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The Telegraph
| Sunday, May 29, 2016 |
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An Arctic extravaganza

Tromsø in the Arctic Circle is a great jumping off point to see the magnificent Northern Lights, says Arnab Nandy

  • The Northern Lights are an extraordinary spectacle with a colourful display of pink, green, yellow, violet and blue streaks of light rippling and dancing against the sky. Photo courtesy: Tromsø Friluftsenter

Thick streaks of green stretched from the northern horizon to the hills in the south. They rippled and danced, faded and appeared again. Overwhelmed, I gazed upwards till my neck ached.

I was 69 degrees north of the equator and this was the aurora borealis in all its glory. I mentally crossed one more item off my bucket list.

I had never been to a really cold country in winter. Early March is certainly not the peak of winter in Norway, but right from the moment I landed at Tromsø’s small airport, I was astonished by the huge piles of snow all around. The bus picked its way to the town through roads with snow piled high on both sides and I busily clicked hundreds of snowy white pictures during the 15-minute journey.

  • Though it was early March, the snow was still piled high, bringing children outdoors by the drove. 
    Photo: Arnab Nandy

Tromsø’s one of the largest cities north of the Arctic Circle with a population of around 75,000. It’s a truly international city because of its university that attracts students from across the world — amazingly, it’s home to people from more than a hundred countries. When I scoured the Internet for the best places to see the Northern Lights, Tromsø seemed like the perfect jumping off point.

It was a sunny afternoon when I got off the airport bus at the Tromsø city centre. I was staying at a guest house across the bridge and I had a choice of taking the bus or walking. My Airbnb host had assured me it was a pleasant walk and my luggage wasn’t too heavy so I decided to walk and get a quick glimpse of the city.

The walk turned out to be more tricky than I had bargained for. The city’s main road was lined by pretty and colourful buildings but you had to keep your eyes on the pavement and step carefully because of the ice. I came across a park that had beautiful snow sculptures and several children were climbing on them and taking pictures.

  • In the far north of Norway, Tromsø is a university town that’s remarkable for being home to people from more than a hundred countries. Photo: Arnab Nandy

The area where I was staying was called Tromsdalen and it was right across the bridge from Tromsø. On one side of the bridge was Tromsø’s most famous landmark, the Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965.

By the time I reached Tromsø, I had been in Norway for three days and found the temperatures warmer than I had imagined. The temperature in the city rarely went down below the -1 degrees Celsius mark and I figured I didn’t need to wear all the warm clothes I had brought. Consequently, while heading out for the aurora borealis tour, I just wore a T-shirt, pullover and jacket with denim jeans and a regular pair of socks. Big mistake.

Trine from Tromsø Friluftsenter, the Northern Lights tour company I was going out with, met me and around 15 other people at the city centre around 7.15 in the evening. 

Actually, if the sky’s clear, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights from Tromsø, but the city’s lights can be a spoiler. So, if you’re in this part of the world just to see the lights, it’s probably best to take a tour. If it’s very cloudy, most companies offer to take you out on an alternative date at no additional cost.

  • The Arctic Cathedral that was built in 1965 is the city’s most famous landmark. Photo: Arnab Nandy

We drove nearly an hour south of the city and stopped at a clearing by the snowy roads which Trine figured was a good spot to see the lights. By now, it was -10 degrees Celsius and I realised I had bungled seriously by not wearing warmer clothing. Thankfully, I got a pair of overalls that were lying in the bus, but I still felt crazy cold.

Soon afterwards, I forgot the chill when the lights, which started as pale white stretches in the night sky, grew bright green and purple and started dancing over our heads with a clear starry night as the background. The people with the fancy cameras went click-click while others just stared upwards awed by the spectacle. The colourful riot went on for some thirty minutes before dissolving into a misty light green and that’s when Trine lit a bonfire and handed around snacks and marshmallows. It was cold and everyone gathered around the fire to get as warm as possible.

I flopped into bed after 2am and I dreamt of the lights all through the night. I stayed in Tromsø for four more nights and saw the lights twice from the city. But each time I saw it again, I wished I was outside the city with no artificial lights around.

  • MAP BY NILRATAN MAITY. NOT TO SCALE

READY RECKONER

♦ How to get there: From Calcutta, Emirates and Qatar Airways fly to Oslo via Dubai and Doha, respectively. From Oslo, several European airlines fly to Tromsø.
♦ Where to stay: Options range from high-end hotels such as Radisson Blu Hotel Tromsø and Scandic Ishavshotel to budget B&Bs.
♦ What to do: Go on aurora tours. You could also do some whale watching, dog-sledging and skiing.