Beautiful Blue Light of Tromso, Norway in Winter

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As I’ve talked about in previous blogs, there is something very beautiful and beguiling about the blue light of Polar Night. Since the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, the light casts a soft shadow. Sure you aren’t in pure darkness 24 hours a day, but you also don’t have the sun beaming down on you. So it’s like hours of a soft dawn or a soft twilight that can feel otherworldly, especially in the morning when the initial rising light is a very strong blue that gradually lightens towards mid day. That blue light contrasting with the brilliant white of the snow really does make you feel like you are in some Narnia-style winter wonderland. It’s also the presence of the snow that makes everything look and feel lighter than it actually may be. At the the height of the day, you wouldn’t necessarily even realize that the sun is not actually above the horizon, because it is plenty light, but it certainly doesn’t stay that way for long-only a few short hours. That is reflected in that any day tour activities in Tromso in winter will likely end around 1500, because that is the time it starts getting actually dark. I personally found the long hours of darkness to be very cozy, filling me with thoughts of snuggling by the fireplace or by long walks in the refreshing, bracing cold, but I know that extended hours of darkness can drive some people up the wall.

While you could likely rent a car reasonably easily in Tromso (especially if you flew into town), I don’t think it was especially useful. First off, there is the matter of parking, since it’s not like there are vast swaths of parking in town (though, there apparently is a pretty large UNDERGROUND parking lot on the edge of town, in the center of this mass of underground tunnels that help you navigate into and out of the city-a rather interesting engineering marvel that saves the beautiful environment). Plus there is the matter of driving on hard packed snow. Probably because snow is present for many winter months, it is just easier to pack down new snow and not plow it out of the way. This prevents large, unwieldy piles in snow along the road, and just turns the roads into snow roads. I can only imagine that since most Americans aren’t used to or comfortable driving on hard packed snow, it is simply easier to not rent a car and get around town on your own.

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So honestly, it is much easier simply to take a guided tour out to see the Tromso environs. There are many, many offered; you just have to find the one that is right for you. They all see the same essential areas, so you will have plenty of opportunity to see the many, many beautiful fjords, beaches and snow covered hills.  While all of the Tromso environs are beautiful in my opinion, there isn’t a specific must do landscape point or anything like you see elsewhere. It’s all just general beautiful nature. We elected to do another day trip with Creative Vacations, just because their Blue Light tour sounded like what we were looking for in terms of seeing some beautiful Tromso winter landscapes.

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Since there isn’t THAT much daylight during the winter in Tromso, the entire tour is only about six hours long. But those are the six hours where there was the most light. After being picked up by our tour van, we headed out to their studio to get into some snowsuits. At first I was skeptical that I needed a snowsuit. I mean, this isn’t like their nighttime aurora tours where you just stand around in the cold for hours on end. But I soon came to see the wisdom of the snowsuits. It had snowed a fair amount in the days before our tour and there were places by the side of the road where it just naturally piled up high. While we never had to hike far to see some of the beautiful views, we did have to hike some. That often meant hiking through knee high drifts of snow, and it was so much more comfortable to be hiking through that in a rented snowsuit and boots, rather than my own regular pants.

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After getting suited up, we headed out on our sightseeing tour. The bulk of the tour was centered around Kvaloya Island, which is one of the many islands around Tromso. We made many, many stops along the way to take in beautiful fjord views and beautiful mountain views, beautiful snow-covered lake views and eventually we ended up at a beautiful snow laden beach.

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Our guide was pretty good telling us where we were and giving some of the backstory on the sights. She had to manage speaking to us in English and the rest of the tour group in Spanish, all the while she is a native French speaker (which kind of hints at some of the diversity in the seasonal tour guide personnel, since they aren’t all native Norwegians). I know we stopped at a view to see the longest fjord in the area, but I honestly don’t remember the name (it might have been Lyngenfjord, but I don’t know). Of course it is hard to get a good, accurate view of any scale while you are just looking at one part of a fjord. As would become more clear later in our trip, getting a good and photogenic view of a fjord was a matter of careful placement, since it is too easy to just get a flat picture of a fjord without really capturing the true beauty and scale of it.

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Along the way, we saw some reindeer lounging in the snow. It wasn’t a large group or anything, but it was still fun to see some reindeer, not exactly in the wild, but also not really on a farm either. Since we had limited days in Tromso, we spent more time focusing on beautiful nature views, and didn’t take in any of the many reindeer tours that involved feeding reindeer or sludging with reindeer.

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One of the nice things about this tour, and of Tromso in general, is that it is not heavily populated when you get out of the main town. Sure there are some very good roads that ring the fjords, but they aren’t overly crowded, since the small villages that dot the fjord areas aren’t heavily populated (at least in winter, I can’t speak to what it’s like in summer). That facilitated us stopping wherever we wanted along the road (pulling off it so we didn’t become a traffic hazard) to get some really nice views.

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Since it is winter and everything is covered in snow, sometimes it was a question if the vast expanse of snow we were looking at was a snow covered meadow or a snow covered lake. I think most of them were lakes, like the huge Lake Storvatnet we photographed.

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Our turnaround point for this tour was the tiny, beach side village of Grotfjord. We had a chance to relax, walk along the beach and enjoy some lunch. It was also a great place to see what little sunlight there was. Truthfully, this was our last day in Tromso and the sun did rise above the horizon for about 30 minutes. But because of the surrounding hills, we couldn’t see the actual sun (and wouldn’t for another week, until we moved farther south in Norway), but we saw this beautiful pink light very low on the horizon. The combination of the small points of pink light mixed with the surrounding blue light and offset by the pure white of the snow made for an enchanting and scenic landscape background.

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The best views of this light was on the beach in Grotfjord, because the clear day made for some colorful, almost painterly reflective backdrops of the beach and surrounding village.

By the time we got back from the tour, it was pure dark, but it made for a leisurely and beautiful final day in Tromso.


Tromso Ice Domes

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One of the challenging things about planning a trip to Tromso is deciding what activities to do, especially if you are there for less than a week. There are so many things to see and do while there, that it can be hard to choose if you have a limited amount of time. There are aurora tours (nighttime only, so you can still do day trips), reindeer sledging, husky dog sledging, snowmobile tours, and a day trip (and if desired, overnight) to the Tromso Ice Domes.

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Even though we had visited something similar when in Fairbanks (the Aurora Ice Museum at the Chena Hot Springs Resort), I couldn’t resist a trip to the Tromso Ice Domes, just because I love ice hotels and ice sculptures. Even though the name has “Tromso” in it, realize that the ice hotel is not in Tromso, but rather a 90 minute drive away (or in our case, a 2.5 hour drive away. We had to take the long way around, since the shorter road was closed to avalanche risk. However, that drive was a gorgeous drive along the Tromso coastline and into the Tromso wilderness, so it wasn’t an unwelcome delay). So this will be a full day trip if you choose to take it, or again, an overnight for those who want to spend the night in an ice hotel (one day I will stay at one).

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Once we arrived on site, we were shown an introductory video on how the ice hotel was designed and built. Even though Tromso never gets hot in the summer, it still gets warm enough to melt snow and ice, so obviously this hotel is not a year round attraction, but instead built special in the November timeframe, and the design and ice sculptures change yearly. It was interesting to hear how difficult it was to build this year’s hotel and what they had to go through to get it set up.

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Once the video was done, we got a guided tour through the hotel and the bar (with of course a complimentary shot of Norwegian vodka and some sort of tasty berry juice). We were shown into all of the rooms and each room has a different color pattern and a different snow design. There were designs of local wildlife, such as moose, reindeer and wolves, and other animals, such as polar bears and even some mythological settings.

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Since the group tour is small, it didn’t feel overwhelmed with people, and it was fun to get a peek into what a night in the hotel would be like (very dark and very silent and very cold- though they give you thermal sleeping bags to keep you warm at night). I had never really thought about an ice hotel night visit before, but the next time I am in the Arctic north (probably Finland), I definitely would want to give it a try, just to experience it. Once the group left, I had the hotel to myself, and it was eerie but also peaceful to experience that stillness and the silence (though not the darkness since the lights were still on), since the hotel blocks out outside sound. I could see how some people would be creeped out by it, but I think I would love it.

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Like all other tours in Norway, this one isn’t cheap, but it is fun and something a bit different to do while in Tromso.

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Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromso Norway

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There were two things I wanted to experience during our recent winter trip to Tromso, Norway: Polar Night and the Northern Lights. Polar Night is easy to experience, because all you have to do is show up and it is there. Polar Night exists just by being there (Tromso is located about 400 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle) during the approximately six weeks in winter when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Experiencing the Northern Lights is a different thing altogether, however. Sure, we were there at the right time (dark, cold nights in winter) in the right area (Tromso is considered one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights- at least of those places that are easily accessible), and often the right weather (cold but often clear).

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Of course for those who have chased the Northern Lights, they know it is not that simple or easy. Successfully seeing the Northern Lights can be such a hit or miss affair. Sure, the weather is typically clear and cold, but it isn’t always. I mean, Tromso doesn’t get covered in snow in the middle of winter without some clouds and snow falling. A good example is that there were days and days of snow before we arrived in Tromso and some snow while we were there, and if the weather is cloudy and snowy, the chances of seeing the lights are almost nil. Then even if it is clear, that doesn’t mean the lights will show up. It also depends on the level of solar activity hitting the Earth’s magnetic poles, and to make things more questionable, we are heading into a downcycle of solar activity for the next few years. And even if the conditions are right, timing is also critical. They are more likely to show up late at night, but that could be relatively early in the evening, or it could be hours after midnight. You could go out all night on a clear, cold night and still not guaranteed to see them.

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So, while you can set the conditions as much as possible to see the Northern Lights, you are never guaranteed that they will appear.  It is what makes setting a vacation around seeing them so fraught with nerves, but so exciting and exhilarating if you do see them. Knowing all this, I did what I could to set the conditions to maximize seeing the Northern Lights on this trip to Norway. I budgeted three days in Tromso, and an additional three days on the Norwegian coast cruise. I booked a couple of Northern Lights tours while we were in Tromso, and knew that if they appeared during our cruise, our captain would alert everyone. I figured, we had to see them at least once in a week, right?

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Thankfully we were successful on our first Northern Lights tour in Tromso, because we really didn’t see them too much after that. But the first night made it worth it. Both Mom and I have seen the Northern Lights before in Alaska and Iceland, but there is something special about seeing them in Norway for me, especially since northern Norway is a winter wonderland of snow this time of year.

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Choosing which tour company to use was an interesting experiment in research and sometimes blind  hope. As you can imagine, there are scores of Northern Lights tours offered in Tromso, so it is just a matter of choosing which one is right for you and your wallet (since none of them are cheap, but some are more expensive than others). I knew that I didn’t want one of those big bus tours, having done one in Iceland. Yes, those tours are the cheapest, but they are going to be the most crowded, since they use a large bus. Big groups of people don’t really enhance your Northern Lights viewing experience, and it can be a detractor, plus the fact that these big bus tours are more limited in where they can go.

Northern Lights-14There are many, many options for the smaller group tours, though it will require some research. After careful selection, I chose the Creative Vacations Aurora Photo Tour. I was drawn to the fact that the groups are small (no more than 12 people per night), so you are transported in vans, but I was especially drawn to the fact that the tour guide will show you how to best photograph the Northern Lights, which is something I wanted to do.

In my previous Northern Lights experiences, I wasn’t really able to capture some good photos. I knew the basic requirements on how to photograph the Northern Lights, but it requires proper camera settings (a bit easier on a DSLR, though there are apparently phone apps that also help you take aurora photos), a good tripod, AND extra batteries, none of which I had with me. But since this tour provides a tripod and good instruction on proper camera settings, I figured this was my best opportunity to capture them. And if we did any subsequent aurora tours, I would know what were the proper settings for my camera. Our tour guide, Vidar is a professional photographer and he took the time to personally set the settings on my DSLR camera to best capture them. Some of the settings I knew about (such as adjusting the shutter speed to 30 seconds-later reduced to 15 seconds, because the lights were so bright), but some of the other settings were especially helpful.

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Another nice thing this tour (and most of the small group tours) provided was snow suits. Even if you have your own snow gear, it was still nice to add even warmer snow boots and suits, because you will be outside for hours on end (though you can warm up in the van if needed).

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Because seeing the Northern Lights is so weather dependent, there isn’t one location the tours venture out to each night. Sometimes if the weather is cloudy in Tromso, they end up driving to Finland or Sweden for viewing (it’s not as far as it might sound, since the Finnish and Swedish borders were probably only an hour’s drive or more away from Tromso). Thankfully this night, the aurora forecast was good. The sky was supposed to be clear, the wind minimal and the chances for viewing were the best they had been in a week.

Because of the favorable conditions, we did our viewing on a nearby island that wasn’t that far of a drive from Tromso. But it was still isolated enough for no ambient light to interfere with our viewing pleasure. The setting was really nice, with some mountains and a lake in the background. Even though most of the group went down to the lake’s edge, I chose to stay up on the road simply because they snow was deep, I am clumsy, and I was likely to fall going down. Even though we were set up on the road, the road was completely isolated and there was no traffic in the hours we were out there.

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Once we got into position, it was just a matter of waiting. And that is the biggest thing you will do on these tours- wait. Even if conditions are perfect for aurora viewing, it’s not like they show up on a specific schedule. You know they are likely to show up after midnight (though in Tromso, they often appeared as early as 2100 or 2200 at night), but they might not. They might take their sweet time appearing, and they might stay for hours, or they might make an appearance of only minutes. Our guide told us stories about a previous night’s tour where they drove all the way to Finland, and the lights did appear, but only for about 15 minutes.

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Thankfully this was not going to be one of those nights. This was going to be a night of some good aurora viewing. When they first appeared, they were so faint in the sky, that sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was looking at auroras or just some clouds (we had a near full moon out with us that night to light up the clouds around us). But as Vidar pointed out, my camera can pick up on those colorful nuances better than my eye, and he was right. I started taking some pictures and the lights slowly made their appearance.

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It’s funny that when the lights just tease you in the beginning, you get so excited, because they are actually appearing. But the lights got stronger, brighter and better as the night wore on. They went from just some faint streaks of green, to wide swaths of green, flowing and swirling across the winter expanse. The colors got brighter and it was amazing to get these photos of the Northern Lights high in the sky, and often reflected in the lake below.

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It’s hard to stop taking pictures, because I just wanted to capture as many as I could, because you never know when the show is going to stop. The biggest hurdle to capturing all the photos you want is the cold, time, and of course battery life. I had bought a few extra camera batteries, because I knew that the extreme cold drains battery power quickly. I was actually surprised at how long my first camera battery lasted, but of course it eventually drained. Maybe it was the increasing cold or the fact they were new, but my subsequent batteries didn’t have much power to them.

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By the time we left our first site, I had captured dozens of beautiful Northern Lights photos, and my camera was drained dry. On our way back, we stopped at a second site for at least an hour, and I’ll admit to being a bit irked at that at first. I was cold, a bit tired, and it’s not like I was going to get any more pictures. For the most part, there were only limited auroras, but by the end of our stop, they had gotten pretty bright, and I wished I had a working camera to capture them. It’s one of those lessons in aurora photographing- you never know if they will show up, or how long they will show up, so it’s hard to plan your photography if you have limited supplies. But it’s one of those things you get what you get, and enjoy whatever it is you get. So even though I wasn’t able to photograph those later lights, I still can remember how bright they were across the sky.

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I can’t recommend a good aurora tour enough if you are in Tromso in the winter. There are many tours available, though I was very pleased with Creative Vacations. So pleased that we did a daylight tour (the subject of a coming blog). Aurora viewing is something you can’t guarantee to see, but if you have the opportunity to see them, the experience will sear into your memory. Just make sure you take enough camera batteries to capture it all.

Polar Night in Tromso

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For several years now, I have wanted to experience Polar Night, the winter counterpart to summer’s Midnight Sun. I had a chance to experience Midnight Sun back in 2009, when I took a cruise up the Norwegian coastline in mid June, and once we hit the Arctic Circle, we spent a few days up where the sun doesn’t set. I enjoyed it, though it does a number on your circadian rhythm for obvious reasons. I mean, when your body doesn’t have any external clues about the time of day, it’s easy for it to go a little haywire. Now granted, I am a natural night owl, but even still, it surprised me a bit to look at my watch and realize it was 0200 or 0300 in the morning, and the sun was still shining like it was mid day, and I wasn’t tired. I had to force myself to go to bed, just so I wouldn’t eventually pass out from tiredness, and I was awake to see all the sights I wanted to see.

Tromso Overview-1So of course I wanted to experience its opposite in Polar Night. I personally love darkness, and embrace the cold and long, dark nights of winter. I honestly can’t get enough of it, and it disappoints me greatly being in a place where there are mild winters. Of course even if the temperature was warmer than I liked, I still had hours and hours of darkness to cuddle in and enjoy. But it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know what it was really like to visit a place where the sun never rose.

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I got a tiny taste of what it might be like (though not exactly Polar Night) when we visited Fairbanks, Alaska a few years ago around New Years. Sure it wasn’t exactly Polar Night, because the sun did rise above the horizon for four hours a day, but I also saw that just because the sun isn’t above the horizon, it doesn’t mean that it is pitch dark out. In Fairbanks, the sun might have been only up for four hours, but there were at least two hours of beautiful blue light on either side of sunrise and sunset. Meaning, that even during Polar Night, it’s not like it is interminable darkness; it’s just that the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. But as many of us have experienced long dawns and twilights, we know that there can still be light outside, even if the sun is below the horizon.

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So I knew Polar Night wasn’t going to be some 24 hours of pure black darkness, but the light you do experience in Polar Night is a bit different. It is obviously softer, because the sunlight is indirect, and it takes on more of a blue tinge, which is really magical when it is against the backdrop of pure white snow (which has the effect of making it seem even brighter than it really is). Having seen pictures of places where Polar Night exists made me want to experience it even more.

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Now it was just a matter of choosing a place to visit, and honestly, there aren’t THAT many places where the sun doesn’t rise at all during the winter, AND has a reasonable tourist infrastructure to visit. Sure, there are multitudes of tiny villages and a couple larger cities above the Arctic Circle, but they are often hard and expensive to visit. So choosing Tromso, Norway as my place to experience Polar Night was an easy one. I had visited Tromso in the past as a cruise stop on my Norwegian cruise and I enjoyed the few hours I spent there. It’s the world’s third largest city above the Arctic Circle, with a population of around 75,000. Considering it sits at around 69 degrees north latitude, the weather is surprisingly “mild.” And I grade mild on a curve, because it does get very cold and snowy up there. It’s not like it has anything close to a mild winter. However, considering it is at the same latitude of Point Barrow Alaska (the northernmost point of Alaska), it is not nearly as cold and frigid as it could be, thanks to the Atlantic Gulf Stream that ends around the Tromso area.

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This trip to Tromso kicked off my second long visit to Norway, and the itinerary was similar to the one I did in the summer. Only now I was going to get a chance to experience Norway in the winter, something I had always wanted to do. Since it was my mom’s first trip to Norway, it was an opportunity to see similar places, only now under the beautiful cover of snow and ice. We decided to start up in Tromso and work our way south, since the farther south we went, the more daylight we would experience (and the temperatures would warm up a bit). So of course I had to pick a starting day when it was still Polar Night in Tromso, since that and the opportunity to see auroras were two of the driving factors for my winter visit. Polar Night lasts around six weeks in Tromso. I had toyed with the idea of visiting around Christmas, just because it would have saved me some work vacation days, but once I say that prices were literally double (at least airplane fares), I figured we could start a couple weeks into January. Polar Night officially ended 15 January in 2019, though people in the city really didn’t consider it ending until 20 January. Sure the sun does rise above the horizon for 30 minutes on 15 January, but it won’t become obvious until around 20 January. So based on our trip calculations, we would have three full days of Polar Night in Tromso, with our final day technically having 30 minutes of sunlight (though we didn’t notice a real difference).

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Since we were coming in at the tail end of Polar Night, I knew it wasn’t going to be as dark as it was during the height of Polar Night, but we would still get a chance to experience it and the beautiful blue light it produces. Our first full day in Tromso, we didn’t get up until 1000 (thanks to a very long plane trip consisting of three flights to get up to Tromso), and even at that hour, it was only a bit light out. More like a long dawn. Considering that I knew that we didn’t have that many hours of daylight, we decided our first stop on the first day would be Fjellheisen, which is the cable car up to the top of Mt. Storsteinen and provides a beautiful, panoramic view of Tromso and the surrounding area. Of course we weren’t the only ones with that idea, and the bus to the cable car was packed. But the line moved surprisingly quickly, and soon we found ourselves at the top of the mountain.

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At that point it was trying to maximize our viewing experience AND eating lunch, since we hadn’t eaten breakfast. Thankfully the cafe and the viewing ledges are next to each other, so mom and I took turns eating and going outside into the frigid temperatures to take pictures. At its zenith, the daylight was a soft gray, but that really only lasted a little over an hour. Soon enough, it started getting darker and that blue light became more prominent. By the time it was 1500 in the afternoon, it was completely dark.

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We decided to walk from the bus stop to the Arctic Cathedral, just to get a chance to get some exercise in and enjoy the darkness and cold weather. I found the bracing cold to be refreshing, and loved walking in the snow. While they plow the roads in Tromso, they don’t clear the roads, so most of the roads (even some of the more well traveled roads) had snow on them, just packed down so you can easily drive on it. And since snow in the winter is a permanent feature in Tromso, and considering how active Norwegians are (we saw more than one runner in the snow while we were there), it was nice that the sidewalks are plowed as well. It’s not like parts of the US where the snow is just plowed into piles and it is impossible to walk outside. Plus, the drivers are more respectful of pedestrians in Tromso (at least the ones we encountered), so even if we had to walk a bit in the road, it’s not like we had to worry about getting run over.

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The Arctic Cathedral is one of the more recognizable landmarks in Tromso, and the structure looks beautiful all lit up at night. The inside is not that much to look at, at least during the night, because the stained glass is probably pretty when the sun shines on it. We decided to walk back to town, which was really only a walk over the bridge (Mom is a pretty good sport about some of the things I ask her to do on vacation), so we had some nice views of Tromso city on our way back.

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Just like Midnight Sun does a number on your circadian rhythm, so does Polar Night, but in the opposite direction. In the summer, I was staying up hours and hours in the summer and not feeling it, but during Polar Night, I started getting sleepy by late afternoon, and it was more of a challenge to stay up to a reasonable hour, so I didn’t go to sleep early and then wake up around 0400 or something. But I LOVED Polar Night, with all its attendant darkness and beautiful light, and would love to experience it again sometime in the future. This day was just the first day in what proved to be a very beautiful and enjoyable Norwegian winter vacation.

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