From November to January, in the Norwegian island city of Tromsø, the sun barely rises.Located within the Arctic Circle, the polar night lasts for three whole months, ranging from pitch black to moments of deep cobalt blue, known as the ‘polar twilight’. From time to time, the sky is lit up with the magical displays of the Northern Lights.
As someone who struggles with the cold, short days of a British winter, and spends the season swathed in jumpers and multiple pairs of socks, I didn’t envy my sister, Lisa – a doctor of geography – when she relocated to Tromsø to work for the Norwegian Polar Institute, studying climate patterns in sea ice. “How are you going to cope with the winter?” was one of my first questions, as I imagined the gloominess of living in a place where the sun actually never shines.
Yet, according the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, Norway is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. So what is the secret to Norway’s deep sense of wellbeing?
Norwegians have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes!” So is it, perhaps, this pleasantly stoic attitude to life, that helps our Scandinavian neighbours stay cheerful, even on the darkest of days? Lisa quickly discovered that combined with this hardy attitude is a love of the great outdoors. Hibernating was not an option. She was going to have to be active to fit in with her outdoorsy Norwegian colleagues.
It’s March when I visit (I’m not quite brave enough to tackle the darkest winter months). In the UK, March usually signals spring. But in Tromsø the landscape is still snowy, the temperature brisk. Surprisingly it’s not nearly as cold as I was expecting – especially when you’re layered up with thermals, winter coats and snowboots.
It’s a beautiful city, surrounded by islands and fjords. By this time of year, there are already nine hours of daylight, as the days lengthen rapidly towards June and July, when the sun never sets.
With the island deep in snow for many months of the year, being active in Tromsø means skiing. There are cross-country tracks all over the island and the locals like to do what’s called a ‘Top Tour’ – they climb up the mountains with their skis on (no mean feat) and then ski down. They don’t even let the dark bother them. Many locals go skiing after work, even in the depths of the polar winter; they simply pop on a head torch and off they go.
Lisa has fully immersed herself in the active Norwegian lifestyle: “I’d have a very lonely social life if I didn’t,” she explains. She has taken up skiing, recently investing in her first sets of skis – both downhill and cross-country. Having never skied before, I was keen to give it a go. It turns out, I’m not a natural. A Norwegian man watches me for a while as I struggle to clip my ski boots onto my skis, before coming over to offer advice. “No, no, no,” he says, shaking his head. “You’ll be here all day if you do it like that. You need to stamp down hard, like you’re stamping on the face of your enemy!”
I spluttered with laughter at this surprisingly Viking-sounding advice, but he’s right. Stamping works, though I try not to picture anybody’s face as I’m doing it. Another Norwegian calls out kindly as I fall over to avoid ploughing into a fence: “To stop you need to turn like a dancer!”
While I spend much of my time picking myself out of the snow, I can understand why Norwegians love the sport so much. It’s a great way to make the most of the natural environment, and, in the beauty of my surroundings, I find myself warming to this land of ice and snow. In Tromsø, there are many ways to embrace the outdoors in the colder months. Some intrepid families go camping: “I’ve been out skiing and seen families camping with small children on a frozen lake,” Lisa assures me.
Lisa took part in the Polar Night Marathon, which takes place in the daytime in January – although you wouldn’t know it. “It’s pitch black and freezing cold, but people come from all over the world to participate.” Some runners wear running shoes with spikes but Lisa chose to run without them. “As long as you’re sure on your feet and looking where you’re going you can run with normal trainers,” she says.
Unlike preparing for most marathons, runners have to bundle up against the weather: “On my body I was wearing thermal layers, two pairs of trousers and a windproof jacket because it was very windy on the day – and a hat and gloves. It was hard-going and I was very tired by the time I got to the end!”
The city is home to an international film festival, too, which also takes place in January. Outdoor screens pop up around the city, and people watch the films while sipping a hot chocolate. “It’s cold, but when you’re wrapped up warm with a hot drink you don’t mind,” Lisa says. “It’s lovely to just sit and enjoy a film with your friends.”
The Norwegian love of the outdoors, is matched by their love of all things cosy. In fact, some Norwegians even claim the cosy concept of hygge as their own. Inger Kenobi is a Norwegian author (www.ingerkenobi.com) who now lives in England, but was born and raised in Stavanger, Norway’s fourth largest city. “I think they [the Danish] stole hygge from us! It’s even the same word in Norwegian. You go inside and you make everything cosy. In the winter you gather with your family and spend more time on making your house just-so – because of the weather. You light the candles and you have your cosy blanket your reading nook and the light that is just perfect. It’s almost like a hibernation state.”
As a long-time lover of hygge and all things Scandi, I couldn’t help being drawn to Tromsø’s snug cafes. It’s incredible how tired and hungry you get when you’re out in the fresh, cold air. After a trip to the Polar Museum to learn about some truly intrepid Norwegian explorers, we nip into Smørtorget – a former butter market close to the waterfront. It’s half café, half quirky vintage shop with an old piano, fairy lights, white painted tables and wide windows at the front to watch the world go by. Sitting and sipping a hot chocolate and tucking into a skoleboller (a coconut-topped bun filled with custard – yum) it’s easy to see why Norwegians love winter so much.
Gathering for food is an important part of Norwegian life and many Norwegians enjoy ice fishing in this part of the country. Although Norway’s cuisine has become more international, fresh fish and seafood still top the menu. Fiskeboller (fish balls), fiskepudding (fish pudding) and romg (a kind of fried caviar) are staple dishes. Eating out can be expensive, but getting hold of beautiful, fresh fish is easy. I’m also pleased to discover that, like the Danes, Norwegians have a sweet tooth and that means lots of cake and pastries. In a wooden cabin café at the top of Fløya Mountain (a spectacular cable car ride), Lisa introduces me to waffles topped with cream, brunost (a brown cheese) and jam – a popular dessert. The ‘cheese’ tastes like caramel and it’s delicious.
Before I leave Norway, I’m keen to meet the Sami people. From Tromsø, there are trips offering a sledge ride pulled by reindeer, and the chance to learn about the Sami from a local guide. The Sami are traditional reindeer herders who live across the north of Norway, Sweden and parts of Russia; many of them still follow the old ways. They faced persecution after World War II and many people hid their Sami heritage, but thanks to the reindeer herders their ancient traditions and language were preserved and are now enjoying something of a revival.
Our Sami guide tells us that every Sami has their own song or joik (pronounced ‘yoik’) which has no words, but describes the person’s character. He says he often sings his friends’ joiks when driving and finds that he is smiling as they bring back happy memories; an idea that I love. Leaving snowy Tromsø, I long to see how summer transforms its forests and fjords. “The midnight sun means even more time outdoors,” Lisa says. “It’s a time for kayaking, hiking or going to a cabin with your family or friends.”
Despite their long, warm days of summer, many Norwegians say that winter is still their favourite time of year, and I have to admire the way they embrace the season. It’s not something to be endured, it’s something to make the most of. Back home, it’s changed the way I look at winter. If it’s chucking it down outside I just shrug and grab my wellies. After all, it’s not bad weather if you have the right clothes.
Read on to discover how you can embrace the weather when you travel to Norway…
Find your inner hygge
Hygge is usually associated with Denmark, but it’s a concept that’s also found in Norway – and they even use the same word! If you’re exploring Norway in the winter, you might also hear the word ‘koselig’ which means cosy.
Autumn is the best time to find hygge in Norway. Before the snow falls, the normally outdoorsy Norwegians spend time at home with friends and family – getting cosy. This can mean shared dinners or simply watching movies together.
Stopping off in a cafe is a great way to warm up and the atmosphere is always welcoming. Norwegian cafes often have candles, soft lighting and serve Scandi comfort food. Bliss.
Go to the cabin
Even temperatures of -10 aren’t enough to keep Norwegians indoors and some even go camping in the depths of winter! A cabin is a cosier option and it’s a great place to spend time with your loved ones.
From there, you can go skiing or snow-shoeing. Or just stay indoors.
Eat tasty food
Like the Danes, Norwegians are very fond of cake and pastries. A skoleboller (custard bun topped with coconut) is sure to cure any winter blues.
Waffles topped with jam, cream and brunost (brown cheese which tastes like fudge) are also very popular.
Put on a woolly jumper
Norwegians are known for their fabulous cosy knitwear, but they’re more than just a fashion accessory. A good jumper will help you to stay snug throughout the winter months. Proper clothing is essential if you’re going to enjoy your visit so make sure you pack the thermals too. Learn how to wear your Norwegian jumper.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of walking, it’s also worth getting some spikes to go on your boots (you can buy ones which fit over your shoes). These will stop you from falling on slippery paths!
Go skiing (cross-country or downhill)
Skiing is one of Norway’s favourite winter pastimes and it’s an activity for all ages. Children are taught to ski from a very early age and so it quickly becomes second nature. If downhill skiing sounds too frightening, cross-country skiing might be more appealing.
In places such as Tromsø in the Arctic Circle, you’ll find special trails marked out around the island with grooves for your skis – simply fit your skis into the tracks and off you go!
Watch out for the Northern Lights
The best thing to do in Norway in the winter is completely free! Step outside on a clear night and there’s a good chance that you’ll see the Northern Lights in the sky.
Many places offer Northern Lights-chasing trips for tourists, but they can’t guarantee that you’ll see them. Keep a look out in the evenings and you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this stunning natural display.
Travel by boat
Travelling across Norway by land is often difficult in the north of the country, so taking a ferry along the coast can be an easier way to get from A to B. Ferry routes are subsidised by the Norwegian government, which reduces the cost.
It’s a great way to explore the coastline and the fjords too.