Queen in the North: Tromsø (Romsa), Norway

Polar night in Tromsø, Norway

Last winter Chris and I visited one of my dream locations–Tromsø, Norway. Chris previously traveled to Scandinavian cities above the Arctic Circle for work, but this was my first time experiencing a place so northern! My main goals for this trip included experiencing Sami culture (the indigenous people in this region), see the Northern Lights, and wander the beautiful island of Tromsøya. It truly is an absolutely breathtaking place to visit and so unique to any location I’ve traveled. I couldn’t wait to see (and let’s be real, taste) all the recommendations made by our Norwegian friends here in Hungary. I am so thankful to be a part of such a diverse and friendly international community.

During this time of year the area experiences Polar Night, where the sun never truly fully rises. We only had a few hours of sunlight–similar to dusk–in the mornings. I was concerned I wouldn’t like a lack of sun, but it was actually so cool to experience and I enjoyed wandering during the Polar Night.
We stayed a few days and thankfully had the chance to adventure around the city and outlying areas.

My motto for the trip was proclaiming “Queen in the North” whenever I conquered a particular snow drift, hike, found brown cheese at the market (called Brunost) or honestly whenever I felt like yelling out loud about whatever thing I was giving me joy at the moment (coffee, reindeer, frozen lakes, etc).

But also, let’s be real: season 8 of Game of Thrones was absolute trash and Sansa naming herself Queen in the North is the only good plot-line in the finale. And that’s a hill I will die on.

Located 350 kilometres (217 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is chilly during the winter; in December, when we visited, the temperature averages just below freezing during the day. I was nervous about keeping warm during all of our outdoor adventures while also staying on budget. My solution was to visit the thrift store in our small town and buy all the legwarmers, wool socks, and bulky sweaters I could find. I even lucked out with the best thrift store find ever–heavy duty wool military legwarmers for less than $1! I also was able to borrow a pair of badass winter boots from a friend (thanks Meryl!).

We also decided to stay at the Clarion Edge Hotel in the city center, which I recommend. The space was nice and included breakfast and free coffee throughout the day. For us, the extra cost of hotel vs. apartment was worth it for the Clarion breakfast offered each day. With the worst combination of food allergies between us–I don’t eat meat and Chris avoids dairy and eggs–breakfast can be a challenge. Hotel Scandinavian breakfast each day is where.its.at. For me, the combination of Vaffler (heart-shaped waffles), strawberry jam, and Brunost is the best way to start your day.

Queen of the lake!

Where are we?

One of the largest cities in Northern Norway, Tromsø (or Romsa, in Northern Sami) is the third largest urban area north of the Arctic Circle. A majority of the city is located on the island of Tromsøya and is surrounded by mountains, fjords, and beautiful water. This gives the illusion of isolation even though around 80,000 people live here.

This area has been inhabited since the end of the Ice Age. Norse and Sami people were some of the first groups to live here. I read about the Sami people in my first Political Science course–and this course was also the reason I majored in Political Science–at the College of Charleston (shout out to Political Ecology with Dr. Watson). My introduction to the struggle of Indigenous groups against forced assimilation and increasing development truly changed my course of study, my research, and inspired me to become a better advocate.

I’m going to take a little time to talk about the Sami people and their culture:

Sami people live in a region named Sapmí, which extends from the Russian Kola Pennisula to Norway; one of the oldest group of people to inhabit this area (roughly 3,500 years), today Sami people live across Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Like many Indigenous people, the Sami are closely connected to their environment: up until the 1600s, most lived as fishermen, gatherers, and hunters, and, probably most famously, reindeer herders across the area. Dominant cultures in Scandinavia have historically used discriminatory and abusive practices against the Sami in an effort to end their way of life and forcibly take land for the country’s economic benefit.

The Sami have never been a single community, resided in a exclusive region, or spoken the same language (there are nine different ones) which has made their forced assimilation by a number of governments easier to implement. Originally semi-nomadic, they moved in groups to different settlements as they hunted, fished, and herded reindeer.

Nordic kingdoms in the 18th century began forcefully seizing Sapmí land due to the area’s natural resources and strategic harbors. This, coupled with a Christian movement at the same time, resulted in a brutal infringement of Sami culture, land, and way of life. From 1850-forward, Sami people were forced to “Norwegianize” –learn the language and ways of Norwegian people while sacrificing their own.

This push to Norwegianize the Sami people stemmed from a nationalistic movement in the country. Many people (including the government) saw the Sami people as “other” and a barrier to a modern Norway. The forced assimilation of Sami people was needed, it was argued, because this group of people were “backward” and in need of “civilizing”. This “civilizing” even included forced sterilization in 1934 and as more economic development thrived in the north, a preference for Norwegian language caused further damage to Sami culture.

This preference was institutionalized from 1900-1940, when the effort to eradicate Sami way of life was at its height. Sami people were dislocated in the 1920s when the government required both a Norwegian name and knowledge of the language in order to buy or lease lands for agriculture. The 1913 Native Act Land gave the best land to Norwegian settlers, further displacing the Sami.

This forced assimilation greatly affected the culture of the Sami. As generations of Sami children were taken to missionary schools and laws implemented to deny Sami rights, their language, culture, and way of life is still struggling to recover. In 1990 they were officially recognized as an Indigenous People in Norway, a distinction which also included special protection and rights. The 1970’s saw a revitilization of Sami culture in Tromsø and there is currently a Sami kindergarten, language classes in schools, and university signs include Sami translations as well.

While now a protected indigenous group, the Sami still experience discrimination following years of cultural assimilation. Environmental threats are also an enormous concern as mining, oil exploration, and tourism threaten their way of life.

Climate change has particularly affected Sami reindeer herders near Tromsø. Temperature increases and a warmer climate has decreased snow cover and made winter grazing more difficult to move the reindeer effectively. While reindeer herding may not be the most profitable economically, it is important to remember the cultural and environmental values of the practice. Currently, 10% of Sami are connected to reindeer herding and this practice is legally reserved only for Sami people in Norway.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. Due to its location and landscape, this region is incredibly sensitive to many aspects of climate change. Rapid warming has severely affected plants and animals, which has drastic effects on the local ecosystem. A loss of sea ice due to increasing atmospheric and oceanic temperatures has altered the nutrients in the water, the thickness of ice, and ecosystem structures.

I highly, highly recommend visiting Tromsø. The city and area are beautiful and it is one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen in person. The city is also a great “home base” for a number of Arctic day trips and activities; we were able to visit a Sami reindeer camp and also see the Northern Lights, but there are a ton of options available!

Pictures here do not do ANY kind of justice to the breathtaking views on the island.

Sites:

Polaria:

Polaria is the world’s most northerly aquarium with a specific emphasis on children’s education. When I visited, there were a number of signs outside of the aquarium discussing climate change and the devastating effects a warming climate has on the Arctic.
View from the left side of the aquarium.
The design of the building is meant to mimic ice floes pressed against land by the Arctic seas.

Tromsø Cathedral:

Tromsø Cathedral is the only Norwegian cathedral made of wood and was constructed in 1861.
The cathedral is most likely the northernmost Protestant cathedral in the world.

Main Walking Street & Square:

I loved that we were able to visit so close to the holidays because the streets and square were decorated in lights.
We were lucky enough to visit during the last Farmers Market of the season that takes place each Saturday in the square. It was so cute and had a decent amount of cheese, reindeer meat, and homemade jam available to purchase. I loved watching a group of people making coffee over a campfire.

Tromsø City Library:

❤ ❤ Originally a theater (Fokus Cinema) that opened in 1973, the building was converted to use as a library in 2005.

Telegrafbukta (Southern Beach):

On Our first day in Tromsø we walked to the southern beach of Telegrafbukta, about a 35 minute trip from our hotel. This was an absolutely spectacular view and one of my favorite aspects of the whole trip.
It was insanely windy (and pretty chilly) but I was armed with my giant eastern European parka and extra layers of thrift store thermals, along with a belly full of Norwegian waffles (Vaffler), strawberry jam, and Brunost (brown cheese).
Talk about Queen in the North!
The views were breathtaking. Again, these photos (especially on my old phone) do not do justice to how beautiful the landscape is here.
At 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of the Artic Circle, it did feel like we were standing on the edge of the world.
Saying goodbye to the sun for the day.
❤ ❤

Tromsø Cemetery:

We walked through the Commonwealth War Graves on our way up to Prestvannet.
The most northern Commonwealth plot in the world, the Tromsø cemetery contains 37 burials, three of which are unidentified.
Kapellet, the Chapel of Tromsø Cemetery, was constructed in 1905.

Prestvannet (Báhpajávri in Northern Sami):

These legwarmers I picked up at the Hungarian thrift store were CLUTCH and kept me warm the entire trip. This was my first time standing on a frozen lake.
Built as a reservoir in 1867, it was in use until 1921 and is now a nature reserve for the island.
Prestvannet (or Báhpajávri in Northern Sami) was at the top of my list to visit in Tromsø. I knew the lake would be interesting to see–especially in winter–but I didn’t realize it was actually the highest point on the island! It was a little steep of a walk (especially with the icy spots on the road) but overall a fairly easy hike, particularly for European standards.
As the end of the walk leveled off, we passed through a few trees and nearly stumbled onto the lake. It was sooooo cool to walk out on to the lake and with only two other people around, felt like you had the whole space to yourself.

Tromsø Sami / Arctic Reindeer:

Queen of the reindeer! This experience is hands-down one of the most amazing and impactful nights of my life. We booked a night with Tromsø Arctic Reindeer, a camp founded by reindeer herder Johan Isak Turi Oskal to both protect reindeer from the ever-encroaching effects of climate change and to share the culture and way of life with Sami people as a way to preserve their heritage.
Here I am attempting to pet the reindeer as if they were large dogs when, just like my own dogs, they just wanted snacks and to run around. While we were there, we saw glimmers of the Northern Lights above the fjords, surrounded by hundreds of reindeer. It was amazing.
Home to 300 reindeer, we rode to the camp, just north of Tromsø, where we had dinner, fed the reindeer and wandered the camp for a few hours, and then listened to traditional Sami songs and storytelling. The camp was opened in 2016 and is so unique to see in person.
Our Sami speaker gathered the group in the large lavvu (tent) where he discussed traditional Sami life, their loss of culture, and the political and environmental concerns that are affecting their way of life today.
All I’m trying to do in my life is make campfire coffee.
They offered both vegan and reindeer soup options, along with Knekkebrød, a crispy Norwegian bread.

Northern Lights:

Whew, this journey to glimpse the Northern Lights was an adventure. We luckily had clear skies up until the night we went out to see the Northern Lights because of course, just my luck. Seeing this phenomena has long been at the top of my list, so I was frantically checking the weather as the snow clouds moved in and began to hover over Tromsø. We chose to book a trip rather than do the drive ourselves because we were nervous driving at night searching for the Northern Lights. Our tour was through Greenlander and I would recommend them if you’d rather not do the tour on your own. They are pricier than other companies, but our driver was absolutely relentless in searching for the Lights.
We left around midnight and packed into a van to try to find the best spot to see the Northern Lights. When we realized this was going to be one of those verrrryyyyy long nights driving around due to the weather, I made the most of the adventure by traipsing around each snowdrift we stopped to check the sky (thanks for the thermal boots Meryl!). We stopped for dinner and had homemade pumpkin soup and knekkebrød (Norwegian flatbread) over a campfire before packing back up to find a better spot.

Our driver was absolutely NOT giving up, which I have to appreciate, considering the cost of the tickets. I was smashed in between the diver and another passenger and was able to chat with him about life as a photographer and his favorite places in Norway.
Eventually, about five hours later, the van parked on the side of the road of what felt like the the middle of absolutely nowhere, near the village of Nordkjosbotn (Gárgán in Northern Sami) and has a population of 464 people. By middle of nowhere, I mean 100% pitch black and difficult to see more than 20 feet in front of you. I LOVED being able to look up and see the mountains looming in the dark.

We glimpsed the green lights flashing in the sky about ten minutes after parking. You definitely need a good camera and tripod to capture the Northern Lights; I tried to snap a picture with my iPhone and they just did NOT do any justice for what we were witnessing out in the snow. It was beautiful and well worth the effort–that ended up taking about eight hours total–to see the Lights.

Restaurants & Pubs:

O’Leary’s:

I know, I know, Irish pubs are not traditional Norwegian food. But, as I’ve documented at least ten times in the past four years, nachos are my favorite food and finding a solid version of this meal is extremely difficult in eastern Europe. Chris found O’Leary’s through a random Google menu search and saw that they boasted both hot wings and vegetarian nachos (complete with Swedish Oumph! my absolute favorite meat substitute). These famously made the #2 spot on my Best Nachos of 2019 List, behind only a Californian version of the dish.

Raketten Bar & Pølse:

Known as the “home of the best hot dogs in the world (according to guests) and the tiniest bar in the universe (according to aliens)”, Raketten is a small, one-person hot dog stand in the center of Tromsø. With a limited menu (veg or reindeer), homemade ciabatta buns, and toppings (fried or raw onions, beets), I absolutely fell in love with this spot for its quirkiness and honestly awesome hot dogs.
Veg hot dog + spicy mustard + ciabatta forever.

Art Café:

Art Cafe is absolutely amazing. A tiny restaurant (maybe six tables) and homemade dishes including pasta and reindeer with lingenberry, this was one of my favorite meals we had in the city.

Frø Cafe:

We stopped by Frø Cafe for lunch after our Norwegian friend Silje recommended the spot as a great place for vegan sandwiches. Tromsø’s first plant-based restaurant, they offered a few specialty options including this all-the-veggies-you-can-fit into a Norwegian Vafler (heart shaped waffles). Soooo good!

Bardus Bistro:

A traditional Norwegian restaurant with a view of the public library–what could be better?? Bardus Bistro is small and cozy with a limited menu that changes with the seasons.
I ordered the barley with beets and (three kinds!) mushrooms while Chris had the lamb from Kvaløyvågen. I can’t recommend them enough for an authentic dinner in the city.

NYT Tromsø:

NYT Tromsø is a cozy bar tucked away off the main road of the city. We stopped here after our hike to Lake Prestvannet to warm up. A cute space with house cocktails, it was definitely nice to hang out here for a while after spending the afternoon at a frozen lake.
Photo via Facebook
.

Agenturet Øl og Vinbar:

Recommended by our friend Ulrik as the best place for craft beer in Tromsø, Agenturet Øl og Vinbar is an authentic must-visit. We. Had. So. Much. Fun. Here. The bartender was an avid Atlanta Falcons fan (? for no particular reason except the need to defend Matt Ryan to everyone ha) and he was super knowledgeable on all of their beers on tap, even talking Chris into ordering a stout. Highly, highly recommend!
Photo Credit.

Smørtorget:

Ahhh, Smørtorget. I absolutely adored this vintage store and cafe. Our last day in the city, I woke up early and wandered around during the small amount of daylight we had before making my to the cafe for a coffee and to catch up on some reading. The smell of fresh cinnamon buns right out of the oven hit me as soon as I walked inside; this was definitely one of my favorite coffee snacks ever. Smørtorget is cozy with a ton of homemade treats and sandwiches, along with a vintage store attached to the front of the restaurant. I loved it here and spent a majority of my afternoon enjoying the space.

❤ ❤

Sophie Turner 👑👑👑

🤍 Ashlyn

Currently:
Reading: Girl, Woman, Other (Bernardine Evaristo)
Watching: Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
Listening: The New Abnormal (The Strokes)

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