Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Scandinavia - Yes, Fäviken and Frantzén, but so much more

Around Lakselvbukt, near Tromsø, Northern Norway
We had known for a while that our honeymoon was going to feature the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), but when we got to planning the wedding, we knew we wouldn't be able to make it that year (we were married in late March) - whether we went to Alaska or Norway - so we did it almost a year later, over Chinese New Year of 2014.

It's been, therefore, over a year since the fact, but I find myself still talking and reading about the places we went, and if I don't document this, in about 3 years I'll hate myself for having neglected the task.

This was our route: Tromsø (Norway) - Spitsbergen (Svalbard, Norway) - Stockholm, where I ate at Frantzén - Åre (Sweden) with a detour to Fäviken Magasinet in Järpen - Berlin - Rome - Paternopoli (Campania, an hour from Naples).

I want to write a bit about the first part of the trip - the frozen, snowy, rural parts of Northern Norway, because those were the most foreign and made a lasting impression on me. I've written about Svalbard already, and as for the food at the two "big name" restaurants in Sweden, while important, would never have been fully understood had I not been to the Nordic countryside.

Tromsø from the top of the cable car

"Paris of the North", they call it, but I have no idea why. It is a quaint town of a city, and beautiful in its own way, but Paris it is not. We stayed outside of the "city" - the charm of these parts, like many remote places in the world, was not to be found in the urban centre, but about an hour away in the fjords. Now, people, including Norwegians themselves, love talking about the fjords as excellent holiday destinations - many of them keep a holiday cabin, one of which we were staying in - but they only talk about how great they are in the summer. Winter is mostly dark (in February, the sun rose at around 10-11am and set at around 2pm), and "sunlight" hours are basically twilight: sunrise, then suddenly, sunset. But I loved it - the snow, the icy roads (thank goodness G drives stick), the solid rivers, the cold, the bleakness - it was everything I'd never known.

Sunrise in the fjords
Every day for about a week, we went driving around the fjords in the nearby area - Alta, Narvik, and so on, then waited every night in our cabin to see the aurora (and we did, every night, for varying periods of time), went dogsledding, shopping in the local supermarkets, and eventually went out to the "city" to do some downhill skiing (Norwegians basically learn to do cross country skiing as soon as they can stand. Cross country would have been amazing around our cabin, except we didn't have our own skis and I suck at cross country).

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), from our cabin in Lakselvbukt
Aurora borealis is hard to describe - it's nature's own light show. The green lights with feathered rainbow edges sometimes twist like a ribbon of a rhythmic gymnast, and other times spread across the sky like watery Chinese ink on Xuan ("rice") paper, or moving across the sky like radioactive water gushing down a staircase. It's hard to describe and no photograph or video can ever do it justice. And despite all the tourist pamphlets telling you to get on a bus and "chase" it, it's really got a schedule of its own that can never be predicted. The best thing to do is to find an open space - that way you'll get a 360-degree view - no chasing and carsickness required.

Food shopping was an interesting experience - there were basically no "mom and pop" shops. Even our local corner store in our tiny village was a Coop. There wasn't much in the way of fresh vegetables, and if they were available, they would be hideously expensive (basically every supermarket was a Citysuper, in Hong Kong terms). But unlike Hong Kong, they had brilliant bread and seafood for cheap. We had salmon almost every single night, and I haven't tasted anything like it since.

Rare to find trees aside from pines in the area. Our car also got stuck in the snow here...
Norwegians have an incredibly dry, direct sense of humour. Actually, I'm not even sure it it's humour. It's just so candid, you can't help but laugh. Maybe it's something about the incredibly harsh natural conditions, but in general the culture of this place is still a mystery a me.

One thing I did notice, especially this far north - they're incredibly unaccustomed to having foreigners. The whole lounge at the place where we went downhill skiing stopped to stare at me when I took my helmet off, although apart from some teenagers who couldn't stop laughing and pulling their eyes to make "Asian" faces at me, no-one was ever rude.

Wanting to learn more about these "mysterious" people, I read a very interesting book recently called The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth. It has, in a way, helped decode the cultural complexities of the region, and it's a fascinating read, especially if you plan on going to Scandinavia, or have already.

I don't know when we'll make it back, but I hope it's soon.

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