Tamara Hinson joins a group tour for an adventure across the Arctic Circle by train in Norway
I’m sitting in what’s possibly the world’s cosiest restaurant, warding off the Norwegian chill with a steaming bowl of fish soup, washed down with a shot of the local firewater, aquavit.
Our knowledgeable guide had raved about Trondheim’s Baklandet Skydsstation, a wonderfully wonky restaurant wedged between some of the city’s most colourful buildings.
Inside, the walls heave with shelves filled with chipped crockery and the rough wooden tables are draped with colourful linen. As my fellow traveller comments: “It reminds me of my Irish grandmother’s house.”
Which brings me to another point. I was always wary of group tours, but my romp across the Arctic Circle with eight strangers is slowly converting me. Maybe I got lucky – or perhaps it’s the aquavit – but we get on fantastically well.
Most of Great Rail Journeys’ customers are between the ages of 45 and 75, but its holidays aren’t for travellers prone to exploring destinations by following flower-waving guides and ticking off crowded tourist spots. Great Rail Journeys places a real emphasis on flexibility.
On average, groups number about 30 people. Single travellers can always have their own room, and there are no rigid itineraries and plenty of opportunities for travellers who wish to spend an afternoon – or a day – doing their own thing.
The tour managers who join the groups at the departure point are genuinely keen to help them get the best out of their holiday, and Great Rail Journeys, which operates in 40 countries, creates its itineraries with help from local guides, who can offer insights into a destination’s latest offerings.
This particular tour starts in Trondheim, Norway’s third most populous city. On a wander around the city, we marvel at the pastel-hued buildings squeezed alongside the harbour, as we learn about the history of aquavit.
Norway’s potato-based liquor was first produced by monks in the 14th century and the world’s most famous aquavit brand, Jørgen B Lysholm, opened its distillery in Trondheim in 1821.
There are 111 types on offer at Baklandet Skydsstation, which is a former coaching house built in 1791. Peasants heading to the local market would rest their horses there while they enjoyed a shot of the Norwegian firewater.
One particular advantage of group tours is other travellers’ abilities to sniff out attractions that others might not otherwise discover. After lunch at Baklandet Skydsstation, two rock-loving members of our group stumble upon Trondheim’s Rockheim, a museum dedicated to heavy metal.
Inside, visitors can pay tribute to Norway’s rock gods by playing guitar (albeit virtually) with guitarist Ronni Le Tekrø, or rock out in the museum’s media library. It’s all incredibly good fun.
The next day, we wage war on our aquavit hangovers with a march up to the Bymarka – a forested park on the outskirts of the city – and feast on the freshest salmon I’ve ever tasted at the hilltop Lian restaurant, perched high above Trondheim.
Later, we visit the wonderfully Gothic Nidaros Cathedral, built over the burial site of St Olaf, who was king of Norway between 1015 and 1028. Scandinavia’s northernmost cathedral is an explosion of Gothic extravagance.
In the summer, visitors can clamber up 172 steps to the top of the tower, but I recommend going down below.
On a tour of the crypt, we’re shown a strangely beautiful collection of medieval headstones, and the sealed lead coffins of an entire family.
The bodies of city residents were once stored down here but after a local woman had the unfortunate experience of crashing through the rotting wooden floor on to a row of coffins, the bodies were reburied elsewhere, with the exception of only one particularly wealthy family.
It’s another moment that prompts me to ponder how much I’ve missed out on when I’ve explored destinations without a guide. Great Rail Journeys uses local guides to provide additional insights into their destinations, although the carefully selected tour managers will already be familiar with the area in question.
As gorgeous as Trondheim is, we’ve got a train to catch, and the next morning we set off for our expedition along the Nordland Railway. We’ll be travelling 450 miles north, across the Arctic Circle into Bodø.
It’s a historic railway but our transport is a wonderfully modern train – in our Komfort (or first) Class carriage we have free Wi-Fi, and tea and coffee. In another carriage, there’s even a children’s jungle gym.
Shortly before the Second World War, Trondheim was transformed by a rail link that connected it to Oslo. Prior to its completion, shipping heavy goods to the city involved arduous sailings through stormy seas.
When the war started, the Germans announced plans to extend the railway to the Russian border, and thousands of prisoners were brought to Trondheim to help its construction.
Most died as a result of the horrendous conditions, and by the time the war had finished, the railway had reached only Dunderland, 120 miles from Bodø. In 1962, the final girders were laid and the railway reached Bodø.
It’s shamefully easy to forget the grisly history as we rumble through the Norwegian wilderness, slipping past glassy lakes, lush forests and snow-dusted mountains.
When we enter the Arctic Circle, someone pops open a bottle of Champagne and a Norwegian passenger leads us in a recital of the Norwegian anthem as we clink glasses and celebrate new-found friendships.
The next day, we venture out for an exploration of Bodø under a thick grey sky scarred with the contrail of an F16 that screeches above our heads.
Because of its northern location near the border with Russia, the city’s airport is used by Norway’s air force, and with Vladimir Putin nudging his jets over the border with increasing frequency, Norwegian fighter jets are often scrambled at short notice.
Bodø’s clearly a town that has been built to cope with the harsh weather, but splashes of colour are provided by the library (a rainbow-hued, tech-filled paradise for children) and lots of quirky public art, including an enormous talking lamp post – step on a pedal at its base and you’ll hear a three-second recording of local life, whether it’s sea birds squawking or locals gossiping in the marketplace.
That evening, we dine at NYT, a new restaurant where the delicious (but tiny) portions are accompanied by swirls of foam. It’s a great example of how young and creative minds are breathing new life into this arctic town.
On our final day, we visit the Norwegian Aviation Museum. Exhibits include the infamous American U2 spy plane, destined to land at Bodø but shot down over Soviet airspace in 1960.
The US government tried to cover up the plane’s purpose, but eventually came clean when the Soviet government presented data retrieved from it.
Afterwards, we head for the docks and a high-speed rib-boat ride. After a few minutes bouncing over the foamy wake of passing boats, we enter Saltstraumen, the strait with the world’s strongest tidal bore.
It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen – in some areas, sections of water flow one way, while just metres away the water roars in the opposite direction, before transforming into vast expanses of black flatness.
Our guide – this time a salty seadog-type who knows these waters like the back of his hand – explains that the phenomenon is caused by the presence of a deep underwater trough. Water surges up from the depths before being sucked towards the nearby fjord as the tide recedes.
As we fly out of Bodø, we spot another Norwegian fighter jet preparing to take off, perhaps on a mission to send Putin’s planes back over the border into Russia. I can’t help but think that if I was a Russian fighter pilot, I might enjoy a sortie over this beautiful landscape, too.
Great Rail Journeys’ 12-day Lofoten & the Midnight Sun package starts at £2,395. The price includes eight nights’ B&B accommodation, some evening meals, standard-class rail travel, a three-night Hurtigruten coastal voyage and return flights. greatrail.com
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