To celebrate my having attained the age of fifty on 17 July 1991, my Norwegian parents-in-law gave me an extremely generous present of money, their sole stipulation being that it was to be used to enable me to fulfil a long-held dream, to take a trip on the Hurtigruten, Norway's Express coastal steamer service.
Having been advised to book my passage on one of the newer ships being progressively introduced on to the route, I was somewhat disappointed when my Annual Leave dates combined with not having booked until February 1991 to compel me to reluctantly accept passage on m.v. " Nordnorge ". She, built in 1964, was one of the older vessels and, at 2,611 tons, one of the smallest.
In the event, my disappointment proved to have been misplaced. The informal atmosphere on board, and the friendly crew's effort ( and in particular Britt Brun-Hansen [ one of the most experienced couriers, known to her colleagues - behind her back - as Tante [ Auntie ] Brit ], our indefatigable courier ) to make each of us feel at home, made for a memorable holiday as we steamed through breathtakingly beautiful coastal scenery. That - possibly in answer to the prayers of a dear old friend - the weather was gloriously warm and sunny for most of the time was an added, and rather unexpected, bonus.
The article which follows attempts to pinpoint some of my impressions of my twelve day ( 9 to 20 August 1991 ) cruise.
Day 1 : Friday 9 August 1991.
Windscreen wipers flailing, my taxi squelched to a halt. Surely, I thought, this rain-lashed glowering of scruffy warehouses, abandoned pallets and neglected emptiness could not be where what the brochure grandly described as my " trip - of - a - lifetime " was to commence ! In answer to my perplexed look, the taciturn taxi driver pointed. White lettering glimpsed through wind-watering eyes : " N..O..R..D..N..O..R..G..E. ". My heart sank. Was what appeared to be a scruffy tramp steamer to be my home for the next twelve days ? We had stopped beside a simple metal gangplank. I was disconcerted to find no sign of life as I tentatively humped my heavy suitcase on board. " BILLETKONTOR."1. At last, light and a warm smile from a shirt-sleeved officer. My pristine ticket examined, one page casually ripped out and his friendly finger indicated the way to my cabin : the sole arrival ritual.
Down one flight of stairs. A short corridor. " 54." The cabin number shown on my ticket. Stiff lock. Bunk beds concertinaed into an impossibly small space. A wash-hand basin, two cupboards, one containing an ominous clutter of lifejackets, and a porthole whose paint-spattered glass was almost opaque. Nonetheless, I was often glad of its grime-filtered light and the glimpses it afforded of passing distant landscapes and round-shouldered waves elbowed aside by the twenty-five year old ship's sturdy rust-pocked bows.
I unpack, consult the simple cabin plan provided. Back along the corridor, up another flight of stairs, to the restaurant, jostling with polyglot queuers. " Gratis Servering "2. A pressured waitress smiled wanly through tired eyes, took my proffered slip of paper, and handed me a steaming plate of beef stroganov. Not having had more than a few sandwiches since breakfast, many hours before, I was more than ready for it. All around me, a burble of German, French, Italian and Norwegian nervous excitement. Determined grey rain continued to spit against the stoical window beside me.
" It's spelt ' B..R..I..T..T. ; I'm your courier. " A small, lively lady held a microphone in one be-ringed hand and a sheaf of papers in the other. We had just been allocated our dining room table places. My companions, Maud and Lisa, two members of a Norwegian pensioners group eagerly exploring their own beautiful land, Mario, an English-speaking optician and camera-shop owner from Florence, and I eyed each other with cautious friendliness as, in Norwegian, English and German, Britt outlined some details of our twelve hundred mile voyage North from Bergen to Kirkenes, and introduced the Captain and his Heads of Department to us.
22.00. A heart-stopping, gull-scattering blast on the ship's horn, a sudden flurry of quay-side oilskinned rope-loosening and, stern water frothing, we noisily vibrated into reverse. Abrupt engine note change. Moving forward now, rain-polished land drifting ever further behind as we pick up speed. Past the sky-raised fingers of a half-completed suspension bridge, and Bergen had skulked backwards into the lowering gloom astern.
My bed was narrow, although long enough. The incessant bumps and creaks of a moving ship played a disturbing melody over the engines' non-stop " chug-a-chug " base line. Unsurprisingly, I did not sleep much that first night ; next morning my sleep-deprived mood was unrelieved to find that the bad weather had followed us North. Fortunately, that first night's sleeplessness was to prove the exception ; exercise in salty fresh air combined with the fact that I was ( most unusually, for me ) up before seven most mornings - in case I missed something ! - to see to that.
For the next two days, the green decks were populated with be-anoraked figures darting from one sheltered corner to another. Each surface was continuously pearled with water droplets shimmering to the throbbing engine's incessant beat. Across a grey sea, mountains, cloud-capped, could be mistily discerned. Photography involved juggling inadequate light and a shutter speed fast enough to counteract the ship's vibration. Despite this, after a time I became aware that something in me was responding to this gauze-curtained scenery. In these overcast conditions, I found it easier to understand the dark malevolence which lurks below the surface of much Scandinavian folk literature, where ugly one-eyed trolls - quite unlike the sanitised versions which feature so prominently in Norwegian tourist and sales literature - routinely terrorised the fearful inhabitants of isolated villages.
1. " Ticket Office. " 2. " Free Meal. "
Day 2 : Saturday 10 August 1991.
In Ålesund, now Norway's largest fishing port, built on three islands, the amplified words of an earnest group of young evangelists echoed off the town's dripping Art Nouveau buildings, which - ironically in light of what his country's soldiers were to do to many other Norwegian towns during World War 2 - was rebuilt, after a major fire in 1904, with money donated by Kaiser Wilhem 2. " Would Jesus really have approved of this cacophony ? " I sceptically wondered. Despite this I rather liked the steep streeted town, although it did remind me a little of those Ruritanian musicals which were popular in the thirties.
A Turkish cruise ship leaving Molde as we arrived reminded me that, on 29 April 1940, King Haakon and his son Olav ( who succeeded him in 1957, and who died earlier in 1991 ), escaping capture by the pursuing Germans, left this much-bombed " Town of the Roses " ( apparently so called because its pre-war white clapperboard houses were festooned with these flowers - a tribute to the Gulf Stream's moderating influence ) on board the British cruiser " Glasgow ", sent to rescue them, for war-long exile in London. A famous photograph of the two of them pausing briefly to pose beside a tree, ever since known as " The King's Birch " ( and, sadly, vandalised some years ago ), has pride of place in my in-law's Oslo flat. From the quay we were fortunate to be able to view a panorama of eighty-seven peaks in the far-off Rondane Mountains ; bad weather frequently obscures them, to the dismay of tourists drawn here by the prospect of seeing them.
Rain-guarded Kristiansund, named after the Norwegian-Danish King Kristian VI, a reminder of the Danes' ( former rulers of Norway ) fondness for naming towns after members of their Royal family, and approached under the 120' high Sorsund Bridge, remained unvisited in the rapidly darkening evening.
Day 3 : Sunday 11 August 1991.
Next morning : Trondheim, founded in A.D. 997. The sun flirtingly winked through frowning clouds as I went for a stroll through Sunday-empty streets still littered with Saturday night's debris. Photogenic reflections of old warehouses on the River Nid's slow-moving water hinted at the town's trading origins. In the main square, I looked up at the statue to Olaf Tryggvason, slain in battle in 1030 and [ allegedly ! ] buried in nearby Nidaros Cathedral, whose building commenced in 1070, and through whose imposing doors a trickle of worshippers mingled uneasily with flocks of eager-eyed tourists. Olaf's grave, once attracted similar hordes of rather more devout pilgrims, upon whose revenue the town's early growth and prosperity were founded. The Reformation in 1537 brought this lucrative trade to an untimely end ! Despite our red-robed guide's informed enthusiasm, and in spite of an awkward awareness that my mother-in-law expected me to enjoy visiting it, I found the Cathedral's cavernous dimness intimidating, and was quite glad to escape outside. I enjoyed the town, though; it is full of charm and atmosphere. Narrow cobbled streets, now being restored to their former glory, are a photographer's dream. As I strolled back to the ship along the quay, the weather's flirtatiousness ceased abruptly. Despite dashing for its cover, I was soaked to the skin by the time I panted back up the gangway. Afterwards, we sailed Northwards through scenes of green-fielded agricultural prosperity sheeted in damp monochrome.
It was instructive to observe each of the nationalities represented on board display its own particular behaviour-pattern. The Norwegians active, pacing the deck, talking quietly in small groups and showing shy courtesy to those they encountered - especially if a few stumbling words of their language helped to break the ice. One old fellow, travelling with a party of pensioners, took a fancy to me and insisted in giving me the day's weather forecast each morning. The fact that he spoke no English and that my Norwegian was hardly up to the stress imposed on it in no way diminished his delight in " helping " - nor mine in being so graciously helped. The stylishly attired Italians were more gregarious, fluttering around the ship in voluble, arm-waving flocks. Their interest in the beauty gliding past was apparently limited to occasional outbursts of vociferous delight, and shoving attempts to take photographs. Lack of a common language limited all but their most rudimentary contact with other nationalities, although Ingrid, a pretty blond Norwegian crew member caused much dreamy - if ultimately fruitless - masculine speculation. The Germans, thoroughly prepared with literature on Norway, seemed to regard their trip as a task to be undertaken with the utmost seriousness. No fact was allowed to pass unremarked, no sight considered too trivial to be recorded. Although most were middle-aged, it never seemed to occur to them that their fellow-countrymen's wartime behaviour might still be - and indeed is - much resented. A solitary trio of French was rendered largely invisible, isolated by our inability to speak their language, the only one they knew. The rest of us, an Australian pastor, two English couples and myself, smugly cast ourselves in the role of superior observers of our Continental fellow-passengers' perceived idiosyncrasies, while childishly attempting - usually successfully ! - to deny " pushy " Germans their coveted first place off the ship at each of the many ports, large and small, where we docked. And they say that travel reduces prejudice !
At Rørvik, the Southbound steamer's arrival coincided with our own. Every day, there was a moment of hand-waving, horn-tooting excitement as we met one of the ten other ships which constantly plough a steady fifteen-knot course up and down this island-strewn coastline. I was interested to note that, despite the fact that three different companies co-operated to provide the service, an obvious family-feeling existed between all their crews. North of Rørvik, the scenery seemed to have been made by a giant hand squeezing and moulding great piles of grey " play-dough " into rounded, cracked heaps against which our wake gently splashed.
Day 4 : Monday 12 August 1991.
7.16.08 a.m. and, unnoticed by me - I was still getting dressed - we crossed the Arctic Circle. I can be quite precise about the time. The previous evening, we had an onboard competition to guess the crossing time. I surprised myself by winning ; my " guesstimate " was sixteen seconds out. As if in celebration, the weather turned brightly sunny, and remained so for the rest of the trip. Away, at last, with the cumbersome monopod ; out with the polarising filter ! A No. K. 10 ( approximately £1.00 ) bus ride took us to Bodø's wide-streeted town centre, scene of many Winter battles between British soldiers, there on training exercises, and the local " hard men ". All was quiet during our visit ! Guided by a tourist leaflet, I headed for the one building rating a mention - the Cathedral. Consecrated in 1956, from the outside it looked tall and ill-proportioned. Inside, however, was a glorious atmosphere of light spaciousness, enhanced by the enthusiasm of a student guide for a building which, clearly, meant much to her. This was to be the first of several modern churches I visited, one sign of the wartime devastation suffered by this isolated Northern region. Each church dominated the town it served, and each possessed its own distinctive character. I was impressed that all were able to convey a feeling of tranquillity and worship.
Four hours across open sea ( Vestfjord ) and the rugged grandeur of the sixty mile long Lofoten Wall, containing some of Europe's oldest rocks, climbed laboriously over the sun-sparkled horizon. Later, we docked at Svolvær, the Lofoten Islands' capital, on whose site a settlement has existed since the Middle Ages ; it is now a small fishing port and home to an artists' colony. I could easily understand why the clear light and local colour have made Svolvær a magnet for Norwegian painters for nearly a century; I would love to spend more time there, taking photographs. Sadly, it was too dark for photographs as we squeezed into Troll Fjord's narrow confines, threading a cautious passage between islands almost close enough to touch.
Day 5 : Tuesday 13 August 1991.
Before breakfast, Harstad, with Narvik and Bodø one of Nordland's three principal ports, and base for Northern Norway's offshore oil industry. It blinked in bright early morning sunshine as the Southbound steamer, m.v. " Narvik " sidled up to join us at the quay-side. One of the new ships being progressively introduced on the route, her size ( 4,073 tonnes ) dwarfed our poor wee " Nordnorge ", and her shiny newness threw our battered dowdiness into cruel relief. Nonetheless, I felt no desire to move. Since boarding, I had grown fond of my well-worn home, with her special atmosphere of unhurried calm and old-world charm. Because we were only a couple of hundred passengers and thirty-seven hardworking crew, everyone on board seemed to feel part of a living, caring community ; I somehow doubted whether this could be reproduced in the grander, but less personal, surroundings of these more modern vessels.
We were taken, by coach, to visit the thirteenth Century Trondenes Church, whose sturdy stone walls were clearly visible as the ship approached Harstad. Refusing to permit it to become a mere object of idle tourist curiosity, the church authorities had arranged that we take part in a brief, multi-lingual service of worship conducted by a final-year theology student. Seated in the wooden choir stalls, I was moved by the thought that my voice and prayers were joining those uttered by generations of worshippers. If only those plain walls could have spoken !
In the afternoon, sightseeing in Tromsø, variously described as " Paris of the North " or, perhaps more accurately " Gateway to the Arctic ". Another coach trip across the spidery Sandnessund bridge linking the island-town to its mainland suburbs - and under which we later sailed on our continuing progress Northwards - brought us to the awesome simplicity of what is usually called " the Arctic Cathedral " ; its more prosaic, correct title is Tromsdalen Church. Did I, later, detect a glint of relish in our young student-guide's innocent looking eyes as, in great detail, she pointed out to this party of Italian, English and German visitors the site, three miles West of the town centre, where the German battleship " Tirpitz ", already damaged in an earlier engagement, was sunk by a flight of RAF Lancaster bombers from Lossiemouth, Scotland, and enumerated the number of German sailors drowned ? Tromsø was also where Roald Amundsen, of whom there is a bronze statue in a bustling town- centre square, and his cronies, fortified, it was slyly inferred, by quantities of locally-brewed Mack beer [ and dismissed as being of inferior quality by some of my English fellow passengers ], planned some of his Polar expeditions, and from where, in 1928, he took of in a seaplane to search for an Italian, Nobile, missing on a dirigible flight. Nobile was found alive. Amundsen has not been seen since.
That evening, Britt invited us to a party. Dressed in her home region's intricately embroidered national costume, she reminded us seriously that, in crossing the Arctic Circle without having obtained his prior permission, we ran the risk of offending Njord, God of all the Seas. Fortunately, however, she had been able to make contact with him and been authorised to bid us welcome - provided that we paid due retrospective obeisance. To this end, we had to take it in turns to sit in small, nervous, groups on a low bench. The Sea God's cheerful representative uttered a few well-chosen propitiatory words in verse - and poured a ladle of ice-cold water down each of our squirming backs. For some reason, the voluble young Italian men seemed to require more water than the rest of us - not that we complained ! Afterwards, the Captain presented each of us with a decorative Certificate, affirming that we had, indeed, crossed the Arctic Circle.
Day 6 : Wednesday 14 August 1991.
Hammerfest, trumpeting itself as the world's Northernmost town, huddled beneath the foot of precipitous Mount Salen, which seemed to hang dangerously over it. A bustling centre with yet another splendid modern A-frame church, and a park with cast-iron bandstand straight from an English seaside resort. Nearby Polar bear statues provided an antidote. A small herd of reindeer snuffling around a food-bearing man lent a brief exotic touch, and served as a reminder that Norwegian culture in this Northern region coexisted with the nomadic Sami people's.
For the past few days, I had a feeling that something about the towns and villages we were calling at was " not quite right ". At last, an elderly Norwegian explained that, in the 1944/45 winter, the retreating German army had operated a scorched earth policy throughout this region. This, and the effects of Russian aerial bombardment, meant that, although human casualties had been surprisingly light, all the buildings I was seeing had been built since 1945. I tried to put myself into the minds of the local inhabitants to whom this was happening - and failed miserably, until I heard how, as the people of Hammerfest were herded on to fishing boats and forced to sail out to sea to watch German soldiers move from home to home, setting each alight, one by one they went to the small boats' side and, as their own home was torched, sadly dropped their house keys into the ocean.
The trip's highlight was to have been a visit to the North Cape, at 71 10' 21" latitude Europe's most Northerly point. At Honningsvåg we were met by two coaches - one for German speakers, the other for the rest of us - which panted their breathless way up a rough-surfaced serpentine road, with panoramic views over high fell and distant blue lakes and fjords, to the bleak plateau where a metal sphere signified land's end. We had been advised to dress warmly ; although windswept, I found myself sweating in an anorak and thick jumper on a bright, sunny day, with only a hint of mist licking over a nearby headland to indicate the kind of weather more usually experienced. ( Indeed a few weeks later, a conference party was compelled to remain indoors for several hours by the ferocity of a wind which blew men over, and sandblasted all the paint from the exposed sides of their parked cars. ) The Tourist Centre, a concrete building in the uncompromisingly ugly brutish style, seemed to have as its sole object, the blatant commercialism of a piece of nondescript land whose position was its only attraction, and whose crass overcharging was the subject of regular criticism in the Norwegian media. One hour there was more than enough for me ! Back at the quay-side, a docking Russian cruise liner " Maxim Gorky ", laden with German tourists, towered glamorously over our little black-painted ship. As we sidled away, the blue smoke pouring from her funnel formed an acrid cloud obscuring the sunlit granite cliffs. That evening a defiantly beautiful sunset seemed to furnish Nature's response to this crude intrusion.
Day 7 : Thursday 15 August 1991.
I thought I was dreaming ! The sign, spotted sleepily through my porthole, was in Russian ! Vardø, the most Easterly centre of population in Norway, however, definitely belonged to that country ; in this remote region, not far from the Russian border, I soon realised that my somewhat apprehensive way of viewing their neighbours was not shared here, as Russian fishing and timber interests interact routinely with their Norwegian counterparts. A heroic war memorial in Kirkenes, which is closer to Murmansk than anywhere else, later reminded me that, in 1944/45, it was Russian soldiers who fought and, in some cases, died alongside their Norwegian allies to liberate this area from the grimly retreating German army.
Kirkenes : the furthest North port visited and, like most we had called at, pervaded by the pungent smell of the fish upon which these isolated communities have depended for generations. I became increasingly convinced that, were Norway to join the EEC and accept the mooted imposition of its fish catch quotas, it would have as devastating effect upon the area's social fabric as the Germans had had upon their parents' physical fabric. After a short stroll across the causeway linking quay to a town dominated physically and economically by an iron ore concentrating plant - and little other apparent interest to this casual visitor, I headed back to the ship, ready to start the five-day Southward voyage back to Bergen.
The brochure was right after all ! This had turned out to be a real " trip - of - a - lifetime ".