Rupert Parker puts on his shoe shoes and heads up to the Arctic Circle
Norway in winter is slightly foreboding, its mountains clothed in snow and fjords full of mist. Still you can be blessed by those sparkling clear sunny days when there’s the magic of steep mountains rising up out of deep fjords with crystal blue waters. And other compensations include almost guaranteed sightings of the spectacular northern lights. And winter activities include snow snowing, reindeer racing and stimulating dips straight out of the sauna into freezing waters.
I fly into Bergen as it’s a flight hub giving easy to access other destinations in the country. The waterfront is overlooked by the beautifully restored wooden houses of Bryggen, now UNESCO listed. Just opposite is the fish market where you can watch ferry boats leaving for the fjords. Multi-coloured houses climb up the surrounding hillsides with a funicular and a cable car whisking you upwards for glorious views.
For brave Bergen folk, an early morning swim at Nordnes Sjøbad is an appointment not to miss. Although there’s a 25m heated swimming pool, steam rising in the gloomy morning light, a leap into the chilly sea is the start of proceedings. On the morning I’m there, the water is around 7°C, warmer than the air at 5°C. Still it comes as somewhat of a relief to soak in the swimming pool afterwards, before a spell in the sauna.
Cold water certainly swimming works up an appetite and Bergen has been designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. There’s a food festival in September and seaweed festival earlier. But a three hour food tour led by a local guide takes you through the history of Bergen and local food traditions. You also get to taste typical dishes including a hearty soup and fishcakes and you’re rewarded with a local beer at the end.
Bergen is home to Norway’s second largest art gallery, actually housed in four separate buildings with different themes. KODE 3 is all about Norwegian art and on two floors houses works by artists such as J. C. Dahl, Hans Gude, Harriet Backer, Christian Krohg, Kitty Kielland, Nikolai Astrup and Erik Werenskiold. The highlights are the works of Edvard Munch including several pieces from his Frieze of Life series. It makes you realize that, although he’s known for The Scream, his other artworks are just as impressive.
Around 250km north of Bergen is Fjærland, easily accessible by flight from Bergen to Sogndal and then a short drive. It’s a one street town running along the edge of Fjærlandsfjorden, nestled below the steep slopes rising up from the water. On offer in the winter are fishing and a floating sauna. Incredibly it’s also famous as the Book Town of Norway with 10 bookshops and an annual literary festival. Further up the valley is the Jostedalsbreen glacier, the largest in mainland Europe.
Of course the glacier has its own museum and two life-size models of woolly mammoths stand guard outside this distinctive modern building. The emphasis inside is on the interactive, all designed to teach about glacier geology and the process of fjord formation. There’s a simulated ice tunnel and tusk of a Siberian mammoth but perhaps the highlight is in their cinema. A huge screen shows a specially shot epic film, taking you on a stunning trip to the heart of the Jostedalsbreen glacier.
A two hour drive south brings you to Flåm in a spectacular setting at the end of Aurlandsfjord, a branch of the vast Sognefjord. Winter activities here include a snow shoe tour above the fjord and a cruise in an open Rib on Aurlandsfjord and into the head of Nærøyfjord. There’s a stop at the village of Undredal to taste the local cheese, but it can be an ordeal unless you wrap up well. Also not to be recommended when visibility is poor
The Flåm Railway is the steepest in the world without the use of cables or cogs and, although only 20km long, gains 864m through 20 tunnels. The gradient is 1:18 and it takes 45 minutes to climb up to the mountains. Construction of the railway started in 1923 and was finally completed in 1940 by the Nazis. In winter there’s often a complete whiteout as you reach the station at Myrdal on the Hardangervidda plateau. From here you can connect with mainline trains to Oslo or Bergen.
A flight from Bergen takes me to Tromsø, 350km north of the Arctic Circle. It sits on an island, connected to the mainland by bridge and tunnels, and has a lively port. Originally it was a base for hunting, trapping and fishing but nowadays is most tourists’ gateway to the Arctic. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, there’s really a sense that you’ve made it to the top of the world and it’s one of the best places in Norway to see the Northern Lights.
Right on the harbour, the Polar Museum is delightfully old fashioned with stuffed animals, black and white photos and memorabilia from the Nansen and Amundsen exhibitions. It tells the history of whaling and sealing, even walrus and polar bear hunting. A room each is dedicated to the polar explorers, Amundsen first to the South Pole in 1911, and Nansen who failed to reach the North but pointed the way for others.
Sami is the name for the indigenous people of Sápmi, inhabiting the Arctic regions of Scandinavia. Sami Week in Tromsø is an annual festival held around the Sami National Day on February 6th and includes a spirited reindeer race, run since 2004. The course of just over 200m runs through the main street and involves jockeys on skis pulled by reindeers at speeds of up to 60kmh. In a series of heats, two reindeers race against each other, with the world record of 14.936 seconds set in 2005. It’s an incredible sight.
Although they say you’re almost guaranteed sightings of the Northern Lights in Tromsø, the weather is overcast and there’s zero chance on my visit. That doesn’t mean you can’t see them elsewhere so a flotilla of mini-buses set off on a chase to find them. It reminds me of a game safari where you’re looking for that elusive lion, with drivers communicating information between them.
Eventually after a 200km drive to the border with Finland, we stop and get out. Someone sets up a camp fire while we wait and drinking hearty cups of coffee. Suddenly the guide points to a vague ring of white cloud, looking nothing like the Northern Lights photographs I’ve seen. However when I step in front of the camera and hold still for a long exposure, I’m excited to be pictured standing right in front of them.
Fjord Norway has information about the fjords.
Visit Bergen has information about the city.
Northern Norway Tourist Board has information about the north.
Visit Tromsø has information about the city.
Visit Sognefjord has information about the area.
Sami Week has information about the Reindeer race
Norwegian airline Widerøe flies daily from London to Bergen and Aberdeen to Bergen. Single fares start from just £62. It operates several daily direct internal flights between Bergen and Sogndal and Tromsø so you can easily visit the Fjords and Arctic north.
The Scandic Torget hotel overlooks Bergen’s waterfront.
Food Tour takes you to tasty bites around Bergen.
The Fish Me restaurant at the Fish Market in Bergen has excellent seafood.
The Skyskraperen Restaurant is at the top of the gondola and has wonderful views over Bergen.
Nordnes Sjøbad is the venue for swimming in Bergen.
KODE Art Museums in Bergen.
Fjærland Fjordstove hotel is on the shores of the fjord and serves excellent food.
The Glacier Museum Fjærland.
Fretheim Hotel makes a comfortable base in Flåm.
Snowshoe Hike takes you above the fjord.
Winter Fjordsafari takes you on a RIB ride.
The Flåm Railway is world famous.
Thon Hotel Tromsø is right in the centre of the town.
Bardus Bistro serves good food in Tromsø.
The Polar Museum, Tromsø.
Tromsø Friluftsenter organises Northern Lights trips.