Colorful wooden buildings line the Nidelva river

The amazing gothic cathedral

Detail of the cathedral facade

From Tromsø we caught another flight back down to Trondheim in Central Norway. We’d spent a couple hours in Trondheim earlier in our boat journey north, and we we were really looking forward to spending more time there. And after a couple weeks of cold, rainy weather, Trondheim welcomed us with warmth and sun.

I might be biased by the weather we had, but this was definitely my favorite stop in Norway. The country’s third largest city (after Oslo and Bergen), Trondheim is the spiritual heart of Norway.

King Olaf was martyred in battle near here in 1030 and later canonized. His grave became a pilgrimage site, and then home to the spectacular gothic Nidaros Cathedral. Trondheim served as the capital of Norway until 1217. And kings have come here since for their coronations and benedictions.

We really loved the city’s colorful buildings, elegant parks, and vibrant cafe scene. What a wonderful place to hang out for a couple days. Or was it maybe just the sunshine?

I loved to sit in the square in front of the cathedral and read and people watch

My other favorite reading spot was Stiftsgårdsparken, a lovely park just a block from our hotel. Here we are looking at the back of Stiftsgården, Scandivania’s largest wooden palace, and home to King Herald when he is in Trondheim.

Jim took this picture in Stiftsgårdenparken before he realized I was actually sitting here in the park. If you zoom in really close I happen to be in the very center of this photo.

Another view along the Nidelva

Jim walked along the river out of town

More from Jim’s walk out of town

Taking in the glorious river scene

Just a cute little house on a cute little plot in a cute little city

If there is one thing I will remember about Tromsø it’ll be the sound of seagulls. In part because our hotel was right in the port area every time we would walk out we’d hear the haunting, lonely sound of dozens – though it seemed like hundreds – of seagulls.

Tromsø is an interesting place, though for us at least two days was plenty. A city of some 65,000 people, it’s the third largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle and the northernmost city in the world with more than 20,000 people. Yet because of the Gulf Stream it is warmer than cities hundreds of miles further south. Of course, that’s relative: the photos we saw of winter in Tromsø look plenty snowy and cold. And dark. From mid-November until mid-January, you can’t see the sun in Tromsø. I’m not sure I could handle that.

One day I walked maybe two miles north of the city center to the world’s northern-most botanical garden. Lots of pretty flowers and stuff, but this path through a birch forest sure made me feel like I was back in Northern Minnesota. I wonder if that’s why there are so many Norwegians there?

And yet there was lots to enjoy about the city. First – and to our enormous pleasure – it’s a great city for food. We had simply the best food we had anywhere in Norway here. Perhaps because it’s a university town it had a real lively vibe to it with lots of activity in the evening. (I was going to say there was activity “after nightfall” but in mid-August nightfall is late and brief.) There was way more ethnic food here than I’d expected. I was just assuming that way up here it would be all bland Scandinavian food but there is a surprising number of immigrants – perhaps war refugees? – from North Africa and the Middle East. And so there I am walking around town and I stumble on an Ethiopian restaurant. Above the Arctic Circle!

In fact, back in the 19th century Tromsø was known as the Paris of the North. While it’s not known exactly how or why it got that nickname (trust me, it’s not Paris), one theory is just that the people of Tromsø even back then were simply more sophisticated than southern Norwegians ever would have imagined. That was pretty much my reaction, too.

We had stopped here on the way north during our “coast of Norway” cruise but really didn’t see anything that intrigued us. That, of course, is why we’re not cruise people: seeing a town over a couple days and nights is a very different (and better) experience than seeing it for a few hours when there are hundreds of other day trippers there, too.

As Norway’s major city north of the Arctic Circle, it is and historically has always been the jumping off spot for Arctic adventures. The Polar Museum here does a really good job of introducing you to what polar exploration in the 19th and early 20th century was like. But that’s not what we were looking for during our brief stay so instead we enjoyed the food, the historic collection of 19th and even 18th century wooden buildings, and the cool vibe. I managed a hike north to the botanical garden and south to a “beach.” Both were … OK. Then it was off to Trondheim for two final days in Norway.

The center of Tromsø is on an island, but part of the city is on the mainland. So we hiked across that big bridge you see and rode a cable car up for great views of the city.

Before we leave Tromsø though one last oddity. From the airport a nice highway takes you through a long tunnel into the city. But in the tunnel was something we’ve never seen anywhere in the world: a roundabout. Yup, apparently there’s a north-south tunnel and an east-west tunnel and there you are, god knows how many feet below the surface, in a roundabout at the intersection.

Who says you can’t still find new and unusual things in the world?

Here we are way up above Tromsø

Our meals were the highlight of Tromsø and Mathallen was the highlight of the meals. Fantastic food, great decor, good service… If you’re ever in Tromsø it’s the place to go.

This halibut was to die for

Not everything in Tromsø was perfect. This is the city’s Lutheran cathedral, the only wooden cathedral in the country. And while it has a prominent place in the city center it is seriously dull inside. I’m not a big fan of Catholicism but at least they know how to build cathedrals.

And speaking of cathedrals… That white building is a 1960s-era parish church known as the Arctic Cathedral (though it’s not actually a cathedral). The architecture is pretty striking even without the rainbow, so off we went to tour it. Two things stood out: it cost almost $6 each to get in, and it was wildly unimpressive. Sad!

Just walking through town

Some of the old buildings on the harbor

Mark on the big bridge connecting the city center with the mainland. It’s a long bridge and we were both surprised at how many people walked over it. Then we noticed that we never saw a bus – neither city bus nor tour bus – crossing it. It must be that they’re not allowed on it (load limit?) so people walk across.

Another view of the botanical garden

Tromsø’s south “beach.” It’s actually a nice little park, though the beach was modest. I swear that I really wanted to swim here – how often do you get a chance to swim above the Arctic Circle? – but with a light rain and temperature in the low 50s the whole time we were here that just wasn’t in the cards.

There’s a major construction zone going on along the harbor where they’re building a new housing and entertainment district. It looks as though it will significantly expand the city’s already buzzy restaurant and bar scene. So the next time we come to Tromsø it will be even cooler!

And one last food picture. On arriving in Tromsø we went looking for a place to have lunch and stumbled on Fiskekompaniet, a nice little fish restaurant right on the harbor. It was amazing and an auspicious start to our stay.

Arriving in Solvær a little after 10:00 PM, just in time for a nightcap. Way above the Arctic Circle, this little town was really charming.

OK, we didn’t actually get to the end of the earth. With three more days sailing north and then east along the northern edge of Europe it felt like the end of the earth. There’s not a lot more to say about the boat trip. As we moved further and further north the weather seemed to get ever more gray, the settlements got a little more remote, the sun rose ever earlier. When we finally turned southeast on the last day en route to Kirkenes – just a couple miles from the border with Russia – it seemed likely that I would never be further north than the 71 degrees latitude we were at then.

After six days we were decidedly ready to get off the boat. There’s only so much of the coast line that you want to see and only so many villages and towns that you want to spend a couple hours in. One of our stops – Tromsø – is a city that could be worth spending time in, but we’re coming back there on our own after the boat trip is over.

Mark in Tromsø. We’re a little concerned about the two days we have here after the boat since it doesn’t seem like there’s much here.

And then there’s the food. To their credit, the food was often surprisingly good. But while the menu changed a little over the six days, we were getting pretty tired of the same options over and over again. And then there was just the weirdness of the food service. For one, they had obviously just implemented new technology, where the waiter would come to your table with a smart device of some sort and enter your order there. Sounds like it would make things a lot more efficient, right? Oh God no. It was painful – and painfully slow – watching them try to figure out how to enter all the right information. I’m sure ordering took four or five times longer than if they’d just written the order.

On top of that, there was just random weirdness. Maybe to make the menu look bigger they would have the same item listed in different sections, often with a different name. But exactly the same dish. On the breakfast menu, “Eggs, over easy or sunny side up” translated as one egg, always sunny side up. One day the egg was genuinely cold. Another day, without warning lunch was served an hour earlier than normal; we got there two minutes after it closed (early) but they served us anyway; others who arrived a little later were turned away. On two occasions they substantially reduced the dinner menu without explanation. And though they claimed to offer a fancy dinner option, and told us when we checked in they just didn’t know what nights it would be offered, it just never appeared.

There was lots about the ship and the cruise that was wonderful, but the food service was weird.

As we got way up north we noticed that the remote farming settlements were now down on the coast rather than up in the mountains. Seems to make more sense, but these places are still really remote.

So that was it: six days up the coast of Norway. Lots of great scenery, a few beautiful fjords, enough rain and drizzle to last a long time. And always the question going round and round in my brain: why do people live this far north? It’s strange enough in the cities but when you pass these utterly remote residences you just wonder. Why do they live there? At least during our week the summer is cold and rainy, while in the winter it’s colder and dark. What is life like up here then? Not sure I’ll ever find out.

Mark in the very cute town of Svolvær

The bartender in Svolvær pours a little Aquavit

And Jim enjoys it in this cute little pub

Departing Svolvær after a fun late evening stop

Just before midnight in the Lofoten Islands

Sun breaking through as we enter the Magerøya Strait. Don’t worry: it wouldn’t last.

Mark as we’re leaving the Magerøya Strait. There’s a long tunnel from the mainland out the island behind him that carries traffic out to the North Cape tip of the island. That makes it the northernmost point in Europe accessible by car.

A brief late night stop in Skjervøy

At 10:30 PM the slowly darkening sky is beautiful

Passing another ship near midnight

At the farthest point north in our journey, the weather got a bit colder, grayer, and rainier, as witnessed from inside the cozier lounge

In Honningsvåg, the northernmost port of call on our journey

Cute front porch in Honningsvåg

Seems like the loneliest picnic table in the world outside of Honningsvåg looking out into the Barents Sea

We hadn’t seen white caps for most of the journey but here the weather was definitely starting to act up

Islands in the Barents Sea a little before 11 PM

Here we are in Troll Fjord just before midnight