At the top of the world: Discovering Norway’s Little Russia
Despite a population of just over 3,000 hardy souls, Kirkenes will be a familiar place name to you I’m sure. As the northern terminus of Hurtigruten, Norway’s famous coastal ferry service, the city’s name is etched in most travelers’ minds. But how much do you know about one of Norway’s most remote cities?
Kirkenes is part of Eastern Finnmark, a region that most people have no idea even exists, because it’s hard to spot on a map! It’s more than 300 miles north of the Arctic circle and just a few miles away from the Russian border. Yes, Norway has a border with Russia! It’s further east than almost all of Finland and in fact, as Far East as Istanbul. Fly south from Kirkenes and you’ll be right above Ukraine. The geography up here is hard to fathom, but things get even more confusing on the ground.
Being so close to Russia gives the town a truly unique feel. Many street signs and advertisements are bilingual and I heard just as much Russian on the streets as I did Norwegian. In fact during my first day I barely heard a Norwegian voice at all. Some would find this unsettling, but I found it fascinating. Traveling across the border is much easier for those living locally thanks to a special border arrangement. Russians arrive regularly to buy goods they can’t find in their homeland, while Norwegians go in the opposite direction to save money on the basics.
Seventy years ago, Kirkenes became the first place in Norway to be liberated as the Soviet Army launched a counter-offensive against the Nazi occupation. This move goes a long way to explain the positive relationship between Norwegians and Russians in the Barents region, despite tensions elsewhere in Europe.
The battle scars are mostly gone but definitely not forgotten. A well-preserved wartime bunker sits in the center of the town alongside a statue commemorating the liberation. Another statue downtown remembers the wartime mothers.
Grenselandmuseet (the Border Museum) offers visitors a glimpse into these troubled times. The centrepiece is a bomber, pulled from a nearby lake and restored by the Russian army. The stories of life in wartime Finnmark are unlike any you’ll hear elsewhere so I highly recommend a visit, but be warned, although the museum is a relatively short uphill walk from the hotels, it feels a lot longer in 20-degree weather!
Farewell to the sun
It’s impossible to talk about this region without mentioning the climate. During my visit the sun appeared low on the horizon for just a few hours, casting spectacular reds and pinks across the sky in the morning, and a beautiful deep indigo from midday. From late November the sun will set and won’t be seen again until the last week of January, plunging the city into a two-month mørketid (dark time).
There is an upside though. The permanent darkness maximizes your chances of seeing the northern lights, which I saw on two of the three nights of my trip. As an added bonus, I was treated to a rare sighting of the aurora from the plane window shortly after take-off on my flight to Oslo. While summertime offers the promise of permanent daylight thanks to the midnight sun, it can be hard to sleep and your body clock will not thank you!
In winter high season (Dec-Apr) there’s plenty of activities on offer from a husky-pulled sled ride into the Arctic wilderness to a boat trip up to the Russian border. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous in the summer, a 70-mile drive followed by a 1.5 hour hike through Øvre Pasvik National Park will take you to the meeting point of Norway, Russia and Finland. It’s not just three countries that meet here, but three different time zones too. Be wary of the Russian border though. You will be watched and you cannot cross the border, even to circle the marker!
Living in the High North
There’s no doubt that Mother Nature is boss in Kirkenes. Heavy snowfalls can close roads and the airport, essentially cutting the town off from all but boat transport. It might seem an inhospitable place to live, yet a lot of people I talked to love living here.
Despite the harsh climate, the outdoors dominates life in the city, from the visiting Hurtigruten to the sporting opportunities of hiking, skiing, fishing, sailing and more. Kirkenes is an industrial town, home to shipping and mining companies that employ a big chunk of the local workforce.
As a regional center, a surprising number of brand-name stores are present (G-Sport, Cubus, Dressmann) and even some decent restaurants. I enjoyed good meals in the Ritz pizzeria, the Surf n Turf, and the Thon Hotel restaurant. Now for the bad news. Due to higher transport costs reaching this part of the world, shopping and eating out in Kirkenes is more expensive than in the rest of Norway, but options are available to suit all budgets, just.
I won’t recommend Kirkenes as a destination on its own, but if you’re arriving by Hurtigruten or you’re on a tour of Finnmark, this truly unique corner of Norway is worth a second look.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.