Urban, Suburban and Icebergin’

After Qaqortoq, we visited three more towns in Greenland. They all shared the same distinctive appearance: brightly colored houses perched on rocky hills surrounding a protected bay. We found them all charming and hadn’t seen anything quite like them elsewhere in the world. Nuuk is the capital of Greenland and the largest town, with about 18,000 residents. It had a proper downtown area with some less colorful high-rises and a pedestrian shopping street a few blocks long. The stores were large and well stocked, perhaps buoyed by being in a pre-Amazon.com economy. Nuuk was also home to a few trendy restaurants and art galleries. A surprising amount of amenities for a town that size in that location.

This sculpture depicts the legend of the Mother of the Sea who punishes Inuit hunters who break taboos by entangling all the local animals in her hair. A shaman must then travel to the bottom of the ocean to comb her hair and release the animals and find out which rules were broken.

While ogling the stores, we saw a group of 20 or so young people carrying signs, wearing pointed hats, chanting slogans. We assumed it was some kind of protest but couldn’t be sure. Then a few blocks away there was another group, dressed differently and with a different chant. Rival gangs? A day of rage? A traditional Inuit cultural festival? We eventually found out they were students from the vocational college on a team-building scavenger hunt. An explanation that was a bit disappointingly mundane but perhaps more telling about daily life here.

In every town we visited, the houses and shops were all packed together. The suburbs were for the dogs, literally. Dog sleds are still a part of everyday life in Greenland, especially in the more northerly towns like Sisimiut and Ilulissat which we visited after Nuuk. Dogs are kept on the outskirts of the towns, in acres of fenced kennels. We were warned not to approach the adult dogs who are all business. A warning would not have been necessary after we saw the dogs tear apart hunks of seal meat that their owners tossed in for lunch. There were however a few free-ranging and curious puppies who were safe to pat.

And here are our non-dog urban pictures from Sisimiut and Ilulissat.

Ilulissat was a cute town but the real draw is that it sits at the opening of a long fjord. At the other end of the fjord is the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere, calving off 20 billion tons of icebergs every year. The icebergs march down the long fjord and then out to sea. It is believed that the iceberg that struck the Titanic came from here. Some of the icebergs are so massive that they have floated as far as Africa before melting. The icebergs are visible from town as they pass but for the best view we took a boat tour among the giant ice sculptures, though they were often shown up by a pod of humpback whales who crashed the party. (Here’s a little whale video.) We also hiked down a long boardwalk to a spot where the fjord gets a bit shallower. There the largest icebergs become grounded, causing a traffic jam of ice until the larger ones melt or are pushed out by force of the ice behind them.

Greenland really is

Well, not so much the east coast. By a quirk of ocean and atmospheric currents, the east coast of Greenland (facing Europe) is barren and rocky, though quite impressive with countless glaciers marching down the craggy mountains toward the fjords. The glaciers deposit icebergs into the water, each one a one-of-a-kind abstract sculpture. For most of the year, sea ice prevents ships from reaching the coast. The few inhabitants are cut-off for months from the outside world. Our ship didn’t get a chance to land there but we enjoyed the view and naming the icebergs like a Rorschach test.

The harsh weather from the east is blocked by the mountains and icecap of Greenland which act like a wind-break to protect the calmer and warmer west coast. We had a chance to experience some of those winds as they were funneled though a gap between islets at the southern tip of the main island. It was challenging to keep our cameras steady to photograph the beautiful scenery with 80mph gusts slapping our hands (and occasionally a painful slap to the face by a wind-whipped coat collar). Perhaps it wasn’t wise to be out in the weather but it was fun to experience such strong winds in a relatively safe environment.

Just around the corner from the southern tip but tucked safely away on the west coast is Qaqortoq. It is the fourth largest town in Greenland with a population of about 3000 (we will visit numbers 1, 2 and 3 shortly). The first thing you notice about Qaqortoq and other Greenlandic towns are the colors — all the buildings are painted in a crazy quilt of bright colors, like someone spilled a bag of Skittles on the steep hills rising up from the sea. When towns were established in the 18th century by the Danish colonizers, the buildings were color coded. The doctor’s house as yellow, shops were red and blue was for workshops. Today it is a free-for-all, though hospitals are still usually yellow out of habit or homage. We also finally saw the famous green of Greenland, with many grass and flowers mixed among the houses and rocky outcrops.

Despite the remote and dramatic location, the feel is of a Scandinavian town with all the modern conveniences. The supermarkets are piled high with fresh produce and everything else you can imagine. The harbors of southwestern Greenland are ice-free all year round and are kept well supplied with frequent cargo ships from Denmark. The roads are nicely paved, though with only 90 miles of roads in the entire island you can’t get very far. None of the towns are connected to each other by road and the harbor is full of small boats, the primary means of getting around.

We never mastered the Greenlandic language.

We had a brief city tour of Qaqortoq with a very unlikely guide: a middle aged woman born and bred in the American south who moved to Greenland after marrying a Greenlander. The two met in an online chat group in the 90’s and became friends over the years. Eight years ago they met in person for the first time when he visited Florida. After a whirlwind romance, she was engaged and moving to Greenland. As a tour guide, her facts were a little confused but her wide-eyed enthusiasm for Greenland was heartening and infectious.

Our guide Katy showing one of the many new art installations around town.

Qaqortoq was also the center of the largest Viking settlement in Greenland (though technically we should say “Norse” rather than “Viking” once they settled down and were no longer a warrior culture). The Norse settled Greenland in the 10th century and mysteriously vanished around the 15th century. A number of theories have been floated about what happened to the Greenland Norse, from disease to climate change to war with the Inuit who were settling southwestern Greenland at about the same time. But none of these theories are supported by archeological or written evidence. It is possible they just trickled back to Iceland or Scandinavia without drama. The last written evidence of the Norse in Greenland was of a marriage in the Hvalsey church, near Qaqortoq. The ruins of the stone church are fairly intact and we visited the site. Tall grass dotted with tiny blueberry bushes just inches high (yum!) cover the rocky slopes around the church.