"Look here, steward, if this is coffee, I want tea; but if this is tea, then I wish for coffee." - Punch, 1902.

February 26, 2014

Norway, Kirkenes: Cafe Centrum

If Honningsvag was the most northern cafe I had visited, Kirkenes takes the honour of being the coldest destination.

At -25oC, only Manchester in the winter of '82 came close. That year, there was ice on the inside of the windows of my Victorian student house. The toilet cistern froze.

In Kirkenes, it was the harbour that was frozen. Delicate whorls formed in the crust on the sea's surface and an icebreaker ploughed slowly back and forth to keep the shipping lane open.

Our hotel, the Thon on the waterfront, had giant plate glass windows looking directly out over the steel grey scene, where it was difficult to determine which was sea and which was sky.

It was January and sadly the end of an otherwordly voyage up the Norwegian coast on the MS Midnatsol. We were still in the Polar Night, although the sun was just days from re-emerging and skulked just below the horizon.

With spiked ice grips on our boots and five layers of clothing, two of them wool, we ventured out.

Kirkenes was a town in deep-freeze. Within minutes, strands of hair emerging from under my hat had been encased in ice - pure white as though I had received a sudden shock, or instantly aged by decades.

This former mining town was used by the Nazis to export iron-ore and was the most heavily bombed location in World War II after Malta. It then suffered a second wave of destruction when the retreating Germans torched what remained.

As a result, all buildings are modern, mostly built of wood - although a 1944 German air raid shelter acts as a reminder of the traumatic wartime period, along with a statue dedicated to the role the townswomen played during the war in the centre, and a further statue of a Russian soldier to commemorate the liberating Red Army on a hill above.

Kirkenes is only 10 miles from the Russian border and has a sizeable Russian population so many street names can be found in both languages, along with signposts to the Arctic port of Murmansk. It is also the end of the Hurtigruten coastal ship route, and although the population is less than 4,000, it has its own airport.

We tramped past a cinema and took a look inside a small shopping mall which housed a supermarket, outdoor clothing shop, the Norwegian equivalent of a 'pound shop' and ladies fashion store.

There are several cafes but Cafe Centrum was the largest and most prominent - a giant wooden building with a terrace.

Sandwich boards welcomed the chilled visitor inside, along with candle-lit lanterns at the doorway. The extreme cold meant the main shopping street was nigh on deserted and the handful of heavily protected shoppers we spotted dashed from building to building without lingering or carried out their errands on ski-scooters.

Inside, it was a relief to be able to peel off our heavy top layers and sink into soft leather armchairs at the back of the cafe. A Danish pastry, cinnamon cake and cappuccinos soon fortified us.

Although the cafe is contemporary in its decor, it adheres to the Norwegian custom of wood furnishings and candles to provide an atmosphere warm in temperature and feel. But it also has vintage outdoor equipment dotted around, such as ice axes and picks, satchels and lamps, and a giant black and white mural of mountaineers from a bygone era fills the back wall.

It was clearly a meeting point for local teenagers, a large group of whom congregated after school to eat and chat, although customers of all age groups arrived.

Our trek back to the hotel was a short one. But even pausing momentarily to take photos was physically painful as the cold bit deep into our hands and faces. At the harbour, as I photographed ice patterns and sleeping fishing trawlers, I had to peel the camera from my face.

In communities which endure such extreme weather, social venues such as Cafe Centrum are essential.

As teenager Ronja Monsen serving behind the counter explained, the winter is spent "gathering, sometimes around fires, eating and chatting" - activites that extend back beyond the Vikings to the very start of man's existence.

February 20, 2014

Norway, Honningsvag: Corner Cafe

This could possibly be the most northern cafe on mainland Europe.

Honningsvag - on the same latitude as Siberia and Alaska - is a small fishing port and the nearest habitation to Nordkapp - a contender for the point on the European landmass closest to the north pole.

Honningsvag's houses are built parallel to the harbour, facing out to sea with crags rising protectively behind. Suprisingly, the settlement is classified as a city, its coat of arms the dramatic Nordkapp cliff.

On our Arctic trip on the Norwegian coastal steamer MS Midnatsol, we docked at 11.15 am.

It was a gentle -2oC, wind force 3 and snowing pretty hard. As we were in the midst of the Polar Night it felt like evening. The town was inches deep in snow and glowed with amber lights.

Exploring on foot gave us the opportunity to observe how Norwegians cope with icy weather. The answer is, extremely well. Obviously - this is Norway. Streets were ungritted, but kept clear of deep snow with a plough.

A couple of vehicles passed without problem and at a fair speed - to the point one almost knocked me over as I was photographing the cafe. I discovered I was standing in the middle of the road since the lack of gritting meant it was impossible to tell where the pavement ended and highway began.

Meanwhile, the postman was doing his round on a foot-propelled ski scooter with a basket on the front and we met two parents pulling their children home on sledges.

But these were our only encounters and Honningsvag had a definite air of desertion - added to by the fact a large hotel in the town centre was boarded up.

After our circuit of the 'city', we took refuge in the harbourfront Corner Cafe.

If not for the sandwich board outside, we would have thought it closed. The cafe is on the first storey of a large wooden building and not visible from the street, which was hardly teeming with life.

However, once we'd brushed off the worst of the snow and climbed the stairs, we found a true haven - warm in temperature and atmosphere.

In Scandanavian tradition, candles flickered on wooden tables and overhead lighting was turned down to the minimum. It seems strange to reduce light in times of 24-hour darkness, but it works.

Home-made hot chocolate would have been ideal given the weather, but the friendly waitress informed us in faultless English that this was off the menu 'as it was Sunday'. Instead, we ordered coffees, which were excellent.

This bar cum cafe specialises in fish dishes, including whale steaks and burgers.

I saw my first whales in the wild last year - small groups of minke whales off the coast of Whitby - an experience as exciting as seeing the aurora from the frozen ninth deck of the Midnatsol on the two previous nights.

I'm completely in awe of these intelligent and mystical creatures and draw the line at eating them. But fish had to be tried here of all places, so instead I opted for deep-fried cods' tongues.

These small triangles in a light batter came with tartare sauce and a chilli dip. The flesh was white and deliciously tender - not flaky like the body of the cod, smooth but not rubbery. I could have eaten two helpings.

Spooky ordered a classic Norwegian dish, fiskesuppe which has a cream base with small chunks of white fish, arctic salmon and fresh herbs such as dill.

I tried it in Alesund but found it too rich for my palate and as I don't eat bread, not as substantial as I would have liked. You need bread - fresh and often containing seeds in Norway - to mop up the creamy liquid and provide some bulk.

Although the cafe holds events such as discos in the evenings, a lone male customer was the only other occupant. But we were grateful to find this lovely shelter open on this chilly January afternoon.