Six nautical miles from Bodø - about 30 kilometres - is the Saltstraumen Strait, a piece of water separating islands that were once connected by ice. Two fjords and sea currents meet there, coming from seas as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. Between three kilometres long and 150 metres wide they pass through just over 400 million cubic metres of seawater in opposite directions. This encounter causes the whirlpool of water that Jules Verne used to make the Nautilus disappear in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; the same one that Edgar Allan Poe describes as the vortex that carried off the brothers of a great seafarer. The Maelstrom, they called it.
Why was Bodø in Norway named European Capital of Culture 2024? Northern lights, Vikings, pastries, whirlpools, diving concerts and ancestral knowledge are the starting points.
Bodø is a whirlpool
Although once a danger to shippers and vessels crossing between fjords, this is now one of Bodø's great attractions. In zodiac boats, passengers and crew venture, approximately every six hours or so, between the huge rolling waves created by the crashing currents and the colours of the sea as it meets the icy waters. It's an introduction to the way life is lived here in the far north: the cold, the Viking, the unprecedented natural beauty, the myths and the mixing of the ages.
Bodø, in addition to being European Capital of Culture 2024, is also the capital of Nordland, one of the three counties that make up Norway; it is also a municipality and the largest city in the region. The "mini-metropolis of the North", as it is called, is the first in the Arctic circle to hold the title of the continent's cultural epicentre, which prompted the Norwegians to organise "the world's biggest party".
The agenda, which is expected to attract half a million visitors, has more than a thousand activities planned throughout the year, with the opening in the port of Bodø on 3 February. The events, of different disciplines, aim to be a way of understanding and spreading awareness of what this region is at its core: the life of the cold and snow, the interaction with the nature of the area, and the ways in which society has organised itself here, with a special focus on the Sàmi, the first inhabitants of this land.
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For example, a surreal concert by Håkon Skog Erlandsen, the jazzathlete who played the saxophone on the summit of Everest, is scheduled. The event will take place in the underwater cave Pluragrotta, which can only be reached by diving. That means that musicians, sound technicians, audience, press, everyone (who cannot be more than 50), will have to have their diving certificate to get to the stage on 16 March.
There will also be the ARRAN 360°, a festival that oscillates between indigenous storytelling and technological innovation that will take place inside the world's largest lavvo (typical Sàmi dwellings), some 10 metres high. The project, which debuted at the 2022 Venice Biennale, consists of six films so far, and six other new Sami visual artists have been commissioned to create the next chapter.
But besides the interesting and very diverse agenda to celebrate Bodø's nomination as European Capital of Culture 2024, the city has much to offer in its everyday state.
What is so special about Bodø?
This town of just 50,000 inhabitants is not Norway's most popular tourist destination. In fact, it is often only known as a stopover on the scenic Kystriksveien route, to reach the Lofoten Islands or to see the Maelstrom. Despite - or perhaps even because of - that, there is plenty to see and do in this small town in the Arctic Circle.
Stormen's library, for example, was named one of the most beautiful in the world, and its auditorium hosts some of the world's most renowned concerts. Although the city is not very large, there is a rich cultural life.
Of its many museums and galleries, the Adde Zetterquist Art Gallery, located within the Nordland National Park Centre, is a majestic building, surrounded by nature that more than lives up to the adjective. On display are the works of Per Adde and Kajsa Zetterquist, two Sàmi artists whose work is linked to land conservation and the rights of their community.
Walking around the city, cafés, boutiques and restaurants are dotted everywhere, and for some years now there has been a strong emphasis on local cuisine.
Food in Bodø
LystPå is one of the restaurants where you can sample local food, with a menu that focuses on Northern Norwegian traditions and produce, combined with modern techniques. Fish and seafood are central, but the king of this cuisine is salmon.
Also, for some years now, Craig Alibone's Pastry and Champagne Shop has become a reference. The owner and pastry chef advises diners on which pastry to choose and which bubbly to pair it with.
Although you might think that because it's so cold here for so many months, the activities are indoors, that's far from the truth. Walking through the streets of Bodø is like walking through an open-air museum, with street art unexpectedly peeking over the walls of Nordic architecture.
But above all, this city exists around the wonders of nature. In summer they have the midnight sun, when sunset never happens. By contrast, during winter, the northern lights paint the darkness with colours that dance across the sky.
The surrounding fjords and islands are perfect for those who love walking and hiking. A favourite is the climb up Rønvikfjellet Mountain, from the top of which there's a spectacular view of Bodø and the Nordic spectacle that surrounds it.
This swirling town, where Sàmi traditions blend with Scandinavian innovations, where the invented boundary between nature and civilisation seems to blur, will be celebrating this year, but the reality is that it's always a must-visit destination for the cold and the people, the great fish and the life so close to the North Pole.