Question: Where in the world is a “cathedral” a fish rack and an iceberg but definitely not a cathedral?
Answer: The “Arctic Cathedral,” Tromso, Norway
When Tromsdalen Kirke opened in 1965, it made waves not just in the city of Tromso, but across Norway and the rest of Europe. The dramatic, A-frame structure has eleven segments ribboned with glass panels visible from all over the city, whether you entered by sea, air, or land. It instantly elevated its architect, Jan Inge Hoving from national treasure (as the man who had re-built the city of Narvik after World War II) to international icon, with the church being compared to the Sydney Opera House.
All the acclaim was furthered by a bit of mystery. Fierce debates ensued over the what the building was meant to resemble. Some saw an iceberg, while others saw mountain peaks (like the ones which rise behind it). The theories were near endless: Traditional fish-drying rack? Sami hut? Boathouse? Or maybe it was a tribute to the northern lights, represented by the way its cut-outs glow against the night sky. Hovig variously endorsed and rejected multiple theories, contradicting his own answers, and (some say intentionally) sowing confusion.
This didn’t lessen the church’s appeal at all and soon locals were calling it the Arctic Cathedral, though, despite its grandeur, it is only a parish church and the town already had a cathedral. (See below.) Its legend only grew as features were added, from the Czech crystal chandeliers said to resemble stalactites to one of Europe’s largest stained-glass windows, with inch-thick panes that shift from transparent to impenetrably dark depending on season and angle of light. A 2005 addition is the massive organ whose 2940 pipes are arrayed to invoke ship’s sails—unless, of course, they’re meant to be ice floes. That detail, like the shape of the church itself, has been left up to the imagination of the viewer.
9 More Things to Know About Tromso, Norway’s Northern Gem
- The actual cathedral of Tromso is dramatic in its own right: it is the only Norwegian cathedral made entirely of wood and is located amid the highest concentration of wooden houses in Norway.
- The first church erected in Tromso was consecrated in 1252 and named “St. Mary Near the Heathens” (showing a fear of the Sami people) and was the northernmost church in the world in its time.
- “Northern” understates Tromso’s location: The city is 190 miles north of the Arctic Circle, located within the auroral oval, the region with the highest probability of seeing northern lights.
- The city is used to extreme weather as a way of life: found artifacts reveal that it has been inhabited continually since the end of the Ice Age.
- As Arctic exploration became a hot pursuit at the end of the 19th century, Roald Amundsen and other explorers made Tromso their home base, recruiting crews in the city, and launching from its harbor.
- In an average winter—which lasts six to seven months—Tromso sees 160 days with at least 10 inches of snow on the ground and enough ice cover that most cars have studded tires to make it possible to drive.
- Winter is so long that it has two named sub-seasons: Polar Night (during which the sun never rises and the city is cloaked in darkness) and Late Winter (when the sun is visible and bounces off the snow making things extremely bright).
- It’s not all ice and snow: Tromso is also home to the world’s northernmost botanical garden, containing thousands of species, including Tibetan blue poppies and an entire valley of rhododendrons.
- The city also attracts adventurous arts lovers with a year-round festival calendar, hosting the Insomnia Festival (for electronic music), No Siesta Fiesta (of Latin arts), the Tromso International Film Festival, and a series of Midnight Sun organ concerts in the Arctic “cathedral.”
Discover the best of Northern Norway when you visit Tromso during O.A.T.’s Fjord Cruise & Lapland: Norway, Finland & the Arctic adventure.