Greenland, in the footsteps of Smilla

Not just in the imaginations of poets and in the tales of explorers. The aurora borealis, a curtain of coloured lights seemingly blown by the wind that is visible all year round, the immense tundra, the glaciers and icebergs, the sleds pulled by dogs and the igloos.

In recent years the country has caught the imagination thanks to Peter Hoeg’s book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and its big screen adaptation starring Julia Ormond, which underlined the vastness of the Great North, but also its mystery, its lights and the different ways of describing the snow in kalaalisut, the language of the Inuit Eskimos. Seven times bigger than Italy and located between Iceland and Canada, today Greenland is basking in a limelight that contrasts totally with its famous Polar night: on 21 June 2009, after three hundred years the largest island in the world officially dissolved its ties with motherland Denmark and is now recognised as a sovereign state. Which is waiting to be discovered now having enthusiastically welcomed its new independent status.

Aside from the fishing industry, hunting and crafts, the island of icebergs aims to focus fully on tourism. A straightforward task given its intense and almost surreal landscapes. Traditional destinations include the capital Nuuk which, founded by a Danish monk that christened it “Good Hope” (Godthàb), is today a cosmopolitan town with two souls, one modern and the other - particularly interesting - older with a delightful fishing port and colourful wooden houses that evoke the colonial charm of yesteryear.

Not to be missed is a visit to the National Museum, located in historic warehouses from the early 20th century, for a journey into the culture of Greenland, which here we discover to be one of the oldest rock formations in the world (dating to 3.8 billion years ago). Interestingly, the Museum houses three female mummies that date to 1400, with clothes and decorations of the period, that have been superbly conserved by the action of the icebergs. Nearby, situated on a rock is the immense granite statue the Mother of the Sea, a long-haired goddess that represents the power of nature and which, according to legend, protects the local population.

Other popular destinations include the archipelago of Disko Bay, a land filled with mountains of ice, with huge blocks that come away from the ice fjord at a rate of up to 40 metres a day. Ilulissat, one of the villages in the bay and the most important centre on the west coast, owes its name to the icebergs. Here, between May and July, the sun never goes down, while from November the Polar night begins. A spectacular landscape, distinctive for the Kangerlua fjord, which is home to the biggest glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, the Sermeq Kujalleq: 40 Kilometres long, it produces 20 million tonnes of ice a day (the equivalent of the amount of water consumed in New York in an entire year!). The sunset is particularly impressive at its late hour, when the rays of the midnight sun colour the sky with vibrant fiery red tones. The silence of nature accompanies you, broken only by the sound of the icebergs crashing into each other.

Trekking enthusiasts should get prepared and make sure they don’t miss a visit to the slopes of the glacier nearby, or the icebergs in the archaeological site of Sermermiut, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, connected to Ilussitat by a relatively undemanding path. Ilulissat was the birthplace, in 1879, of one of the most famous explorers in the world Knud Rasmussen, who left in his home, now a museum, a trove of Inuit memories and objects relating to his expeditions. “Give me the winter, give me dogs, and you can have the rest”, he loved to repeat. All we need do is heed his words: yesterday, as today, its mythical charm remains intact.
by Mariangela Rossi

Useful information

• Population: 56,542 inhabitants, 88% of whom Greenlandic, and 12% Danish and other

• Currency: Danish krone

• Shopping: Inuit craft souvenirs, such as leather goods, bijoux, little sculptures and masks carved from wood, ivory or steatite, a pliant stone commonly found in Arctic countries. Recently they have also started selling tupilak, mythological figurines carved from bone, horn or ivory designed to evoke ancestral spirits.

• Language: since June the official language is Kalaallisut

• Climate: arctic (cold and dry), with strong variations. In the north it is rigid (-35°C in January and -4°C in July) while the fjords in the south-west and the area around Disko Bay enjoy warmer temperatures thanks to the Gulf currents (-6°C in January and 7°C in July).

• What to eat: Eskimo countries are always full of delicacies linked to hunting. Such as boiled seal meat (suaasat), which has become the national dish, and whale (arvic), which is often served with browned onions. You’ll also often find reindeer (caribù) and musk ox meat, as well as wide selection of fish, particularly prawns and halibut (typical in seas of the North and similar to sole).

• What to do: apart from a couple of museums in Ilulissat (the former home of explorer Knud Rasmussen and the Cold Museum, which has ancient utensils), Greenland’s attractions are mainly naturalistic. Trekking and organised excursions are a must, as well as boat trips when the weather permits them. The most important events on the Greenlandic calendar are the celebrations surrounding the end of the Polar night. Such as 13 January 2010 in Ilulissat, where the entire town will gather at the ruins of Sermermiut. For fans of golf on ice, Uummannaq is the location for the World Ice Golf Championship from 1 to 31 March 2010, a truly spectacular tournament on the icebergs.