Snow, snow and more snow. Oh, did I say snow?
Breakfasts in Norway are generally very similar to lunch and usually consist of open sandwiches with meat, fish, egg or cheese. The bread is most often wholemeal and quite dense. My breakfasts (as well as packed lunches for school) in the 1960s and 70s used to contain home made bread with either Gouda cheese or a salami-like deli sausage called Stabburspølse made from horse meat, pork fat and blood. My favourite! The school did not allow white bread or sweet fillings for lunch, and the headmaster personally checked each and every sandwich-pack! Fruit and vegetables were allowed but no snacks such as crisps (chips) or chocolates!
Unable to find Stabburspølse in the supermarket yesterday, I bought something similar, made from lamb meat, pork heart, beef heart, pork meat and beef fat. I am delighted to find it tastes very similar to the one made from horse.
I have another slice of bread, topped with 'rekesalat' - a rich mixture of prawns, sugar beets and mayonnaise - another treat we used to have occasionally at home, which makes me think fondly of my mother, as it was one of her favourites.
Sandwiches are nearly always the open variety in Norway, not one slice of bread either side of the filling.
David is not as adventurous as me when it comes to food, and is happy to stay 'safe' with Jarlsberg – at least it is a Norwegian cheese! In my day (gosh, that makes me sound sooo old!), we didn't talk about different cheeses by name; it was either 'gulost' (yellow cheese) or 'brunost' (brown cheese). The former was almost always Gouda, whereas 'brunost', AKA Gjetost, is a caramelised whey cheese made from goat's milk – an acquired taste. One I have not acquired!
It is still not quite daylight when we go out at 9am this morning - today sunrise is at 09:56 and sunset at 13:02.
Parking in the snow and cold
Parking our car outside the house in the cold and snowy north is very different to what we are used to. One of the things we were advised to do, is to make sure the windscreen wipers are up so that they don't freeze onto the windscreen overnight.
Other suggestions include:
Take the snow brush and ice scraper in with us. Should we come out in the morning to find the car covered in a foot of snow we will be glad we did.
Let the cabin of the car cool down before we close the door to reduce the amount of ice forming on the windscreen overnight.
Be prepared to get up early to clear the driveway so that we can get onto the main road. The roads in Norway are cleared regularly, starting very early in the morning (our side road back in the 70s was usually ploughed by 7am), but the disadvantage of this is the ridge which is often left by the snowplough across your driveway!
The original plan was to visit the Arctic Cathedral and a couple of Tromsø's museums today, but being surrounded by so much beautiful scenery it seems a shame to spend the day indoors. Yesterday at the SixT counter, Hans-Ivar (the guy who helped us with the car) was explaining to us which fjord is best for whale watching; so that's where we are heading this morning. Faced with a choice of seeing whales or visiting a museum, the whales win hands down!
If you thought continental Europe had exclusive rights to Alps, you'd be wrong. Norway has its own mountain range known as Lyngen Alps, stretching some 50 miles east of Tromsø, with several peaks reaching over 1000 metres high.
The area is truly stunning, with steep sided, snow clad mountains tumbling directly into the blue fjords.
If you are wondering what those red poles by the side of the road are – they are markers to show where the edge of the carriageway is and road surface ends. They help both drivers and the snowplough stay on the road rather than end up in the ditch when there is a lot of snow.
Svensby – Breivikeidet Ferry
We return to the ferry at Svensby this morning to travel back towards Tromsø again.
There are a few more waves this morning, and while not exactly 'rough', we can certainly feel the movement of the boat and the crashing of the waves.
Sitting in the car on the ferry deck is quite a strange experience, as we cannot see anything other than the very top of the mountains. It's like being in an enclosed simulator – one of those things you get at fairgrounds which are supposed to emulate the movement of a fighter plane, racing car or roller-coaster.
Upstairs is a nice seating area, with a small café, as well as toilets. This morning most people seem to be staying in their cars, however.
Key Battery Low
This morning a warning appears on our dashboard about the key battery being low. Not wanting to be stuck in icy conditions unable to get back into the car, we ring the number on the car hire receipt to see what they suggest we do. A nice your girl answers the phone and after ascertaining that she speaks English, David proceeds to explain the situation. “You need help with the car?” she asks after his fairly lengthy summary of the problem. David goes over it again, carefully choosing different words this time in an effort to be understood. As the girl on the other end still seems confused, he hands me the phone, and I go though the whole scenario in Norwegian. She lets me finish then says calmly: “I understand your problem, but you have come through to a veterinary hospital.”
Feeling rather embarrassed and foolish, I profusely apologise and sheepishly hang up.
By the time we get to the other side of the fjord, the mist has rolled in from the sea and there is snow in the air. By 10 o'clock, however, we see a glimmer of sunrise – maybe it will be a nice day after all? Blink and you'll miss it. The forecast is not good...
After the earlier humiliation, we decide not to risk phoning SixT again, and when we spot the BILTREND showroom (we have one of their adverts emblazened in big letters on the side of the hire car) we call in to ask them about the key battery. The friendly sales person changes it for us free of charge. How nice. We tell him about the vet fiasco, and discover that we did call the correct number, but the + sign had somehow ended up at the end of the number rather than in front. How does that work?
We are both really hoping to see elk on our travels! And I guess if we are unlucky enough to hit one, we now at least have the number of a veterinarian. Very useful!
We head for Kaldfjorden where the orcas were spotted earlier this week. Guess what? It's snowing! Near Ersjordbotn we stop at a viewing area, but all we can see is snow. And more snow.
And then the really bad weather comes in from the right.
We can't see a thing any more. Not that we could see much before...
Thank goodness for coffee and 'pepperkaker' (thin Norwegian ginger biscuits).
The storm passes as quickly as it arrived – although we can still see the bad weather blowing across the horizon.
Watching several fishermen bring their boats back in to the harbour, we realise that the weather forecast was probably right.
David tries his best to check out the weather and aurora predictions for later, but isn't having much success with his laptop or his phone.
With zero visibility, strong winds and horizontal snow, we decide to abandon the idea of whale watching and take a road trip around Kvaløya Island instead.
It has never really got light today, and before we know it, sunset is upon us. It is really hard to tell at what point sunrise ends and sunset starts as they just seem to blend into one twilight zone.
It's a beautiful coastline, even in this light. Or rather, lack of.
And then the snow sets in. Again.
The scenery is magnificent – providing you like black and white, and you don't actually want to see it.
The snowfall intensifies, and soon we find ourselves in the middle of a blizzard, with a white-out – or rather a 'grey-out'. Here we are the ones making tracks in the road, the first to have driven this stretch since the snow started a couple of hours ago!
The one saving grace for the driving here is the fact that the car is fitted with studded tyres, giving extra grip in the snow and ice. It would be stupid, foolhardy and downright dangerous to attempt this journey on summer tyres.
Having come this far, we decide to continue over the bridge to Sommarøy.
The weather is just as atrocious out here, so we find a 'kro' (road side café) to break up the journey and grab a bite to eat. The island is a popular tourist destination in summer due to its white sandy beaches and beautiful scenery, but at this time of year it is desolate and we are the only customers in the diner.
For some reason this place makes me think of the 1990s American sitcom 'Northern Exposure'.
Before I left the UK, I made a mental list of all the nostalgic experiences I wanted to have while in Norway. Eating 'karbonadesmørbrød' in a road-side 'kro' was one of them.
'Karbonader' is the Norwegian version of a hamburger, and as a 'smørbrød' (open sandwich), it is served on a slice of wholemeal bread, topped with fried onion. It is sometimes served cold, but here I get it straight out of the frying pan. This is (or at least was when I lived in Norway some 40+ years ago) one of the most popular cafeteria menu items in this country.
Waffles are a Norwegian institution, and you will find almost all snack bars, cafés and even restaurants serve them. Every household has a waffle iron, and inviting someone over for waffles is common. In our house waffles were most often served with raspberry jam or freshly stewed strawberries when in season. I am therefore quite surprised – and a little disappointed – to find this one is filled with the ubiquitous brown cheese. I don't like brown cheese, but never being one to turn down a food just because I think I won't like it; I decide to give it a second chance and taste it with an open mind. It is actually not bad!
While David sticks to the more international choice of burger and chips (no surprise there then!), he does at least order something Norwegian for dessert: 'eplekake' (apple cake).
Now, anyone who has ever visited Norway will agree with me that it is NOT a cheap country, I was therefore not too shocked when the bill came to 340 Kr (ca £26) for a burger and chips, open sandwich, apple cake, waffles, Coke and hot chocolate.
Norlendinger and nordnorsk
One thing that has struck me since landing in Tromsø yesterday, is how friendly everyone is. Norwegians are not known for their friendliness, at least not towards strangers. I am beginning to think that this is the north-south divide, and that 'nordlendinger' (northerners) are more cordial than the people down south. The lady owner of the diner joins us for a long conversation, wanting to know all about how I ended up in England, what I did for a living, what it is like to live in England, how easy it is to get a job etc.
I love chatting with people and making new friends, but I have to admit that talking to strangers is something I have been feeling a little apprehensive about on this trip. Obviously, growing up in Norway, the first language I spoke was Norwegian. However, I left when I was 15, and since then 99% of my oral and written communication has been in English, therefore my Norwegian is not so much rusty as immature. My vocabulary is that of a teenager and after leaving Norway, my conversation in the language has been almost exclusively with my parents, resulting in a lack of knowledge – and confidence - of small talk, professional contact and chitchat.
Add to that the fact that this the country uses two official variations of Norwegian: Nynorsk (directly translated: new-Norwegian) and Bokmål (literally book-tongue). While mutually intelligible in their written form, I really struggle to understand the former when spoken. There are also 248 recognised dialects, although it is popularly said there are as many dialects as there are inhabitants in Norway. I find 'nordnorsk' – the dialect spoken in northern Norway – extremely hard to understand. Not only is the pronunciation very distinct, many words are completely different to the ones I would use. The image below goes some way to explain the differences even just in the simple word I.
Over the Mountains
We make our way back down to Tromsø over the mountains, where the driving conditions are just as bad, and I let David down by snoozing most of the way. I just can not keep awake! Must be his smooth and safe driving...
I pop a few Tyrkisk Peber to try and stop myself from dropping off to sleep – these are another acquired taste for sure. They are hard liquorice sweets, with a salt and pepper soft centre. Very strong and very unusual.
Hans-Ivar at the car hire place recommended the Eide Handel supermarket as the best place in the area to get traditional Norwegian food. He was right. I am excited to find reindeer meat, whale steaks, cloudberry jam and a few other favourites from my youth.
At the entrance is a lady selling her own home made 'lefser' (thin, flat potato bread) with sugar, cinnamon and brown cheese, and she is offering free tasters! Delicious! It isn't until after we get to the car that David tells me how much the lefse we bought was: 149Kr. Gulp. That's nearly £12. For a sweet 'cake' thingy....
As the weather is so awful this side of Tromsø, we decide to take a trip inland towards (or even into) Finland; hoping for clearer skies – and ultimately northern lights – as there is usually less precipitation the further away from the coast you get . We stock up on snacks to keep us going through the evening so that we don't have to return to the house for dinner.
SMIL is a milk chocolate with a soft centre, not dissimilar to Rolos, but with a runnier filling.
But first we have to get through Tromsø, which is easier said than done and we get somewhat lost in the one-way and dead-end road systems. At least we get a 'sightseeing tour' of Tromsø by night. Or, more correctly, Tromsø after dark, as it is only 16:30 now, it just feels like the middle of the night...
Tromsø has a rich history dating back around 11,000 years and the city centre contains the highest number of old wooden houses anywhere in Northern Norway with the oldest building dating from 1789. It was the only city in Northern Norway to avoid serious damage during WWII (most of this area was burnt to the ground by the Germans) and it even served as the capital of the free Norway for a few weeks after Germany invaded Norway in 1940. We can't really see much of the town in the dark though, so we just admire the Christmas lights.
It looks like the Coastal Voyage ship is in town. Hurtigruten is a daily passenger and freight shipping service along Norway's western and northern coast between Bergen and Kirkenes, completing the round-trip journey in 11 days. Although it does carry passengers, it is not a cruise ship as such - for many people living in isolated coastal areas, it is a way of life as their main contact with the rest of the world, carrying goods, cars and even the post.
Ishavskatedralen (Arctic Cathedral)
Officially known as Tromsdalen Kirke, this iconic symbol of Tromsø is technically not a cathedral at all, but a parish church which has popularly attained the moniker 'Arctic Cathedral'. On account of its striking shape and position on the harbour, it has also been nicknamed the 'Opera House of Norway', referring to its (somewhat sinuous) resemblance to the Sydney Opera House. The artist himself is said to have given several different answers at different times when questioned about what inspired him to create this particular design: the Sami tent, icebergs, fish-drying racks and the local style of boathouse amongst others.
Snow, snow and more snow
Almost as soon as we cross the bridge from Tromsø to the mainland, the snow starts to come down heavily. Really heavily.
We are now having to make a decision – do we carry on towards Finland, or do we make our way back to base? From here to Kilpisjärvi in Finland takes around 1.5 hours in perfect driving conditions. Today's circumstances are anything but perfect. We will have to drive back again too of course, which is another 2.5 hours at best. So we are talking about 5-6 hours driving in this snow. Once we get to Finland there is no guarantee that the weather is going to be any clearer, nor that the aurora will make an appearance; so it could all be a total waste of time.
Talking it over, we come to the conclusion that it is best – and safest – to abandon our the long journy to Finland and any hopes of seeing the northern lights tonight.
We see a small road off to our left and assume it to be a shortcut back to the house. After a kilometer or so, we realise that we have made a terrible mistake, as the snow is falling unbelievably fast and furious now – I can't remember ever driving in such treacherous snowy conditions. Visibility is down to around 3 metres, and we start looking for somewhere to turn.
That is easier said than done. A single track lane, with no turnings off, nor any obvious passing places or laybys, we end up travelling for another couple of kilometres before cheekily using someone's driveway to turn around.
At least back on the main road the snow is constantly kept in check by ploughing.
Check Tyre Pressure?
Great! Now we have a warning message to 'CHECK TYRE PRESSURE'. That's all we need! David goes out into the snow to have a quick look at the tyres to see if there is an obvious puncture or flat.
There isn't anything glaringly evident, so we cautiously drive on. But not until we have taken a quick break with a coffee from the thermos and a Kvikk Lunsj – another Norwegian 'institution', very similar to the English Kit Kat.
It's a relief when we enter a tunnel for a while, as although those dancing snowflakes in the headlights are mesmerising and very pretty; they are extremely tiring on the eyes, especially for the driver.
As soon as we find a garage, we stop to check the tyre pressure properly. The gauge says 28 psi on each of the four wheels. The manual tells us it should be 33 psi at the front and 36 psi at the back, but doesn't mention whether this is for summer tyres or studs or both. We are reluctant to make any changes to how we received the car, as it is obvious that the pressure has not changed; it is unlikely for the pressure to have changed an equal amount on all four tyres since we took charge of the car. We drive home to 'sleep on it' and will make a decision about what to do tomorrow morning.
About eight inches or so of snow seems to have fallen since we left the house this morning. As suspected, the snow plough has been here this evening, and created a ridge across the road by the entrance to the house.
Clearing the front step and drive is one of the things I do not miss about living in a cold climate!
So, instead of watching the northern lights over Kilpisjärvi Lake in Finland, we now find ourselves back at the house, where we 'koser oss' with 'hveteboller' and 'julebrus'. The Norwegian word 'kos' does not have a direct English translation; although it is similar in meaning to the English word 'cosy', it encompasses a much wider emotion: a feeling of contentment, happiness, good friends, good food, comfort, warmth and much more. 'Kos' can be a verb ( we 'koser'), noun (that is 'kos') or adjective ( a 'koselig' place). Norwegians like to combine two or more words to create one longer one, so 'hjemmekos' is 'kos' at home, 'julekos' is 'kos' at Chritsmas, 'lørdagskos' is 'kos' on a Saturday and so on.
Yet another Norwegian 'institution' is this simple currant bun. Ironically, if you google 'hveteboller', the top entry describes it as 'kos'!
Another one of those combined Norwegian words, 'julebrus' is merely a Christmas soda or pop.
We may not have seen the northern lights today, but it has certainly been an enjoyable day, and in many ways it is good to be able to have an early night, as we have a long drive tomorrow.