To Hell and back through the heart of darkness

'In the north of Norway it is permanently night-time in winter and people get depressed. Then in summer it's light all day and they go mad.' On the shortest day of the year, Mike Gerrard reflects on a trip to the Arctic Circle and a wonderland of snow, fir trees and frozen rivers
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The Independent Travel
I must have blinked and missed Hell. Not that I missed much according to The Rough Guide to Norway, which describes it as "a desperate place with nothing other than its name to recommend it". The Norwegian State Railways didn't think it worth a stop either, and we chugged on towards the Arctic Circle.

The journey began last Sunday in Oslo, where at 7.30am I drew back the curtains of my 14th floor window to find a face peering in at me. It was only the Man in the Moon, but still a surprise at that time of day. Or night, rather, as the sky was still black and the street lights still lit. Oslo's Sentralstasjon was quiet as I boarded the train for the first leg of my train journey to the Arctic: to Trondheim, a mere seven hours and 330 miles away.

As we left Oslo, the sky turned to a thunder-blue and we passed a small rounded hill, the houses on its slopes lighting it up like a Christmas tree, with a church still softly floodlit in a marmalade glow.

At Lillestrom there were small piles of snow on the platform, and beyond it the green fields had a light dusting, like icing sugar on a cake. It was as if winter was approaching me slowly while I was sitting still. The snow was soon thick on the ground and we passed through a forest of Christmas trees. Something appeared to be wrong with them, and then I realised - no price-tags tied to the top.

As we reached Hamar - halfway to Trondheim - the sun made its first appearance, with shafts of golden light streaking the sky like lightning. Beyond Lillehammer the sides of a valley were painted gold with the sunlight. This was the Gudbrandsdal, a 125-mile river valley enclosed by mountain ranges. I gazed around at the awesome scenery and thought of that moment when you get up on a winter's morning to discover that it has silently snowed in the night.

By noon the sun was still barely above the horizon; we travelled through the middle of a vast plain of firs, till the trees thinned out and left the bare plain, a snow-white desert several miles across.

It was almost a relief to reach Trondheim and escape this sensory overload. I found a hotel, had a shower and a sherry, and set out in search of beer and a reindeer. I admit a twinge of guilt, with Christmas approaching, at wanting a taste of Rudolph, but as an unreconstructed carnivore this was the first and maybe only chance in my life to try it.

Nightlights were burning on the pavements outside the doors of shops. Tramping through snow in need of a bar I found an "Irish" pub, Dirty Nelly's, where a pint of Kilkenny bitter cost me 48 kroner (pounds 4). Van Morrison wailed, and on the wall were signed photos of the Dubliners (who played here in 1996).

Two women stood at the bar, dressed like good-time girls from a western saloon. Another appeared, wearing buckskins and carrying a whip. Later an Indian squaw turned up. Before I was forced into compulsory line-dancing, I slipped outside in search of reindeer steaks.

After much shuffling through the Trondheim streets all I found were pizza places and burger bars. The Rough Guide called Trondheim a desert for gourmets, and when my ears started freezing I settled for the Restorante Italiano and a Pizza Piccante. I wanted to talk to people and get to the soul of Norway, but they were all just eating pizzas and drinking in ersatz Irish pubs, as the rest of us do.

I checked the guidebook for the chances of a reindeer steak tomorrow, at the end of the line in Bodo (pronounced Buda). Oh no. The only place mentioned was at the hotel I was booked in - and it was a pizzeria.

Shivering at Trondheim station I met Oddbjorn Taraldsvik, a man from Norwegian State Railways. I told him I liked the carriages set aside for families, with acres of space for pushchairs and a miniature adventure playground for the kiddies. "Don't you have these in England?" he asked me, surprised.

That day's leg of my journey to the Arctic was 10 hours, a sign of the size of Norway. "Yes," said Oddbjorn. "My sister in Hammerfest says why don't you come to visit in summer? I tell her: that train journey from Trondheim to Hammerfest, if I turned it round I could be in the north of Italy! I want to go where I know there is sun. In the north of Norway, in places like Hammerfest and even Bodo, it's dark all day in the middle of winter and people get depressed. Then in summer it's light all day and they go mad."

Oddbjorn's comments were interrupted by the departure of my slow train for Bodo from track four. Oddbjorn waved me goodbye and I headed for Hell.

The sky was turning grey but would be black again before we reached Bodo, 454 miles away, as far as the Norwegian trains travel and the first town north of the Arctic Circle.

I sat in a Victorian-style rail carriage with wood panelling and curtains round the seats. We chugged slowly past a snow-white lake with a pine- covered island, the trees like people huddling together for warmth. Beyond here the line rose so that we were looking down on an ethereal landscape, a plain of Christmas trees, of snow and mist.

When I went to the restaurant car, Norwegian carols and Christmas songs were playing on the tannoy: "Jingle Bells", "Frosty the Snowman", "Winter Wonderland" - which was just what I was staring out at, a wonderland of snow, fir trees, frozen rivers. When "White Christmas" came on in Norwegian, I sniffed back a tear.

In Mosjoen I was amused by a large modern metallic bin of a building, like a silo, with one redeeming feature: a Christmas tree complete with lights is perched on its pointed top. Behind it was the backdrop of a long squat mountain, with icy marbled patterns disappearing into the mist. By three o'clock we were entering the long tunnel of night. An hour later a toot from the train driver was the only sign that we were crossing the Arctic Circle.

Bodo itself is a tiny town of much snow but just 30,000 people. When I got there I had another reindeer hunt, and proved The Rough Guide wrong: There was good Norwegian food to be had at the Blix restaurant. The window menu was in Norwegian but I spotted an elg in there - elk roulade with gravy, veg and what the waitress described as "gratinated potatoes".

I wobbled back to the hotel full of Norwegian elk, Brussels sprouts, a Chilean red and a universal Christmassy glow. At the airport next morning, it was still night at 9.30am. Would I like a window seat, asked the assistant? Yes, I said... not that there was much to see. When did it start to get light? January, he laughed.

The plane rose into the mist and back over Hell towards Oslo. Hell in Norwegian means "good fortune". It had been my good fortune to step outside our familiar tune of Christmas in order to hear it afresh with different words.

Norway Fact File

Information

The author travelled with SAS who offer four daily non-stop flights from London to Oslo and one daily, except Saturday, non-stop from Manchester to Oslo.

Their standard return fare from London to Oslo is pounds 289, the advance APEX fare pounds 211, both plus tax and both requiring a Saturday night stay. SAS Scandinavian

Airlines (tel: 0845 60727727)

Trains

Regular 2nd class rail fare from Oslo to Trondheim is NOK 570,- per person plus NOK 20 reservation. Regular rail fare from Trondheim to Bodo is NOK 660 plus NOK 20 reservation.From Oslo to Bodo on the same ticket, is NOK 920,-. Further information on rail travel in Norway is available from the Norwegian Tourist Board on

0171 839-6255.

Hotels

The author stayed at the Clarion Royal Christiana Hotel in Oslo (tel: 22 42 94 10) which charges 1695 kroner weekdays and 990 at the weekends; in Trondheim at the Rainbow Gildevangen (tel: 73 51 01 00) which charges 900 kroner Monday-Thursday including breakfast and dinner, and 690 kroner Friday-Sunday including breakfast only; in Bodo at the Radisson SAS Hotel (tel: 75 52 41 00)

whose full rate is 1425 kroner but seasonal and other discounts are available, e.g. current weekend discount rate is 800 kroner. All prices are for a standard double room in winter.

Guides

The Rough Guide to Norway was published in June 1997 at pounds 10.99

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