Tromsø, undisputable Arctic capital

Posted by on 24/02/2015
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Panorámica de Tromso

Panoramic view of Tromso

Located on the island of Tromsoya and connected to the mainland by two bridges and the Tromsoysund tunnel, Tromso is the second largest city north of the Arctic circle –first is Murmansk, in Russia– and a main cultural centre for all northern Norway. Famous –among other things– for the old wooden houses and the modern Arctic Cathedral (quite a landmark), it hosts several international festivals in summer and makes for an excellent observatory of auroras during winter time.

Along the late middle ages, the native Sami settlers had to share this area with the Norse, who arrived as colonizers from lands more to the south; and though the rich heritage from the former is well documented, they got the mice’s share and today are almost extinct. On the year 1252 the newcomers erected on Tromsoya the northernmost church at the time, called Sancta Maria de Trums juxta paganos, i.e. “near the heathens”, namely the Laplanders; but Tromso was not just a Norwegian outpost in an area already populated by those; it was also a border to Russia: the Novgorod state had the “right” to tax the natives east of here, whereas the Norwegians taxed them to the west. During the next five hundred years Norway’s limits would be pushed eastwards, though, making Tromsø lose its character as a frontier town.

By late 18th century, when Bergen lost its centuries-old monopoly on cod trade, Tromso quickly rose in importance. Decades later it would become the major centre for Artic hunting and grew increasingly important in other maritime economic activities, with the first shipyard being established in 1848. By the end of 19th century it had become the main trade centre, from which many Arctic expeditions originated; and explorers like Roald Amundsen, whom we already met in the Vadso chapter for being the first man overflying the north pole, made use of the know-how in Tromso on the conditions in the Arctic. Also from that time are some of the oldest wooden houses in town.

Una de las viejas casas de madera por las que Tromso es famosa

One of the old wooden houses Tromso is famous for

A clue about how turistic Tromso can get is my encounters with Spaniards: first the seven bikers from Barcelona I met while waiting for the ferry; then, right when going into Tromso, I’m approached by three Galicians who’ve noticed Rosaura’s plate. Funny that it’s been weeks of not meeting a single person from Spain and now, in just one day, I stumble upon total ten. By the way, one of the Galicians is quite a chatterbox and a fan of Scandinavian culture. For ten minutes he tells me about some miscellanea, the places he’s been to, the pictures he’s taken (he shows me a hundred of them); and when it’s finally my turn for adventure telling, he turns his back on me with a hasty goodbye. What a weird people you meet out there, Jesus!

They live good, these Norwegians; damn good. Besides owning big and neat houses, charming, perfectly equipped and conditioned, there are countless RVs of some kind of other, which is the main way of holidaying in this country where hotels are too expensive even for them (and the less customers, the higher the fares, to the point that they become unaffordable; average price for a mid-low standard is 80-120 €, single). On the other hand, Norway’s infrastructure for motorhomes is unbeatable, there being campsites all over. Problem is, when you want to stay in a city, then you’re in trouble because campgrounds are usually located on the outskirts. (By the way, Norway is one of those traveler-friendly countries, like France, where Government doesn’t require acommodation places to report on the guests, as is the case in police-states like Spain or Italy: here you’re just given your room’s key without even being asked your name, then pay on checkout and goodbye.)

Fortunately Tromso abounds in acommodation and, despite the two international events taking place this weekend, it’s easy for me to find an affordable room in the middle of the historical centre: a small hotel called AMI, in front of Konge park, whose staff is friendly and welcoming as usual.

Una humilde casita particular en Tromso

A humble private house in Tromso

Tromso evokes me of Reykjavik, I don’t know why, since they’re not at all alike. Yet have something in common I’m not sure to be able to convey: I believe it’s about some relaxed and hospitable feeling, resistant to hurries and worries, akin with a spiritual well-being. Both are lively while not stressful; offering a variety of activities, these are not overwhelming; they’re both no small cities, yet easily walkable; despite being far away from everywhere, they’re not in the middle of nowhere; plus they’re lovely and feel safe. Maybe Tromso’s only drawback –from my very special point of view– is the tourism. I might well nominate it for my dream city, were it not that Norway’s so expensive I can’t afford it. Which Spaniard can pay a rent here, or go grab some beers at ten euros apiece? Right at Pérez’s, for instance, I’ve been charged sixteen for a glass of wine and a can of peanuts.

But I still didn’t mention Pérez, did I? Being quite a landmark in town, this chapter about Tromso would be incomplete without it.

Though the place wold be hard to oversee –located as it is on Skippergata, the first street you hit when arriving from the bridge– there’s nothing flashy about it from the outside, and it wouldn’t call anyone’s attention but a Spanish’s, and particularly a Spaniard’s: an Osborne-shaped bull, a Virgin Mary and some other Andalusian motifs drawn on the front (besides the name, of course) couldn’t but awake my curiosity; and, though I soon realized that all resemblance with bars in Spain ended right there, on its very doorstep, I was not disappointed. True, the tapas advertised on the façade were not such (unless we think burgers, hot-dogs or french fries with ketchup are tapas), yet one has to acknowledge Pérez the credit of not serving other beers but Spanish: Mahou and San Miguel.

However it be, the element which made for the local’s true character, its alma mater, was the barman. Not a fellow countryman of mine, oh, no!–even the owner isn’t–but a viking-looking Norwegian: baldie, reddish hair, long beard, short heighted, wide bodied, nice, talkative and very serviceable. The moment I told him my nationality and showed interested in the place, we stroke up a conversation, then kept talking for quite a while (except for the moments his job prevented him from). As for the bar’s name and ambience, it was opened up in the seventies by a man from Andalusia called Nino Pérez. At the time, they did serve tapas. But when it was sold to a Norwegian, the menu was reduced to a few Mexican typics (too common a habit in the non-Spanish world: mixing and mistaking Spain with Mexico) and half a dozen other international bites. Still, the local preserved some if its original character and kept a numerous clientele, being now quite a classic in Tromso.

Curioso

Funny “monument” right by Pérez bar. Those chess pieces wouldn’t last long in a Spanish town

One of the topics we addressed, almost a must-talk when visiting Norway, was about how pricey this country is for all foreigners; but it sufficed to mention it for him to sympathize with me and, straight away, treat me to a beer and a snack; this is on the house, he said; more yet: hadn’t I refused a second one and assured him I could pay for myself, he would’ve keep inviting me. Just another sample of how greedless these people are. Besides, he was also helpful with finding acommodation and recommending a fair tyre shop for my bike, to which end he placed a few phonecalls.

And he wasn’t the only friendly welcoming fellow around: there were a couple of anonymous drinkers this side of the bar who, upon overhearing us, also fancied some chat with me. One of them was a sarcastic mathematician, nice though a bit of a bore, who also treated me to a glass of wine after first declaring he was not gay, a statement I appreciated a lot. The other one, who took over, turned out to be more tedious, since he insisted–certainly with all his goodwill–in telling me about every event that would take place in the city for the next two or three months. Despite having told him I’d only stay for the weekend, he would not listen and kept searching activities online with his Iphone, then placing the device on my hands to make sure I was reading. There was no way making him understand that, by the time this or that concert or festival took place, I’d be very very far from Tromso.

I’m used to be addressed by loners, boozers and such kind of fellows –some of them quite intereseing, others bizarre– from the subspecies often called losers by the money-oriented USAn society, but the truth is, these two guys and the barman helped entertaining me at Pérez, and I visited the bar again the next day. Pity, though, chicks don’t approach me so often. Perhaps a man like me has ‘tragedy’ written onto his face.

But there’s more to humans than just Pérez, and I amused myself with a few other things while ‘trapped’ in this city (until on Monday morning I could take Rosaura to the tyre shop). To begin with, there being no vacancies in AMI for Saturday, I had to move to a nearby hostel called ABC, just a bit down the scale but equally fine. Also I took a very long stroll across the bridge and over to Hungeren neighbourhood on the mainland, above which rises a very tall and steep hill whose top you can reach by cable car and features a stunning panoramic view of the city, the island, the strait, the peninsula and such a vast horizon you can even notice the roundness of the globe. However, because I climbed on foot, I was out of breath before reaching half the slope.

El Trollfjord amarrado en Tromso

El Trollfjord amarrado en Tromso

The Trollfjord motorship putting in here, for a while I considered forgetting about the tyre replacement, jumping on board and taking a short cruise to any of the following ports of call; but two good reasons prevented me from: the first one, Rosaura needed a new front tyre as soon as possible and it was risky to keep riding without knowing where next –and when– I’d find another suitable town to get the job done at; the second was about the departure schedule for the vessel: at one a.m., which wouldn’t befit my insomnia at all. So I disregarded the idea.

Also, I watched the Arctic race’s cyclers on their way across the city centre; and I was surprised to learn it was the Army who provided for security and medical attention to the event, rather than the police and public health care. Not a bad way –I thought– of ‘amortizing’ an institution which –most of all in these rich and peaceful countries– is hardly likely to be engaged in real, armed conflicts.

Finally, monday morning came and I went to Tromso Motorcenter AS, in Tromsdalen, right by Hells Angels Tromso, the local ‘branch’ of that well known North American club of braggarts. My bike got the original Continental fore tyre substituted with the popular Metzeler Z6, for a total damage of 180 €: twice as much as in Spain. Then I took my F800GT to the BMW dealer and had those guys check a strange noise on the rear that’s making my ride miserable since two months; but though they saw me quite politely, nothing was solved: ‘the bearing and belt are correct and we can’t hear anything wrong’, same as I got six thousand kilometres back at a German dealer’s. I can foretell: I bet whatever it is, it’ll break down right after the bike’s guarantee expires.

Nothing else was left for me to do in Tromso. I put my helmet on, pulled my gloves down, climb on the seat and –since Tromsoyund tunnel was closer– Rosaura and me took straight along route E6, leaving behind this lovely and memorable Arctic city.

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