Diary of a Guidebook Writer: Why Bill Bryson should return to Hammerfest

Photo: David Nikel A walk up a steep zig-zag path rewards you with a view of the city.

Photo: David Nikel
A walk up a steep zig-zag path rewards you with a view of the city.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

When it comes to travel writing, my undisputed hero is Bill Bryson. King of the first-person narrative, his fondness for Britain also earns him a special place on my bookshelves. As a Brit living abroad, I can identify with some of his observations on how Brits behave in his book Notes from a Small Island. You learn a lot about yourself when living abroad!

But it’s one of his earlier books that I want to talk about today. Neither Here Nor There chronicles his travels around Europe in an age before low-cost airlines, internet booking sites, and social media.

A long way from anywhere
He starts his travels, quite surprisingly, in Hammerfest. It claims to be the world’s northernmost town and while that’s up for debate (it comes down to definitions), let’s just agree to say Hammerfest is a very long way from anywhere. It’s not just a long way north from the rest of the country; it’s a long way east, too. Hammerfest lies almost due north of Helsinki, Finland, and as such, my iPhone kept trying to switch into Eastern European Time.

So why did Bryson choose Hammerfest of all places to begin his trip? It’s fairly simple. He wanted to see the northern lights:

“It is a place of dark and brutal winters where the sun sinks into the Arctic Ocean in November and does not rise again for ten weeks. I wanted to see the northern lights. Also, I had long harbored a half-formed urge to experience what life was like in such a remote and forbidding place. Sitting at home in England with a glass of whiskey and a book of maps, this had seemed like a capital idea. But now, as I picked my way through the grey, late December slush of Oslo, I was beginning to have my doubts.”

His doubts were confirmed as he experienced a very quiet town gripped by high winds and winter storms. But at least he saw the northern lights. As much as that’s a magnetic attraction, I wouldn’t recommend a visit in the depths of winter to anyone. Many attractions are closed, and low temperatures, storms, and constant darkness mean you need to have a real desire to visit. You’re better off choosing Tromsø, which is a much livelier destination in the wintertime with just as much chance of sighting the northern lights.

Photo: David Nikel Hammerfest’s smart new waterfront is lined with hotels and restaurants.

Photo: David Nikel
Hammerfest’s smart new waterfront is lined with hotels and restaurants.

Summertime visit
I visited in July and I have to say, Hammerfest was a pleasant place. I was lucky enough to visit in the middle of a heatwave and experienced a remarkable temperature of 84°F at 8:00 a.m.! This was freak weather and Arctic summers are usually much milder, albeit with guaranteed sunshine 24 hours a day unless the clouds get in the way.

Since Bryson’s visit, the city has undergone rapid transformation thanks to the construction of the gas-processing facility on the nearby Melkøya island, which serves the vast Snøhvit (Snow White) natural gas field in the Norwegian Sea.

All of a sudden, the city and its citizens became affluent, new hotels sprung up, a smart new boardwalk was built, and new shops and cafés moved in.

Plenty to do
As I visited in the summer, I found plenty to do. Gammelveien (The Old Road) is a gravelly path that circles the town. Built at the very end of the 19th century, a stretch of the path zig-zags its way up the cliff face that towers over downtown. In the winter, this path is closed as ice and snow make it too dangerous.

Photo: David Nikel The Museum of Reconstruction features example homes from the post-war era.

Photo: David Nikel
The Museum of Reconstruction features example homes from the post-war era.

The bleak yet fascinating Museum of Reconstruction tells the story of Hammerfest’s destruction during World War II and its subsequent revival. Meanwhile, although the town’s emblem is a polar bear, it’s reindeer that roam the town’s streets during the summer. Be wary when you drive—although locals get frustrated with the animals, they won’t take too kindly to a foreigner knocking one down.

There’s even a UNESCO World Heritage site in the town, or part of one at least. Hammerfest marks the northernmost point of the Struve Geodetic Arc, a chain of survey triangulations stretching through ten countries to the Black Sea, which yielded the first accurate measurement of a meridian. A monument marks the spot.

However, the real joy in Hammerfest is using the town as a base to explore Finnmark county, whether by hiking, fishing, sailing, or enjoying a picnic in front of the midnight sun. The comfortable hotels, restaurants, museums, shops, and bars of the city will be waiting for you when you return. Hammerfest is also a great place to base yourself if you’re heading to the North Cape, which I’ll talk about next month.

Despite his digs throughout the chapter, Bryson left Hammerfest with a certain fondness for the place and its people. I just think he’d like it far more were he to visit in the summer!

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net blog and is the author of the upcoming MOON Norway guidebook.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 12, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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