Tromsø: far beyond the Northern Lights

With more people, more tourists, more money and more big ideas, the capital of the Arctic is booming. We head there to meet 3D printers, experimental brewers and a man who wants to take over the world. And you thought it was just about the Northern Lights

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, February 2015. Photography by Tim White)

English actor Joanna Lumley has a lot to answer for. In 2009, she came to Tromsø to make a BBC documentary about the Aurora Borealis and, upon seeing the phenomenon, burst into a tearful monologue. “I have been waiting all my life to see the Northern Lights… This is the most astonishing thing I have ever, ever seen… It feels as though it knew we wanted to see it so badly… It’s terribly, terribly moving… Thank you, thank you! I can die happy now!”

Lumley’s reaction may have ranked among her hammiest ever performances, but it was hugely influential. Since 2009, the number of visitors coming to Tromsø to see the Aurora Borealis has quadrupled – and just about everyone we meet on the flight there is talking about little else.

But here’s the thing: the Northern Lights are beautiful, and few places are better for seeing them – but Tromsø and its surrounding area are better. It would be worth coming here just to go ski-touring on the sensationally beautiful Lyngen Alps; to watch humpback whales and orcas frolicking in the steel-blue sea off the coast of Kvaløya (Whale Island), half an hour from Tromsø’s harbour; or to take a boat trip on the old Vulkana whaling boat, with its sauna and on-deck Jacuzzi.

Yet this place is more than bucket-list activities; more even than its overabundance of natural beauty. Tromsø is interesting because it’s a real, thriving city. Nineteenth-century visitors, blown away by the womens’ fashion and the sophisticated food, dubbed it the “Paris of the North”, and the Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote to his wife in the early 20th century that the city is “all Champagne and spectacle”.

While Champagne and spectacle might be pushing it for most visitors, it’s certainly a cooler, livelier city than you might have expected. There are elegantly roughshod bars (try Blårock for great burgers and rock ’n’ roll), more restaurants per head than any other Norwegian city, and more than 50 cultural festivals, from an international film festival to a Sami festival, a handful of music festivals and even a Latin American Festival. It’s got its own philharmonic orchestra, a world-renowned jazz club and an electronic music scene that has produced big names (if you know this stuff) like Röyksopp and Bel Canto.

It’s a place where you can feel a certain amount of history, too. At 11am in the Mack brewery’s Ølhallen (Beer Hall), we meet 89-year-old Ivar Rørnes, who first came to this pub in 1941. The former sailor comes with the other old boys, like good pal Kåre Noreng, most mornings (until very recently, the pub was only open until 6pm), and always orders the same pint – the Ølhallen’s trademark mix of 70 per cent dark, malty Mack Bayer and 30 per cent Pils.

Having opened in 1928, the Ølhallen didn’t have a women’s toilet until 1973, after reluctantly allowing a few bold women from the university to drink here. Before that, it was just fishermen, sailors and trappers, like Henri Rudi, the “Polar Bear King”, who killed more than 700 bears.

Rørnes was “won over” by the idea of letting ladies drink here, but won’t countenance drinking in the “youth department”, the new part of the bar that was built in 2013. “They’ve asked me to have a portrait on the wall over there, but I don’t drink in that part so it makes no sense,” he says.

Tromsø has certainly changed since the days when it didn’t let women into its main pubs (one of the nicest spots in town is Smørtorget, a café, retro furniture store and art studio space run entirely by women).

For starters, it’s bigger, and growing. The founding of the university in 1968 helped see its population boom, from 12,283 in 1960 to around 70,000 today, with 120,000 predicted by 2044. The university has grown to house 9,500 students (not counted in population figures), and not only does pioneering research into subjects from auroras to space science and fisheries, but less likely subjects such as heart disease, linguistics and telemedicine. Thanks in part to professor Asgeir Brekke (see right), Tromsø is home to one of Northern Scandinavia’s four EISCAT radar facilities, as well as the Kongsberg satellite company, the world leader in maritime monitoring and surveillance.

Then there’s business, which is going as well as you’d expect from a place that has started calling itself the capital of the Arctic. Hurtigruten, Norway’s most iconic ferry company, is based here, as is the Norwegian Seafood Council.

Mack, meanwhile, may be a venerable family-owned institution dating back to 1877, but it has a distinctively modern flavour. We visit the state-of-the-art factory at Nordkjosbotn, 70km south of Tromsø, which was opened in 2011 – 16,000m2 of steel and technology, which churns out not only Mack’s 16 or so core beers but a range of Mack water and soft drinks, as well as Coca-Cola, whose secret sweet syrup can be sniffed in a room off the main factory.

Back in town, we meet Mack’s head brewer Rune Andreassen at the microbrewery on the original site, where you can still take brewery tours. He’s about as far as you could get from a corporate stooge, quietly nodding along to Jimi Hendrix as he works on strikingly experimental beers, from a 9.3 per cent Belgian beer to a new a new sour beer using spontaneous fermentation. “The only rule is that there are no rules,” he smiles, which is possibly not something you’d hear from Carlsberg’s head brewer. “Just because we have mainstream beers, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be ahead of the curve when it comes to craft beers.”

Like many people here, Andreassen doesn’t seem to be resting on any laurels. The man who set up most of our trip is Hans-Olav Eriksen, who runs impressive travel company Lyngsford Adventure and is the spider in the web when it comes to a lot of the new things happening in the city. He’s the chairman of the Smørtorget café complex, and is working on building a whisky distillery and developing a resort at Malangen, as well as being a board member of the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance. Oh, and he’s also a full-time GP with four kids. How does he manage it all? “No sleep… and self-medication,” he says, only possibly joking, “but my wife is crucial:hard-working with a lot of patience.”

The tall, bald-headed Eriksen has the air of a man who fancies a tilt at world domination, but only after he’s given Tromsø its proper place on the map. His main concern is Lyngsfjord Adventure, whose base camp is Camp Tamok, a series of purpose-built cabins and Sami lavvus in the heart of the wilderness south of Tromsø. From there you can head into the forests on snowmobiles, huskies or reindeers, the latter driven by Roar Nyheim, who’ll tell you what it’s really like to be a nomadic reindeer herder in the 21st century.

“You know, what’s different about this place is that it has a very real existence outside of tourism,” says Eriksen. “When you come on a tour with us, you get a snowmobile guide who’s been driving these tracks his whole life; when you go on a reindeer, it’s with a real Sami reindeer herder. We don’t want to turn it into into some sort of a tourist Disneyland; we want visitors to experience it in an authentic way.”

Eriksen started Lyngsfjord Adventure after an argument in a restaurant in Italy with two fellow Norwegians. “They’re from the south, and they were arguing that Tromsø was just a provincial backwater. I got so angry that the restaurant staff threw me out… Can you imagine? A mild-mannered Norwegian getting thrown out of an Italian restaurant?”

One thing the area doesn’t feel like is a backwater. Even up in the Lyngen Alps, a few hours north of Tromsø, there are signs of entrepreneurship everywhere. In Furuflaten, right by  the fjord, is one of Europe’s less likely business clusters, which is home to an incubation hub and until recently the fancily titled FabLab, created by American techies from MIT.

According to Frode Hanssen, whose Ecotech company produces the world’s bestselling Cinderella combustible toilets in Furuflaten, part of the entrepreneurial character of the area dates back to World War II, when the Nazis built fortifications across the mountains here, known as the Lyngen Line. “The Germans scorched the area, so it had to be rebuilt completely,” says Hanssen. “That fostered a spirit of working together and getting things done, which has stood us in good stead.”

Just along the road from Ecotech’s production facility is Uformia, a mind-bending 3D technology company run by CTO Turlif Vilbrandt and CEO Cherie Stamm, two Americans who were drawn to the area for the ice- and rock-climbing, and the super-fast broadband speeds. Uformia is based on something called digital materialisation – while other systems for 3D printing deal with outer surfaces, Vilbrandt says that Uformia’s operation system could help model a marble and even a human heart from the inside out. “It’s a new kind of modelling that will allow us to echo nature – and it could change the world.”

One of Uformia’s main investors is Tor Petter Christensen, a local entrepreneur who is also in the process of founding Aurora Spirit with Viktor Sørensen and Hans-Olav Eriksen. He drives us up to the site by the fjord where they’re designing a new distillery, where gin, aquavit, vodka and whisky will be made on an old Nato base that was originally built by Germans during World War II. Overlooked by the spectacular Lyngen Alps, it’s a maze of underground tunnels, bunkers and offices with old shipping charts, all with an eerie Cold War vibe.

“Once we have the distillery built, we want to create tourist activities and adventures around it,” says Christensen, “whether it’s dog-sledding or wine- and whisky-tasting. And it will all involve legends about the Northern Lights.”

It’s a slightly bonkers plan, a bit like the idea recently mooted for an underwater restaurant by the harbour in Tromsø. Then again, speaking to Christensen and Hans-Olav Eriksen, you wouldn’t bet against Aurora Spirit being a success.

Eriksen’s other ambitious plan, along with Eirik Tannvik from the Malangen resort, is a Northern Lights observatory with a mountaintop cabin at Malangen fjord, reachable by snowmobile. Over dinner at the Malangen spa resort south of Tromsø one night, Eriksen realises that he wants us to see it. We have interviews lined up all morning, and don’t have time for a snowmobile ride up, so he launches into a flurry of phone calls. Soon everything’s sorted, and we spend that night looking at the Northern Lights from a hot tub, Mack beer in hand.

The next morning, after an interview with Anne Brit Andreassen, the woman behind Tromsø’s most-famous restaurant, we’re whisked off to the airport and marched straight on to a tiny helicopter, which feels like drifting into the sky in a tiny bubble (you can, and should, book a helicopter ride through Lyngsfjord Adventure).

After flying over the town and the steel-blue fjord, we hover over the mountains just as the sun gets close to peeping over the horizon (it never quite makes it). Suddenly the sky turns into a Rothko-esque blue and pink, with the snowy peaks below us looking like marshmallow mountains.

When we land, Eriksen and Tannvik are already there, having ridden up on snowmobiles. Eriksen is like an excited kid, showing us the cabin, which is perched on a mountain’s edge in the middle of beautiful, freezing nothing. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?” says Eriksen, gesturing at the view. And under a pinkish Arctic sky, it truly is an awesome sight. You only wonder what Joanna Lumley would have made of it all.

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