Above the Arctic Circle, the Norwegian City of Tromso Revels in a Seafaring Past

By Grace Lichtenstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 28, 2008

As someone who prefers cold climates, I have been to the frozen wasteland of Antarctica, and I have spent many happy years skiing. So I leapt at the prospect of traveling to Oslo and Tromso, Norway, the latter a frigid little town known as the Gateway to the Arctic. I wouldn't be there during polar night, the period between mid-November and mid-January when there is virtually no sun, but being above the Arctic Circle would be exotic enough. And Tromso is right in the center of the northern lights zone, where that celestial green glow sometimes can be seen dancing above.

My excuse was a conference where I would hear contemporary polar adventurer Borge Ousland speak. Fact is, I have been fascinated for years by tales of exploration, of survival in extremes of ice and snow. In particular, I've always wondered why Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who won the race to be the first man at the South Pole and lived to tell about it, seemed to get short shrift from English-language books and movies compared with Robert Falcon Scott, the British naval officer who lost the race and died.

A visit to see the Fram, the ship that took Amundsen to Antarctica, wouldn't answer the question, but in Oslo one bright autumn day, my friend Evelyn and I made a beeline anyway for the Fram Museum, housed on the city's Bygdoy peninsula.

The "strongest wooden ship in the world" and one of the most famous sailing vessels in history, the Fram ventured farther north and farther south than any other ship. Under Amundsen's command, it traveled to the bottom of the world for his race to the South Pole in 1910. Before that, in 1893, it had conveyed Fridtjof Nansen on his journey to the Arctic Sea.

Outside the museum, Evelyn and I were confronted by a bust of Amundsen, his beak of a nose projecting from his face like a nautical sextant. Inside, the red, black and white stern of the Fram loomed over a larger-than-life statue of Nansen. As we circumnavigated the ship, we came across another outsize statue, this one of Amundsen. We were to discover that just as the Anglo-American world can't get enough of Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton and their harrowing voyages, Norway reveres its seafaring heroes from Viking times to the present.

The Fram was built to resist being crushed by pack ice at the pole, yet the builders had left room for amazingly civilized items on board, including an upright piano and a gramophone. A Christmas dinner menu showed that Nansen's men had feasted on oxtail soup, reindeer roast and cloudberry porridge. Among the museum displays were cases of Horlicks malted milk from Racine, Wis., and -- these were Scandinavians, after all -- a bottle of aquavit.

Visitors don't have to come here with much knowledge about Norwegian explorers; the museum explains a great deal. It tells how Amundsen had wanted to be the first to arrive at the North Pole but could not raise enough money to beat Americans Frederick Cook or Robert Peary there. Instead, he secretly headed south toward the Antarctic, aiming to plant the Norwegian flag at the South Pole before Scott reached it. Scholars have argued that Amundsen was able to win the race across the frigid expanse because he used dogs and skis to pull his men and sledges, while Scott and his crew relied on "man-hauling," dragging their sledges behind them.

"It was a tricky race," said Per Lyngaas, a naval architect and engineer who happened to be at the museum that day; Amundsen was smart to "put his bets on doggies."

From Oslo we flew to Tromso aboard a Norwegian Air Shuttle plane with a likeness of skater-turned-movie-star Sonja Henie on its tail. (Amundsen, Nansen and Thor Heyerdahl decorate other aircraft in the fleet.) Tromso was once dubbed the Paris of the North. Why? A hundred years ago, visiting Parisians were startled to see "well-dressed people" at such a distant outpost, Svein Ludvigsen, the jocular regional governor, explained later at our conference. "We are north of the CNN signal, but we have the Golf Network, cold weather and warm people," he said.

Tromso is a fishing village, fiord cruise ship port and university town situated on an island of rolling hills. Its port, piers and hotels cling to the water's edge, while the isosceles-triangle walls of its ice-white Arctic Cathedral, built in 1964, dominate the mainland shore across the water. Tromso bore no resemblance whatsoever to Paris on that cold, quiet Sunday as Evelyn and I strolled beyond the waterfront. Within two minutes, we landed in front of another statue of Amundsen. "He's everywhere!" I exclaimed. "Well, he was!" she replied.

There were more Amundsen statues, including two busts in Tromso's fine Polar Museum. Housed in a former warehouse on the waterfront, steps from fishing vessels that sell each day's catch to local shoppers, the museum offers an exhaustive variety of arctic-related equipment, clothing, dioramas and stuffed polar bears. There are also models of the blimp that flew Amundsen and others over the North Pole in 1926 and of the airship Norge, in which the polar hero was killed while on a rescue mission in 1928.

Initially I feared that Polaria, a second Tromso museum described as an "Arctic Experience Center," would be a Norwegian Disney World, only colder. Not entirely so. From the side, the building resembles a stack of ice floes tumbling like dominoes onto the shore. Inside, one main attraction is a chilled (but still indoor) pool where ruddy-cheeked high schoolers feed three bearded seals and play with them, to the delight of onlookers.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company