This is a town of wharves and painted wooden buildings, displaying the usual stunning Scandinavian sense of colour –– the paint is mustard yellow, iron-oxide red, verditer, grey, pale yellow, black, grey-blue, Brunswick green, in any and all combinations: the houses climbing the hill are truly a pretty sight. Human life is essentially a ribbon along the waterside; the land rises very steeply Hence the attractive way the houses display themselves. The mountains, black streaked with white, loom above the town on both sides of the glittering fjord; behind them still higher peaks rise, entirely and luminously white. There are innumerable boats, grey, uncared-for Russian ships hulking in the water, trim pleasurecraft, utilitarian fishing-boats, the odd giant cruise ship.
This must surely be the only place in the world which loves giant hogweed –– heracleum laciniatum –– a highly invasive, poisonous, and very large plant, which locally has been affectionately christened ‘Tromsø Palm’. But it is easy to see why they do. It is the last day of April, and absolutely the only things above ground among the heaps of dirty snow are the brave, daisylike yellow flowers of coltsfoot (the leaves come later) and the vigorous, dark green acanthuslike fronds of Tromsø palm. A pleasure to the eye, when the grass, flattened by six months of snow, looks like an old lionskin that’s done duty in a nursery for thirty years. There is a paean to it in the local guidebook: ‘the Tromsø palm is a positive part of Tromsø identity. Native citizens remember it as a part of their childhood’s Indian wars in thick jungles with a sap that caused sores and blisters … nobody protested when the new service-and-apartment complex for the elderly on Vestregata was given the name ‘Heracleum’. What is more, there is a fifteen-foot-high statue to it outside the Art Museum.
We have not experimented unduly with local cuisine: sandwiches and so on are much the same as everywhere; but there are indigenous oddities, such as soft sweet waffles which turn out to be folded round a piece of mysøst, that curious brown Norwegian cheese: eating it with waffle notably enhances its basic resemblance to rancid vanilla fudge. A local firm makes rhubarb squash, and a guide to eating out in Tromsø promises ‘fresh raw ingredients, such as goat steak, Arctic char in Pernod, seal meat lasagne and grilled stockfish.’ Let’s not go there. The hotel has in fact provided beautiful fresh fish, cooked very simply. We also ended up having dinner one evening on Sommerøy, about 70 km from Tromsø, looking out over rocks, turf-roofed wooden houses and silvery water: the menu offered ‘bacala with salad and bread and butter’ –– bacala or stockfish, being the dried salt cod which can be seen hanging from wooden racks all round here –– when it arrived it turned out to be bacala alla Veneziana which we have often eaten in Venice itself –– it was a highly creditable imitation, basil, olive-oil, tomatoes and all, which felt like a very odd thing to be eating at 69° 38’ N. We had a beer with it, which had a splendid 19th century lithograph on the label, King Haakon the Good, stout, jolly and almost entirely covered in hair, raising a foaming horn.
Our kind hosts had taken us out into the country: a drive of fantastic beauty on very bad roads, past wild reindeer stoically chewing seaweed on the beaches, a tarn covered in black ice, surrounded by heather, birches, juniper and black, jagged rocks, snow and more snow, winter-scuffed wooden houses, and the aforementioned racks of cod. We came across what must be the most northerly plant nursery in the world –– its proprietor, initially frosty, turned out to be the most charming man, a grizzled Viking with a long drooping grey moustache, growing hellebores and meconopsis, and weird things from Siberia and New Zealand. He had the best rock garden I have ever seen, because it really WAS a rock garden, jagged granite scree, with various treasures, familiar and unfamiliar, tucked into pockets of gravel. In this almost vegetationless landscape, it was fascinating to see what he had managed to achieve by sheer tenacity.
We are staying in the hotel where ‘Insomnia’ was filmed –– which is actually perfectly nice, and despite what the film suggests, there are blackout curtains. There would have to be. Even now, with the snow still lying and spring barely started, the night is about four hours long. It is quite striking the extent to which the film misrepresents the place –– there are, of course, areas of brutalist concrete and urban wasteland, but that is not all the town, or anything like it; Tromsø keeps breaking out in trim, well-painted little wooden houses, all very cheerful. The film’s landscape of urban desolation must have taken some ingenuity to achieve. Above all, ‘Insomnia’’s neurotic, paranoid focus edits out the vast spaciousness of the fjord and the mountains, visible down every sidestreet.
PS. Nobody has been able to locate Knud Erik Jensen, though a diminutive but modish linguist in Doc Martens and black leather asserts that he is occasionally sighted at a cool bar called Mirage. Given the price of alcohol in this land of liberty, we haven’t pursued him there. In any case, would you expect actually to find someone at a place called Mirage?

One Response to “Tromsø”

  1. Andreas Minor Says:

    I seem to recall a club in Royal Leamington Spa by that name. It had a cage and dancing poles for the “enjoyment” of the inebriated punters. And I don’t remember finding anything more there than trouble.

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