In Search of the Northern Lights

In Europe, News by Simon WillmoreLeave a Comment

Two friends who had long held ambitions to see the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – had so far failed dismally. Maybe a cruise along the Norwegian coast was the answer. Anna Hyman and Rob Philpott set sail.

The long range weather forecast was not promising. But at least it was dry as we boarded M/V Magellan at Tilbury prior to our overnight sailing to Rotterdam, a favourite city of mine, and our first port of call.

Rotterdam, a favourite city

Magellan we discovered had moored conveniently close to the elegant Erasmus Bridge. Consequently after a bracing walk across it we had plenty of time to admire the fascinating Cube Houses; the Market Hall with its stunning arched roof decorated with huge images of insects, fruit, flowers and vegetables plus its wide array of food stalls and cafes, and the vessels in the open air section of the Maritime Museum, before returning to the ship.

Stormy weather

The crossing from Tilbury to Rotterdam had been mill-pond calm but unfortunately that was about to change as Magellan made her way into the North Sea heading for Norway. Few of us got much sleep that night in the Force 9 gale, and the decks the next day were near deserted with many passengers feeling too ill to emerge from their cabins.

Unfortunately the weather forecasters were right and bad weather and high seas were to be with us for most of the two week cruise resulting in several changes to the itinerary. And the atrocious weather also meant we weren’t able to properly admire the magnificent scenery of the Norwegian fjords.

Ålesund and elegant Art Nouveau

It rained heavily in Ålesund so we were unable to fully appreciate the picturesque harbour with its elegant Art Nouveau (Jugendenstil) houses. They date from 1904 following a devastating fire which had destroyed some 850 dwellings.

Luckily however, close to where Magellan had berthed we came across the Norwegian Centre of Art Nouveau. With its wonderful Art Nouveau interior and exhibits it proved to be an absolute treasure house.

Apart from its Art Nouveau heritage Alesund has another claim to fame; it is known as the fishing capital of Norway. Fish and fishing feature large in Norway’s history as we discovered.

Olden and Stryn Lake

It was still raining when we docked at Olden so it was a quick dash to the coach for the tour we had booked to take us along the shores of the Stryn Lake and into the Jostedalen Glacier National Park. Our terrific local guide worked hard to tell us about this region noted for its salmon fishing, agriculture and glaciers, which even in the driving rain we could see was beautiful.

Kristiansund is built round a large natural harbour

The rain wasn’t quite so heavy in Kristiansund.

The town is built around a large natural harbour on four main islands.

Unfortunately however, it was a Sunday so little was open. Having admired the statue of the Clipfish Woman on the quay side (clipfish is salted cod which was originally sun dried on the rocks) we headed into the town to look at the ultra-modern, angular design, church.

We had planned on crossing one of the bridges to explore one of the other islands but

the heavens opened yet again, so we turned tail and headed back to Magellan for lunch and to continue our daily Scrabble contest.

Alta, the town of the Northern Lights

By the time we reached Alta it had stopped raining. Encouragingly in our search for the Northern Lights, Alta, at latitude 70˚ north is sometimes referred to as the town of the Northern Lights. Indeed the first Northern Light observatory was built here in 1899.

Today the town boasts modern shopping precincts, a museum dedicated to prehistoric rock carvings and the somewhat minimalist and striking Northern Lights Cathedral, with beneath it an interesting interactive exhibition devoted to the Lights.

If we were going to see the Lights we were told Alta would probably be our best opportunity. Consequently in an endeavour to maximise our chances we booked seats for the ‘In Search of the Aurora Borealis’midnight coach tour.

At the pre-departure lecture we were warned that there would be no guarantee of seeing the elusive Lights especially as the weather was so bad. But, by driving way inland and up into the mountains we might be lucky.

Snowball fights at midnight

By the time we reached the mountain hut the coastal rain had given way to heavy snow. Snow ball fights at midnight were entertaining but not what we had planned. Then suddenly a break in the clouds and a faint grey wisp appeared. The Lights were there, just!

Looking at camera images the next day we saw that what had appeared as a faint grey streak to the naked eye, through the camera lens was actually faint green. Not great, but better than nothing we agreed.

Honningsvåg and the North Cape

The weather could only be described as foul as Magellan docked at Honningsvåg. Whilst one or two other towns might dispute it Honningsvåg claims the title of the most northernmost city in the world. It was certainly the furthest north that either of us had ever been.

The bleak weather complemented the stark grey tundra landscape as we drove the 34km to the North Cape visitor centre, perched high on the edge of a sheer black granite cliff above the churning waters of the Arctic Ocean crashing onto boulders 307m below.

We posed beside the cliff top Globe

We did as tourists do and posed beside the Globe near the cliff edge.

We didn’t linger long in the howling gale force wind quickly retreating to the café inside the North Cape Hall for coffee and freshly cooked waffles before turning our attention to the excellent shop.

Incidentally the Hall also houses Europe’s most northerly post office where mail can be stamped with the special North Cape postmark.

Beneath the Hall is an ecumenical cave chapel, a tunnel with history tableaux, a Cave of Light and a Thai Pavilion which commemorates the 1907 visit of the then-king of Siam – King Chulalongkorn.

Ideally allow several hours for a visit to the North Cape there’s a fair amount to see and do.

Tromsø

By now we were realising that that mid-October was really too late in the year to do full justice to Norway’s ports of call – all too frequently attractions were closed for the season. And Tromsø was no exception.

The wooden cathedral was closed and the imposing modern Arctic Cathedral didn’t open its doors till mid-afternoon by which time we had to be back on board Magellan. There was the same problem with the similarly-timed tour of Mack’s Brewery which we had been hoping to join. A shame it looked as if it could have been interesting; the brew shop certainly was.

However, we found a super café and the Polar Museum

Unfortunately the Northern Norway Art Museum was also closed for the installation of a new exhibition, but close by we did find a super café which was open – the Smørtorget Kaffe & Mat – great for coffee and cakes or light lunches as well as a browse round its second hand shop.

Whilst studying our map we noticed that the Polar Museum was open. (Tromsø was once heavily involved with seal hunting and was also a base for many polar expeditions.) It is a fascinating museum, in spite of some of the history of trapping exhibits being rather gruesome.

More to our sensibilities were the displays and information about Arctic explorers including Nansen and Amundsen. Luckily, because our knowledge of Norwegian is non-existent, we were loaned explanatory leaflets in English.

Åndalsnes, our next port of call

Following a sea day our next port of call was Åndalsnes, an attractive looking little town between steep mountains and the banks of the Rauma river. It’s noted as a centre for mountaineers and also for salmon fishing. Much of the town was destroyed in heavy bombing in 1940 and had to be virtually rebuilt after the war.

One of the world’s exciting rail journeys

We had opted to take a coach ride into the mountains to pick up one of the trains serving the Rauma Railway. It is said to be one of the world’s most exciting rail journeys. Certainly our coach journey with its halts to admire the Troll Wall (a rock climbing challenge), the mountains and waterfalls was stunning.

But the best laid plans… Unfortunately a mistake had been made as to what time the train would arrive at Bjorli station where we were due to board it for the spectacular journey down to Åndalsnes. The train had departed long before we got there! Luckily the error was realised before the coach had set off on its return journey without its passengers!

Bergen, renowned for wet weather, was actually dry

We were now nearing the end of our two week cruise but not before our final port of call – Bergen.

Ironically this lovely city renowned for wet weather – allegedly 240 rain days a year -was not only dry that day, but a glimmer of sun came out to greet us too.

From the Hanseatic Museum…

Both of us had long wanted to visit the Hanseatic Museum but first we wandered through the honeycomb warren of medieval streets and alleyways known as the Bryggen.

The Hanseatic Museum was fascinating. It is in one of the oldest wooden buildings in the city.

Staircases, steep and narrow, lead us into a number of tiny rooms furnished as they would have been in the 18th century giving us an intriguing glimpse into the way the Hanseatic merchants lived and worked.

…to Edvard Grieg’s home

Later that day we had a glimpse into the life of Edvard Grieg. His charming home, a short distance from Bergen, overlooks a gentle fjord.

In the grounds a small modern auditorium has been built; and luckily our visit coincided with a short piano recital of Grieg’s glorious music. The recital and the magical views out across the fjord a fitting finale to our time Norway.

Ghostly grey wisps

Did we see the Northern Lights again. Yes, we did. As we sailed out of Tromsø an announcement told us that the Lights were visible. They were, beautiful ghostly shapes dancing and swirling across the night sky. With the naked eye they were still mere wisps of grey but next day when we played back the camera images they were vivid green.

So our search for those elusive Northern Lights continues. Yes we have seen them, we know they exist, but we still want to see them with our own eyes in full glorious colour.

More Information

Cruise and Maritime Voyages: cruiseandmaritime.com

At the Pass – Shone Mathew

Ship Shape – M/V magellan/

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