Exploring darkness in the polar night – Tromsø, Norway

I went to Norway for an environment that made me feel small and insignificant. To be awed and inspired, to be close to the edge of the earth. Think that’s a pretty niche travel requirement? Let me explain.

I’m obsessed with landscapes of extremes, so far mostly deserts. This time, I wanted to try something different and visit the arctic circle, the most northerly of circles of latittude surrounding the north pole. I live in a big western European city, where we don’t see many extremes of weather. It sometimes feels, as a newly minted adult (I say newly, but I’ve had some years’ practice) that the world is on my shoulders. The city can be a fast-paced place of ego, where things happen mostly if you make them. It’s easy to get stuck in my head, stuck in a state of anxiety about some thing or another. Lather, rinse, repeat. Also, coming from the Southern Hemisphere, I still struggle with the deep darkness of a northern winter. I wanted to see what made people tick this far north, where lettuce certainly doesn’t grow all year round, and where for a couple months per year the sun barely tops the horizon all day.

The polar circle

When we landed in the dark on a Saturday night in the tiny Tromsø airport, my husband hilariously but also pretty aptly asked me ‘WHERE ARE WE?!’ It felt like in the three hour flight from Gatwick we had truly flown into the unknown. We went straight to the local supermarket, which I guess is a pretty brave choice, and stocked up on groceries for our Airbnb. A search for dairy-free milk involved desperate comedy-sketch levels of Google translating.

Dressing on morning one to head into town involved base, mid, top layers; two, three pairs of socks, and outdoor gear. Having to succumb to the weather gave me a vulnerability that felt different. This wasn’t scared walking home alone at night in the city, this was an adversary you could prepare for but that could also beat you with no effort.

We came to Tromsø at the tail end of the polar night, when at full midday the sun barely makes it over the top of the peaks surrounding the island Tromsøya that the city sits on. This daylight is a suspended dawn of blue light leading directly to a soft bubblegum dusk sky. 3pm felt like dinner time, 7pm felt like bed time. We were reduced to basic survival (millenial style, á là Airbnb): eating when we needed fuel, sleeping when our bodies told us to.

View from the harbour of Tromsø

We arrived with a far smaller itinerary than normal, I had very few things I wanted to actually do in Tromsø. I wanted to see the elusive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), go see a nearby ice hotel, try spot a reindeer, and clear my head for the rest of the time.

The second night, I booked a last minute Aurora tour with Brynjar from Arctic Breeze. On the night of Imbolc, the Pagan festival of light in the darkness of winter, we saw the most fantastic display of lights within barely half an hour of leaving Tromsø itself. Surely this was not possibly real, I am still having to check the photos our guide took to remind myself. We celebrated with hot chocolate around a fire on a fjord beach, under the dull remains of the lights. The experience certainly felt real when the -15’C temperatures started settling in to our boots and our bones.

Photos from our tour taken by the guide, Brynjar

The following day we got on a bus south towards the Tromsø Ice Domes, a new-ish ice hotel in a valley around an hour away. As we peeled away from the steaming fjords (cold arctic air hitting the relatively warm water) and headed inland, we watched with grim glee as the temperature display on the bus dropped from -12’C. When we arrived at the ice domes, the reading was -18’C.

Inside the hotel

The tour was lovely, so was sitting in the ‘warm dome’ afterwards with soup and spirits (Glenfidditch for him, Baileys for me). The arctic cold was really starting to set in, and the novelty wear off. As the sun begn it’s descent below the mountaintops, the temperature dropped further. If I remember anything of this trip, it is the sudden change from hospitable to the opposite. My phone died, my digital camera died. My jacket zipper broke clean off, like when movie crooks break into a safe by freezing and smashing the lock. Any exposed skin, like my hands desperately trying to take last pictures, felt the burn of near-frostbite in just a few minutes. On the bus home, the temperature reading was -25’C. I could definitely believe it.

Wednesday brought the first overcast skies; one day of snowfall. Wednesday also brought on a cold I’d been fending off for weeks with Vitamin C. We stayed in and claimed a snow day with endless Netflix.

Snow in our neighbourhood of Breivika

Waking the day after a snow storm is so exciting still – although I’m sure the novelty must wear off. We took the Fjellheisen cable car to the top of a peak overlooking Tromsø. What looked from the bottom to be quite a height turned out to be the first of many small peaks towards the true summit of Mt Storsteinen. We walked to the next peak in single file through the shin-deep snow, falling in to the Fjellheisen summit canteen after for a burger and pints of pilsner.

View from the top of the Fjellheisen cable car

The Arctic Cathedral near the base of the cable car

It’s funny how pushing the body in the cold takes so much more out of you. We joked every night that the reason we couldn’t keep our eyes open at 8pm was because of ‘all the fresh air’ breathed that day. It’s true though; the tap water tasted glacial, the air a special brand of crisp. Facial moisturing started taking on as many layers as my socks had, the cold a different level to any I’ve felt before. Traffic lights changed especially quickly for pedestrians – almost to get them in out of the cold quicker.

Ski jump towers at the University of Tromsø

What will I remember the most? The lights from Tromsdalen twinkling at us from across the water. The taste of beer (we had to sample all of it of course), the sighting of reindeer on the university campus. The cut of the cold, the warmth on getting in to the flat, how kind the people were. The feeling of being somewhere different to anything else I’ve experienced, and the feeling of being ever so slightly changed and not knowing quite why.