February 23, 2015. After our long night chasing the Northern Lights, we slept until around 10 a.m., then dragged ourselves downstairs for a quick breakfast in our Smart Hotel lobby. I totally love Smart Hotels, by the way. Not only are they affordable, but they’ve streamlined their rooms down to sleek yet spare models of efficiency and comfort. Spaces are tight, for sure — everything you need at a fingertip’s distance from the bed or toilet — but cleanly designed with a Danish modern feel that doesn’t feel cheap, despite the low price. Definitely a recommendation for my fellow travelers.
But back to breakfast. We grabbed the usual suspects from the breakfast bar — a boiled egg, thick slices of seed-filled brown bread, an assortment of fruit, some cold cuts, and the brunost (“brown cheese”) Norwegians love. Sweet and smooth, its melt-in-your-mouth quality comes from the fact that it’s made of milk, cream, and whey, which are boiled until they evaporate and carmelize. What’s not to like? Spread brown cheese on a thin waffle and top it with cloudberry jam, and you’ll get a taste of a true Norwegian tradition.
One of my favorite brown cheeses is geitost made from goat’s milk, which gives it a particularly nutty flavor. To carve yourself off a slice, you must of course use the traditional “cheese shovel,” which resembles a pie server with a slit in it. Drag this across a chunk of cheese and watch the yummy curls pile up and onto your plate. We received the handy tool as a “welcome to Norway” gift from a colleague and felt like we’d really been initiated into society.
Anyway, we settled down with our brown cheese amongst all the other North-Face-and-Sorel-clad guests and caught up on the latest episode of a Norwegian reality TV series entitled “Anno 1764” — it’s probably an important year in Norwegian history, but I sadly don’t know the details. Anyway, as near as I can figure out, the basic premise is a men-against-women thing, with contestants competing over how well they master tasks like printing their own newspaper on an ancient press or painting a replica of a historical map. Seems like an odd assortment of requisite survival skills to me, but okay.
While everyone bunks in historic Bergen quarters and occasionally dons old-timey outfits for things like Sunday Services or dance lessons, they don’t “stay in character” the entire time, like you’d see on an American or British show. Compared to hard-core History Channel or BBC productions that force contestants to milk cows at the crack of dawn every day, slaughter their own dinner, grow and mill their own wheat by hand, or build a log cabin from scratch, these Norwegians seem to have it pretty easy. Supposedly their goal is to work their way up the historical social ladder, from poverty to riches and glory, by acquiring certain skill sets that frankly seem quite cushy for denizens of the 18th century.
My favorite annoyance was watching one arrogant little snot loll in bed for days on end, only to get up a couple of hours before his reproduction of a historical map was due and clinch the contest with a slap-dash piece of crap that looked like a five-year-old had painted it. Somehow with zero interest and even less practice, he beat out a 47-year-old woman who’d been working all week on her masterpiece. I couldn’t believe that the judges didn’t disqualify him for his lack of effort. Or for that matter, that his fellow bunkmates didn’t attempt to kick him out of bed earlier for fear he’d lose the contest for them. But no, just like finals week in college, it was high fives all around from his little historical frat buddies despite his half-assed attempt.
After catching our fill of reality TV over breakfast, we headed out the door to tour the town in the daylight. For a little backhistory, Tromsø has been inhabited since the Ice Age, probably because the Gulf Stream keeps the city surprisingly temperate for its northern location. Arctic hunting and fishing have made its port famous, and back in the 19th century, traders christened it the “Paris of the North.” As the story goes, folks were mightily impressed by the quality of the city’s restaurants and the fancy women’s fashions sported by its socialites. The city still has a Victorian feel, being home to the largest number of wooden buildings in northern Norway.
Our roaming took us down incredibly quaint streets lined with Carpenter Gothic buildings clad in clapboard and dripping with wedding-cake details. The main shopping streets seemed to be closed to car traffic, possibly because a 10-inch layer of ice coated the pavement. We’d fortunately brought our crampons, which seemed to be typical attire for most of Tromsø’s inhabitants, although signs in each store warned shoppers to remove their spikes before entering to avoid damaging floors.
We wandered through the city square and took in the adorable Episcopal Domkirke (1861) — the only wooden cathedral in Norway and supposedly the northernmost protestant cathedral in the world. Interestingly, the stained-glass windows were design by Per Vigeland, the nephew of sculptor Gustav Vigeland whose famed park full of naked statues is right down the street from our Oslo apartment. Nearby we ran into a statue of Roald Amundsen, whose North Pole expedition (like many Arctic explorations) left from Tromsø’s harbor. The harbor itself was perfectly picturesque, lined in spots with quaint wooden warehouses and wharves playing host to ships of all sizes and ages.
A view of the modern (1965) Arctic Cathedral (catholic, not protestant) beckoned us from across the water. It sat situated in what appeared to be a postcard-perfect Christmas town, so we decided to cross the Tromsø bridge for a closer look. The sun helped mitigate the blustery trip, and taking photos helped distract me from the dizzying height and terror of trucks zooming close to the pedestrian path.
The church itself, known as Ishavskatedralen (literally “Ice Ocean Cathedral”) is often compared to the Sydney Opera House because of its stepped “wings” and A-frame construction. In the sunlight, these wings heat up and become blindingly bright to look at, so we contented ourselves with listening to the odd, whispering sounds as melting snow slithered down the church’s slanted sides.
Chilled after our walk, we headed back to town for a quick cup of coffee and bite to eat before our flight home. At Risø, we indulged in a pork-loin sandwich dressed with orange marmalade, arugula, and pickled radishes (delish!) and fancy lattes boasting crema artwork. A young couple who introduced themselves as Daniel and Bjørk (which means “Birch”) offered to share their table with us in the crowded restaurant. Both had lived abroad for a time in Australia and New York but had decided to settle down back home in Tromsø.
We shared stories of the city, as well as impressions of Americans and Norwegians, including that of the differing work ethic that seems to be a big topic of conversation whenever we talk with locals. We envied them for their copious time off, and they expressed the worry that given the recent downturn of oil prices, folks will be forced to work longer hours in order to keep up economically. (Apparently, the newspapers have been filled with articles calling this relaxed work ethic a “national malady” in need of adjustment if Norway is to remain a global competitor.) Hmm, I still think I’d prefer more time off to greater riches.
But with that last thought, it was time to head back to Oslo, where work awaits ….