The world’s northernmost city. Latitude 69.6492° N. 400 kilometres above the Arctic Circle. Further north than any city in Russia, Alaska or Scandinavia. Home to 80,000 people on two islands, Tromsøya and Kvaløya. Dubbed Paris of the North. Lucky us—Magellan and I drove portions of the highway to Tromsø—three times, in the splendorous light of September.
Initially I disputed the Paris of the North tagline, given by nineteenth-century visitors “blown away” by the women’s fashions and sophisticated food in Tromsø. How can a frontier city be analogous with French cosmopolitanism? In a letter to his wife early in the last century Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (writer of the Norway’s national anthem) said Tromsø was “all Champagne and spectacle”—a description I’d certainly give to the road to Tromsø. Yet admittedly, the more I thought about it, there are similarities.
Tromsønians and Parisians live on two islands. Paris has Notre Dame; Tromsø has the Arctic Cathedral. In both cities, people are fast drivers and hard drinkers. Each city boasts a large number of very good restaurants. We ate the sweetest King Crab at Fiskekompaniet in Tromsø and our taste buds still, after three decades, hold sweet memories of Skate fish in a brown-butter lemon-caper-parsley sauce at a restaurant in Paris. (Pre-jubilado days, Paris on an expense account when Magellan worked for a company controlled by the French behemoth Total S.A. and had to defend his budget in Paris at least once a year, a hardship requiring my presence.) One day we’ll tell you about our accommodation, the cultural spots and shops we visited in Tromsø, not exactly Parisian but worthy of their own stories because of a shared je ne se quoi. Both cities have long tunnels on their peripheries. Despite their differences in latitude, they are cities of light, painterly light. But it’s sharper, fresher, clearer, brighter, purely dazzling in Tromsø. Architectural style is to Paris as natural beauty is to Tromsø. But how can Haussmann’s arrondissements and the city’s aristocratic architecture compete with the spectacular glacial fjords and craggy peaks of the Lyngen Alps?
We flew to Tromsø from Bergen and rented a car. Entering the city that rainy Friday night we encountered a first for us—driving in a tunnel with a roundabout and traffic lights!
The undersea Tromsøysund Tunnel runs in the Tromsøysundet strait to connect the island of Tromsøya and the city of Tromsøwith the mainland suburb of Tromsdalen. (I know, all those “Troms!) The tunnel has two tubes, each about 3.5 kilometres long. It opened in 1994 to relieve congestion on Tromsøya’s only other mainland connection, the Tromsø Bridge, itself quite a beauty.
We drove through this tunnel again the next day on our way to the Lofoten on highways E08 and E06, before diverting to the E10 and 83, because, you guessed it, there was a place I wanted to eat at—we’ll tell you about Umami Restaurant in Harstad one day, too.
The E08 south of Tromsø epitomizes what makes Norway uniquely spectacular: fjords, narrow inlets of ultramarine deep as the jagged peaks towering above them. On all the roads we’d previously travelled in Norway, the maximum speed allowed was 80 km/hr. Here the posted speed limit shocked us: 90 km/hr—and in a brief divided section, it was 100 km/hr.
Ten sleeps later, on an equally gorgeous day, we drove this road again from the Lofoten at Svolvaer north to Tromsø.
Autumn had moved in swiftly, painting dabs of russet and gold on the leaves and brushing thick layers of snow onto mountain tops.
From the town of Seljelvenes north to Laksvatn where the Balsfjorden narrows and the map is dotted with green asterisks (scenic viewpoints!), and all the way up to Sandvik just outside Tromsø, the scenery is, quite simply, astounding. Magnifique.
BTW I wanted to tell you this earlier—I found slicker-yellow rain boots: functional fashion, waterproof suede and designed in country by Kastel—in Tromsø. Spectaculaire.
The quote about “Champagne and spectacle” comes from The Daily Scandinavian.