The Hurtigruten, Bergen to Kirkenes, 30 March to 5 April 2013
The Hurtigruten (Hurtig Ruten = Quick Route) is the daily Coastal Express ferry service up and down the coast of Norway, calling at 34 ports from Bergen to Kirkenes. The round trip takes 12 days; we only did 'The Voyage North'.
Saturday 30 March: With a little bit of time to kill on a fine afternoon in Bergen, we admired the old Hanseatic League warehouses of the Bryggen before boarding.
We set sail at 10.30pm on a clear, cold night.
The next morning, Easter Sunday, was not so clear.
But then, this is "The Voyage North"...! Some like it hot, but I find this compelling.
Our first visit ashore is to Alesund, a major fishing port. Once it was a town of wooden houses, like so many others on the coast; but on a wild and stormy night in 1904 a house caught fire and the flames, driven by the fierce winds, consumed the town: 845 houses were burnt to the ground in 15 awful hours, although only one life was lost. Aid came from all over Europe, not least from Germany on the personal orders of Kaiser Wilhelm II - Alesund may be the only place on Earth where he is regarded as a hero - and the town was rebuilt (in stone) in the Art Nouveau style.
Day 3. No, we didn't miss the boat! The Hurtigruten is a daily service up and down the coast, so every day as we went North we passed two ferries heading South. This is the southbound MS Trollfjord and the dockside at Trondheim.
And this is our ship, MS Nordlys ('North Lights'):
Our cabin was on Deck 3 (on the red band) just forward (next but one) of this gangway, which (as it folds away into the side of the ship) is a very impressive piece of engineering.
Trondheim is the former royal capital of Norway and once a major centre of Viking activity. Everything was closed for the Easter Monday holiday but we had a good walk to the very fine cathedral.
And so onward into the next squall - I am a big fan of photographing grim weather!
The view from our cabin. Most of the time the ferry is in among the thousands of islands and skerries that litter the coast, only occasionally venturing into the open sea. Our passage was quite calm, with the wind rarely rising above about Force 5, but six weeks before us my cousin ran into a Force 10 near the North Cape! The stabilisers are quite effective, however, and the ships are tough - this is their job 365 days of the year.
On Day 4, we awoke to find ourselves stuck in Bronnoysund (I recognised the same cargo on the same quay that I had been looking at 1.15am) waiting for some "technical bits". I wanted to say, "You can trust me, I'm an engineer," but we never found out what they were.
We got under way 11 hours behind schedule, and would have to skip two ports on the way to Bodo, but at least we got a beautiful day to enjoy much that we would have passed in the dark...
This was the day we crossed the Arctic Circle, marked (not quite accurately, according to a friend who was checking his GPS) by this lonely globe. We declined the offer of ice cubes down our backs - Neptune's initiation rite for Arctic newbies. I could truthfully claim to have been there 40 years ago, even if I did avoid initiation on that occasion by flying in!
Still behind schedule, we stopped at Bodo in the evening and then (sadly skipping Stamsund and Svolvaer on the Lofoten Islands) we took a shortcut to Harstad. We woke at first light to find ourselves slipping through the Tjeldsundet, and spent the best part of an hour just gazing at the passing shore and drinking in the peace.
Back on schedule, Day 5 gave us the chance to explore Tromso, the 'Arctic capital'.
Tromso Cathedral is delightfully warm and welcoming. It is a traditional wooden buiding...
...while across the strait in the mainland suburb of Tromsdalen stands the superb modern 'Arctic Cathedral', which hosts midnight concerts enjoyed by passengers on the southbound ferries.
Day 6 found us at the island village of Havoysund (population just over 1,000), where there was a short delay due to the amount of cargo to be unloaded. Although Havoysund has been connected to the mainland by a bridge since 1986 and road, rail and air links have generally improved massively since my last visit to Norway, it was a reminder of the importance of the ferry to these communities.
So onwards to the North. More snow on the forecastle!
Finally, from Honningsvag we were taken by bus (in convoy behind a snowplough) to North Cape. Technically it is not quite the most northerly point in mainland Europe (it's on an island, for one thing) but it is near enough. It is an awesome place where the Atlantic is reckoned to meet the Arctic Ocean and it certainly feels like the End of the World!
That night, as we were entering Berlevag and most people had gone to bed, we saw a brief display of the Northern Lights at last, with shifting green streaks appearing over the town. We watched it for a while then I went for my camera: the clouds had almost swallowed it (and the ship was turning - a long way in a 15 second exposure!) by the time I returned to the deck but you can still just see a bit of the vivid green (bottom left to top right) behind the cloud! The orange colour of the cloud is due to the lights of the town below. We saw a couple more faint displays that night out at sea; ignore the orange glow again - this time it's the shine from the brilliant orange lifeboat intruding into the scene!
Finally, with the ship avoiding occasional ice floes - this innocent-looking slice probably weighed 2 or 3 tonnes - and only a couple of shots left on my camera's memory card, the intrepid explorers reached Kirkenes!
After effects: being on the Hurtigruten as it makes its busy way up the coast, calling at ports and loading and unloading at all hours of day and night, is an utterly different world in which it seems perfectly normal for people to be out on a snowy deck alone on a freezing night. At home on Saturday, having flown back to Gatwick from Kirkenes via Oslo, we found we were still actively balancing ourselves against the movement of the ship we were no longer on - and I actually caught myself glancing out of the window as if to check out the port we were entering!