Finmark, plate by Kari Nyqvist for Stavangerflint

How I came to be in Tromsø, Norway’s arctic ‘capital’, shopping in the never-ending autumn twilight is a long story. It had nothing to do with Johanna Lumley’s widely televised Norwegian odyssey. Suffice to say, my trip was an equally idiosyncratic one. I had flown to Vardø, Norway’s most easterly town, and one of its most northern, to see the site of a new and irresistibly strange collaborative work – a witch burning memorial – by French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois and the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor.

I did, of course, still hope that I might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights; Tromsø is 350km inside the arctic circle and October is one of the most reliable months for sightings. I arrived from Vardø aboard the MS Trollfjord at midnight, and something was definitely going on up there in the sky, though it was more akin to the Northern Smudges. It turned out that I missed a great green glowing show by a few hours. Still, it’s yet another reason to return.

Tromsø is an enchanting island city of steep streets and 18th- and 19th-century wooden houses. Everything is within walking distance, including small, well-considered cultural institutions (I particularly like the Art Museum of Northern Norway and the Perspektivet Museum), craft suppliers, outdoor equipment shops, pubs, bars and excellent coffee at Kaffe Bonna. Plus heart-stopping views at the end of almost every street – mountains and the sea. If you’re not iPod ODing on local lads Röyksopp as I was, Grieg would, of course, go down well.

Shopping wasn’t high on my agenda. I was in need of a break from it, after a spell in mammon’s great maw, New York, and, in any case, was travelling with only a small (and already down and fur-stuffed) carryon in tow. But I wasn’t counting on coming across Fretex. Tromsø’s branch of the Salvation Army-run charity shop chain is as large as it is well ordered, and staffed by happy students decked out in bits and pieces of the chain’s current recycled fashion range. (My fellow shoppers all appeared to be immigrants from the Horn of Africa.) After poking around a bin of children’s seal-skin hats, I spotted what I knew, even at a distance, was the holy grail of op shopping: vintage Arabia.

Arabia is one of Finland’s most enduring ceramics manufacturers. Once an outpost of the Swedish Rörstrand company, they became independent in 1916 (shortly before Finland itself), and went on to employ many of the country’s great mid-century designers. The striped stoneware teapot I had spotted – one of Ulla Procopé’s timeless Ruska range – was in mint condition, and at 100NK (around $US20), was an absolute steal. My ecstasy quickly turned to agony. It was, as far as teapots go, a whopper. With its internal ceramic infuser it must have been well over a kilo in weight. And I was a long way from home. I carried my new found friend around the shop for a little while, trying to convince myself that it could, no problem, be wrapped in tissue and carried on separate to the carryon, but came to my senses and sadly put it back on the shelf.

So what you see above is the consolation prize. It’s definitely a souvenir – with a proud ‘Finnmark’ emblazoned around the Norwegian flag – but its illustrative style transcends tack, even if it is a tad faux-naïf. A riot of fishermen, tanker ships, islands and seals frolic on one side; Sámi people, skin tents, reindeer and sleds on the other. When explaining where I’d been to my daughters, it did a far better job than all my words.

The design is by Kari Nyqvist, and it was made at the Stavangerflint factory. I’ve long loved Figgjo Flint’s Lotte and Daisy designs by Turi Gramstad-Oliver, her lovely elongated forms decorated with insanely joyful figurative work, the exuberant Norwegian folk sensibility tempered by just enough mid-century Modernist restraint. But I had never heard of Stavanger. Both factories, it turns out, are named for the their respective and neighbouring west coast towns, and the two merged in the late 60s. I like to imagine the plate used to serve up solboller, a custard-splodged saffron or tumeric-tinted bun that’s baked to celebrate the return of the sun in January, after two months of dark. It’s got holes in its back for a hanging wire though, so it was always destined for decoration, not duty.

Oddly, it cost me 157NK, rather steeply priced in comparison to the teapot, not to mention a lovely 1950s Rörstrand bowl I also picked up for a paltry 10NK. The only thing I could put the price difference down to was Norwegian design nationalism. And yes, I still do miss ‘my’ teapot, but am consoled by the thought that through the winter’s long dark, it was busy dispensing hot tea to one of the Somali or Ethiopian or Eritrean families I shopped with that day. Hopefully they too have found a warm home among the staggering beauty of the far, far north.

Skattørvegen 39
Tromsø, Norway

Domestic carrier Widerøe services the Finnmark and Troms regions of Norway; flights are relatively inexpensive. The Hurtigruten line has daily sailings from Kirkenes to Bergen in both directions, visiting Vardø and Tromsø along the way.


About Donna Wheeler

Donna Wheeler is the author of several Lonely Planet guidebooks, is a reporter for My Art Guides and the author of the upcoming Paris Precincts title for Hardie Grant. She has published on contemporary art, architecture and design, food, wine and history in a variety of publications. Travel writing follows various careers, including commissioning editor, art director, digital producer and content strategist.