Friday, July 4, 2014

My Rural Travelogue (Part XVII): Northern Norway

Road signs near Kirkenes, Norway, June, 2014

Vardo Cultural Center
I spent several days last week on the "coastal express" MS Trollfjord, traveling from Kirkenes to Bergen, Norway.  The flight from Oslo to Kirkenes was nearly two hours long, which highlighted for me just how far north and east Kirkenes is.  Indeed, Kirkenes is just a few miles from the Russian border, north of Finland and in Norway's Finnmark county, which effectively cuts Sweden and Finland off from the Arctic Ocean.  Kirkenes has a population of 3,444, and it's nothing to look at, I have to admit, having been destroyed--like all else in these far northern reaches of Norway--by the retreating Germans near the end of World War II.  Like neighboring Vadso and Vardo (also stops on the Hurtigruten journey we took), Kirkenes is nearly as far east as St. Petersburg and Istanbul.  Also like these towns and many others we saw in Finnmark county, Kirkenes boasts a single church. This is presumably the Evangelical Lutheran church, effectively the national church of Norway.  As with other churches we saw on our journey, it was quite spartan, built after the war.  The loveliest such church we saw was in Tromso, the so-called Arctic Cathedral.  

Kirkenes church
Churches and such aside, what I really want to talk about is the transit and other infrastructure in this remote and very sparsely populated part of the world.  First, we stayed several miles out of Kirkenes, a few hundred yards from the Russian border at Storskog.  (More precisely, we were at Sollia Gjestegaard, a husky farm with a lodge, cabins, and restaurant on a lovely lake on the Pasvikelva River, which also forms the border between Russia and Norway).  En route between Storskog and Kirkenes, we saw several places that are probably considered villages by the Norwegian government, but which appeared to be little more than wide spots in the road.  Just a couple of houses were visible as we drove through each.  One of these villages was Elvenes, shown in the photo I took along the E-105.  (According to a wikipedia photo, Elvenes actually has a few dozen houses. Also according to wikipedia, it was home to a Russian prisoner of war camp during World War II, and 600 Norwegian teachers were sent there as slave labor during the war).  What was striking from a rural development and infrastructure standpoint was that there were bus stops and street lights along this route, and a bike path next to the road beside much of it, too.

As noted above, Kirkenes and the region have an airport served by Oslo and a few other Norwegian cities--our flights on SAS booked a number of months in advance for just $120, about half of which was for taxes.  Other tiny places along our journey also had airports, and once we were flying out of Norway from Bergen, I noticed the large number of flights going to remote towns where we had recently been, like Bronnoysund, population 4625. It is very hard to imagine such a comprehensive transit infrastructure in such a sparsely populated region of the United States.  (As for other types of public infrastructure, I note that Kirkenes had quite a large library in the center of town.  Every town had a cultural center, and the one at Vardo is pictured above).
Inn near Honningsvag, moved here from Lillehammer

One reason for some of this transportation infrastructure throughout sparsely populated parts of Norway is tourism, both domestic and international.  In the winter seeing the northern lights and going out on a sledge pulled by huskies is the thing.  As for us, we were there for the midnight sun--on the longest day of the year, when the light level seemed more dictated by cloud cover or lack thereof than by time of day.  Apparently there are lots of reindeer in the area, but we didn't see any in this part of Finnmark (we did see them elsewhere, on the island of Mageroya, in the area of Northern Cape and Honningsvag).
Street lights and bike path between Storskog/Russian
Border and Kirkenes, near Elvenes, Norway

The farther south we journeyed, the less "rural" the country looked, though single homes and small clusters of home are visible up and down the coast.  It's hard to know how many of them are summer homes, but all appeared well kept.  While our guide on Mageroya mentioned the area's population loss (in addition to the fact that children on the island have 13 years of education available there and must leave only for university studies), I'm thinking that the massive investment in transportation infrastructure--which in turn facilitates summer tourism--keeps many communities alive, if not thriving.  Other than tourism, fishing remains king all along the coast, and the Norwegian government still seems to assume it needs people to populate these villages--not merely to have workers fly in and fly out (as in Australia's remote mining regions) to work for a few weeks at a time.  Otherwise, it surely would not be so generous in support of infrastructure for these remote locales.

(I am reminded of this story in the New York Times from a few weeks ago--about Barentsburg, Norway.  Barentsburg is on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago north of this part of Norway, in the Barents Sea.  The economy there is mining based and many workers are transplanted from the Ukraine.  On Svalbard, too, however, a tourism economy is growing.  Indeed, Hurtigruten, who operated our "coastal express" also run tours there).

When I planned this trip to Norway, I wasn't thinking of it as an opportunity to see a rural place, but it certainly was.  Indeed, I'm now thinking that Norway, and other parts of Scandinavia, may feature the most rural parts of Europe.  And the experience has me thinking in new ways about how governments can support rural and remote communities.
Arrivals room at Kirkenes Airport

Bus stop in Elevenes, near Kirkenes, Norway

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