Letter from Europe

The Nansen trail

Issue no. 2014/26

Picture above: The Arctic port of Vardø on Norway's Varanger Peninsula – where the locals are keen to proclaim the merits of cod! (photo © hidden europe).


A recent visit to the Arctic port of Vardø, on an island off the eastern extremity of the Varanger Peninsula, prompts us to reflect on Fridtjof Nansen’s visit to the same place in 1893. Nansen arrived in Vardø on the Fram. It was the ship's last port-of-call in Norway on the great voyage of exploration that was to take Nansen closer to the North Pole than any earlier expedition.

Dear fellow travellers

Arriving in the Arctic port of Vardø a couple of weeks ago, we passed on the idea of being beaten with freshly cut birch branches by two young girls. Though the idea was tempting since that's the welcome Fridtjof Nansen enjoyed when he stopped off in Vardø in July 1893.

Nansen arrived in Vardø on the Fram. It was the ship's last port-of-call in Norway on the great voyage of exploration that was to take Nansen closer to the North Pole than any earlier expedition. It would be more than three years before Nansen again set foot on Norwegian soil. He returned to Vardø in August 1896.

Finnish influences in northern Norway

Nansen had just a couple of days in Vardø. At that time the port was home to many Kvens – migrants from Finland who had moved north and settled along the Murman Coast and around the Varanger Peninsula. The Kvens took their sauna habit north with them. Nansen, with three of his team from the Fram, took the opportunity on that Vardø stop to enjoy a sauna for the very first time.

The subsequent farewell party hosted by the locals took its toll on Nansen and his crew, so they were late leaving, but eventually they cast anchor and steamed off into clammy Arctic fog. The small port of Vardø, on an island off the eastern extremity of the Varanger Peninsula, has been for so many polar explorers their last brush with civilisation before striking out into terra incognita.

Today, there is still a faint Finnish imprint in this Norwegian outpost. Like other communities in Norway's easternmost county of Finnmark, the locals appreciate the merits of a good sauna, though we gather that the maidens of Vardø are less inclined these days to offer visitors a good beating with birch branches – not least, perhaps, because Vardø is so far north that there are no birch trees. The only tree we spotted in the town was a small rowan which had a decent spread of red berries.

Travelling along the Norwegian coast

Having explored Vardø, we did not hop on a boat for three years of icy isolation as Nansen did. Instead we boarded the late afternoon Hurtigruten ship for an overnight journey to the island of Havøya. Hurtigruten is the name given to the shipping route that runs up the coast of Norway to the Russian border. It was pioneered by Richard With in 1893. Captain With made his inaugural run north from Trondheim just a few days prior to Fridtjof Nansen's voyage up the same coastal route on the MS Fram.

There is something deliciously ambiguous about Hurtigruten's Norwegian coastal voyage. At one level it is a wonderful cruise which, if you take the full journey from Bergen to the Barents Sea and back, requires eleven nights on board a very comfortable vessel. But it is very much more than just a cruise. Hurtigruten ships are also used by locals and other travellers who, like us recently, are just making short hops along the coast.

71 degrees north

We slipped easily into the relaxed routine of life on board the MS Kong Harald, as she sailed north out of Vardø and around the Varanger coast towards Kinnarodden - which is the most northerly point on the European mainland. King crab from the Barents Sea and salmon caviar with bliny and sour cream went down a treat as we sailed through calm seas at 71 degrees north. The main course that followed was reindeer marinated in vodka served with pelmeni, a nice reminder that this is a part of Europe where Russian and Norwegian interests are tightly interwoven.

Fish for Angola

Shortly after breakfast the following morning, we disembarked from the Kong Harald at the port of Havøysund - a wild and windy spot. We were the only travellers to leave the ship there. But there was a bustle on the quayside as huge pallets of klippfisk (dried and salted cod) for Angola were loaded on board the Kong Harald. Then, with a mighty roar from the ship's horn, the MS Kong Harald cast off from the quay and set a course for her next port of call in Hammerfest.

We were left alone on Havøya, the screech of gulls all around and the wind whipping up the sound that separates Havøya from the mainland. At that moment, we had a gentle hankering for the comforts of civilisation and rather wished we'd booked a month rather than a day on Hurtigruten. We had a quiet inkling of what Fridtjof Nansen might have felt as he left Vardø in July 1893, not quite knowing what lay ahead.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

You can read much more about the Norwegian coastal voyage and Hurtigruten in the 'Notes' section of our website.

If you liked this piece you may enjoy an article published earlier this week in Barents Observer that looked at multi-cultural influences in the Barents Sea region. That piece was penned by Nicky Gardner.

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