The real Starship Aurora
Blur bassist and cheesemaker Alex James travels to see the Northern Lights with P&O Cruises
Whether or not I actually am, whenever I head South it feels like I’m going on holiday.
But there’s something about heading North that tickles me more.
Because there lies a world, a million miles from the superficial satisfactions that sunshine brings: another world altogether.
And at the moment it’s a dark one
The sun set in Tromso on November 21st and it’s not going to be back again until February.
Even where I live, about as far away as you can get from anywhere in Southern England, darkness is a rare commodity, and getting rarer.
In the arctic wilderness, the grey seas, the forests, the mountainsides and the animals whose calls fill the vast silences are all transformed into something spiritual and bottomlessly profound by the veil of permanent night
But what surprised me most is how many young people there are, even way, way up in the boonies of the far North.
It’s not just the established universities in Alta and Tromso that draw youth here
I suppose, even though Norway is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, being skint is part of parcel of being young and maybe it’s better to be skint in the countryside than in a city
And this is some countryside
It reveals itself in the twilight as a pristine, primeval playground
But then it gets dark again, completely dark
It’s exactly like being inside the song, ‘A Forest’ by The Cure
It’s enthralling, enough to quicken heartbeat and give a sense of motion to everything.
Even before you factor in cosmic light shows.
Gawking at the Northern Lights had headline billing on this cruise
We’d seen the aurora borealis in Tromso, as soon as we arrived but once we reached Alta, our next port of call we took an organised trip to the top of the darkest available mountaintop to get the best view.
There, slap bang in the middle of nowhere, candles lit the way to a wigwam with a roaring fire at its heart, a pot of hot chocolate on the go.
Snowflakes floated, almost motionless all around us
Shortly after my second cup of hot chocolate the first stars began to appear, ten minutes later I was able to spot the plough, much higher in the sky than normal, and the pole star almost directly overhead and then, all of a sudden it was completely clear- until the entire sky lit up green in a phantasmagorical display so spectacular it produced gasps and cries
The food, the peace and the people in this part of the world are certainly a draw but what really makes the North special for me is the feeling of scale it gives: the sense of being on an actual planet.
Which is easy to forget even though it's reasonably easy to remind yourself that is where you are, every so often
But what’s hard to conceive, unless you’re actually standing in total darkness under a bejewelled sky, is that every time we glean a better understanding of the universe as a whole, it turns out it is far, far, far bigger than anyone at all had previously even begun to imagine
From Ptolemy, through Newton and Hubble to the multiverse theories proposed by today’s cosmologists – everything is infinitely, uncountably infinitely larger than anyone had ever conceived.
Except possibly someone standing in the pitch dark on a mountainside in Norway in Winter with the whole of the milky way striping the top of the sky and stars shining steady from horizon to horizon.
It’s a good feeling.
And it’s not just wonders of nature that dazzle up here
Alta looked just like an advent calendar with all the doors open
They really understand lighting, here
The whole of Norway is incredibly modern and comes over very tasteful: not just because Nordic chic is where it’s at right now
It’s the exact opposite of France where it seems there is nobody home in any of the villages I ever go to. Here, there's a glowing star in practically every window – and most curtains are open
It’s so cosy.
You get a feeling there is no crime here whatsoever, either.
Maybe it’s just too cold
Freezing conditions are not everyone’s idea of fun but one thing is for certain:
Food never tastes quite so good as it does when you’ve been outside in a blizzard
Cooking smells are simply ravishing
And it’s not very hard to find world class cooking
Tourism is a year round business here and the Norwegian work ethic (everyone I met had five jobs) shines through everywhere you go
Like in Scotland the further North I travelled, the better the food seemed to get
It’s a unique cuisine. Local food makes a lot of sense in the Arctic, transport is expensive and it’s hard to grow anything in the winter months so the specialities are preserved foods
Many of them unusual
Reindeer is as common here as lamb in the UK – rich and livery tasting but we were served everything from local ptarmigan to local parmesan
When the chef told us the salmon had been frozen, my heart sank a little before he explained that freezing is a natural way of preserving food up here
It was the best salmon I’ve ever had.
But that paled next to the fermented cod
It had texture like nothing else, dense and chewy – to fresh cod as Iberico ham is to boiled ham – a completely different class of mouthful
It’s apparently an acquired taste but one which I acquired very quickly
To give you an idea of where it sits on the taste spectrum it is traditionally eaten with aquavit – alcohol, straight off the still
But for all that it was the vegetables that really stole the show – maybe because they are such a precious resource they were all cooked with love and attention to detail I’ve not seen anywhere else
Who thought swede could be delicious?
I’ve never felt so hungry. Perhaps because you’re bound to get a lot of exercise in the arctic
Even just standing outside counts
You can taste the air - It’s also the world’s best hangover cure
There was so much to see – partly because we covered a lot of ground in a short space of time
The ship I travelled on Aurora, was the perfect counterpoint to the wilderness: a daily source of joy to return from my adventures to the warm bosom of the mother ship - a home from home
And rather a nice one.
In the same way that food tastes better when it’s cold out, any kind of pampering is enhanced by extreme conditions and I took full advantage of the on board spa,
The sauna, which had an actual ocean view was a particular favourite particularly as we travelled South and the sun brought the seascape to life
A few exquisite home comforts of the table didn’t go amiss, either - particularly at Olly Smith’s The Glass House restaurant
In fact you wouldn’t run out of things to do if you never disembarked
I particularly enjoyed dancing myself stupid to Laura Brannigan at Masquerade with friends I’d made in The Crow’s Nest
Cruising is the perfect way to explore this last great wilderness because you can try a bit of everything and work out if and why you want to come back
And I will be because after asking myself on the way out, ‘Why would anyone want to live here?” I got a feeling that I don’t get very often – that I never expect to get
That I could stay here and be happy
It’s not what the darkness hides, it’s what it reveals that counts.
I’d forgotten. There’s a whole universe out there.
*Please note that sightings of the Northern Lights can not be guaranteed due to their unpredictable nature, though visiting Norway in the winter months gives you the very best chance of seeing them.