NORWAY - "And now my spirit twists out of the lock of my breast, my mind upon the waterways," reads The Seafarer, an Anglo-Saxon poem recorded in the 10th century.
"It comes back to me eager and unsated; the solitary flier screams, urges onto the whale-road the unresisting heart across the waves of the sea."
I think upon The Seafarer as I slide across the deck of the MS Polarlys, bracing myself against the bitter cold.
We are north of the Arctic Circle, following the Norwegian coast, cutting through black waves and blacker night.
Above us weaves the pale glow of the Northern Lights, which the Vikings once believed was the light reflected off the armour of the Valkyries, the women warriors of Norse mythology who led those slain in battle to the halls of the god, Allfather Odin.
The Seafarer and I are, of course, separated by centuries and also comfort. It may be minus 3 deg C and windy enough to knock me flat, but when the Aurora Borealis fades, I will duck back into the warmth of my cabin for a hot shower - none of the "feet fettered by cold" mentioned in the poem.
Still, the wind singing over the dark, glassy waves would awaken the wild heart of any traveller, then and now.
GATEWAY TO THE NORTH
The MS Polarlys belongs to cruise company Hurtigruten, which has been sailing Norway's western coastline for more than 125 years.
Across six days, it sails from Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, to Kirkenes, a small town on the border with Russia, crossing the Arctic Circle along the way.
The flight into Bergen is like diving into milk, so thick is the fog. This is our second pass; the first time, we were so buffeted by cross-winds that it was like being rattled in a toy plane by an excitable child.
If we fail again, says the pilot, we must divert to Oslo.
But then through the milk come the faint colours of Bergen - the slate blue, mustard and russet of its distinctive houses. Then we are juddering onto the runway and the passengers break into applause.
The ship only departs the next night, so I spend the morning exploring Bergen, known as the "city of seven mountains".
I ascend one such mountain, Mt Floyen, on the Floibanen funicular. At 320m above sea level, the world seems dusted with powdered sugar. Below, the matchbox city cleaves to the glittering blue of the fjord.
Down below, the old wharf of Bryggen offers a pleasant wander through harbour front tenements and narrow red alleys, where the stockfish merchants of yore plied their trade. We embark in the afternoon and leave Bergen by nightfall.
Our first major stop is the coastal town of Alesund, nearly all of which burned down in 1904 when a fire broke out in a fish factory and reduced the wooden homes of 10,000 people to rubble overnight.
Alesund was rebuilt in the art nouveau style popular at the turn of the century, which is how a sleepy Norwegian fishing town came to be adorned with the flourishes of strawberries, grape vines and faces carved into buildings that were then all the rage in Paris and Munich. A guided architectural tour winds up in the Jugendstilsenteret museum, which pays homage to its unique place in Norwegian design.
WORKING UP A SWEAT OUTDOORS
Norwegians embrace a philosophy that playwright Henrik Ibsen called "friluftsliv", which blends an active lifestyle with the love of the great outdoors. The Hurtigruten cruise offers numerous such shore excursions, from hiking to snowshoeing to ice fishing.
I try my hand at kayaking on the River Nidelva in Trondheim. It is a truly glorious day for it, the water so clear that one can see the river bed - which I grow quickly acquainted with - since I am terrible at kayaking and prone to grounding myself in the shallows. Still, with the patience of the instructors, I make it down the river without capsizing.
Our route begins in the quiet suburbs upriver, where ducks nest on the little islands in the water. I pass a great black cormorant perched on a rock barely a metre to my left. It tracks my progress with a beady eye and then takes unhurriedly to wing.
Kayaking instructor Chris Hoshauer, an American who moved to Trondheim a year and a half ago, tells me that what he loves most about it is the light. The sun never gets very high in the sky and in summer dips close to the horizon without ever truly setting.
"You know that time of the day that photographers call 'the magic hour' because everything you want to take is lit perfectly?" he says. "That's Trondheim, all the time."
I see what he means when we enter the part of Trondheim most familiar from tourist brochures. From the river, it is stunning to regard. We row beneath Gamle Bybro, the 17th-century bridge with red portals, and come round to Nidaros Cathedral, the world's northernmost mediaeval cathedral, where the kings of Norway were traditionally crowned.
Down the shining river we go, passing behind the painted timber houses of picturesque Bakklandet, Trondheim's old quarter. In their windows, one glimpses snatches of life in the city: a child cuddling a big floppy-eared dog; an old man in an aquamarine sweater, raising the blinds and then his hand as he watches us sail by.
ENTERING THE ARCTIC
At 7.14am on the fourth day, we cross the Arctic Circle, the invisible latitude that marks the southernmost point at which the midnight sun shines 24 hours a day in the summer solstice.
Later, there is an Arctic baptism ceremony. A crew member costumed as Old King Neptune pours ice cubes down the backs of screaming passengers while Abba blasts from the speakers.
Such briny bacchanals aside, life aboard the Polarlys is idyllic. The ship, which can carry about 600 passengers, is no luxury cruise but a part of everyday Norwegian life, ferrying locals and goods up and down the coast.
Hurtigruten prides itself on its "coastal kitchen" concept, basing its meals off the fresh produce picked up in the ports along its route - from salmon to reindeer meat to Tykkmelk, a soured milk pudding that has its roots in the Viking age.
The kitchen pulls out the stops for our final dinner with a seafood buffet: shrimp from Lyngenfjord, pink and flush with dark roe beneath their bellies, plump crab claws and a swathe of mussels. There are five kinds of desserts, including blackcurrant mousse, panna cotta and cloudberry creme.
When I am not on shore or at meals, I order coffee and ice cream - the adventurous flavours of stockfish and beer - from the ship's cafe and spend hours just watching fjords and glaciers go by through the windows.
Sometimes, there are islands close to the ship, so snowed upon that they resemble meringues, with little figures in coloured coats, waving at us from the jetties.
Elsewhere, we pass between great creamy peaks lost in the morning mist, dark pines dusting their snowy crags like pencil rubbings on paper. These give way to pure expanses of white as we sail farther north and the winds get so strong that trees cannot survive.
In Tromso, I get the chance to travel through the breathtaking landscape by dog sled. The moment we alight from the bus at the centre, the air is split by the baying of 300 Alaskan huskies. The dogs are mad for running, quivering with energy in their stays until they are given the go-ahead.
Each sled carries two people plus a musher - the driver - and is pulled by a team of 10 dogs. For all their cacophony while stationary, the huskies are silent when they run. I hear nothing but the creak of the sled and the clink of their harnesses, occasionally a cry from the musher such as "Yip!" or "No!" as one excitable dog leaps the lead line to nip impishly at its partner.
The world they pull me through is silent too - unbroken stretches of snow, the mountains on my right, the lake on my left. An icy wind whips me in the face, the particles of snow in it so fine they appear as glitter. It is so cold, I feel like my nose might fall off my face. I never want it to end.
After the ride, we trudge into a hut for hot coffee, tea and chocolate cake. I go out to greet the huskies in their kennels, each of which bears the name and birth date of the dog it houses, except in those cases where the inhabitant has eaten the placard.
The dogs are friendly to strangers, some eager to butt up against me and gnaw at my scarf ends, others more aloof, graciously tolerant of overtures. But all perk up when they see the sleds pulled by their compatriots coming home, and they sit up and howl in greeting.
THE END OF THE WORLD
At Honningsvag, we disembark for an expedition to the North Cape, the northernmost point of the European continent accessible by car, about 2,000km away from the North Pole.
Honningsvag makes its living off stockfish and the summer tourist crowd. Besides the cross-country skiing, there is little to do.
"This is our beach," quips the guide as we drive past a thin, ice-crusted sliver of sand. "In the summer, it is just bustling with people! The water is all of 10 deg C!"
At the North Cape, the world falls dramatically away into the churning Barents Sea. It is an unusually calm day for the Cape, we are told. Even so, the wind is stinging and kicks up drifts of snow, so that the entire landscape seems to be smoking and the smoke tumbling into the sea.
Here, the polar nights are most extreme, except for a period called "the blue hour" when some sun filters over the horizon. Otherwise, the perpetual darkness of the winter months drives many locals south.
The opposite of the polar nights is the midnight sun, which occurs during the months of May to July, when the sun never seems to set.
This is a land constantly tilting between poles of wonder. As Mary Shelley wrote in Frankenstein (1818): "What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?"
The writer was hosted by Scenic Travel (call 6226-3611 or go to scenictravel.com.sg)
A seven-day, six-night journey from Bergen to Kirkenes costs upwards of €800 (S$1,200) a person (basic package, twin-sharing cabin, full board including meals). Shore excursions cost extra.
From Singapore, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies to Bergen. There is a stopover in Amsterdam Schipol in the Netherlands.
From Kirkenes, one can take KLM to the Norwegian capital of Oslo, then back to Amsterdam to transfer for Singapore.
- The ship's expedition team holds daily lectures on a fascinating array of topics, such as the history of hunting in the Arctic, the indigenous Sami people and Svalbard, a frozen archipelago north of Norway where polar bears roam.
- Wi-Fi is available on board the ship, but the signal will weaken the farther you are from shore and you cannot stream or upload videos. Bring a book or appreciate the scenery.
- Bergen is a rainy city and you are likely to have to move your luggage through snow at some point, so bring a sturdy waterproof suitcase.
- The Arctic sun can be very bright, especially when reflected off snow. Pack sunglasses.
•The Kode Art Museums in Bergen
These four buildings contain a wealth of art and artefacts, but travellers pressed for time should head straight for the exhibitions of Edvard Munch in Kode 3 and Nikolai Astrup in Kode 4. The Munch collection is one of the largest in the world and includes a black-and-white sketch of his most famous work, The Scream, as well as other landmark paintings such as the ghoul-like sunken faces of Evening On Karl Johan. In the works of Astrup, trees transform into trolls and mountains take on the features of dead friends; the hills are alive with the bonfires of pagan rituals, infused with the half-light of the midnight sun. Museum entry is 130 krone (S$20).
•Lofotr Viking Museum in Borg, Lofoten
This 83m-long structure is a reconstruction of the largest Viking-era longhouse ever found. Attend a feast where actors play the Viking lord and lady of the house and their thralls, who entertain you with song and storytelling at their hearth while the mead flows freely.
• Snowhotel Kirkenes
Built from scratch every December, the 20-room hotel is made entirely of packed snow and carved ice. A night is 3,100 krone (S$490) and guests are advised to strip down and climb into military-issue sleeping bags. If the idea of sleeping on a block of ice at minus 4 degrees is too daunting, settle for just a tour of the rooms.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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