Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Bergen and Home—Norway, Part Four

A highway bridge, one of many connecting the myriad islands of western Norway.

This is Part Four of our Norway blog.

So. We have come almost to the end of our voyage. But still, we have a few more days before docking in Bergen. And we still have magnificent landscapes out the huge windows, plus the general ship activities. We're winding our way through narrow channels, passing villages (and under highway bridges!), encountering other marine traffic (including some brave souls on a private sailing yacht).

Winding our way through narrow channels...

What are these sailors doing in these cold, cold waters! 
(Yes, they are all wearing orange survival suits on board.)

Always interested in marine operations, we were keen on knowing more about this vessel, so Paula signed us up for a tour of the bridge. The bridge is the command center, where the captain and mates keep watch and control the ship. It's located on Deck 8, just below the lounge and almost as big. The mates (ship's officers responsible for navigation and the safety of the vessel) had a fantastic working area, huge with massive windows. 

The mates, responsible for guiding us through the many passages on our route.
(And what a great view they've got!)

It was sunny and clear durning our visit, but the mates commented that we'd been lucky: the weather is rarely so good! We had passed through some rocky, narrow channels; what was that like for the mate on watch on a dark and stormy night?

We were also offered a tour of the engine room, which we quickly acceptd. The chief engineer, responsible for all mechanical operations of the vessel, was personable and generous with his time. He took five of us into the bowels of the ship to his control room, and the (incredibly noisy!) engine room, explaining what we were seeing and how it all worked.

The personable Chief Engineer (left) and his assistant.
Their view is not so good as the one the mates get!

One of the smaller of the four engines.

This ship was quite new (in it’s first full year of service) and innovative: a hybrid design, powered by LNG (Liquified Natural Gas, considerably less polluting than diesel). Electric motors drive the ship, powered by batteries and generators. The hybrid design allows the LNG-powered engines to operate at their most efficient, and even be shut down completely in sensitive areas, such as narrow fjords.

Batteries for the hybrid drive.

The landscapes slowly changed as the snow gave way to bare rock and bare trees. This would be a very different voyage in the summer, with everything greened out. (And 20 hours of daylight...)

Also different in the midst of winter, very cold with blowing snow and 20 hours of night!

A navigational aid a few hours out from Bergen. No snow, more houses...

And, finally, docked in Bergen!

It was with no small regret that we made our way off the ship and through the streets of Bergen to our hotel, towing our wheelie suitcases. Our trip had come to the end!

Well, almost. We had the rest of the afternoon; the next morning we'd take the early tram to the airport for our flight to Paris. We had thought about finding the doctor who'd seen me two weeks earlier and thanking him. BUT... today was Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, and in this very Christian nation everything was closed. No hope of getting into the Dr. Dropin clinic! All the pharmacies were closed, as well as... well, everything. Except, thankfully, restaurants! 

A lake in the park in central Bergen. It's much prettier in the summer with leaves on the trees!

Near the park with the lake.

The Bryggen Hansa Quarter, historic warehouses of the Hanseatic League.

As we wandered through the town, we thought of our earlier visit some years ago, in August (and yes, that blog is here!). It's more welcoming in the summer, but the downtown is still very cute, even in the grey overcast.

The former market building.
White trim on the façade evokes images of snow-capped peaks... in contrast to the brown hills behind it!

The waterfront in the historic district.

We did find a good pizza restaurant, and, pleasantly full of pizza and beer, we strolled around downtown for a bit as evening came on. We didn't have the time, nor the inclination, to go very far, but we were satisfied to see even just a bit of this cute, pleasant city.

Nice mural art!

Another mural, also celebrating Bergen's major industry, fishing. 

Then it was back to the hotel and up early the next morning, Easter Sunday, to catch our morning flight out.

Love the understated humor of this sign at the airport! It's one of the first things new arrivals see. 

This is Part Four, the last segment of our Norway blog. Thanks for joining us on this engaging voyage!

In case you missed it,

The sun sets in the Lofoten Islands

Another narrow channel

Saturday, May 11, 2024

The Turn-Around: Kirkenes and the Northern Lights—Norway, Part Three


Leaving Vardø at 3AM (seen from our cabin window).

After crossing the Arctic Circle we continued  traveling ever northward, and the temperatures continued to fall. But it was not until the morning of our arrival in Kirkenes that we began to see ice in the water...

Ice floes on the approach to Kirkenes.
Once away from the open water that is warmed by the Gulf Stream, things get colder!

The ship's crew explained that the Gulf Stream kept the water too warm to freeze. But Kirkenes is located at the end of a long narrow passage, away from the open water of the Barents Sea. Here the water gets much colder, and ice forms!


This very northern (and eastern!) town was our turn-around point; we arrived in the morning after six days of cruising, and left, heading back, just after noon. We had three and a half hours to get off and explore… and we did! While it was cold (someone said -12ºC/+10ºF), it was a beautifully clear, sunny day. We layered up with all our clothing and headed out.

A bit freaked out by all the clothing...

During our initial planning for this trip we had given considerable thought to dealing with the very low temperatures we expected on this voyage (I mean, we're from California, what do we know about cold weather?). Everything we read about Aurora viewing emphasized the cold (after all, it’s only visible at night, when it’s cold!). During our Christmastime trip to Seville (see that blog here) we scoured our favorite thrift store for warm clothing, finding wool sweaters and vests; Paula scored some excellent winter boots.

We had accumulated layers of clothing, starting with thermal underwear. To top it all off we borrowed heavy coats from our friends Mark and Mary—heavy coats they got for Chicago winters. We were set! Maybe.

To familiarize ourselves with this layer after layer of clothing thing, before leaving Montpellier we picked a cold night and made a trial run: we put on all our arctic clothing and went out. It was the coldest night we could find (the temperature was just above freezing), and we left around midnight. After an hour on a park bench we were satisfied; we went home and spent a half-hour getting undressed.

Suburban Kirkenes. Not so different from suburbs anywhere...

Crab-themed playground equipment (can we assume that crabbing is a major industry in Kirkenes?)

We’d made a couple of forays ashore already on this cruise, but Kirkenes would be the ultimate test. We suited up, I brought my studs (rubber slip-ons for my boots with metal studs… snow tires for shoes!). It was a half-hour trek to downtown, through a charming suburban area. The houses could have been anywhere, really. The neighborhood looked pleasant, with single-family homes and yards with picnic tables. Except, it was all under a meter of snow! We trudged along, fingertips chilled but otherwise cosy and pleased to be out. We found there wasn’t much in downtown Kirkenes—it was truly the journey that was worthwhile, not the destination!

Entrance to a WWII-era underground bunker, which seemed to be the extent of the tourist attractions in Kirkenes
(well, that and the Russian border!)

The next day I suffered a bit of a relapse—too much exertion too soon—but totally worth it!


Our first stop after Kirknes was Hammerfest. I was very keen on seeing the monument for the Struve Geodetic Arc located there. 

Before satellites, the size and shape of the earth was determined by terrestrial surveying, which consisted of very careful measurements of lengths and angles along the earth's surface. A particularly ambitions survey was begun in 1816. Stretching from Hammerfest in the north some 2800 km (1740 miles) to the Black Sea, this survey was instrumental in giving the first accurate determination of the size and shape of the earth.

The site of the northernmost survey station is marked with a stone monument. Fortunately, it is located near to where our boat docked. I wanted to visit it it, but after the previous day's adventure I was not capable of much effort!

The Struve Geodetic Arc World Heritage site includes 34 commemorative markers;
this one in Hammerfest is the northernmost.

        The Aurora Borealis

And finally, the Northern Lights! There were a couple of minor displays while we were headed north, on the fifth and sixth days. Paula got some photos, but I was in no shape to get out of bed at 10PM!

Paula got this on the first night we saw the aurora. Not especially dramatic; a hint of what was to come!

Wavering lights seen against the ship's equipment.

Dramatic with the setting sun!

(Those are antennas from the ship in the lower right)

On Day 8, though, our first night heading south, we had a spectacular display lasting several hours. We were both out with our cameras clicking, along with everyone on board. And we found a huge advantage to "aurora hunting" from the deck of a ship, as opposed to from a truck on the tundra: we were warm! Oh, the night was cold, no question of that. But every few minutes we could duck back inside (there was a large, sliding glass door that made that easy), watch from the warm lounge through the huge picture windows for a bit, then return outside for a better view.

Those white dots are stars showing through the lights; they're squiggly due to the long exposure (2 sec).

After this amazing, spectacular display, life aboard seemed to get "ordinary." We were going home; the trip was, essentially, over. We'd crossed the Circle into arctic waters, we'd seen the northern cities, now we'd seen the lights. What was left? This feeling, of heading back after the adventure, intensified after we'd crossed the Arctic Circle again, heading south.


We did make another stop at a northern city, Brønnøysund. We got off the ship and walked around; there was less snow now, I hardly needed my studs. I expect Brønnøsund would be quite attractive in the summer, with the trees and grass green. But it was a bit early for greenery.

The church in Brønnøsund.

A pleasant town, brown and drab this early in spring.

Crazy crosswalk downtown!

Shipboard life was becoming routine! Oh, not boring, just routine. The landscapes were still spectacular, as we threaded our way through narrow passages and tight turns. Every day the weather got a little bit warmer. It was still cold, and we were still perfectly comfortable in the cushy chairs on the Deck 9 lounge, surrounded by huge picture windows (with bar service!).

This lounge on Deck 6 was rarely used on our trip, but would be warm and cosy on a dark, snowy night.

The Deck 9 lounge was the place to be: great views, comfortable seats, bar service...

Well, the trip is winding down. We will have one more post, about our tour of the ship, and the brief time we spent in Bergen before flying home.

This is Part Three of our Norway blog.
For Part Two, North of the Arctic Circle, you'll find it here.
If you missed Part One, The Trip that Almost Didn't Happenclick here.

A narrow passage just north of the Lofton Islands
(we'd just passed through there!)

Fish Racks at the port of Svolvær (yes, there are fish in them, and yes, they did smell...)

Saturday, May 4, 2024

North of the Arctic Circle—Norway, Part Two

Near Ømes, well north of the Arctic Circle.

 This is Part Two of our Norway blog. 
Part One,  The Trip that Almost Didn't Happen, can be found here.

        The Arctic Circle

OK, what exactly is the Arctic Circle? Like the equator, it’s an imaginary line running around the earth; this one marks the northernmost limit of the sun on the summer solstice. Above (north of) the line there will be at least one day in the year (the Summer Solstice, around 21 June) when the sun never sets, and one (a different one!—the Winter Solstice, around 21 December) when the sun never rises. North of the Arctic Circle is the Land of the Midnight Sun (well, in the summertime!).

We crossed this imaginary line on the morning of our third full day of cruising. We knew when we did because we passed an islet with a globe monument on it (the “Polar Circle Globe” on Vikingen Island, latitude 66°33’). (Also—for those who weren't paying attention-—the ship blasted it's very loud horn!)

This was a moment for celebration; not quite as momentous as crossing the equator, but of a similar nature: many had never been this far north! (Although we had; we’d both been in Alaska. But passing the monument on a ship was soooo much more satisfying than flying over it at 35.000 feet!)

Vikingen Island and the Polar Circle Globe.

There was considerable excitement among the passengers, everyone crowding the rail to photograph the monument. The ship’s crew had set up a game: we each submitted our estimate of when we’d cross the line—to the nearest second. It turns out the winner was one of our meal companions; he won a flag from the cruise line… and ice cubes down his back! 

The Polar Circle Globe: everyone wanted a photo!

Shortly after crossing the Arctic Circle we met our sister ship, the Havila Polaris, returning south.
(Like looking in a mirror!)

Of course, as we made our slow way further and further north the landscape changed. Near Bergen the islands were brown, the vegetation still months away from greening up. Snow was seen only on the higher slopes. By the time we crossed the Circle there was little brown, mostly white, as snow covered everything.

View from the deck during a short stop in Finnsnes.


By the fourth day I was feeling somewhat better. The ship stopped at Tromsø for a couple of hours, and I joined Paula in exploring the town. Whatever thoughts we might have had of “the frozen north,” land of snow and ice, were stripped away by this lively Saturday afternoon walk! People were out and about, shopping and visiting. Just like anywhere. 

Setting off on our exploration of Tromsø!
(Note our ship is the Havila Pollux.)

Saturday afternoon shoppers in Tromsø.

Verdens Theater, built in 1915, still showing movies today!

Løkkekiosken,  a sales kiosk from 1911, is a cultural monument.
And a popular hot dog stand!

Real Arctic shopping! (whatever that means...)

Another shopping street in Tromsø.

Tromsø Cathedral.
The only wooden cathedral in Norway!

Roald Amundsen, Norwegian explorer and adventurer. He was the first to sail the Northwest Passage;
also first to reach the South Pole. Oh, and also first to reach the North Pole...

The Arctic Cathedral.
Reminiscent of the fish drying racks common in the area, the 11 roof panels also celebrate the remaining apostles.


The next day we had an extended stop in the town of Honningsvåg, another surprising community in the far north. Although, since today was Sunday, there were fewer people out...

Paula staying warm on the streets of Honningsvåg.

Downtown Honnignsvåg

I still can't understand how snow got on this car!
(Maybe it's not always sunny? Sometimes the wind blows...?)

Man with Fish. In the snow.

For this walk we had another opportunity to put on all the clothes we'd brought with us from the warmth of France. We were not out very long—an hour or so—but it gave us an chance to walk a bit and have a different weather experience. I was glad I had my studs (rubber slip-ons with metal studs for my boots… snow tires for shoes!). Like on all of our explorations, there was a lot of ice on the ground.

Looking back on the town.

We made it back to the ship!

So far on the trip north we had seen no Aurora activity. There are apps to check the likelihood, and intensity, of displays (based on solar emissions, state and strength of the earth's magnetic field, and other criteria). We studied these carefully, but really, there's a huge bit of randomness involved. The numbers looked good, there should be some powerful displays. But on the way north we saw nothing. That would change on the way south...

This is Part Two of our Norway blog.
If you missed Part One, The Trip that Almost Didn't Happen, click here.
Part Three, The Turn-Around: Kirkenes and the Northern Lights, will be along soon!

Leaving Honningsvåg we passed this rock outcropping, Finnkirka (Finn Church),
a sacred sea cliff for the Sami (the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia).