It was the last week of December and the city was shrouded in a blanket of fresh snow. The clock claimed 10am and yet the sky was gunmetal gray and the skyline was beaded in a luminous necklace of electric lights. The sun should have risen and the sky ought to have been bright but this was the Norwegian city of Tromso, the land of the polar nights. For two months between November and January the sun remains below the horizon and daylight is as elusive as an Ibsen comedy.
The locals call it morketiden: the murky time. As someone who loves sunshine and hates darkness this was probably the most disagreeable place I could imagine; subzero temperatures and unremitting darkness not being my idea of fun. Yet there was also something compelling about a place where the sun never rises, something otherworldly — and that is why I came to Tromso: in search of the magic and madness of this murky time.
In the days before coming to Tromso I had seen 30 Days of Night, a film set in a town in the Arctic Circle beset by vampires as it enters a month without sunshine. If 30 days of darkness could summon vampires, what creatures from hell would be unleashed during two months without light?
In Solid, a coffee bar on Storgata, the main street that threads through Tromso, I met Knut, who was organizing my itinerary for the week. It was lunchtime but the sky was tarry black, darkness at noon as the streetlights glowed orange. “How do people cope with the polar nights,” I asked Knut. “Don’t they become suicidal or insane?”
“Not at all,”’ he said. “Most people here don’t believe in seasonal affective disorder — we just prefer to keep busy.” He told me that Tromso is twinned with Anchorage in Alaska, which made sense, and the English fishing port of Grimsby, which I advised him to keep quiet about. Most visitors come to see the northern lights. Since it is 350km inside the Arctic Circle and one of the most northerly cities on Earth, Tromso is among the best places to see them. But I was warned not to get my hopes too high. “You have to think of the aurora [borealis] as a diva,” explained Knut. “She is a high-maintenance lady with a tendency to sulk and when she turns up it is when it suits her.”
As well as northern lights spotting, the other popular tourist activity in Tromso is dog sledding, which I tried one cold and inevitably dark evening. As I understood it, dog sledding involved clambering on to the runners of the sledge and praying that the five Alaskan huskies pulling me did not have a death wish. The instruction was somewhat cursory — it amounted to pointing at the wooden brake pedal and a remark about not letting go of the sledge as the dogs were liable to bound off without me.
Once I had mastered the finer points of balance and avoiding overhead branches, I discovered the magical sensation of hurtling across the snow in the wintry darkness, snowflakes flickering towards my face in the beam of torchlight and the huskies yelping happily.
I felt like the star of a Nordic remake of Ben-Hur, perhaps entitled Sven Hur. It was enormous fun, but dog sledding is strictly for the tourists and I wanted to know how locals in Tromso occupied themselves during the murky time.
“So, this is your first time cross-country skiing?” It was early the next morning, a time when the sky was its lightest shade of dark and Tom the photographer was finding my attempts at walking in skis unaccountably entertaining. Tromso locals think of cross-country skiing as their version of jogging, strapping on their skis and heading for an hour or two along the floodlit ski track that follows the ridge of Tromso island.