Hammerfest: North Of North

Trip Start Oct 01, 2009
Trip End Nov 07, 2009

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MS Nordkapp

Flag of Norway  , North Norway,
Monday, October 12, 2009

Hammerfest bills itself as the world's most northerly town. It sits at 70 degrees 39' 48". It is around the same latitude as the most northern parts of Siberia, Point Barrow in Alaska, the Arctic islands of Canada and the centre of Greenland.

The region to the north and west of Hammerfest is quite remarkable. Starting with the village of Havoysund, over an hour's sail from Hammerfest, the area is known for its rich cache of fish as well as major deposits of oil and natural gas being developed for the thirsty European market. The Snovit oilfield and the Albatross/Askeladden gas fields are linked to the terminal on Melkoy which ships copious amount of hydrocarbons southward.

Most of the coastal fishing villages seem to be linked by the E6 highway. For anyone having a mental picture of hardy Vikings surviving on fish during the fierce North Atlantic storm season, this bit of civility and modernity will cure such romantic thoughts. As throughout many parts of Norwegian Finnmark, the locals seem to be well equipped with state-of-the-art cell phones, internet capacity and recent edition vehicles. Government policy seems directed towards ensuring that these villages are not deserted by folk finding their way towards living in exotic centres such as Bergen and Oslo. However, my perception could be quite wrong.

The scenery is simply spectacular as the coastal express chugged into this pretty community of some 7,000 at 1115 on a Monday morning. The weather was quite moderate with temperatures on the plus side.  Only a light windbreaker was required as one strolled into the town centre to enjoy the 90 minute stay. The effect of the Gulf Stream at this latitude in mid October is quite apparent.

Hammerfest's bread and butter has always been fishing. Until the Napoleanic Wars the population never exceeded 350 souls. Few people realize that Hammerfest was the northernmost extension of Britain's mainland blockade against Napolean. This area of Finnmark purchased grain from Russia so the British wanted to fill in the gap in the isolation of Norway and Denmark. Thus, in 1809, the Royal Navy sent two brigs, the Snake and the Fancy, to shell Hammerfest. The town folk fought back from behind earthwork fortifications and defended themselves with two tiny cannons. While the town received significant damage, there are no reports of the two brigs being harmed.

Hammerfest's citizens pride themselves on being progressive, being the first Norwegian town to have electric street lighting and its own hydro power station as early as 1891. This did not stop the German Navy from using the natural harbour of Hammerfest as a major staging area for attacking Allied convoys heading around the North Cape. The much remembered and infamous General Rendulic and his German Army On The Arctic Front did not reward the town for its kind hosting. The good general ordered that all building be razed to the ground. The only building to survive was the crypt of Hammerfest Church (which has been rebuilt with a remarkable stained glass wind covering the entire end wall). Consequently, Hammerfest is a modern place with  brightly painted and sturdy houses of post WWII design. Anyone who has spent quality time in an IKEA superstore will find comfort with the architectural direction of northern Norwegian communities.

 The Museum of Reconstruction for Finnmark and North-Toms of Gjenreisingsmusett is a gem. A person can read much into this museum depending on your view of history. It has a small, but tight, exhibit area focussing upon the multicultural diversity of Finnmark, with special emphasis on the blending of Samis, Kvens and Norwegian cultural. The section on the deprivations relating to WWII is sad. During 1944, the locals became refugees in their own country with some 25,000 living in caves. To many of these people, the words Russian and Liberator became synonymous. The other feature of the museum that is worthwhile are the drawings for the houses that were built after WWII. A lot of creativity and imagination can be gleaned.

A final curiousity is Isbjornklubben or the Polar Bear Club, a quaint building harbouring historic collections of exhibits from the town's trapping and Arctic past.

Back on board the MS Nordkapp, the dinner menu featured cured reindeer steak, grilled fillet of pork and lemon posset.

-Always pack two Swiss Army knives of the basic variety in checked luggage.. Somehow, these treasures grow legs and walk off.
-There is never too much chocolate on a trip as it not only enriches the soul but satisfies those hunger cravings when no stores are available. Ah, for Swiss dark chocolate north of the Arctic Circle.
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