, you should turn back; after all, you don’t want to become a headline in next day’s newspaper.
Our little apartment is in the yard of a farm, where we find comfort and get fresh eggs from the hostess. The neighbours tell us they have just travelled from Finland where a heavy snowstorm is now raging. What were we thinking? This is no week on Ibiza. We eat homemade pasta and fall asleep.
On Monday morning, we travel on to Senja. It is quarter to ten when we drive off; a watery sun peeks above the horizon. I don’t know how it is with you, but I always associate a low lying sun with cocktail hour. And that is quite problematic, since in the far north it is either dark or cocktail hour. There is no other position on the sun. This alone would make you into an alcoholic.
Senja is southwest of Tromsø, an island roughly the size of Greater London. There is a lot of snow along the road, it is slippery at times, but our Suzuki holds its own. The views along the way are magnificent. After a few hours, we cross the high Gisund bridge that connects Senja to the mainland.
Four nights we will spend here on Senja, in Fjørdgard, a small fishing village on the north side of the island. The village is enclosed between towering mountains and the fjord – to get there you have to pass through three tunnels. The streets are almost deserted. Only a few hundred people live here. Our cottage has a self-check-in system, with a key box with a security code. The only person we see from time to time is our neighbour. After our not entirely successful warm-up hike in Svensby, we hope to do some great mountain hikes between the fjords in this area.
The first hike we undertake is to Hesten, a steep peak immediately behind the village. The weather is beautiful, although the combination of fjords and sun-in-cocktail-position means we are hiking in the shade. But for that very reason, hiking upwards is a good idea. Slowly we stumble up the mountain. Because of the snow, the hiking is tough. We are wiser though and have brought our hiking poles with us. The children happily join in. There is, at most, a bit of whining that the hiking poles are no good. If those hiking poles could talk, they would say those adolescents are no good. But hiking poles cannot talk, so it comes down to us as parents to take a neutral position and declare that they will have to put up with it for a while. Fortunately, that is acceptable to them.
The view from the top is phenomenal. Next to Hesten lies Segla, an even sharper peak. You can climb that peak too, though I shudder to think about it. You can climb a bit further up Hesten, parallel to the cliff, but we call it a day. Hesten is said to be a popular hike. Indeed, there’s a handful of other hikers hanging around, all enjoying the view and the sun. This is winter sports minus the craziness of the Alps. Well… two young men are hopping up the mountain, Dutch students as it turns out, one of whom takes off his winter coat and appears to be wearing a dinner costume underneath. Dad and mum are most obligingly taking photos for Instagram and sorority mates.
The next day is one of shifting plans. As a traveller, it is key to be flexible, however difficult that may sometimes be. We had learned earlier in disappointment that “the 862” was closed. This National Tourist Route (“Nasjonale Turistveger”) circles Senja as far as Grylleford, but is blocked until the end of the year due to works at the Svartholla tunnel. In the Netherlands, in such a case you would simply take a shortcut, but this mountenous area it means we have to take a detour a few hundred kilometres to see the more southern fjords on Senja. Far from ideal, but as rainy weather is forecast for today, we decide to take that long car journey anyway. The sun, however, completely ignores the weather forecast. Life is suddenly too short, sunny and beautiful to spend half a day in the car. Instead, we drive a few kilometres to the other side of “our” fjord to go on a mountain hike.
However, we have to cancel this plan too: we are unable to find the starting point of the trail. On to plan C, a visit to Husøy, a small island in the fjord, connected to the mainland by a dam. There are hardly more people living here than in Fjørdgard. Nevertheless, the village has a kindergarten, a primary school, a high school and a supermarket. The local economy thrives on the fishing business. We hunt for locally smoked salmon, but the price of twenty-two euros for 270 grams puts us off. What is for free though is a scenic walk to the mini-lighthouse on the northern tip of the small island.
Thursday is our last day on Senja and it is our desire to flame one more time. Climbing Barden is on the agenda. This is said to be one of the most accessible mountain peaks in northern Senja. Just before the first tunnel towards Fjørdgard lies the trail head. “Ideal for the accustomed hiker and also for children with hiking experience, but not for people with a fear of heights,” the sign reads. I don’t get worked up by ominous texts like this. Our strategy is “we’ll see how far we will get”, so by definition we will be fine. The absolute summit (659m) has been declared out of reach by us anyway. Steadily we hike up. Without snow and ice it would probably be extremely boggy here. With hiking poles and a good portion of patience, it is perfectly fine. After a solid hour we are on a plateau overlooking the fjord. The wind is strong but the sun is shining. The view is phenomenal. At this amazing spot, we eat our packed lunch. There is a frozen lake at the plateau that is a big attraction for our children. Not very surprising, for children who hardly ever experience this at home. From the plateau, we briefly continue the route west towards the summit. Soon we come to the conclusion that from here it is more something for Norwegian toddlers with crampons. We wisely decide that enough is enough and descend to the car.
Friday morning we leave for Sommarøy. That is where we will stay for the last two nights. Sommarøy is a fishing village a few hours north of Senja. To be precise, we are staying on Hillesøya (25 residents), an islet right next to Sommarøy (321 residents), an islet right next to Kvaløya (13000 residents), the island immediately west of Tromsø. In summer, a ferry sails directly from Senja to Sommarøy, but now we have to detour via Tromsø. It’s a long drive, through the drizzle. Passing a series of bridges, we arrive at our cottage.
A brief word about the cottage: when I got married almost 20 years ago, I had to solemnly swear – besides eternal fidelity and things like that – that we would never, ever stay in a holiday park. To avoid discussions about the definition of a holiday park, we instituted the practical rule that all accommodation with an entrance barrier is considered taboo. Larger campsites therefore usually fall under this ban as well. The submitter of this prenuptial rule (without lashing out: it wasn’t me) also happens to be the one who books all our holidays. As a result, enforcement is a piece of cake. Still, sometimes things nearly go wrong. You can’t see everything in the photos, I’m afraid. Our cottage is part of some sort of holiday park type situation, a row of identical cottages at the Sommarøy Arctic Hotel. The interior reveals that it is a “timeshare” – owned by a family, rented out throughout the year by the holiday park through AirBnB. But what are we babbling about, this is the spirit of AirBnB. And there is no entrance barrier, so our marriage is safe.
The hotel has a communal sauna. Right next to it, a jetty has been built with steps so you can cool off in the ice-cold Norwegian Sea. How awesome is that? (Yes, the Barents Sea would sound even more awesome, but for that you have travel a couple of hundred kilometres further north). In this winter where we are constantly living with our hands on the thermostat, a sauna feels very much like a guilty pleasure. After all the trudging in the snow, we are in the mood for a nice sauna session and a dip in the ocean. But then the crucial question arises: do we go commando or not? In other words, how Finnish are Norwegians? The lady behind the counter clears things up: preferably not nude, because the people in the restaurant have a clear view of the jetty. A minor setback for us, although our children don’t seem to mind. Incidentally, in the sauna it turns out that not everyone is following this clothing advice.
On Saturday, Ellen and I go for a short climb up the mountain opposite our cottage. While enjoying the beautiful view high up on the hill, we are suddenly hit by a snowstorm with blistering wind. It´s very tough for a while, but nothing a sauna visit can´t fix.
One more night and then we will fly back. Last year in Iceland, we were given a wonderful present the night before our departure: Aurora Borealis. Will history repeat itself? Or aurora app says there is indeed a chance of northern lights, from three o’clock onwards. But will we set the alarm clock for that, at the risk of ending the holiday with sleep deprivation? We decide not to do that, but Ellen happens to wake up during the night, and can testify the next day that there was nothing to see. To compensate this, we bump into a large herd of reindeer on a snowy meadow along the road on the way to the airport – a fitting end to our holiday above the polar circle.
Fancy a hike? Then you’re in luck, as here is some information on hiking on spectacular Senja.