At the top of Europe
“Breathtaking scenery featuring mountains, fjords and islands provides a surprise around every corner”, writes the Troms county tourist authority. “A multi-ethnic population has a rich heritage, an inviting culture and a great future. Troms speaks to you on many levels.”
The midnight sun shines for two months during summer here, while the displays of the northern lights in winter are more frequent than almost anywhere else.
Tromsø, the principal city of Troms − and of northern Norway − is often described (a bit tongue-in-cheek, perhaps) as the “Paris of the North” thanks to its wide range of cultural activities and traditionally lively night life.
The city is also the site of the world’s northernmost university, specializing in research into all aspects of the Arctic; its geographical position is particularly suited to studying the aurora borealis (the astounding northern lights), the ozone layer and other important atmospheric phenomena.
For the visitor, the city offers a wealth of museums focusing on regional art, Sami culture and history, Svalbard, and of course polar science. A short trip by cable car for the view from Storsteinen mountain is all but mandatory, as is a close look at the magnificent Arctic Cathedral, a masterpiece of modern architecture built in 1965. The Tromsø¸ International Film Festival (TIFF) has become quite an important cinematic event - and a great opportunity for movie buffs to catch the northern lights.
Another highlight of the year is the Riddu Riddu Festival, an international event showcasing indigenous artists and performers from all over the world at scenic Kåfjord, about 150 km to the southeast of Tromsø. Originally organized as a local festival of coastal Sami music, Riddu Riddu has grown into an annual celebration of Arctic − and global − cultural diversity.
Troms is very much an island county (over half its population are islanders and Tromsø itself is built on several islands) although it includes some surprisingly productive agricultural communities in its southern districts, and much of Norway’s traditional cheese is produced from the county’s many thousands of goats. Further north, as the awesome Arctic coastline becomes progressively more rugged and bleak, the maritime and fishing traditions of the region are by far the most powerful influence. Many consider this coastline among the most spectacular on earth, with its sharp-pointed mountain landscape, mysterious islands and fathomless fjords, where you can be surrounded by mountains while still at sea. Islands such as Senja and Kvaløya and the smaller islands of Rebbenesøya, Vannøya and Arnøya make for an exciting trip for the experienced traveller looking for something new. Seaside tracks and a good network of roads help make a scenic tour of the coastal areas a surprisingly relaxing affair.
The island of Senja, midway between the Arctic Circle and the North Cape, is a popular destination, offering magnificent scenery, a beautifully preserved 19th century fishing village (now a tourist centre) at Hamn i Senja, and a troll museum featuring the world’s largest troll, registered in the 1997 Guinness Book of Records at 17.96 metres high and weighing in at 125,000 kg.
For all its remoteness, with its long seafaring tradition Troms can be a surprisingly cosmopolitan place. Finns, Russians and of course the Sami, the indigenous Laplanders, are among the most noticeable ingredients in this exotic ethnic and cultural mix.
Inland, towards the borders with Sweden and Finland, there is almost no human population; only virgin wilderness where reindeer, bears, wolves, wolverine and lynx abound. A walking or dogsled tour of Øvre Dividal National Park in Målselv is an unforgettable experience in a unique environment.
One local enthusiast writes: "The Målselv region includes some of Europe's last wildernesses - forest, mountains, plains and lakes, whose desolation and grandeur are both mysterious and awesome. You can roam for days in the wild beauty of untouched nature, with the feeling of being the first and only person on earth. Silence reigns, mile after mile. In the evening you crawl into your sleeping bag to the sounds of a crackling fire and a rushing river. The wilderness surrounds you, and sleep is elusive. Actually, you can't really afford to waste time sleeping!"
At Treriksrøysa in Storfjord, on the Norkalottløypa tourist trail, you can stand in three countries− Norway, Sweden and Finland − at the same time. From Skibotn, famed for its clear weather, you can go skiing in the midnight sun.