Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Fire & ice Christmas is a lasting memory

Over the years we've spent Christmas in some pretty strange places.

In a chicken-filled churchyard in Majorca dining on paella. Treading the yellow smog-filled streets of Erfurt in East Germany in search of sustenance. Stranded on a strike-bound train in Belgium waiting to cross the English Channel and noshing on bread and cheese. But our experience 20 years ago in Norway probably takes the cake - or at least, the lutefisk.

We were in Tromso on Christmas Day, en route to the North Cape and Kirkenes. Our ship, the passenger-carrying freighter the M/S Narvik, had crossed the Arctic Circle two days earlier and was anchored at one of the last outposts of any size on Norway's frozen northern extremity.

Due to horrendous weather and hurricane-force winds all the way from the fleet base in Bergen, scheduled sightseeing had been sharply curtailed as our captain, Peder Pedersen, tried to make up for some 15 hours of lost time.

But an advertised excursion promising a visit to Tromso's "famous ice cathedral," followed by a bracing sleigh ride, caught our attention and seemed like a perfect antidote to cabin fever.

About 20 intrepid passengers emerged from the bowels of the ship muffled in down and Thinsulate, in furs, hats, boots, and blankets to struggle on board a waiting tour bus.

A student from Tromso University, the world's coldest institute of higher learning, was our guide, giving us the Tromso lowdown: Population, a far-flung 46,000. Industry: fisheries, canning, and shipbuilding. A city known primarily for its Northern Lights Observatory, as departure point for all kinds of polar expeditions, and the port outside of which the German battleship Tirpitz was sunk in 1944. We were also advised that Tromso is sometimes called "the Paris of the North." Indeed!

The so-called "ice cathedral" turned out to be a serious disappointment - just a simple triangular cement and aluminum building with lousy acoustics that looked best from a distance and certainly wasn't worth the 20 minutes accorded it by our garrulous guide.

The sleigh ride in the sparsely populated hills overlooking the twinkling lights of the city sounded like a lot more fun.

Five four-man sleds were waiting for us when we arrived. Each was pulled by a powerful, steam-snorting horse and accompanied by a powerful, red-cheeked Norwegian lass. They gave us lighted firebrands to hold. As in real fire - not battery-operated wannabes!

Steel runners rasped evocatively along icy paths. Firebrands cast eerie shadows in the perpetual Norwegian night. Harness bells rang out their Merry Christmases. Then, at one particularly tight intersection, our horse somehow stepped right of its harness and ran off, leaving us high and dry in the middle of the road. The procession halted while the animal was caught and re-attached.

No sooner had we set off again than our same, high-stepping Scandinavian steed clip-clopped too closely to the snowy verge, tipped us over onto our side, and proceeded to drag us horizontally down the road. Our screams eventually caught the attention of our handler, who restored the sleigh to a vertical position - but not before the passengers in the following sled, overcome with laughter, forgot they were carrying the torches and set fire to their blankets!

We didn't find the episode quite so funny. And it took considerable quantities of potent glogg to revive us and get us back to the ship, where an anxious Captain Pedersen was already revving his engines.

Pedersen and the M/S Narvik are now both retired, but that fire-and-ice Christmas will remain with us always!

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