On top of the world

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I had a dream of going North. The idyll called up in my head by the words "the sea" was not a palm-fringed bay, or some leg of the tepid Mediterranean, but an empty Northern sea. WH Auden said that when he closed his eyes and thought of the life to come, he saw a limestone landscape. For me, the idea of virtue called up a calm Northern sea under a cold blue sky, empty of boats, filled with the cries of birds; the white sands of the Baltic, the unreflecting grey depths of the North Sea.

I wanted to go North; as North as I could go. Norway would do the trick. And Tromso, at midsummer, felt like the end of the line. Hundreds of miles north of the Arctic circle, it is the most northerly town of any substance in Europe. Perched on an island in a fjord, it has an unmistakable frontier atmosphere.

The displays in the shop windows are alarming; hunting-knives so serious you could stun, kill and gut a walrus with one. There are plenty of gaunt men striding round Tromso, their faces either prematurely lined by extreme physical ordeal, or preserved by terrifying fitness.

Most of them might be aged anywhere between 25 and 60. In their hi- tech puttees and almost weightless boots, they look as if they are on their way to the Pole, and some undoubtedly are.

This is the major stepping-off point for Arctic expeditions, and a statue of Roald Amundsen in an unappealing and unheroic anorak broods over the dock. The daily business of the place is fishing; decrepit little Russian vessels apologetically sidle into harbour next to their swankier Norwegian competitors. But its mind, you feel, isn't quite on fishing. It feels like a town dreaming of a single adventure, so huge, and, here, so close.

An agreeable sort of place. The locals go on about the raucous nightlife, and have the brass neck to claim the title of "The Paris of the North" for it. To me, it seemed relaxed, quiet and intensely peaceful. I arrived from London in the small hours, which didn't faze Mrs Nilsen, the owner of the private house I was staying in; she was afraid she wouldn't be awake, but, not to worry, the key was always under the doormat and she'd see me in the morning. Try that in the Place de Clichy.

It's true that the town has a few grander ambitions. Some fairly massive investment in "witty" contemporary architecture has gone on here - a polar museum like a set of bleached dominoes falling over, a beautiful cathedral which looks like the Sydney Opera House glittering under a colder sun.

But that isn't the point of it. Nor is the (not bad) art gallery, or the planetarium with the artificial aurora borealis. Or even the charm of the brilliantly painted clapboard houses, scattered up the heavily wooded hillside, whose faintly odd appearance, so unmistakably Norwegian, can have evolved only to withstand the terrifying rigours of a winter in these high latitudes.

The point of the place is the grand, raw and romantic land; the clean wind, perfumed with salt and the summer smell of birch. And the indescribable Arctic summer; the calm unsetting sun, those blue shifting skies.

I wanted to get further inland, and the local tourist office found me a sixtysomething couple to drive me around. I'd always had an idea that anyone who had to live through three months of sunlessness would be at best morose, at worst suicidal; but five minutes with Geert and Willem was enough to make me ashamed of even thinking it.

Ten minutes in, and you knew for certain they were on your Christmas card list, and there for good. Fifteen minutes down the road, and we were cosily chatting about our families, as Geert demonstrated the virtues of shiatsu massage in the back of the car.

Someone may have tried to impress on Geert and Willem the importance of telling the journalist from England about the scale of the Norwegian fishing industry. But that was quickly forgotten as we went off into the romantic story of how Geert, from an old fishing family in the North, went south to Bergen tightly chaperoned by her brothers, and managed to slip the leash long enough to meet Willem.

From time to time I remembered to say, "Oh, how gorgeous" at some sublime view of a fjord, the bare flanks patched with snow like the fur of a panda. Once I asked what a large wooden rack by a farm, like a 15ft clothes'- horse, was - for drying salt cod before it is exported to baccalao-loving countries such as Brazil, I learnt.

"On this side of the fjord," Geert said after we had crossed, "they are very religious. No singing, no dancing, no television, everything very very sinful."

In a moment, we came to a tiny little town by the water with an exquisite weir pouring in, silently.

"Come on," Geert said, unstoppably. We went into the crowded silent church. A hundred faces turned to us; not Viking faces, but dark and round and small. The women were all in headscarves. A few were in the traditional brilliantly embroidered red costumes of the Sami, the Lapps; you assume that those folk outfits these days are only for the benefit of tourists. But there were no tourists here, except me, and I felt a distinct wave of hostility as we beat a retreat. A boat had just come in.

We bought a kilo of sparklingly fresh prawns; it was too cold to stand, so we went inside a little supermarket and ate our way through them. Willem stood outside, radiating mild disapproval. "He is very respectable and comes from Bergen," Geert said, as the strains of an interminable gloomy hymn filtered down the hillside. "He would like some prawns too. But you and I are going to eat the lot."

The next day, I boarded a boat north. The Norwegian "Coastal Express", as the Hurtigruten translates, is one of the great journeys of the world. The railway never reached the far north in Norway, and for more than a century the coastal towns have relied on these daily ships. Each vessel heads north slowly from Bergen, stopping at 35 towns - at most of them, this may be the most interesting thing to happen all day, and the loading and unloading draws a little crowd of gawping juveniles.

The six-day sail passes some of the grandest scenery imaginable and finishes at Kirkenes, on the Russian border. Nowadays, it's a terrific draw for tourists, and you should be warned that the newer boats, like the Nordkapp on which I travelled, exhibit the typicalsmoked-glass and brass-banister excesses of 1980s cruise-liner design. But even at the height of the season, there are a few rather grizzled old Norwegians, getting from place to place in the old way.

There is - blissfully - almost nothing to do. At the longer halts, an excursion may be arranged, but no on-board entertainment that I could see. Instead, you sit on deck and watch the sky and sea, following the sudden vivid changes as a heavy fog descends, or as the layers of cloud abruptly divide, revealing the perfect clarity of the Arctic blue sky.

After dinner each night, I went up on deck with a blanket and a thick Russian novel, and sat until the small hours as the sun performed an absorbing spectacle, strolling just above the horizon through the night, never setting.

The furthest you can get is the North Cape, the most northerly point of mainland Europe at above 71 degrees. Here the weather cleared as if by prior arrangement, and, standing at the edge of the cliff staring into the eventless azure, it was impossible not to feel that you were gazing into the heart of silence. In a way there is nothing to see here; just the edge of the world.

Sometimes you look at a clear sky and it seems to go on upwards, forever. But here, at the top of the world, it suddenly seemed near and blue as the sea, and you knew that beyond this, there was nothing else; just ice, and blue, and silence. Nothing else.


Traveller's Guide

SAS (0845 607 2772) FLIES to Tromso non-stop from Heathrow, for pounds 281 return. Or get a cheap flight on Ryanair (0541 569 569) to Oslo or Stockholm and travel on by train and bus. Or sail with Fjord Line (0191- 296 1313) from Newcastle to Bergen, and connect with the Hurtigruten terminal.

The writer travelled free with Scandinavian Travel Service (0171- 559 6666), which features a package trip starting at Kirkenes on the Russian border and ending at Bergen (five nights on the boat). In June and July, the peak season, this costs from pounds 1,306, including flights. Low season prices are several hundred pounds less.