While we were in Andorra, we discussed where we would go after Toulouse and came up with the idea of going to northern Norway to try to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights! A few days later, after an extreme amount of time spent Googling and numerous dead ends, we arranged our magnum opus of trip planning: a multi-day, slow travel experience by bus and train for the entire duration of the roughly 2500 miles from southern France to northern Norway. Hurrah!! It was only $175 per person- a fraction of the cost it took to fly! The only downside was, of course, that we actually had to travel by bus and train for the entire duration of the roughly 2500 miles from Southern France to northern Norway…
After leaving Toulouse, we spent the day on a train (the budget, non-high-speed kind) to Paris. Mike’s cousin Aline and her partner Jérémy had graciously allowed us to spend the night with them in their 13th Arrondissement apartment and we had a grand time with them eating lasagna and drinking wine. Amanda had the thing happen where you take a huge bite of food because it looks so good and you don’t realize how steaming hot it is and then the top of your mouth instantly burns off and you don’t want to make a scene and spit it out so you just suffer in silence and covertly try to wipe the tears from your eyes. You know, that classic situation we’ve all been in? Yes, well we went to bed early, for the next morning when we got up the sky still had its night shade on and we caught a train to Lille, in northern France. We stumbled off the train all bleary-eyed and found a café to sell us a baguette. Eventually a bus came and picked us up and drove us across Belgium and into Dusseldorf, Germany. Thankfully, Mike’s friend from college, Britta, lived nearby and we stayed at her place for the night. It was the Christmas market season in Europe and we spent the evening at a medieval-themed one drinking glogg and catching up. The next day was spent leisurely in the area and we caught the night train (translation: cheap train) from Dusseldorf to Copenhagen.
The train to Copenhagen was quite an unenjoyable experience and it was mostly our fault for not reading the fine print on our train ticket. We didn’t realize that we switched trains at 2:30 am and our next train didn’t come until 5:30 am. The train station we were stuck at for 3 hours had no place to sit inside and was incredibly sketchy. There was one all-night convenience store open, but when we arrived the storekeeper had called the cops on a woman that was trying to sleep on the floor of the shop and they were trying to get her out. We decided to just sit on the ground of the station and watch Netflix until our train came and that is what we did until we realized that we were being watched. There was a man that continued to walk by us and stare at us. We got up quickly and moved back to the convenience store where there were other people. He passed by the door several times before entering and standing about 3 feet from us and just staring at us. We left and walked into a magazine shop that had recently opened up and again he followed. He never spoke to us. We then decided to brave the cold and wait outside for our train and thankfully he didn’t follow us. We weren’t exactly afraid since he wasn’t a very physically imposing individual and there were people around us, but we definitely breathed a sigh of relief when the train pulled out of the station.
We spent two relaxing days in Copenhagen and these were three highlights/observations:
It seemed as if every single woman we saw was pushing a baby stroller. We don’t know why, but for some reason the women of Copenhagen thought it was a great time to procreate.
We enjoyed a powerful black and white photography exhibit on Greenland and how climate change is affecting Greenlanders’ way of life.
We sat in the loft of a thrift barn for no less than 35 minutes and Mike lost at least a dozen rounds of the game “Guess Who?” until Amanda eventually gave up and let him win.
We then finished our trip with the pièce de résistance: a 24-hour train ride from Copenhagen to the northernmost train station in Norway: Narvik. There were a good number of Italian students that were extremely loud and disruptive in our train car, but once they calmed down, it was a surprisingly easy trip.
Narvik was cold and getting dark when we arrived, despite the fact that we arrived in the middle of the day. December in Northern Norway means that the sun never fully rises and the most shine one gets in a day is from about 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Narvik was a quiet yet sprawling snow town, but after settling in and doing a bit of research, we discovered that the spot that NASA declared to be the best in the world to view the Northern Lights was only a 1.5 hour drive away in Abisko, Sweden! We knew we had to go there if we wanted the best chance of seeing the lights.
Two days later we rented a car and made the drive. Our first stop was Abisko National Park. Abisko itself was a tiny little destination town, with only a few shops and hotels, so we were unsure as to how our evening was going to go. It was extremely cold and dark, but the moon was nearly full and we didn’t encounter a single person while at the park. We did a short hike through some trees that emerged out to this vast open clearing. We stood in silence for a few minutes and let our eyes scan the wide-open snow as it reflected the moon’s glow. We then walked over to an exhibit area about the lifestyle of the native Sami people. They lived a nomadic lifestyle following the movement patterns of the reindeer and there were some displays of their mud and hay shelters and some of the traps they used to catch animals.
After educating ourselves, we headed back to the car and ate snacks and got warm. We drove to a fancy hotel where we sat in the lobby and drank hot chocolate. There we discovered that a nearby business offered introductory ice climbing courses every day. They were quite expensive (around $90/pp), but it sounded exhilarating and interesting so we booked the course for the following day.
Once we left the warmth of the hotel, we did another night hike, this time to a nearby lake. As we sat on a bench near the ice-cold water, we started to accept that we would likely not catch the Northern Lights while in Abisko. The night was cloudy and the moon was bright, which were two of the worst conditions one would want in this situation. We had come at the wrong time of the lunar cycle and we started back on the empty trail.
As we were emerging out of the forest, Mike suddenly exclaimed, “I think that’s it!” There, in the sky, was what looked like glowing clouds with the moon behind them. It wasn’t this, however, because the moon was on the other side of the sky. It was the Aurora Borealis!! As we watched, the glow seemed to spread out and dance across the sky and shimmer, somewhat like a glowing ocean wave moving across the sky. All of the sudden, people started to appear out of nowhere. We started hearing people yelling and calling out from a nearby hotel and before we knew it, they were joining us out on the trail. In about ten minutes, we went from feeling like the only people for miles to being surrounded by dozens of other excited folks and tour groups.
We don’t think we’ve ever looked at anything so hard and that effort felt powerfully grounding, like you could taste that moment on your tongue. It didn’t really appear bright green like you see in the photos, more like a light green-tinged pearl color, but when Mike took a picture of the sky, we were amazed by the vibrant green color his phone camera captured. We were on the trail for another half-hour, moving around to see different perspectives and capture other vantage points. At around 12 am, it started to fade and get obscured by clouds so we knew it was time to head home. As we drove back, snow started to fall that eventually turned to a white-out blizzard. Amanda drove white-knuckled with about two feet of visibility until we finally arrived back to our apartment after 2 am.
About 7 hours later we were back on the road to Abisko once more for our ice climbing lesson. Our group was small, and after we got our gear, we all piled in a van and drove to a frozen waterfall alongside one of the roads. The directions were simple: whack the ice axes into the ice until they both stick in to the frozen waterfall, then stab the spikes on your feet into the ice and move upwards. Hand, hand; foot, foot. Amanda struggled to get her ice axes into the waterfall, while Mike was a complete natural. Our guide was impressed and quickly started Mike onto some more advanced techniques. It felt pretty badass climbing a frozen waterfall, but it was so indescribably cold as you were pressed up against the ice that it became pretty much all you could think about. We were happy we learned how to do it and would definitely go again, but the cold was enough to keep us from fully jumping on the bandwagon.
That evening, we left Narvik, took a bus south to the city of Bodø and spent two nights there. The near 24-hour darkness was really getting to us, so we barely left our apartment during that time. The cold and darkness just seemed to too uninviting to us. We then took another bus to a town called Misvær and spent the next three nights in some idyllic wooden cabins run by a young Italian couple named Valentina and Lorenzo. They were kind enough to pick us up from the bus station and help us get settled in our cabin. For only about $67/night, the cabins were the best deal during our time in Norway and by far the best experience. They were spacious, well-decorated, and had everything one could hope for. There was a kitchenette and a bathroom in our cabin and a large, comfortable queen bed. We spent our days cross-country skiing, hiking in the snow, and playing cards in our cabin. In the evenings, we did a night snowshoe tour with Lorenzo and relaxed in the sauna they had on the property. We had such a peaceful time removed from civilization that the silence of the winter woods around us was sometimes so prominent that it was hard to fall asleep. There have been few times in our lives where we’ve been in a place that had such a total lack of sound. If you are ever in Norway and want a totally unique and special experience, we fully recommend checking out the Arctic Cabins.
After leaving the cabins, we took a 17-hour train journey down to Oslo, where we were warmly welcomed by Mike’s friend, Karl. Karl was extremely hospitable and not only cooked us breakfast the next morning, but also took the day off of work so he could show us around Oslo. We had a delightful day together and that evening went to dinner and went climbing with his partner Caroline. The following day we were off to the airport to our next city, Berlin.
We never did see the Northern Lights again after Abisko, however we were fine with that because we had never spent so much time looking up at the night sky. In Bodø we did a night hike, and the moon seemed noticeably larger and closer than we had ever experienced. Additionally, in Norway the people and the landscape seemed to be in harmony with one another instead of at odds, despite the extreme conditions. Lorenzo told us while we were night snow-shoeing, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. His words were impactful to us because it belayed a mindset of respecting your surroundings and adapting to them, instead of trying to meld them to fit you. Our time in Norway felt like we were more fully flexing our muscles of mobility and freedom. Freedom from having a schedule to be beholden to, from having errands to run, and projects to complete. We started this trip in September because we wanted to feel free. In Norway, that was exactly what we felt. We wanted to try to see an elusive natural phenomenon when we were 2500 miles away and we simply figured it out and did it. Feeling such a pronounced sense of agency over our own lives reaffirmed to us why we wanted to go on this trip in the first place.
We carried this to our next stop – Berlin! See you then!