At 69°N, TromsØ, Northern Norway’s largest city, lies far north of the Arctic Circle. At this latitude winter means twenty-four hours of darkness, while summer boasts the midnight sun. In late March the days seemed almost normal, with sunrise at 5am and sunset around 7:30pm, but during the 6 days of our trip the sunset had already shifted by 30 minutes. We stepped off the plane (6 hours directly north of Geneva) late in the night and were immediately engulfed by a swirling blizzard – huge wet snowflakes came pouring down at a rapid pace, making my heart soar. This is exactly what I had imagined winter in the Arctic would be like. Our taxi expertly guided us through the snow and into a hobbit-like network of rock-hewn tunnels, circling around my first-ever inner-mountain roundabout and exiting through a tunnel that spit us out in downtown TromsØ. At this hour all the restaurants were closed, so we hunkered down with a local IPA at the cozy candlelit pub next door before calling it a night.
In the morning we began our introduction to daily life in the Arctic with smoked salmon and Norwegian pancakes, a delicious hybrid of American pancakes and French crepes – thin and sweet with a dense almost sticky texture, topped with butter and maple syrup. On our way to work we caught a glimpse of what a daily commute looks like in a city often covered in up to 3 meters of snow. Out the taxi window we watched a man walk directly from his yard onto his roof (this is how high the snow was), and begin to shovel the snow off the roof. Then we watched in amazement as people of all ages passed by on skis and bikes with studded tires, on their way to work or school using the bike path that cuts through the center of town -the schoolyards had ski racks out front instead of bike racks. Partway through our ride our taxi had to brake suddenly to avoid another car that had skidded into the snowy intersection; as we cringed, the driver turned around and smiled and cheerfully stated: “winter!”
After a full day of work, we headed to the roof of our hotel to d sweat away our toxins in the sauna, an integral part of Norwegian culture, while gazing out the large round window at the beautiful sacred Sami mountain plunging into the frigid water below us. Feeling loose and relaxed, we showered and walked down the street past the many candlelit cafes glowing in the night until we arrived at Hildr, a small-plate restaurant recommended by our local hosts as a cozy spot for a glass of wine. We were just in time to grab the last table, one of only 10 in the entire restaurant, not yet realizing how lucky we were. We did not seek out TromsØ for its food, and if anything, anticipated that it might be hard to find fresh food in a place so isolated. This could not have been farther from the truth. Upon the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the tasting menu. Three hours later, I was left marveling at the sophisticated combinations of flavors and textures far exceeding my expectations, manifested in dishes such as poached egg with trout roe, silky creamed potatoes, and toasted buckwheat; an incredibly complex braised ox cheek in red wine wrapped in delicate noodles; arctic char with cauliflower, brown butter and hazelnuts; a creamy blue cheese ball dusted in some sort of coating, and finally poached blood oranges with angostura mousse.
The next evening proved just as exciting. Our hosts began with a cable car up the mountain to a lookout point over the city harbor and surrounding fjords. The clouds miraculously parted as we arrived, offering a fantastic view in the soft evening light, before returning just as we headed down. The subsequent dinner at the local institution Skarver was equally impressive. Skarver is a seafood restaurant specializing in the local delicacy of dried stockfish and bacon. The dried stockfish was rehydrated to create a fabulous texture wholly different from fresh fish, served on a bed of pureed peas and topped with bacon and a special sauce, with a side of grilled potatoes – the Norwegian answer to fish and chips. This unique meal was followed by yet another outstanding experience the next night at Skirri, a sleek and modern restaurant housing the local fish cooperative and located directly on the water. Here we sipped delicate fish soup before digging into a plate of perfectly grilled salmon with extra crispy skin (the best part) and local baby potatoes with a crunchy golden brown crust. TromsØ certainly earned its place as a foodie destination.
The city also showcases some other interesting foods that do not necessarily appeal to the masses. For example, as with many Northern European countries, there is a national love of licorice, especially the very salty kind, which, in addition to the candy, is used to flavor all sorts of foods: ice cream, gum, energy bars, powder, and cookies, to name a few. Then there is the distinctly Norwegian specialty of brown cheese, or “Brunost”. Made from caramelized milk, it looks deceptively like dulce de leche, but instead of sweet it tastes surprisingly more like cheddar. A typical packed lunch in TromsØ, which we were fortunate enough to try, consists of a sandwich made of bread or waffles with jam and brown cheese. The Norwegian version of a PB&J.
When our work has finished for the week, we moved from the center of town to our friend Per’s home, where he, along with his wonderful wife Gry, graciously hosted us for the remainder of the trip and demonstrated how the real TromsØnians live. This began with fresh cookies and tea by the woodstove, followed by a driving tour of the fjords fringing the edges of the island. Blanketed in snow, the mountains plunge at a nearly a 90 degree angle straight into the sea. While not as tall as the Alps, the craggy peaks and walls of snow rising from the water feel just as dramatic. Every now and then we passed a tiny village tucked into the mountains made up of perfect little square houses and triangular roofs, in varying shades of red, yellow, and blue, like the ones I used to draw when I was little. On many porches cod dangled, drying in the sun, and icicles flowed off the edge of the roofs like icing dripping over the side of a cake. Although we admired their decorative effect, Per told us that this is actually a sign that the insulation is not very good, so you can be judged by how many icicles are coming off your roof! We returned home in time to enjoy a wonderful meal cooked by Gry, and then sank into the couch for the evening with a glass of wine and the warmth of the fire.
We had booked a day of dogsledding in the morning, and got up early to catch the bus. However, tourism is a relatively new industry in TromsØ, driven recently by the desire to see the northern lights and the snow, and they are still trying to figure out a smooth operating process. When we arrived at our meeting point the tour had been cancelled. But to alleviate our disappointment, we were offered a free reindeer sleigh ride with the opportunity to feed them and learn about the Sami culture (the indigenous peoples of Norway). We accepted and soon found ourselves seated by a fire in a Sami hut, learning about the local culture. Much of the Sami vocabulary is made of words that describe reindeer in detail, for example the color of a reindeer’s hide. It turns out that all reindeer in Norway actually belong to the Sami people, even the “wild” ones you see roaming the mountains. The Sami’s entire day is spent feeding the younger reindeer and checking on the older animals that have been released into the mountains to graze. Each Sami family cuts a special shape, like a moon or star, into the ears of their reindeer to mark their ownership. Children are given knives at a very young age to learn how to cut the correct shapes in the reindeer ears – the wrong shape could mean that the reindeer belonged to someone else, and this is not a mistake they can afford to make. It was obvious that the Sami really love the reindeer, but the animals are also their livelihood, so after feeding the reindeer and taking a sled ride we gathered around the fire and were unabashedly served a lunch of reindeer stew. The trip ended with our guide singing us a joik, a traditional song meant to reflect or evoke a person, animal, or place, and believed to be one of the oldest musical traditions in Europe.
On that note, we returned to TromsØ and browsed the local galleries until Per swooped us up for the evening. Upon reaching the house he handed us each a pair of snowshoes for a quick hike up the mountain directly out the back door. We obliged, and after only 10 minutes we were rewarded with an incredible view of the entire fjord and city spreading out below us. We tromped down again to find that Gry had set happy hour drinks out for us in a homemade “cooler” – a wall of snow on the porch (at eye level)- so we wrapped ourselves in blankets and chatted on the deck until dinner.
This was our last night in TromsØ and therefore our last chance to see the northern lights. We were lucky and the sky was clear, so after dinner we bundled up to go aurora hunting. Incredibly, as soon as we stepped out the door they appeared, dancing above us in the driveway. Giddy with excitement, we jumped in the car to find the best viewpoint. With the windows rolled down we watched the lights undulate in the cold night as we drove. At our destination, a dark hill above the city, we craned our necks skywards and watched the lights jump until our fingers went numb.
(Photo credit: Natalia Wroblewska)
We boarded the plane back to Geneva with mixed emotions. TromsØ fulfilled and exceeded every expectation for a cozy, exotic, wild, Arctic experience, but there is still so much more to see and do. Luckily, we have friends there to go back and visit.