We woke today for the final time aboard the MS Nordlys. At 9am we docked in Kirkenes (pronounced something like Chir-ken-esh).
This area of Norway has a unique history and culture. We learnt specifically a little about the town of Vardo which was a quick port stop on the way up, which we were not able to get off the ship for. Vardo is the Easternmost town in Norway and further east that parts of Russia.
The towns of this region feel like ‘the forgotten Norweigans’. The town of Vardo had a wonderful fishing industry, but due to its distance, the Norweigan buyers only came as far as Honningsvag. They had an oversupply. The Russian people near the border needed fish and so a sort of black market emerged which suited both communities. A blind eye was turned for a while, but eventually free trade agreements were provided. It resulted in floods of Russian boats to the harbour to collect the dried fish from the Vardo docks.
Vardo was also the location of Scandinavian Witch Trials. A nasty time in European history.
During WWII Vardo was heavily bombed whilst under German occupation. Most of the town had to be rebuilt with a few peripheral areas surviving. This town is stop on the Southbound journey. It would have been interesting to really delve into the history here.
Upon arrival in Kirkenes, we had just under 2hrs before our transfer came to take us to Inari, Finland. We took the opportunity to go into town and have a look around this ‘East meets West’ part of Norway while we had it.
Being a Sunday everything was closed, however in the main market square an outdoor exhibition was set up that provided some information about the town and also about a lady of signicance Ellisif Wessel.
Sor-Varanger is the municipality that Kirkenes is in. It is a borderland for three countries, Russian, Finland and Norway. It is a melting pot for both culture and nature. People from all different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds meet here. The landscape of Siberia meets the Fjords and this has made the area fertile and varied in what it produces. The climate is considered sub-arctic. It has cold winters with relatively warm summers. We already have noticed that there is a lot more snow on the ground than we have seen on the other coastal towns. As we walked around we were treading icy streets and crunchy snow.
It is only in the last 200 years that the Sami people have been significantly joined by other groups of people. Quoting from the boards “The drawing of national borderlines, closing of borders crossings, World Wars and cooperation in the Barents region are events handled by the national authorities inflicting consequences on the population of Sor-Varangrer. It has been politically important for Norway to assert their superiority of this area above the interests of Russia, Finland and Sweden”.
Ellisif Wessel married and moved with her husband to Kirkenes in 1886. The district was poor and the couple engaged with the local community in constructive ways. Andreas Wessel was a doctor, mayor and deputy MP. Ellisif used her camera and literary skills by way of news articles to present the region to the outside world. She also engaged with the miners (iron ore was discovered around 1906) and the poor to support and was instrumental in the establishment of the Miners Union. Parts of the exhibition were in Norweigan and not all translated – that’s one for Google.
We walked through the local streets back toward the harbour to be waiting for our transfer bus. We saw the local solution to getting the kids around in the slippery conditions. Just like on the Christmas cards, such a practical contraption! A lady walking her three dogs. It was 3 generations of ….. Traditionally a reindeer herding dog. She told us that if they see a group of people standing around, they would try to go and herd them up. The were very friendly and she was just as interested to hear about Oscar and asked plenty of questions about our dogs and breeds. The architecture here was also a bit different. There were still the timber homes, but the church for example was very different in style to what we’ve seen elsewhere.
We didn’t have to wait long for our transfer bus. There were 8 of us from the ship heading out to Inari. The bus trip was overland and took about 5hrs. We had a couple of brief stops. One to photograph a picturesque spot in the river where we are told is great for Salmon. Another at the Finnish/Norway border and a final comfort stop.
The drive across was so pretty. The highway was all white. And the landscape completely snow covered. The lakes are starting to ice over now and the spruce trees still had snow on them from the last fall. The sun set at 1:30pm but it doesn’t get dark immediately. There is a blue light that hangs around and this lasted until after 5pm.
We arrived and checked in to discover that the museum Siida which is the best around for information on the Sami way of life and the region, was closing in an hour and wouldn’t open on Monday. We braved the icy streets and wandered out to the museum for a rushed look. Of course it wasn’t enough time to really absorb it all, but we gave it a red hot go! The permanent exhibitions were really good. The outside wall was provided great information about climate, the environment, flora and fauna of the area. There are still brown bears here, wolverines, lemmings, arctic foxes and hares. Many different types of birds of course. The climate is quite different to the coast as we were expecting.
The other permanent exhibition was about the Sami people of this area and their history and culture. We learnt some of this during our Coastal Walk although the Museum obviously went further and I really wish we had more time to take it all in. I bought a book in the gift shop to read later. I had a bit of a chat to one of the ladies working here who is Sami and she was saying that of the many languages that were originally spoken by Sami people many were lost. There is the main Sami language that has been taught and retained that both Norweigan and Finnish Sami speak. She speaks two languages to her children, Sami and Finnish, and due to a recent change in policy she is now also studying her fathers language which is specific to this region. Whilst it was not allowed to be taught by her fathers generation, there are still 300 people who can speak it and she is working through University to bring this language back to the local Sami people.
We walked back along the lakeside to the hotel. Andrew dared to venture onto the snow covered lake. There were plenty of foot prints and bicycle tracks, so he felt fairly confident.
We had a pub meal – reindeer burgers and a beer – was great! After all the fine dining on the cruise we were ready for a change.
Our room booking had included a sauna. Unfortunately there was a mistake and we had been allocated a different room. The Hotel Manager was apologetic and heated up one of the other saunas for our use. I can understand why the sauna is so popular here. It was so relaxing and warm.
We had a night ‘light’ safari booked for tonight. In one way it was a shame we were rushing out. It felt much later than it was as it had already been dark so long, but we also didn’t want to miss a chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis if we could. Some things we about the lights last night:
- No matter how strong the lights are, you can’t see them through heavy cloud – conversely, no matter how clear the sky is, you can’t see them if they are not strong.
- Four days ago they were strong and the sky was clear.
- Last night they were strong but there was 100% cloud coverage that was too thick to see anything.
For future travellers, I would advise to not book this tour in advance. Upon arrival in Inari we would have been able to determine whether or not a guide and car was required to find the lights. Last night a look at the radar on our smart phones would have told us that we would not find them. The guide optimistically took us about 70km from town, but no ‘lucky’ finding a clear patch of sky. We did however see many of his photos of successful trips to see the lights…well intended sharing, however it smarted just a little to see what we were missing. The signal last night was very strong. If it weren’t for the clouds we would have been seeing quite a show!
The tour included a bunch of other tourists who were trying to take photos of the clouds with their iPhones and instant cameras expecting to turn up awesome pictures of kaleidoscope skies. Not to mention the use of their torches and led lights to look at their cameras which, when photographing the night sky, just makes it impossible…anyway, the thing we learnt mainly was – book a private guide, if the sky is partially cloudy and the signal is strong. We downloaded a really good app that tells us that the next few nights still have a strong signal and the area we are headed to is due for some clear skies. Fingers crossed!
We returned to the motel, cold and disappointed, but hopeful that the next stop will be better. We head off tomorrow for Kakslauttenan where we will be sleeping in a glass igloo with an all night view of the sky for 3 nights…