A Norwegian coastal voyage. A photographer’s dream vacation.
Come with us, as we cruise the Norwegian Fjords and Villages above the Arctic Circle on the Hertigruten’s Cruise ship, the Polarlys.Via Magic Carpet Journals. Article by M. Maxine George. Pictures by M. Maxine George and Margaret Deefholts
Looking back on my Norwegian coastal voyage, I am struck with the desire to return again, with camera in hand, to record more of that spectacular scenery. Our trip, with its unexpected wonders, began with an early morning flight north from Oslo. The flight took us to Kirkenes, on the far north-east coast of Norway. I expected to see nothing but the white, frozen north as I gazed out the window of the plane. Looking through the small window I could see the landscape, dotted with bodies of water, scattered across the rocky terrain below. To my amazement there was no snow! The flight was short, not much over an hour.
A five minute bus trip took us through the town. Kirkenes is only 15 km from Storskog, the official border crossing to Russia. The town is south of the Arctic timberline, so is quite green compared to the rest of the Arctic coast. In Kirkenes we joined a Norwegian Coastal Voyage aboard Hertigruten’s MS Polarlys, which travels through Norway’s famous fjords stopping at towns and fishing villages to bring supplies and deliver the mail. In short order we were assigned to our cabins. Soon after lunch we arrived in our first port of call, Vardo. It is the easternmost town in Norway, further east than St. Petersburg, Russia, therefore was important in establishing Norway’s sovereignty over the territory.
As we left the ship we were met by a lady dressed in the red and black uniform, with the tall black hat of an eighteenth century soldier from the Fort. She was there to lead us to Vardohus Fort. Because of it’s proximity to Russia, Vardohus Fort has been in continual use since it was built in 1737.
Since the end of the Cold War though, it has been used as a museum. The Norwegians are particularly proud of this Fort for this was the last place to fly the Norwegian flag during the German occupation from 1940 to 1945. The flag was raised again in the autumn of 1944 when the Germans withdrew out of Finnmark. The town of Vardo was two-thirds destroyed by the German scorched earth policy at the end of WWII.
The largest building in the Fort is the munitions bunker. A stairway at the back of the building leads to an observation tower. Interestingly enough, although well equipped with cannons and ammunition, this is the only fort in the world to have stood fast, while never firing a shot in battle or defense during its 250 year history. Once a year, a shot is fired as a salute to the sun. This occurs on the day that the sun finally shows its face above the horizon, ending the Arctic’s long winter night.
The only tree on the island grows in front of the commanding officer’s house. It has to be wrapped up during the winter to protect it from the cold and salty seawater that the winds carry across the island. Here we saw the historic use of sod roofs for the first time. Centuries before people became concerned about “going green” for the environment, the people here were using the thick green sod to insulate and cover roofs – especially on outbuildings.
Vardo was a very important part of NATO’s early warning system during the Cold War. The round white domes I could see on the hills outside of the village were part of that early warning system.
My companions and I wandered back through the town as it was nearly time to return to our ship. I nipped in for a short visit to a local shop where I found a small collection of trolls and souvenirs.
At six o’clock the next morning the boat docked at Honningsvag on the island of Mageroya, in Finnmark,. Honningsvag is the capital of North Cape and is the center for processing and freezing the fishing fleet’s catch. A bus was waiting to take us to Nordkapp or North Cape, as far north as one can go in Europe. The story of that stop can be found following this story.
Following our tour of the northernmost part of Norway, we met up with our ship, the Polarlys in Hammerfest to resume our Norwegian coastal voyage. The ship continued through the fjords that afternoon making a short stop at Skervoy in the early evening.
After a late dinner, we again prepared to go ashore at midnight. When the ship docked at Tromso, we climbed aboard a bus which took us up the hill to attend the Midnight Sun Concert at the Tromso Arctic Cathedral. I understand that during May, June and July, the Midnight Sun shines directly in through the unique stained glass windows, providing a spectacular backdrop for the concert. On this night though, the sun no longer attended the concert. We were being treated to a concert of Norwegian folk songs; hymns and classical music performed by a Scandinavian soprano, a pianist and a trumpet player. The acoustics in the Cathedral were excellent – without microphones, the music reverberated throughout the cathedral. The midnight concert was a real treat. Coming out into the black night we stopped to gaze out over the twinkling lights of Tromso and our docked ship before boarding our bus for our journey back down the hill.
The following morning we had time for an early breakfast before the ship docked in Harstad. It has a well established ship-building and maintenance industry which even attracts Russian ships for repair and refits. Besides their fishing fleet, they also have agriculture to the west and north of the town. It is headquarters for the oil exploration off that coast that is financing many of the remote roads, tunnels and bridges that I have noticed here in Norway’s far north.
We emerged from the ship to find that the town was shrouded in an eerie fog. A bus was waiting to take us on a tour of this thriving community.
The town spreads up the hill in tiers, with the wealthiest homes perched high on the hill, overlooking the town and the harbour. We are told some of those homes sell for as much as $2 million Norwegian kroner.
The Trondenes Kirke or Church is thought to have been built in the 1200’s. It is the oldest medieval stone church in the north. You can see by the windows that the walls must be at least three feet thick. The high income of the church in the Middle Ages, allowed the church to import some fine ecclesiastical art from Germany, including the altar pieces, which date from the 1400’s. A very short ecumenical service of thanks was held for the visitors. Coming out of the church, I looked up to see the ancient organ and pipes in the loft above the doorway.
We walked through the eerie fog along a path that led past a garden, towards the Trondenes Historical Centre. Gardeners here must be very devoted to the task, as those gardens take an unusual amount of TLC up here in the far north. These gardens were tended by volunteers, who do it for the love of gardening.
The Trondenes Historical Centre tells the history of this area from the early Viking settlement to this century’s German occupation, with paintings, artifacts and statues depicting their history. A German Messenger motorcycle represented the Second World War. They told us that the owner takes it out for a while every summer to use it, and then returns it for the rest of the year to the museum.
Back on the ship for lunch, the sun came out and the ship moved on to Risoyhamn, where again we disembarked and boarded a bus for a sightseeing tour through this beautiful, pastoral group of islands. The pictures tell their own story. The mountains and islands were truly beautiful. The area is mainly agricultural. However, in these communities fishing is a big industry. Fishermen the world over are the same, even where so many earn their livelihood in the fishing industry, sports fishermen are still to be found enjoying their free time casting a line into the water.
Risoyhamn, Norway displays nature’s palate
Our next stop was at Stokmarknes, where we had time to visit the Maritime Museum. Dry-docked next to the museum is Hertigruten’s original ship, the Finmarken, which plied these waters, bringing supplies and mail to the people living throughout these fjords during the last century. The ship is being renovated for display as part of the maritime exhibits.
Leaving Stokmarknes, we again took time to enjoy the scenery and get acquainted with the ship. The scenery was awesome; I just stayed out on deck admiring it.
After a while, we watched as our ship the Polarlys passed a sister ship, the Nordlys. The ships all look so bright and shiny – as though they had just been freshly painted from stem to stern, just like all the buildings we were seeing in Norway. Norwegian buildings all look bright, fresh and clean. Norway has a rule that all buildings must be painted every five years! We would do well to heed that rule. It makes for a bright, shiny, clean looking country!
Another unusual sight appeared: a rock island in the middle of the ocean, with an outdoor bathroom – a tub and toilet perched there for all to see!
Our ship entered the narrow passage into Troll Fjord to give the passengers a chance to see the spectacular scenery there. Again I was amazed when they turned the ship tightly around 180 degrees, and returned leaving Troll Fjord by the same narrow passage through which we had entered it. I believe every passenger aboard the ship was out on the deck throughout this whole amazing journey through the fjord.
We continued on our way to yet another visual treat, the Lofoten Islands.
The Polarlyls docked in Svolvaer, where we again boarded a bus to take an all too short tour through the spectacular Lofoten Islands. It was early evening, as we begin this journey. Again I was astonished by the beauty of the area we were traveling through. Although the sky was cloudy, snippets of sunlight shone through those clouds to reflect off the water, providing a silver cast to the scene before us. We passed a mountain with twin rock peaks coming out of the top. Our guide tried to convince us that mountaineers occasionally try to jump from one peak to the other. He joked that the results would be disastrous should one slip!
Soon the bus entered the fishing village of Henningsvaer. This village really captured this photographer’s heart, with the buildings reflected into the water by the low rays of the evening sun. The bus stopped at an Art Gallery. We were shown a short film about the area, then took a quick look at the marvelous paintings on display there. The paintings were vivid and depict the many unique historic and scenic attributes of the area including the midnight sun and the colourful northern lights. We had to hurry though as we had more miles to travel and our ship would be waiting. Coming out of the gallery, I could not resist stopping long enough to snap more pictures of this wonderful fishing village.
Quickly boarding the bus, we passed the racks where fishermen dry their fish as they have done for generations. Farther along, we saw a restored Viking long house on a hillside. It had been discovered by a farmer working his field some years before. If we had time, it would have been interesting to visit that place too.
One of the most amazing sights though was a mountain, reflecting off the nearby water at its base, giving the appearance of a massive, gold veined leaf. Unfortunately it was on a hairpin curve in the road and the bus driver only stopped for a few moments under duress! We were all pleading with him to let us get out – but no dice. We all made attempts to capture this very unusual sight with our cameras as best we could in those few moments.
In a short time we were trying to snap the red setting sun as it appeared low in the sky getting ready to go behind the mountains. This particular bus journey was a photographer’s dream. I wish we could have had days instead of only a couple of hours to record the beauty of what we saw.
Our time above the Arctic Circle was coming to an end. The next day, the ship would pass the rock recognized as being situated on the Arctic Circle. There had been a globe erected on the rock, however high seas took the globe to Davy Jones locker and now only the stand remained to mark the crossing. Far from being a cold forbidding place to visit, Norway’s fjords offer fascinating opportunities for shutterbugs to ply their skills on some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. With the many seasonal changes that occur in the far north these cruises will have new thrills to offer throughout the year! I would love to return to see their legendary midnight sun and the spectacular northern lights.
Story by M. Maxine George
Photos by M. Maxine George and Margaret Deefholts