Hunting the Aurora Borealis II: Vere's Vardo?

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The Andersons get lost in Vardo, Norway and learn a little from the locals on their hunt for the Aurora Borealis.

Photography by the authors

vinter rute

We boarded our Hurtigruten ship about three hours ago and we see from the winter timetable (the ) that we are due in our first stop, Vardo, at 4 p.m. It’s amazing to find even in winter the ships keep to a timetable. It’s like sailing with the German rail system — always on time. We have one hour here in the dark of late afternoon.

This is Norway’s most eastern town. The fortress was built in 1300 and rebuilt in 1738. An original beam from 1599 has the signature on it of King Christian IV, but other kings of this century have added their names, such as King Hakon VII, King Olav V and King Oskar II. Norwegian Royalty is refreshing. There is no pomposity and in fact the royal families of Norway have been beloved by their people.

Vardo’s 1787 coat of arms takes a bit of getting used to. It says “The darkness shall yield to the sun.” We guess that doesn’t mean tonight. We are wandering in the dark aware that the ship will not wait if we get lost. It expects passengers to take responsibility for getting back to the ship in time.

We have studied the electronic map and find our way to the fortress on the hill. The sentry turns out to be a statue. We hurry back to the ship, but we obviously still have time: some of the passengers have decided to go s-h-o-p-p-i-n-g!

Vardo has an earlier history than its coat of arms would suggest. This is where Norway burned 91 of its witches from 1598 to 1692. We walk along the water edge looking for the new witches’ monument but the monument is so new no one seems to know where it stands. We are pointed to the 1731 Vardohus Fortress by some of the locals, but all we find there are more lost passengers. The locals do know the history of this fortress.

“Is it true that this fort has protected the town for 250 years without firing a shot from its cannons?” we ask a young man passing by.

“That is not the case,” he laughs. “It fires its guns once every year to celebrate the return of the sun after 59 days of winter darkness! Of course in summer we have 79 days without a sunset so it’s a wash in a way.”

the pomor trade

Vardo used to be busier when it traded its Norwegian fish for Russian grain — a mutually satisfying form of business called — from 1740 until the Russian revolution in 1917.

We head back to the ship somewhat bemused by what one of the ship’s officers tells us as we walk back.

“Did you know Vardo is further east than Istanbul and St. Petersburg?” he says.

That we did not know and we hurry into the ship’s library to see if it is true. It is! So we’ve learned something new about Norway in our very first stop on land.

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The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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