Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Apologies for lack of posts lately; I've been trekking around Norway for the last few weeks. My visit included six plane flights with a constant backdrop of 24 hour sun (I saw no darkness for the entire two weeks).

It started with the town of Bjørke, where I attended the indiepop fest IndieFjord (run by a friend of mine) without about 200 other people (forget Reading or Glastonbury, this is where the real festivals are at these days).
Bjørke is one of those postcard-perfect Norwegian towns, with a fjord running through at exactly the perfect temperature to swim in. 


Surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, Bjørke feels pretty heavenly, backed up by some perfect weather.

Church in Bjørke
The festival itself, meanwhile, was in what looked a community hall, as well as at impromptu concerts on someones lawn.

The festival hall
Dennis & The Pony's playing outside someone's house as part of IndieFjord
Bjørke's nearest big metropolis is Ålesund, a sea port with some distinctive architecture which was partially obscured by the fog and rain when we were there (the usual story abroad).

At the top of the hill (where this was taken), there was one of those strange museums that you get in cities like this, charting the history of Ålesund. It includes a boat that you can go in, which was once manned by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, as he chartered (along with others) the waters of the Arctic Circle for months on end. It must have got cramped in there.

Inside the boat
What we were all apprehensive and excited about at this point was our destination next: venturing right near the North Pole while checking out the wind-swept archipelago of Svalbard, one of the most remote places in Europe and the most northernly extreme of the continent. Not only that, but its principal town, Longyearbyen - located on the main island, Spitsbergen - in which we stayed (on the outskirts), is the most northernly-located town on the planet, according to most measures.
Getting your head around Svalbard takes a while. Flying over the archipelago feels like flying over the Moon or Mars; not a single tree on the entire archipelago, a place equal to the size of Iceland or Denmark. Instead, the viewer sees a bleak landscape of mountains, ice, and rivers. Longyearbyen itself, meanwhile, is an industrial-looking town in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains, with jagged architecture and a port surrounded by rows and rows of jumbled scrap metal, which resemble something from The Terminator.

Upon arrival at the airport, you're given a map of the town, with distinct colours indicating where its safe to walk without the fear of being attacked by polar bears. Anywhere outside the town, and you need to be accompanied by an official guide with a gun (though a bunch of guys in a local bar insisted that they went out camping in the countryside on their own anyway) - including hiking in the hills above the town (and over a small glacier), from which I took the picture above.

Svalbard has a complicated legal history as a kind of no-man's land, a demilitarised zone over which Norway has ultimate sovereignty, but from which Svalbard has an agreement of autonomy exacerbated by being outside the EEA and free from VAT. I had to show my passport at Oslo Airport, even though it was an internal flight (a good three hours long, such is its remoteness), whereas you could just go ahead and fly elsewhere inside the country. It feels less Norwegian and more like a genuinely stateless territory. 

Used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, Svalbard attracted a coal mining industry in the early 20th century. Norway's sovereignty was established in 1920, despite the continued presence of Russian mining towns such as Barentsburg (see below) and Ny Alesund (now deserted). During that time, Longyearbyen expanded, and the place became the location of the Global Seed Vault - a vault so secure, and with walls so thick, that when the next nuclear apocalypse happens, the only thing left will be Keith Richards (still playing guitar with a cigarette in his mouth), cockroaches, and the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard.

What Svalbard must be like in the winter, with a 24-hour darkness and constant exposure to the Northern Lights, must be a sight to behold. The Rough Guide to Norway labelled winter in Svalbard as "unconsionably dark". Yet our tour guide on the boat trip demurred, opining that he enjoyed the "beautiful lights" of the winter.

Longyearbyen itself is a strange, bizarrely cosmopolitan place, due to the fact that anyone can live there, as long as they can work (the third most populous nationality after Norwegians and Russians is...wait for it...Thai people). Svalbard's unique history involves the presence of the still-populated Russian mining town Barentsburg, which I managed to visit on a boat trip. Populated by 600 Russian souls, and in tandem with the Russian mining company Arktikugol (Arctic Coal), Barentsburg feels like the town at the end of the world that time forgot, what with its images of statues of Lenin, Marx and Engles facing the mountains behind the lake, and a lack of advertising anywhere (instead replaced by Soviet Union-style propaganda).

There's also the most Northernly-located brewery in the world here, where I downed some vodka next to a giant polar bear and a Soviet-style telephone. What an amazing place.

But it's the majesty of the glaciers which are really impressive in Svalbard, as you can see from the pictures below. Watching them from the boat was an awe-inspiring experience, especially as large chunks of ice fell from them to the sea.

Listening to the epic symphonies of early Sigur Ros, and the modern classical compositions of Richard Skelton on the boat as soundtrack, I was especially drawn to tracks such as the below by the latter, whose melancholic, slow-burning drift summed up the widescreen, awe-inspiring visions of nature in front of me.

There's something about Skelton's music that is so evocative of nature and the countryside. His music gets more and more under your skin with every listen. With 'Noon Hill Wood' (on Landings), he's conjured up visions of the mountains in Lake District, where I go in August. The below is 'Of The Sea', from the album Verse of Birds.

Finally, we got the plane to Tromsø, the largest city in Artic Circle Norway. Arriving back in a big city felt odd after the extraordinary, isolated experience of Svalbard. But it's a beautiful city at night, with a lively seaport centre, and bars such as the magnificently-named Bastard Bar. Walking around the city at "night" (the 24-hour sun made such concepts feel redundant) felt relaxing after the austere visual nature of Svalbard; it was nice to see trees again.

Tromso from the bay

I was particularly drawn to Tromsø's distinctive architecture, with its beautiful looking old wooden houses dating from as far back as the 17th century.

Tromsø also has some great museums, including the Polar Museum, and this strange place (the Polaria Museum), full of interactive exhibits, on the waterfront. It looks from the outside like a pack of cards collapsing.

Polaria Museum
A walk through the mountains outside Tromso gave us a panoramic view of the city, spread out like a shining jewel in the distance over both sides of the river:

Longyearbyen airport
As the mist rolled in from the surrounding mountains, we reflected on what an amazing journey it had been. One day I'll return.