HAMMERFEST, Norway — For the hardy people of Hammerfest, the most northerly town in the world, it's time to visit friends and wander around the streets in sunlight--at 2 in the morning.
This town and others in the third of Norway that is inside the Arctic Circle rejoice in the midnight sun, when the sun shines day and night for more than two months and brightens the lives of people who spend part of the year in total darkness.
Hammerfest, a town of 7,500 people who have traditionally lived from fishing, lies on a rocky and inhospitable island in one of the most barren and sparsely populated areas of Europe.
Northern Norway's position near the top of the world's axis means that it has continuous light from mid-May to the end of July and total darkness from mid-November to mid-January.
First to Get Lights
But Hammerfest, the first town in the world to receive electric street lights in 1890--to help fight the winter darkness--is anything but inhospitable.
"We don't have the usual relationship to light and darkness that other people in the world do," businessman Knut Eirik Olsen, 32, said.
"The people in north Norway have a reputation for being more friendly, more open," he said. "It's a kind of psychological compensation for two months of total darkness in the winter. An open mind is a substitute for light."
Hammerfest--a collection of scattered, mostly wooden houses with one main shopping street and a small harbor--boasts several discotheques, a jazz club renowned throughout Scandinavia, numerous bars and an airport.
Paris of the North
A little farther south, the town of Tromsoe claims to have more restaurants per inhabitant than any other town in Europe. It's known as the Paris of the north.
"We don't sleep much during the midnight sun," said Olsen, who has lived in many parts of Norway's northernmost Finnmark region, "maybe five or six hours, and some people go without sleep for days.
"We go out to visit friends at around 10 o'clock at night, people go on river fishing trips at midnight or decorate the outside of their houses in the early hours. And the bars serve all night."
But even when the sun shines in the summer here, it is never very warm, and it still sometimes snows and hails.
Confusing Life Style
In the winter, the perpetual darkness means that people slow down and sleep more. The way of life here can be very confusing for outsiders, Olsen says.
"People who come here from southern Norway feel as if they have permanent jet lag for a while," he said.
When the winter darkness ends in late January, there is general delight in north Norway at the return of the sun. Special cakes are baked, schools have a day off and skiing and fishing trips are organized.
But even during the dark months, there is consolation in the northern lights, the aurora borealis.
Gold and Green Light
Streamers of gold and green light explode periodically across the dark sky, caused by an interaction of charged particles from around the North Pole with gases in the atmosphere.
Hammerfest's motto is "Man's industry conquers nature." Settled in the 13th Century, the town was largely destroyed by fire in 1890 and razed to the ground by German troops retreating before the Soviet advance into Norway in 1944.
But the townspeople rebuilt it on both occasions, with some of the work completed in the winter months when temperatures drop as low as 49 degrees below zero.
Almost surrounded by snow-capped and barren mountains on uninhabited islands, Hammerfest is a natural port because its waters are sheltered and ice free.