Hurtigruten is the name for the Norwegian Coastal Express. Each and every day, a Hurtugruten ship sails north from the port of Bergen bound for Kirkenes near the Russian border. It then turns south and returns to Bergen before starting the trip all over again. The service started in 1893 when the Norwegian government sought tenders to operate the route. Three shipping companies were invited to bid, but only one thought the concept feasible. Feasible yes, but not necessarily profitable, and throughout its history it seems as though the route was destined to depend on government subsidy for its continued survival. Never more so than in recent years. Norway has poured oil and gas revenues into building roads, bridges and tunnels which have made even the most remote parts of its thin country accessible, therefore no longer heavily dependent on the Hurtigruten for the transport of supplies, vehicles and people from place to place up the coast. Nevertheless the story of the Hurtigruten is a fascinating one. It has its own museum in Stokmarkness which you can visit on one of the ports of call on the southbound leg.
Hurtigruten ships vary a lot in size. We chose a medium sized vessel, the Polarlys. Neither Vicky nor I are cruise people. We prefer to describe ourselves as travellers rather than tourists. We felt that one of the largest boats would feel like a cruise ship without the singing and dancing. On the other hand, the smallest ships might be too cramped. If you are to spend 11 days in a ship, you do want some comforts and good facilities, so the Polarlys sounded an ideal compromise.
We did not know much about life on board, and so we decided to spend quite a lot extra on a mini-suite. In retrospect, the substantial additional cost was not really worth it as one tends to spend most of the day on deck or in a panorama lounge watching the world go by but we did not appreciate that when we made our booking. So the Polarlys departing on Monday 16 April 2007 was the eventual choice.
Two weeks before we were due to leave, Hurtigruten telephoned to say the Polarlys had been overbooked. Now, I did not realise ships were overbooked. Aircraft yes, but ships no. Surely every passenger had a numbered cabin and each cabin could not be sold more than once, could it? Whatever the explanation, whilst we could still have the mini-suite we had reserved if we wished, the alternative offered was an upgrade to the Finnmarken, leaving a day before the Polarlys.
The Finnmarken is a large ship, and would not have been our first choice, but were were offered a larger suite with our very own balcony. Oh yes, and two extra nights free in Bergen, a free excursion, and some spending money for the boat. It all sounded good, and of course the Polarlys would have been very crowded. So we accepted and set off for Bergen late on Friday 13th. Was this an omen? Reader, read on.
Our flight to Bergen was with Norwegian. You fly direct from London (Stansted). Norwegian is a budget airline and so the flight is not expensive but do not expect the standards of efficiency in check-in of EasyJet or Ryanair. The queues are enormous, mainly due to the inefficiency of the check in procedures. That has been our experience on the four occasions we have flown with this airline. I don't quite understand why, because you print out what looks like a boarding pass when you make your booking. Except it isn't, and they make you wait in line as they allocate seats using a system that is snail-paced.
Getting from the airport to the city centre is easy. You take the Flybussen which costs 72NOK. It is almost impossible to find out any information about the Flybussen even from their own web site, but the buses go from all the airports and continue regularly whenever there are still planes landing. There are 11NOK to £1 approximately, so dividing prices by 10 reveals the full extent of the high prices for everything you buy in Norway. Even if you visit modest establishments, I estimate you would need to spend £100 per couple per day to be a tourist in Norway, and that assumes your hotel provides you with the usual excellent Norwegian style breakfast. Stopping for a coffee and sharing a muffin set us back over £11 almost anywhere. The Norwegians themselves did not seem to find their country unduly expensive, and did not appear to mind paying 35% - 40% tax. I suppose they looked at their social security and health provisions, which I am sure are excellent and felt they were receiving good value for money.
Bergen would make a good choice if you wanted a city break. In fact we had no difficulty at all filling 5 days with plenty of choices of sights to see and things to do. For us, the star attractions were:
1. Walking around the city centre, looking at all the churches, the market, the port area and the narrow cobbled streets
2. Older parts of town with wooden clapboard houses and workshops. The Bryggen although rebuilt after being destroyed by an explosion during the second World War is particularly attractive
3. Taking the Fløybanen inclined railway up Mount Fløyen to a viewing platform, cafe and shop - then strolling through the woods on some well marked walks
4. Norway in a Nutshell® - the amazing day out by train, bus and ship to the Flåm Railway. Norway in a nutshell takes you through some of Norway's most beautiful fjord scenery. You can experience the scenic Bergen Railway, the breathtaking Flåm Railway, the Aurlandsfjord, the narrow Naeroyfjord (now included on UNESCO's World Heritage List) and the steep hairpin bends of Stalheimskleiva. The journey on the Flåm Railway is regarded as one of the highlights of the Norway in a nutshell® tour. The 20-km-long train journey from the mountain station of Myrdal down to Flåm, down beside the fjord, takes around 55 minutes. On the journey, you have views of some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in Norway with an ever-changing panorama of tall mountains and cascading waterfalls. The train moves slowly or stops at the best views.
5. A visit to the summer residence of Edvard Grieg at Troldhaugen Just take a 20,21,22,23,24 or 26 bus from the bus station and walk a few minutes (the direction is clearly signposted)
Everyone in Bergen spoke good English almost without exception, which added to our enjoyment. The weather was good, somewhat to the astonishment of the population, who came out onto the streets during the weekend in great numbers to enjoy the sun. We later found out it rains 200 days every year, so their desire to make the most of the warm sun and clear blue skies was hardly surprising.
Now back to the story of the boat. After a full day in Bergen, we prepared to check in for the departure of the Finnmarken. We trundled our cases down to the terminal. 'Have you not heard?' said a baggage handler. 'Heard what?' 'The Finnmarken has developed a fault, and will head for Stavangar for repairs. The alternative offered by Hurtigruten was to sail with the ship to Stavangar, and then change to a smaller boat for a quick dash up the coast, missing a number of ports and catching up with the timetable at Hammerfest. Hardly what we had in mind.
Many people had no alternative but to accept what was very much second best. We did not. The Polarlys sailed the following day, full, without us. On Tuesday there was a very small, and old boat which was not recommended, so we opted for the Lyngen on Wednesday. Hence the 6 days we eventually spent in Bergen waiting for a ship. Never mind, we had a great time and heartily recommend you visit. In fact, I even did a London Walk there as an indulgence. Check out my London Walks podcast for full details, or search for London Walks from the podcast section of iTunes when you next plug in your iPod.
The Lyngen was barely half full when it sailed. The numbers rose and fell as people got on and off at every stop, but rarely exceeded 100. The boat was old and rather tatty, with worn out and frayed furniture, stained carpets, and a decor which had not changed much since the ship was launched in the 1980's. It was badly in need of a refit. On the other hand it was small enough that we got to know all the passengers who were on board for the northbound, southbound or round trip legs. We knew the captain and most of his officers. We knew all the staff. It was a friendly ship. Best of all, we experienced the regular voyage, and not the stripped-down version we were offered at Bergen. We also saved a great deal of money. A cheque for the difference in the price of the cabins was awaiting us on our return to London.
In order to give a flavour of the Hurtigruten voyage, I will describe our days in brief from leaving Bergen to returning 12 days later.
During the night, we pitch, roll and yaw as we cross the Hustadvika - a stretch of open sea. Everything is tipped onto the floor. We move up and down the narrow beds. It is evident the Lyngen does not have stabilisers as do the larger, more modern vessels. Fortunately we are in bed: it's almost impossible to be sick when you are lying down I find - something about the eustachian tubes. Bear in mind though, if you plan to do this trip, not all of the 2,600 nautical miles is in protected waters. There are stretches where the Hurtigruten is subject to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, and there's nothing to the west but North America.
The Old Town bridge was the only time we saw the sun last November. It was a few degrees above the horizon at noon. This time the bridge was covered in heavy snow, and we carefully climbed the steep hill towards the Castle on the other side of the river. Beside the hill is the bicycle-lift: you insert a smart card, place your foot on the platform, and you and your bicycle are propelled slowly up the incline.
Back in town, we were fortunate to find our favourite cafe serving the most wonderful bowl of hot chocolate with piped cream and chocolate shavings in dark, white and milk. It's called Choco Boco. Back on the ship, after lunch Egbert showed a DVD about Rørvik. The industries there are down from eider ducks, sheep, and fishing. There are also museums to visit, but we chose instead to visit the MS Nordlys which was in port. This is the same as the Polarlys, and we were keen to see what we were missing.
There was a long discussion on our table over dinner. Wally insisted we pass two southbound vessels every day. How could that be? If one ship leaves Bergen every day, surely we only pass one ship per day. After some careful thought, and consulting the timetable we could demonstrate that Wally was right. It does seem strange, but it's true. Furthermore, we pass each ship twice. We may not actually sight each one, especially as the Geiranger Fjord and the Lofoten Islands mean the southbound ship takes a different route to the northbound one. There was plenty of time for such conundrums.
The Lyngen sounded its horn to signify our crossing the line. Had this been a few weeks later in the year, after May 13th, we would have been in the land of the midnight sun. As it was, the sun rose at 1.30 am so there was little chance of our seeing the northern lights at this time of the year.
Appropriately enough, a few minutes later the horn sounds again greeting the MV Midnatsol as it steams south. This ship was built in 2004 so is one of the newest in the fleet.
During the night, we miss Brønnøysund, Sandnessjøen, and Nesna. The stop at Ørnes is curtailed as we are running late, but we have 2½ hours at Bodø. Here we went in search of a sea eagle, and saw the biggest tide race I ever want to experience. First, you have to be kitted out in protective clothing. Flotation suit. Gloves. Goggles. And a hat that made me look like Martin Luther. Standing in the bright sun on the jetty, it might have seemed a bit 'over the top' but once in the Zodiac we needed the warmth.
There were two sausage shaped benches running fore and aft in the Zodiac. We sat astride in two lines, each separated from the person in front and behind by a metal hoop. Vicky was between my legs, but the German behind me seemed overly friendly as we set off. He wasn't - it's just that I'm not used to being wedged into a stranger's groin. Still, it was all quite cosy and warm.
The leader stopped at the harbour entrance to see if everyone was all right, and to warn us of the speed we would travel over the waves. It was a mixture of scary and exhilarating. Two sea eagles flew over us right on clue, then we set off towards the tide race called Saltstraumen. The tide flows under a slender bridge at a narrow point, and literally swirls in ever changing whirlpools. The Zodiac is thrown around, and looking to one side as we turned gave the impression we were about to be sucked down by a huge plughole. Slower boats are banned from this area because the rudders stop working.
After leaving Bodø we cross the open sea again towards the Lofoten Islands. We stop briefly at Stamsund, then have an hour in the capital Svolvær. This is a smart yachting venue that reminds one of Cowes or some of the places along the Solent. There is a small town square by the harbour, and a boardwalk leading to the Rica hotel that occupies a number of buildings. A big, prominent church with a war memorial dominates the town and the Svolvær goat provides the backdrop. There are two small pinnacles visible on the side of one of the mountains just a few feet apart. Jumping the goat from one to the other is a well-known 'dare.'
We leave the town as the hail falls and visibility worsens. During the night we pass through the narrows of the Lofoten islands with its small isles and skerries, each lit by the impressive infrastructure of lights and buoys the Norwegians have installed all along the coast. Judging by the narrows we see in daylight when we pass this way again on the southbound leg, it's just as well the way is so well marked.
As soon as we arrive in Tromsø a bus is waiting to take us up into the mountains in the early afternoon. The ship stops here until 6.30pm so there is plenty of time for a relaxed visit. We arrive at the adventure centre after a short drive, and are introduced to the staff, only one of whom is Norwegian (and she is only there because she married an Australian).
First we have to dress in protective suits and heavy boots to protect us from the deep snow. Outside we can see and hear the dogs climbing all over their kennels in the snow. I have brought a minidisc recorder with me and a pair of microphones, and make a sound recording of the whole experience lasting a full 80 minutes - as long as one disc will last.
The noise was tremendous. The dogs were excited and keen to get going. Our driver was Australian. The sled in front was controlled by a Slovenian called Chuck. There was another Australian too, and a few others in this international group. What were they all doing here? As with many outfits of this kind, whatever the activity, it seemed to be a lifestyle choice.
During the winter they drove the huskies. When there was no snow, there were other sports. When we arrived, several sleds had just left for a 5-day trek in the mountains. The owners of the centre had come 28th and 29th respectively in the Iditerod race across Alaska which is impressive, and they plan to enter again next year. They had also participated in a European equivalent.
After the ride, we returned to the kennels where there was an enclosed area where recent mothers were housed with their puppies. The photograph shows Vicky holding one pup just a few days old. The dogs are valuable, but they are friendly and the mothers did not seem to mind their offspring being passed round from person to person.
After spending time with the dogs, we returned to a kind of teepee with a central fire where we were served tea in wooden cups and chocolate cake.
Returning to the ship, there was no time to explore the town, but that was possible when we returned south, when we were able to see the church nicknamed the 'Arctic Cathedral' and attend a wonderful midnight concert of folk music.
At dinner, the starter looked like a sliver of beef. No one said what it was, but we were later told it was whale. I have mixed feelings about that, but at least I can say that whale meat is nothing special and certainly not worth hunting these wonderful mammals for.
I do not know whether Marcel, a conservationist with the World Wildlife Fund, who spent his days on the panorama deck with binoculars, a long lens on his camera, and a book of birds, realised what he was eating, or indeed what he thought about it.
Later that evening, we watched a DVD about Tromsø and Hammerfest. There was a short call at Skjervøy at 10.30pm but not long enough for us to do more than set our feet on dry land and take the air.
Hammerfest is a small town with little more than a main street running along the front, but it is interesting in several ways. It had the first street in Europe to be lit by electricity. The town is named after an old anchorage. The first part hammer, refers to a number of large rocks good for mooring boats, called Hamran. The last part is fest for 'fastening'.
Located at 70.664° N 23.69° E, Hammerfest claims to be the northernmost city in the world but this assertion depends on the definition of city and is disputed by others. What is not in doubt is that the city had the first electric lit street in northern Europe and also the first to generate power by hydro-electricity using a turbine imported from the USA which is on display in the city centre.
Hammerfest was forcibly evacuated by the Germans towards the end of the Second World War. Like all of Norway north of this point the destruction was almost total. In various museums photographs of many towns resemble Hiroshima after the bomb for their total obliteration. On reconstruction, the Norwegians have build beautiful churches, often with pointed roofs to resemble racks used to dry fish, some with wonderful stained glass windows.
After a brief stop at Havøysund we pass through a narrow passage before we arrive at Honningsvåg. This is the gateway to the most northrly point in N. Europe called Nordkapp (North Cape). The ground is covered in crisp white snow and ice. A strange, rather jolly woman meets us with a huge yellow bus, and keeps up a continuous commentary in several languages as we drive north. She even sings a Saami song to us down the microphone. The audience is stunned. It is 0°C and the sun is bright from a clear blue sky. Our small group is alone, apart from one lycra clad woman who has unaccountably cycled up to the Visitor Centre towing a small trailer.
There is no wind and the sun is warm. The place would be kind of tacky were it not for the lack of any tour buses, the unusual weather, and the awareness we are further north than we have ever been before. There is a globe at the viewing point, a poignant statue with large vertical medallions dedicated to the children of the world, and an exhibition centre with museum, shop, chapel, and underground passages curving steeply down into the rock.
We return to the ship at 3.00pm and visit the bridge, with its state-of-the-art satellite navigation system installed only a month ago. The electronics form a stark contrast with the state of the rest of the boat, but as we pass through incredibly narrow straits close to skerries and islands, it's good to know the first officer is up there, drawing on his cigarette, with a coffee to hand knowing exactly where we are and where all those hidden rocks lie.
Now we are approaching the turning point, and some of the passengers whom we have got to know will be leaving the boat at Kirkenes. Others doing just the southbound journey will join us. Before that, we stop at Kjøllefjord, Mehamn, and Berlevåg before bed.
After leaving Vadsø we arrive at Kirkenes at 10.00 am which is the furthest point on our journey and nearest to the Russian borber. We tie up alongside sundry rusting Russian trawlers. The road sign out of town points to Murmansk. Some people set off towards the Russian border, but we visit the town where there are two small shopping centres, one of which has the world's slowest post office (take a ticket, sit on a chair and wait 25 minutes to be called forward to buy a stamp).
As we are having lunch, the Lyngen pulls out and sets course for the confusingly similarly named Vardø. Here the passengers are encouraged to visit the fort. A man and young woman from the small local museum seem to be ignored, so Vicky and I decide to go with them and hear about the Por people, who came from Russia and traded grain for fish which they salted down and took home with them. It is a charming and fascinating museum and highly recommended.
Båtsfjord was a very short stop at the end of a long fjord which passed us by as we were being served reindeer for dinner. The last port of call was Berlevåg after which we passed the MS Richard With, named after the ship's captain who was the founding father of the Hurtigruten.
We did not go ashore at Honningsvåg or Havøysund, but as we approached Hammerfest we were told the Lyngen would be blockaged in port by local fishermen. It was something of a token gesture. The fishing fleet assembled across the harbour entrance after we docked, having promised to release the Lyngen at 2.00 pm. It was a protest at the sale of quotas to ports further south which had larger boats. We did not of course understand the full story, but almost all the blockading vessels seemed small enough for one or two man operation which must have made it hard for them to be competitive if they were unwilling or unable to invest in larger boats. Since the sale of the quotas was also by those who had operated out of Hammerfest itself, blockading the Hurtigruten which brought economic prosperity to the town seemed counter productive. We were delayed an hour and three quarters and the captain promised to make up the lost time.
This did give us more time to see the church, which was closed when we called early in the morning on the way north. The building has the characteristic high pointed roof. The east window is lovely stained glass, and there are smaller stained glass panels at a low level alongside the blue painted box pews. The pulpit is also blue with paintings on the panels. There is a side chapel running off the chancel steps where there is a collection of old panels, an altar, and fine padded chairs. The bomb shelter below the church has been converted into a cafe and youth club.
Next to the church is a museum which is well worth a visit. There are exhibits showing the impact of the scorched earth policy at the end of World War II. Many of the people of Hammerfest refused to be evacuated and hid in a cave in appalling conditions. This museum tells their story.
Sadly the Polar Bear Association offices in the port were closed. The reason was that the staff were attending a Baltic Sea conference that was in town, which might partly explain the reason why today was chosen for the fishing fleet's blockade. It did mean we could not join the association, or receive one of their commemorative certificates.
The Captain was true to his word. We stopped briefly at Øksfjord and Skervøy and arrived at Tromsø in time for the Midnight Concert that had been arranged in the Arctic Cathedral. There was a varied programme of folk songs, hymns and classical pieces performed in front of the largest stained-glass window in Europe. I did not realise how beautiful the Norwegian folk-classical repertoire could be. In the UK we only seem to have heard of Grieg.
It was almost dark, and so we could not see the stained glass window at its best. The midnight sun after May 13th would transform this concert into a magical experience. Unfortunately it is obvious from the interior that the building has serious problems. All down the sloping concrete walls there are horizontal cracks, some with tell-tales and others evidently letting in water.
The weather has not improved. It is cloudy and overcast, and gets worse as the day passes. We make an early stop at Harstad, then pass through the Risøyrenna - a 4.8 km long dredged channel barely 100m wide in places and marked out by clear channel markers. The depth is only 7m.
There is a brief stop at Risøyhamn and Sortland. After lunch we arrive at Stokmarknes - home of the Hurtigruten. It is a bit of a cheek, to say the least, that we are invited to visit the Hurtigruten Museum and despite paying so much for our passage asked to pay an admittedly reduced fee of £4 for the pleasure of visiting this museum. The exhibits are interesting and interactive: the best part though is the opportunity to inspect the old 1950's Finnmarken, marooned like a tawdry film set beside the building and covered in a crinkly tin shed roof. It all looked rather sad, and there was not even the willingness or the resources to open up the souvenir shop for the duration of our stay. In order to reach the Finnmarken, you have to pass through a deserted hotel, fitted out like a ship but with an abandoned air to it. Oh dear.
At 4.00 pm we pass through the Raftsundet and the Trollfjord. The seas are once again menacing, and serving dinner at 5.30 pm to allow time for those wanting to take a tour of the Lofoten Islands from Svolvær to Stamsund. In the event, the seas were so heavy and the wind so strong that the tour was cancelled. The captain doubted whether he could dock at Stamsund and did not want to leave a number of his passengers stranded.
Vicky and I took the opportunity of looking round Svolvær again, and found some interesting shops that were closed when we were here on Saturday last. We then took a precautionary nap whilst the ship rode the open sea crossing of the Vestfjorden.
After lunch the Lyngen passed the 'Seven Sisters' mountains on the port side, but the tips were shrouded in low cloud. We stopped again at Brønnøysund for a walk, and looked at some of the yachting shops surrounding the pretty harbour. It was still drizzly and overcast as we left the port, but the sun came out and we were able to see the bizarre mountain with a large hole in the middle called Torghatten.
At Rørvik we were able to go on board the old classic ship Lofoten, with its brass rails, polished wood, saloons, and cramped tiny cabins. Many passengers love the ambiance of this restored vessel, but 11 days on board would be too much for me. No ensuite toilets or showers in the cabins - just an old wash handbasin.
After breakfast, a long passage to Kristiansund at 4.30 pm with just 30 minutes to climb up to a rather ugly modern church with what looked like downward facing slats for windows. The church was closed and not worth the climb, but the walk back to the Lyngen was round a very pleasant quay with eider ducks and yachts to see.
The South is definitely much more prosperous, and nowhere more so than Mølde. This is Egbert's home town, and his wife and daughters met him as we docked. Two tours of duty take him away from home for 3 weeks at a stretch, so this is a good opportunity to meet up. A smart place with a stunning Rica hotel on the front looking like a sail, with tiny triangular balconies perched precariously over the water. The moon rose in a clear blue sky. It was a magical evening which did not start to get dark until 11.45 pm when we went to bed at Ǻlesund.
© 2007 Photographs by Robert and Vicky Wright
Last updated: 9 May 2007