Hunting the Aurora Borealis IV: A Taste of Vesteralen

Photography by the authors

Our Hurtigruten ship sails into Harstad at 8 a.m. as one of the company’s ships does every day like clockwork. How a shipping line can cling to such strict schedules with the vagaries of winter and weather is perhaps something only the Vikings would understand.

Harstad is an anomaly: an industrial dock in, arguably, the most attractive part of Norway. It is the largest town in the Versteralen Islands whose beauty has only one competitor: the craggy Lofoten Islands, which sprawl in their own archipelago to the southwest. Those two island groups are what makes the passengers exclaim this is the part of the voyage they would surely come back to in summer.

We have marked Harstad on the Hurtigruten map to show some of the places we’ve been writing about — and if the blue dots we’ve created seem somewhat tentative with a fuzzy border it may be because we are not always exactly clear where we are or were! The image on the left is the white medieval church that is our tour objective.

Harstad has a long history that goes back to the Stone Ages and Sami settlements, and in Viking times those inlets harbored huge numbers of Viking ships. The area was strongly defended by the Germans in their occupation of Norway in World War II. A tourist attraction in summer from that era is the Adolf Gun, the huge howitzer with 16-inch guns that could hurl its shots “56 kilometers.” The cemetery in town has the bodies of 800 Russian prisoners of war executed by Germans

“Harstad was not damaged in World War II,” our guide says in our big, warm bus. “Most of the damage to the city we have done ourselves.” She is joking.

Norwegians are fiercely proud of their land and were practicing a green ecology long before the rest of the world caught on. It has something to do with their not being an independent country until 1905, when they managed to shake off Sweden.

Scandinavian history is complicated. Apparently the Vikings were the last culture in Europe to become Christians. In the early 11th century King Olaf was attempting to Christianize his country for political advantage. Tore Hund, a powerful pagan Viking chieftain in this area, resisted those efforts and harbored a grudge for the murder of his nephew by the king’s men. He confronted Olaf with an army at what became the famous Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 and killed the king himself with “a spear bearing the javelin point that had killed his nephew.”

“We will return to that story tomorrow,” says a passenger with a smile who has sailed with Hurtigruten many times before.

The bus rolls along the snow-covered Trondenes peninsula under a pewter sky. “Fifty percent of all cars sold in Norway are 4WD, and the tax is very high,” says our guide. “The only thing free of tax in Norway is breathing!”

She continues: “What else would you like to know? The mountains are 3,000 feet high, and in winter the water along our coast is about 2 degrees Celsius — 36 degrees Fahrenheit. For your safety I should mention, if you are driving on our roads, be careful, because the elk use our town streets to move around; it is easier for them than going cross country.”

We come to our destination, the stone medieval Trondenes Church. For centuries it was considered the most northern church in Christendom and even today it is regarded as the oldest stone church in Norway. How old is uncertain.

A wooden church rose here in 1150 and a stone one replaced it in 1250. It is huge and solidly built, one of the largest medieval churches in Norway. It was used, as many churches were in those times, as a fortress. At the far end of the interior lie three Gothic alters “that venerate Mary.” Norway was solidly Catholic until the Reformation.

It is a crisp Sunday morning and, in a delightful surprise, Hurtigruten has arranged for the minister to welcome us to his church and conduct a Sunday service.

After the service, we walk the 200 yards to the unexpected treat: the Trondenes Historical Centre, a museum with fascinating historic documents, art and exhibits.

“6,000 years ago this land was covered in ice one to two kilometers thick,” our guide says. “There are wharfs here that are 400 years old. Small places here have been trading with the world for four centuries. Fishing and farming — and living well.”

We continue on as a wintry sun tries to pierce the mountains around us. We pass a bay scattered with wild mussels. Farmers grow mussels for Belgium on a mussel farm, near an egg farm “that produces 20,000 eggs a week. And next door grow the best strawberries in the world … in our long, slow-growing summer season,” says our guide proudly.

Our bus crosses the Gullesfjord by ferry where a welcome display of hot tea and cookies is already laid out for the passengers. We were hungry.

“I swear Hurtigruten thinks of everything,” one of our group cries out as he wolves more than his fair share of the cookies.

We pass reindeer that appear to be eating like us, but it is something undecipherable from under the snow. Then we are in the harbor area of Sortland, our departure point in a few minutes.

“What’s with those several blue painted buildings?” someone asks our long-suffering guide.

Out comes the story: Tourists had found little that was appealing in Sortland, she says, and guide books had the same opinion.

“In 1998 a local artist, Bjorn Elvenes, came up with the idea, ‘Let’s paint our town blue, the color of the sea,’” she explained. “It was a great idea, and was going to make Sortland ‘The Blue City of the North. And…”

Our guide hesitates, but the passengers are merciless. They sense a good story. “And,” they repeat.

She continues, “They used 50,000 liters. Then, they ran out of paint.”

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The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.