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Located on the east side of Tromsøya Island, the city centre is connected to the mainland by the Tromsø Bridge and a four-lane road tunnel. With a population of 53,600 Tromsø, the country's ninth largest city, is the effective capital of northern Norway. In addition to its bustling port it is home to the world's most northern university and a wide range of other industries.
Despite its location 360 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, its climate, moderated by the Gulf Stream, is typical of subarctic areas. Its harbour remains ice-free all year and, because there is no permafrost, there is no need for raised building foundations and service pipes. The homes, shops, and streets of Tromsø look the same as those in Norwegian cities a thousand kilometres farther south. It is clearly a prosperous city and, unlike many other settlements that I have visited in the high Arctic, its residents take pride in keeping their streets and buildings clean and tidy.
When we were there in early June the temperature was a balmy 10 degrees. The tulips were in full bloom and the outdoor markets were doing a brisk business in bedding plants ready to add colour and life to the city's many private and public gardens. With 24 hours of sunlight per day the growing season lasts into October and local gardeners take full advantage of it.
After a prowl through the Stortorget open-air market, visits to the Polar Museum, and the University, we took the Fjellheisen cable car up to the top of Mount Storsteinen on the mainland. The patio of the coffee shop provides a sweeping view across the sound to the harbour and city centre and it's easy to see why this spot in northern Norway has a maritime history that goes back to the Middle Ages.
Tromsø's mild climate and ice-free harbour provided a staging ground for early seafarers venturing north to Svalbard in a quest for fish, seals, furs, and whales. There has been a church there since the 13th century but the city did not receive its municipal charter until 1794 when it had become an active trading centre. From 1740 until 1917 ships from Russia and southern Norway gathered in Tromsø harbour for a lively trade between the Pomor people of northwest Russia and the Sami of northern Europe. More recently it has been the jumping-off point for a string of polar explorations, including the heroic Arctic exploits of Roald Amundsen who, among other things, successfully navigated and charted the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific, and led the first successful expedition to the South Pole. In May, 1928 Amundsen joined the search for colleague Umberto Nobile whose airship had gone down somewhere in the Arctic. He took off from Tromsø with five other men and was never heard from again but, while his death will always be a mystery, his dedication to the Arctic is brought to life through photographs and exhibits in Tromsø's Polar Museum.