The day didn’t so much start as continue. As Wednesday rolled into Thursday, I was gazing at sunlight reflected off sea. I knew I was tired and should go to bed but the passing scenery distracted me. The appropriately named MS Midnatsol was gliding inexorably on towards the northernmost point of continental Europe and I was being carried along – and away.
There were to be many highlights on the 12-day voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back but for me the real magic would be on this Day Four. As the previous day ended and this one began we sailed in and out of a string of small islands still visible and beautiful. In the wee sma’ hours we reached Brønnøysund and, in a fit of madness, I ran down to Deck 6 as we arrived to watch the cargo come on and off. The day was changing from dusk to dawn and was pleasantly warm as I watched the bustle on the quayside. We left around 1.30am and I headed for my cabin, deciding that some sleep was necessary if I were to be awake for the day’s main event.
Five hours later, clutching coffee and camera, I was back on Deck 6, my vantage point of choice throughout the voyage. Endless sea streamed ahead as I gazed towards the horizon. Just over half an hour later a small rocky island topped by a globe came into view and at 7.07.21 the ship’s horn blared as we crossed the Arctic Circle.
I’d always wanted to visit the Arctic and this trip on MS Midnatsol, one of the Hurtigrute fleet, was a particularly pleasant way of doing so. I had expected to enjoy myself but not to be so totally and immediately captivated. I loved everything: the ship, the people, the scenery and most of all the light and the sea. I felt as if I had found my right place; I was relaxed, confident and happy – the person I wish I were all the time. I found it hard to sleep but only because I didn’t want to miss anything. I saw many ports at two or three in the morning – in daylight for this was early July in the land of the midnight sun. Often it felt as though only I (and the crew) was awake and by the time we reached the Arctic, Midnatsol had become my ship.
It was hard to believe that only a few days previously I had flown from a bustling Edinburgh Airport, somewhat irritated to be missing the last day of Wimbledon, a day that would see a Scotsman lift a trophy. (Not that Scotsman but his older brother in the Mixed Doubles.) The journey had been tedious and by the time I arrived at my hotel in Bergen I had lost the notion for a holiday and felt that I would be just as pleased to wake up at home. This feeling of faint reluctance lingered through breakfast as my companion and I regarded a side street through rain that seemed set for the day.
However my years living in Glasgow whilst studying at that city’s ancient university had taught me that rain was to be accepted, not avoided, and so we sallied forth to see what we could of the city. And everywhere we went, from the harbour-side market to the Hanseatic Museum, we were assured that the weather was to improve and that it would be better further north. And so, returning to the hotel after an interesting day to dry out and collect our luggage, I was beginning to regain my sense of wonder at the journey that lay ahead.
And it transpired that the natives of Bergen, who must spend a lot of time discussing the weather with sodden visitors to their beautiful city, were right. As we sailed north through that first night, the rain lessened and arriving in Ålesund after breakfast we were surprised by faltering sunshine.
From there northwards the sun strengthened and on this most memorable of days, I spent the morning sunbathing on the open deck. It seemed scarcely believable that I should be lying beneath blue skies, idly watching the Arctic countryside slip past but it was true: the further north we travelled, the sunnier and warmer it became. Lulled by the rhythm of the sea and drunk on the spectacular scenery, I almost resented our ports of call. And yet they are the reason for the line’s existence. What is now Hurtigruten began as a lifeline service to small communities on the west coast of Norway. In the early days it carried the mail, freight and a few intrepid passengers. Then it really was the fast way, and often the only way, of reaching some of the tiny settlements. Now these places are accessible by road and often air. Hurtigruten may no longer be the fastest route but it is sometimes still the easiest. The current ships transport mainly tourists along with some cargo but they are all still small enough to be able to dock at the same 34, often tiny, harbours.
Of course, there is no altering the ship’s schedule and early in the afternoon of my day of days we reached Bodø. Reluctantly I gave up sunbathing and prepared to disembark. There were various excursions available, as there were on most days, but I had decided to eschew them all and take the bus to the National Aviation Museum. I could have spent all day there, wearing out my feet and exploring the history of flight. But time and tide wait for no man (or woman) and Midnatsol had that schedule to keep. And so, having seen only half of what was on offer, I boarded the bus to return to the harbour. I delayed my re-embarkation until the very last minute as I sat on the quayside in the afternoon sun, lazily watching the general activity.
From Bodø we headed north-west to Lofoten. The weather continued to be glorious and sitting on deck was the only option. As we approached the islands, the line of mountains running their length came into view. Known as the Lofoten Wall, it was a majestic sight and kept me enthralled as we sailed closer and the detail became clearer.
Watching the cargo being loaded and unloaded was a constant joy to me. There was no knowing what you might see or who might be there delivering or collecting it. At Stamsund that evening I was delighted to see a family arrive to take delivery of a new three-piece suite. These little asides to the voyage gave a real feeling of being connected to the places at which we stopped. The arrival of a Hurtigruten ship was an event for the local community as much as for the tourists on board.
Back on board as we left the dramatic harbour at Stamsund it was time for dinner which was doubtless delicious. I know that the food was consistently excellent but there’s no room in my memory for it, crowded as it is by thoughts of the scenery and the light. Breakfast and lunch were buffets with a vast range to choose from. Dinner was a set meal with no choices (although if notified in advance, the chefs were happy to prepare meals suitable for different dietary needs). Having established that I needed tomato-free food, I made the deliberate decision not to find out what I was eating ahead of time. In this way I ate dishes I might otherwise have avoided, not being an overly adventurous diner. Naturally there was a lot of fish on offer, including some I’d never heard of, all beautifully prepared and skilfully served, and I ate it all, along with reindeer and other meats.
I never travel anywhere without reading all I can about my destination and this trip was no exception. I’d been reading books and websites and pouring over maps for nearly a year but I still wasn’t prepared for the awesome beauty or the vast distances of Norway’s west coast. I am not the first person to remark on its similarity to Scotland’s west coast. There is a distinct resemblance but on a bigger scale. I was mesmerised by the mountains running straight down into the sea with houses and cabins dotted across the landscape in places that appeared to have no access. And there was often a feeling that we had become completely landlocked only for a narrow passage to open up at the last minute. Norway’s west coast, of course, is fringed with fjords and edged by countless islands. So there was almost always land in view close enough to make out details, sometimes down to the growing flowers.
In the course of my reading I made many notes about places of interest and one of those was in our next port. Svolvær is one of the prettiest harbours we called at but for once I wasted no time admiring my surroundings. It was the Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum for me! The owner was an interesting man who seemed to speak limitless languages and unerringly and enthusiastically greeted his visitors in the right one. On hearing that I was from Scotland, he led me to view a model of a Scottish soldier and wanted to know why I had chosen to visit the museum. His collection details the Second World War as it affected the people of the north of Norway. It’s not a glitzy streamlined museum but rather a personal collection and is fascinating because of that. The scariest thing I have ever seen in a museum is there: a mocked-up Gestapo HQ. It might be a re-creation but all the artefacts are genuine and I was genuinely terrified. I left the museum feeling embarrassed and ashamed about how little I knew about Norway during the Second World War. It was horrible: awful acts and immense deprivation especially in the north. Later in the voyage I would see for myself some of the sites described and find myself close to tears at the thought of what had taken place.
By the time we left Svolvær the day was almost over. But there was one more adjective-defying scenic delight to come. The Trollfjord: not much wider than Midnatsol is long and with mountains rising 1000 feet on either side. The captain navigated the ship carefully into the fjord and dropped anchor. As the passengers gazed up there came cries from the shore below. There were trolls on the loose and they had captured some of the crew! Bravely a few of their hardy colleagues set out in a small boat to try to rescue them. But in their haste they forgot to secure the ship and before we knew it those pesky trolls were aboard and soon lumbering through the ship striking fear and panic into our hearts. Fortunately the crew of Midnatsol is made of stern stuff and eventually the intruders were banished, the captives were freed and it was time for us to leave. The captain skilfully turned the ship on the spot to head back out into the safety of more open waters.
The hilarity of the evening over, I turned my attention once more to the grandeur of my surroundings. I felt small and insignificant and over-awed but content. Behind me lay evocative Bergen, built on its seven hills and impressive even in the rain; picturesque Ålesund, destroyed by fire at the beginning of the twentieth century allowing it to be remodeled in Art Nouveau style; and beautiful Trondheim set on its long fjord, a city of wide avenues and the mediaeval Nidaros Cathedral where Norway’s monarchs are still consecrated. Ahead of me awaited many delights: the Arctic frontier town of Tromsø with its stunning Arctic Cathedral and educational Polar Museum: the majestic North Cape, a bit of a tourist trap but worth the money to be able to stand on the edge of the world with only sea ahead; Kirkenes and the Russian border seen on an overcast day but full of interest even so; and Hammerfest, the most northerly town in the world, razed almost entirely to the ground at the end of the Second World War and rebuilt by the locals in an enduring testimony to their spirit. But, as Thursday became Friday, I lay back on deck and gloried in being where I was, on board Midnatsol, basking in the warmth of the midnight sun.