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Articles Blog

Alta, Norway

Karyn Planett

Go North, Young Man, Far North

Well, you can’t get much further north than Alta and enjoy a somewhat civilized lifestyle. In fact, the locals claim they live in the world’s northernmost city that boasts a population in excess of 10,000 inhabitants. The 2012 estimate put the total number of people at more than 18,000. 

Alta’s found in an area of Norway called Finnmark with its total population of some 72,000. Strikingly beautiful, others might live here as well if it weren’t just a wee bit cold, especially in winter. In fact, Alta is on about the same latitude as Siberia but it is a titch warmer than neighboring Finland and Russia thanks mightily to the blessed Gulf Stream that washes past. 

Evelyn Waugh, that lauded English author of novels, biographies and travel books, said of this part of the world, “The scenery becomes more Arthurian as we get further north … the mountains on the starboard bow like a Doré engraving.” You might just agree if you sidle over to that side of the ship. 

The Sami People of Sápmi 

The 80,000* indigenous people of the far north are called Sami and their traditional homeland of approximately 150,000 square miles, called Sápmi, stretches across the more familiar contemporary borders of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. These people tend large herds of reindeer, fish and hunt, raise other livestock and many continue to live in traditional settlement areas even today. Of course, Sami are important contributors to modern society, as well. And, yes, it is possible to visit their communities, even see them in their regional garb. Called Gakti, these garments include knitted jackets with frilled skirts, fringed shawls, fur hats, pearl or tin embroidery, and decorative capes with appliqué, beads or ribbons, even scrimshawed antler buttons. They also have their own national anthem and flag bearing the traditional colors of red, yellow, green and blue. For the record, they were formerly known as Laplanders. 

The Hand Of Man 

In the nearby area known as Hjemmeluft there’s a significant collection of prehistoric petroglyphs. Scientist estimate there are thousands of rock carvings of animals and fertility symbols covering more than one mile. Though experts disagree as to their age, they do agree that this area was once an important place for exchanges and trade between the regional hunters and gatherers. Many of these carvings can be viewed at the Alta Museum, named Europe’s Museum of the Year in 1993. Hjemmeluft is also considered to be the largest of the countless World Heritage Sites. Professor Knut Helskog, from the Tromsø Museum, believes these rock carvings scan a period from 4200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Jan Magne Gjerds, from the Tromsø University, believes they are even older, dating back to 5200 B.C. Let’s just agree they’re quite old.  

The Heavy Hand Of War

A dark chapter of World War II was played out across Norway. At one point in the war, Germany established one of its largest naval bases in the city you now visit, Alta. Our story concerns the German ship Tirpitz. Unlike her sister ship, the Bismarck, the Tirpitz saw little action. She was anchored in Alta for approximately two years during which time her mission was to prevent Allied shipments reaching Russia. Several bombing missions and directs hits failed to damage the Tirpitz until Sir Barnes Wallis developed a specific bomb, the 12,000-pound “Tallboy”, that was able to penetrate this vessel’s double layer of armor plate some 12.5 inches thick. At one point, the Tirpitz left Alta. Then, on November 12, 1944, the Tirpitz was bombed with “blockbuster” bombs while in Tromsø and capsized. This chapter of WWII history is told at the Tirpitz Museum at Kåfjord and worthy of a visit. 

But on a cheerier note, Alta is a wonderful city for a stroll. Alta Church, found in the Bossekop area, dates back to 1858 and is noted for its timber interior and neo-Gothic design. You can also visit the city’s other important districts of Elvabakken and Bukta. But you might want to take a break from all this walking about and sample some Norwegian fare like grilled fresh arctic salmon. Fish is a staple in the Norwegian diet and just know they’ll prepare it as you wish – poached, baked, fried, or cured, even in a chowder. The famous bacalao is made with salted and dried fish and prepared a million different ways, depending on whim and Mama’s recipes. Cod is considered the “beef of the sea” and there is plenty to go around. 

And, speaking of going around, all too soon the clock’s hands will indicate it’s time to bid farewell to this delightful city of the north. As night falls, keep an eye out for the Northern Lights that just might give you a proper send-off.