Our second tour for the day was hosted by Jørgen, a local guide, who took us on a walking tour. Luckily, Tromsø is fairly small (population 75,000, mostly made up of people in their 20s and 30s) and the historic part of the city is easily accessible by foot from the waterfront where we were staying. In pre-covid times, the city could get two giant cruise ships a day in summer, with up to 4,000 passengers each, so it got overwhelmed at times, with many buses clogging the streets and parking difficult at popular tourist sights. I described the crowded circumstances in Tromsø in an email to Andrew, who responded that I was ‘scavenging for food in the northern wastes, in a city overrun by short-stay raiders from a never-ending stream of longships’. Karma, eh, Vikings?
Jørgen ran through some historical and current facts about the town, including that Tromsø folks speak a slightly different dialect to the standard Oslo dialect (bokmål), and apparently northern Norwegians are seen a bit as ‘country hicks’ by southerners. Housing there is the most expensive in Norway except for a few Oslo suburbs (I wonder if Longyearbyen was included in this survey, as building there is so restricted due to permafrost issues and avalanche danger).
We started off at the statue of Roald Amundsen, perhaps the greatest polar explorer and a celebrated hero in the city although he was not born in Tromsø, but lived his later years there.
Walking us through the old town (the multistorey wooden barns of the old commerce days), Jørgen took us to the Polar Museum (Polarmuseet), dedicated to the whaling, sealing and trapping days. I loved the colours and shapes of the old wooden buildings. Luckily there are no termites in Norway.
Like many museums in Norway, it was small but densely packed with exhibits and information. The labels are in Norwegian and English.
Trapping life was hard, especially in the winter months of all-day darkness and extreme cold and storms. Trappers caught whatever they could eat and/or sell for meat or fur – reindeer, arctic foxes, polar bears, walruses, birds and seals.
It was not easy killing such large and dangerous animals as polar bears and walruses. To make it easier, a self-firing trap was used on polar bears. The bait was a piece of blubber and when the bear stuck its head inside to get it, it shot itself with the sawn-off shotgun or rifle inside. Arctic foxes were crushed to death by stones placed on top of trapdoors which the fox entered from underneath. There was no room for sentimentality in that life.
Seals were often caught by harpoon and kayak, like the one below.
Whaling ships had medicine chests like the one below.
Below is a journal from a 1962 expedition – not so historical but a delightful artefact nonetheless.
Leaving Polarmuseet, we walked past the oldest house in Tromsø, built as a customs house in 1789.
Next we were herded onto a large bus (which seemed a bit of overkill for the 14 of us) and driven over the bridge to the mainland (Tromsø is partly on an island, partly on the adjacent shore) to the Arctic ‘cathedral’, a rather modern piece of architecture (built in 1965) which our guide was at pains to point out is not officially a cathedral but merely the parish church. The traffic was ridiculously busy and we were lucky to find a park, but I guess tourist bus drivers are used to that in high season. I rather felt like a sheep being herded around.
The ‘cathedral’ stands out from afar.
I was glad to get off the bus and back to the hotel and, after a breather, Janet, Bruce and I decided we had enough energy to walk to Polaria, a polar-themed aquarium a couple of kilometres from the hotel. I always like to catch up with museums and aquariums wherever I go, having started my career in the South Australian Museum (the marine invertebrates section, then ichthyology) and now volunteering in the local historical society one. I was impressed with the exhibits at Polaria – live local fish and bearded seals, and a cinema showing films on the polar regions. Fishing is a huge industry in Norway, including (fewer and fewer) whales. The entrance had a whale sculpture of recycyled materials.
I appreciated that some of the information was a bit more technical than the usual dumbed-down stuff. I find I always want more than is provided for the kiddies or the general public, like this piece on how bearded seals feed.
And who can resist a bit of retail therapy in the aquarium shop? (Don’t worry, I only bought a book on marine invertebrates in the fjords. I managed to find one in English.)
On the way back to the hotel, we even managed to get in a bit of urban bird-watching: a (I think) western jackdaw (Coloeus monedula) …
… and a gull chick of some description.
Then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before travelling onwards to Bergen the next day.