Tromso – Norway’s most northern city

Tromso – Norway’s most northern city

Tromsø was never an intended destination on our 2019 Summer in Scandinavia road-trip, although when circumstances  took an unexpected change, we seized the chance to visit. We do believe that every event has its purpose, however difficult they may be. After all life is never as beautifully laid out as in our visions. I guess the trick is to make sure that you see the positivity in all things and remain flexible.

So when a family bereavement back in UK reshaped our plans, we looked upon it as an opportunity. It was a chance to explore a region that was not on our agenda whilst waiting for a flight back to England. That’s what I love about travel; when you go with the flow, things unfold as they are designed to.

And so Senja, Norway’s second largest island and Tromsø, Norway’s most northern city suddenly made an appearance on the Motoroamers’ road-trip. Come with us as we embark on a mini City-tour Guide.

 

The Gateway to the Arctic

Tromsø is a vibrant city 210 miles north of the Arctic Circle and over 1100 miles north of Norway’s capital, Oslo.  And whilst it may rarely appear on people’s travel itineraries, it surely has something unique to offer. For curious travellers seeking new experiences and cultures, Tromsø has to be on the list for exciting vacation opportunities, throughout the whole year.  Keep reading to find out why!

Tromsø, nestled between mountains that, for most of the year support a covering of snow, has more of a town-like feel than a city. This fact alone is enough to have us recommending this northern destination.  With its island location, it welcomes you across its arching bridge with a charisma and intimacy that instantly feels safe and warm. This was so unexpected. Cities so often smother me with their enormity and consume my tiny presence in its giant maze of buildings. Yet Tromsø is very different to the archetypal cityscape we are used to.

Tromsø has hit the global stage a number of times in its history. First was for its Arctic position which lent itself to explorers using the city as their main hub before embarking on their often fatal expeditions. Then the fire of 1969 which all but destroyed the whole city. And with their stalwart Nordic spirit, the city resurged against its adversity in 1972, when they built the most northern University – putting Tromsø firmly on Scandinavia’s map.

Thanks to its University, this unassuming city has a youthful feel, which gives it an energy that subtly bounces off the old town’s wharf. And yet in contrast, the Arctic history, stakes its claim in making Tromsø a fascinating place to visit. With its compact and bijou feel, it will delight you with its wintery tales of Arctic explorers and the characterful wooden buildings in the old wharf surely must hold many seafaring secrets.

 

A Compact and Bijou City Visit

Unlike many more Southern European cities, after a couple of hours, you will have got the measure of Tromsø. Even the cruise ships only dock for a short while. Although there are plenty of highlights to enjoy during this time, so don’t underestimate it appeal. 

 

1. Tromsø’s Bridges  – Major City Landmark

Tromsø, built on the eastern edge of the island of Tromsøya, survives thanks to its bridges and tunnels. Now these bridges are not your typical structures – nothing straight and boring here! Oh no, the city of Tromsø has a duo of arching structures that seem to glide high above the fjord as if in some grand gesture to the Sea Gods. Driving these 2km (1.2 mile) bridges is, on its own, an experience as you feel yourself drawn into the city centre with an entrance fit for a king on his chariot. 

The Tromsø Bridge (Tromsøbrua in Norwegian) to the east is 3,399ft cantilever construction that back in 1960 when it was opened, was the first of its kind in Norway. It was also regarded as the longest bridge in Northern Europe at the time. 

If you park in Tromsdalen to the east, walking across the bridge is a great experience, as you get a real sense of city’s perspective and its fjord position. Although be warned, read the signs carefully – as the north side of the bridge is for cyclists and the south for pedestrians. Mix them up at your peril and be prepared for a Norwegian onslaught of exasperation from the passing two-wheelers.

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2. Tromsø’s Special Roundabouts

Am I mad? Roundabouts, surely these are nothing worthy for your visit! Well when you experience these roundabouts deep beneath the surface of the earth, in tunnels, then you might choose to reconsider. It’s the most bizarre thing to experience and is definitely worth checking out if you can. Check out our short video below.

 

 

3. Tromso’s Arctic Cathedral – Ishavskatedralen

Cathedrals are often a tourist magnet in any city because of their grandeur and history. Tromsø may, once again surprise you. Whilst there is the official Cathedral in the old town square, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1969, it is the magnificent structure across the water that draws your eye. The iconic Tromsdalen church, known lovingly as the Arctic Cathedral is a pinnacle of engineering mastery. This triangular construction is something to behold and interestingly, despite its nickname, is not officially a cathedral. Built in 1965, the Arctic Cathedral is seen as the Sydney Opera House of Norway, such is the magnificence of its design.  

 

4. Tromso’s Old Harbour Wharf

Tromsø superficially, looks a bit commercial with its ports, ships and fish factories. Yet once you enter the sentrum, you immediately get a feel for its historical dominance of 19th century Arctic explorations. A memorial to Roald Amundsen, the man most famous for beating Scott to the North Pole, signals the gateway to understanding Tromsø’s Polar significance.

The Polar Museum explains how its northerly position became so central to expeditions heading north to conquer the icy kingdom of the Pole. And how the sea played, and still does even today, a vital role in their survival in this extreme part of the world.

And then you turn the corner to the inner harbour. Along the wharf, you find an array of seafaring vessels standing on parade, gleaming in the mid-summer sun. And it begins to dawn on you what life must be like in the grip of winter’s hold. Whilst a visit in June/July proffers 24hours of daylight, winter brings a different personality. -4° and darkness for most of the day. Knee deep snow and perhaps just a faint blue hew as the sun’s rays barely reach the horizon. And in a blink of an eye, a community’s lifestyle shifts from flourishing to survival amidst the extreme conditions.

The wooden harbour buildings still stand firm with more than a few tales of sailors’ woes hidden inside their walls. Now bars and restaurants, throbbing with cruise-liner visitors, sell a range of food, some of which is way beyond our western palette tolerances.

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5. Tromso’s Cable Car – Fjellheisen

Although we didn’t take the Cable Car on this visit, it is said to be one of the best ways to view the city, especially during either the Northern Light display or the Midnight Sun. What a spectacle either of these would be from such a lofty position. Built in 1961, the two cable cars, named Polar Bear and Seal will lift you 421m into the sky to give you an exhilarating view.

You can find it by walking over the eastern bridge towards the Arctic Cathedral. The ride is just 4 minutes, is open from 1000 to 2300 (and until 0100 during the Midnight sun period) and runs every 30 minutes. It costs 250Nok per person or if you feel energetic, walk down and only pay 150Nok. Find out more details and schedules by clicking here.

 

6. Tromsø’s Old Town

Tromsø is so much more than a winter retreat. Albeit the winter activities give this Arctic destination supremacy, there’s something about Tromsø’s charm that needs to be appreciated by daylight.

The old town took its early steps back in 1800s and was seriously influenced by its rich sea merchants who graced the town with their wealth. With bountiful pockets, Tromsø’s style took an international twist, modelled on the Empire architectural design of their Southern European cousins in Greece and Italy. Grand columns and doorway designs have a definite Romanesque flavour to them.

Alongside this, there’s an eclectic mix of colonial-style buildings that give Tromsø such a lovely atmosphere, where you half expect elegant couples dressed in their finery to promenade along the dockside. And yet paradoxically these charming wooden buildings have had to yield to the modern constructions that shadow their beauty. Yet somehow this city of contrasts works. That blend of commerciality and old era heritage living side by side, making their collective identity fuse seamlessly.

The high street, if that’s what you call it, softly travels through the old town with classy boutiques and shops selling reindeer hide and winter attire. There’s no high end marketing taking centre stage in this city, unlike its Lofoten cousin not too many miles away. Just a timeless trundle into the present day.

In the main square you will see the world’s smallest bar and a statue to honour the old Norwegian King. It is here that the old Town Hall stands in the shadow of its contemporary replacement, the wood clearly giving way to the more robust fortified glass that reflects a whole new lifeblood for this throbbing northern community. 

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What to do around Tromsø

Tromsø is most certainly a winter hub, more at home with huskies and the Northern Lights. Although don’t let a summer visit pass you by. These addition activities will turn your visit into a real adventure;

  • Just 15 minutes drive away you have the mountains of Skrolkets with great hiking. Keep your eyes open for moose and eagles.
  • Take a Rib on a Sea Safari see the whales and puffins.
  • For an extended tour, you are not far from the beauty of Senja and its Norway in Miniature status. With WW2 museums, trolls and one of Norway’s 18 most scenic routes, you could easily while away three or four days.
  • The world’s most northerly Botanical Gardens, just south of Tromsø.
  • Watch the Midnight Sun from mid-May to mid-July.
  • And why not consider an extended trip to the Lofoten Islands? With its easy access by road within a 6 hour journey, or a short flight from Tromsø domestic airport, seeing these iconic islands is a doable option. For more information on visiting the Lofotens, click here.
  • Why not take a City Walking Tour that will give you an intimate insight to an intimate city? For 3 hours be taken on a journey through the historical pathways of Tromsø and feel the spirit of the city. 

 

Practicalities for visiting Tromsø

With its northerly location, you could be forgiven for ignoring the draw of this Nordic beauty. Although with an airport, excellent cruising options and solid road infrastructure, Tromsø is a very real destination these days.  Here are some options for getting to, staying in and getting around Tromsø and its neighbourhood.

 

Getting there….

With the main arterial E6 route that connects the northerly and southerly points in Norway, visiting the upper reaches of Norway is so much easier. Granted it will take you a while and the road is not a motorway as we know them in UK/EU although it is doable – if you have the time. Equally if you have made the epic journey to Nordkapp and Alta, then the E6 south will bring you to Tromsø in 6 hours. All too often we hear of people by-passing Tromsø for the lure of the Lofotens, so we would really encourage you staying around this beautiful Troms region for a while before heading south.

We arrived in Norway from Sweden via the E10 at Abisko, so getting to Tromsø was actually quite an easy drive, albeit we took the scenic route through the fjords. 

Alternatively you could take one of over 100 direct flights a week from Norway’s Oslo, Gardermoen Airport to Tromsø. I can certainly vouch for this flight. I took an SAS flight and arrived in Oslo in less than 2 hours.

The Hurtigruten Cruise is arguably the most scenic route to take, although you need to have time on your side. This historical cargo vessel that would steam along the Norwegian coastline is, these days more of a travel experience than a cargo route. From Bergen to Kirkenes, the Hurtigruten Cruise is not the cheapest way to visit Tromsø, although will certainly give your Norwegian bucket list a great big fat tick! 

 

Once there, getting around

The beauty of Tromsø’s compact nature is that you can walk around it easily. It is only if you want to explore further afield that you need to consider another mode of transport.

We found driving to and through Tromsø in our 7.5m van caused no issues at all. We found free parking on Tromsdalen, across the Tromsø Bridge which was perfectly fine for visiting the city. (69.650268 18.993843). We didn’t stay overnight although we suspect it wouldn’t be a problem. 

If you are reliant on your feet for transport, then download the Troms Mobillett App, which gives you access and discounts to the buses and ferries in the area. 

 

Staying there

We stayed at two locations with our van. The first was an amazing wild spot up in the mountains to the north west of the city. With fabulous hiking, great views and generally peace and quiet, it was nice not to be too close to the city. (69.759121 18.855957). The second spot, I readiness for my flight back to UK was at the Tromsø Lodge Campsite (69.648636 19.016156). This is a great site close to the Cable Car and cycling distance to the city, although not cheap at 400NOK per night in July. It is an ACSI site, out of season. They had one the best showers we’ve experienced in Scandinavia and great washing machine facilities. 

For other accommodation, you have so many options from Hotels, Guest Houses, Cabins and AirB&B. Check out the official Tromsø Visitors website here.

 

Closing Thoughts

Tromsø, with its mountains, Midnight Sun, Northern Lights, Winter Expeditions and general all-year round appeal, makes a visit to this northern Nordic city worthy of your time. Without the crowds of other southern European destinations, Tromsø gives you a uniquely comfortable and adventurous experience. As a centrepiece to so much more exploration in the Troms region, we highly recommend this jewel in Norway’s northern crown. Come and experience the vibe for yourself and see what you think! 

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Guest Post – Gap Year Nomads

Guest Post – Gap Year Nomads

We love meeting new people on the road and hearing what brought them to travel. When we rocked up to a wild spot on the west coast of Portugal, there was a bumble-bee coloured van sat looking across the ocean. Of course it was only polite to see if they minded us parking next to them – and then we saw they were British. And that moment was the start of a fabulous evening, sharing food stories and a few tipples. Here is Emily and Lloyd’s story of their gap year in their self-converted minibus, Flora.

 

 

Flora’s Conversion

At the beginning of 2018, Lloyd and I hatched a plan to travel the world. We looked into backpacking, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail before finally landing on travelling the world in a van. For budget reasons, and for design creativity, we chose to self-convert a van.

I work in Marketing and Lloyd works in Sales, so you could reasonably assume that we didn’t have any DIY skills. I was handy with a paintbrush and Lloyd could change a lightbulb and put up a picture. Although beyond that, everything we learnt, we found on the internet. We followed anyone and everyone on Instagram who had converted their own vans for inspiration, we read blogs for tips on the best things to use and we watched videos on Youtube on how to put it all together.

 

We had saved around £3500 to spend on a van, and we would then save the same again to fit it out. We found Flora, a 15 year old LDV Convoy Minibus on Autotrader with around 17,000 miles on the clock. With no intention of buying that day, we drove up to visit the first van to get the ball rolling, and next thing we knew, Flora was ours. We drove her away on the same day. She had 17 seats and a roof rack – and she was ours.

Initially, we were very optimistic about the conversion; we spent a weekend gutting out the 17 seats, the plastic walling, the floor, the soaking cab mat and were left with an empty husk of a van. A bright yellow empty shell. After watching videos, we had planned to spend the following weekend cleaning, rust treating and priming. That weekend stretched from 1 weekend to 4. That was a bit of a wake up call.

 

Initially, we kept the van on my mum’s driveway as there was more space than outside our 2 bedroom house in Portsmouth. However, by August, we had insulated the van using Celotex boards, expanding foam and some recycled plastic wool, which was not as far as we were planning to be. We moved the van down to Portsmouth, and whilst we both worked full-time, our evenings and weekends were spent in Wickes, B&Q and in, on or around the van.

Our house is small and we lived in chaos. We ate Heinz tomato soup and ready made pizzas to save time in the evenings so we could make the most of the light. We gave up hobbies and socialising. We worked all day, every day and it was some of the most stressful times of our somewhat short lives.

We hit a turning point in early-mid October when it finally started coming together. We had finished the main components of the build and could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I was painting, Lloyd was completing woodwork pieces. I was put on garden leave in early November which was a real blessing. We would not have been ready to leave by the deadline we had chosen if it wasn’t for that, because not only were we converting our van, we also had to jump through the hoops required to let out our house.

 

We moved out of our house on December 31st. Trying to get the final few things completed for the house was a mad dash. We had electricians ripping up floorboards on the 23rd of December and replacing the fuse board. We received our gas safety certificate and, the day we handed over the keys, we collectively let out a sigh of relief, in part because we had only just finished cleaning the house that very morning.

Lloyd worked the first week in January, whilst I cleaned, painted, carpeted and packed the van. The day before we left, Lloyd fitted the gas, the diesel heater and we had an issue with the battery which needed fixing. Then like it was nothing, we started up the engine on the 13th of January, and we left the UK for the trip of a lifetime.

 

How we are finding it so far?

We are now eight months into our trip and we still cannot stop smiling.

We live with 75L of water which lasts us 4-5 days. We rely solely on solar power to charge our phones, laptop, iPad, lights, fan and water pump. We have a 13kg bottle of gas that has lasted so far and is still lasting us. We don’t have hot water, we don’t have a shower and we don’t have a toilet. We live with less now than we ever have before but feel richer with everything else we get to experience on a daily basis.

It was a steep learning curve. 15/20L of water a day doesn’t really sound as little as it is, but as the average use of a person living in the UK currently stands at 300-370L of water a day, so it’s a noticeable adjustment. We don’t have a shower so rely on boiling water from the kettle and using the sink and a flannel or a swim in the sea. We don’t have a toilet, which has been a source of many laughs, tears and midnight drives, but now our bodies are starting to get used to it.

It sounds like a nightmare, but really, it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s just not bad. We have this inexpressible freedom to go wherever the wind blows. Choosing where to park is easy now with so many apps and websites for camper vans, caravans, and other converted vans.

 

How we afford to travel

As I said earlier, we both worked full time, during which time, we saved enough money for us to travel for a year. On a budget of maximum £1000 a month, we are currently spending around £600 a month on all our expenses, for both of us. Food, fuel, travel costs which is split about a third each way. We currently don’t earn money on the road, and we’re not sure if we ever will, so we have saved enough for us to do the things we want to do for a year.

We are very lucky that there are so many places to free camp across Europe as this has saved us vast sums of money and it also means we have been lucky enough to have some of the most beautiful places as our back garden.

 

Our route and future plans

Our journey has taken us from Dunkirk to Lake Annecy, Lake Annecy to the Etretat Cliffs, along the coastline to Mont St Michel and the Cote de Granit Rose, to Bordeaux, Biarritz and Bayonne. We have petted wild horses in the Pyrenees, had our van towed in San Sebastian, drank cider in Oviedo and hiked the Ruta del Cares in the Picos de Europa.

When we first met Karen and Myles, we were in Portugal and cannot express how beautiful this country is. From the granaries in Soajo and the Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga to the street performers in Porto, we had the most incredible time exploring Portugal in our van. We carried on through Southern Spain and up the Mediterranean coastline for an exceptional month meeting family who met us in Barcelona, the Verdon Gorge and Antibes, before heading over through Switzerland & Northern Italy, where we spent a magical evening under the Tre Cime de Lavaredo. After a quick stop in Lake Bled in Slovenia, we met friends in Austria, before finally heading through Slovakia, a completely underrated country in our opinion!
Our journey now, will take us from where we are in southern Poland, up through Lithuania, Latvia & Estonia, where we are planning to take a ferry to Helsinki. We will then drive up and over into Norway in time for the Northern Lights around September/ October time (before we get snowed out), then we will head down for the Christmas markets in Germany & Czech Republic, before returning to the UK for our MOT in December.

 

If you’d like to follow along with the rest of our journey, you can follow us on Instagram: @ourconvoyage or you can check out our blog www.ourconvoyage.com.

 

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