The first morning of the voyage found the Nordnorge pitching and rolling quite a bit as she pushed purposefully northward from Bergen. I was more surprised by this than I should have been.
Most of our voyage would consist of sailing in confined, sheltered waters, venturing sometimes sixty or seventy miles into the heart of the fjords themselves. And, indeed, most of the time we would hardly be aware of the effect of those winter time Arctic waters on our sturdy little ship.
But on this particular morning, we had to cross a patch of open sea. Designed with a shallow draft that allows her to navigate in even the most shallow confines, the Nordnorge rocked, rolled and pitched around on the open sea for around an hour or so, wrong footing many people on that topsy- turvy morning.
In winter time Norway, any amount of daylight is at a premium. From around nine in the morning, a kind of opaque, pearly light hung over the white flecked, steel grey rollers as we held to our course. The odd snowstorm lashed the decks like some kind of vengeful wraith.
Snuggled down in a chair in the gently rolling vista of the observation lounge, I watched in sheer, open jawed amazement as a series of smooth, snow draped, low rolling hills breasted the horizon, looking for all the world like so many slain sea monsters that had been left where they had fallen. The whole scene had a kind of stark, petrified stillness and beauty about it. The silence was even sharper and more defined than the cold.
Gradually, something resembling civilisation began to take shape about noon. The Nordnorge slowed to a crawl as she was embraced by a horseshoe shaped crescent of dark, undulating hills, bathed in the rosy pink glow of a sun that lay not far below the horizon. Ashore, car headlights glistened in the surreal twilight like so many maddened glow worms, beetling along the water front. Houses and waterfront buildings took form, then became more sharply defined as the Nordnorge ghosted past a surly looking Russian trawler that had seen many a better day. We were alongside before I even knew it.
Ah, Alesund. I knew it well from the sultry summer days, when an almost endless daylight smiled down on the cafes along the beautiful harbour, and fleets of yachts bobbed at anchor like gaggles of contented swans. The streets were full of people, wandering the town from bars to restaurants, clubs, and back again. But now….
The beautiful city seemed to be in hibernation, dusted by a carpet of fresh snow that ran from the hills right down to the harbour itself. Silence filled the void between the streets lined with the glut of still beautiful Art Nouveau buildings that have always been the hallmark of the city.
After a disastrous fire at the turn of the twentieth century, Alesund was almost completely rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style that was then in vogue. Today, these beautiful buildings, with their rounded contours, gently tapering spires and pretty, pastel colours, have been largely reconfigured as cafes, restaurants and trendy bars. Mercifully, they are a very short walk from where the Hurtigruten ferries dock, right in the city centre.
The snow under my feet was crisp, compact and firm as I headed uphill to try and get the best shots of some of these buildings. The best of the twilight was just beginning to glint off those gorgeous facades at around that time. With a row of low, ranging mountains and an eerily shimmering fjord as a backdrop, they were an electrifying, exhilarating sight.
I pottered back down those steep hills somewhat more gingerly to find myself crossing the bridge to the waterfront. Outside tables that would have normally been thronged with light hearted and laughing people in summer, sat stark and deserted under a funeral shroud of snow that glittered like frosting on a wedding cake. Few people were about at this early afternoon hour. Every now and again a car or a bus would splutter past as if it were running for it’s very life. Then the silence would return.
Alesund that day was a mix of intoxicating fresh air and delicate, slowly fading light that framed one of the most beautiful city scapes anywhere. But, even under that freezing facade of snow, you could sense that it would not be too much longer before the light returns for months on end, and this Sleeping Beauty would bloom like fresh spring flowers.
Back aboard the Nordnorge, I watched the spindly fingers of darkness stealing across Alesund like some stealthy thief as it snuffed out the lights of the town. Under my feet, the engines throbbed gently as the gap between ship and quay became a yawning, charcoal coloured chasm.
With that, we stood out into the darkness, towards the fastness of Arctic Norway, beckoning from the north.