“Reindeers have the right-of-way,” they grunted, these two, as they crossed the road in front of me, forcing me to hit the brakes hard enough for the seat belt to really fasten. They then proceeded to attack someone’s front yard. No need to trim bushes here.
Driving into Hammerfest on a sunny September afternoon, I immediately took to it. The wooden houses were a veritable palette of colours. A bright green house had a steep roof which looked fun to slide down on a frisky winter day. A midnight blue one with latticed windows peeked through trees behind a white picket fence. This was cosy!
Through my windscreen, I spotted at least four people busy painting houses. The fierce weather up here requires frequent coats of paint, so you might as well be creative and bold. If you don’t like the colour, you can always change it next year.
Very few buildings pre-date World War II. Towards the end of war, the retreating Nazis weren’t going to make it easy for the advancing Russians. They burned most of Northern Norway, Hammerfest included. However, the inhabitants weren’t deterred. After the war, they bravely returned to the devastated city and rebuilt it. It’s a story of courage and optimism and this spirit is noticeable even today.
The northernmost city in the world
At 70° 39′ N, Hammerfest has long been considered the northernmost city in the world. But is it? There are certainly settlements further north in the world. At 78° 13′ N, Longyearbyen on Svalbard is the furthest north of them all.
But what’s a city anyway? Longyearbyen has a mere 2000 residents. Hammerfest, on the other hand, was granted city status as far back as 1789, and with nearly 10000 inhabitants, it’s at least safe to say Hammerfest is the northernmost city in the world of a significant size. Former deputy mayor Kristine Jørstad Bock once summed it up: “It lies in the soul of everyone in Hammerfest that they live in the world’s northernmost city. We’re born and raised with that.”
Arriving in town, I was greeted by a large polar bear. Not a real one – contrary to popular belief, polar bears do not roam the streets of Norway. While you’re here, you can join The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, committed to preserving the Arctic way of life. You can only join by showing up, so the silver and enamel membership pin is quite exclusive.
The Barents Sea and the natural harbour have always been the basis for life up here. Shipping and fishing are the traditional industries, supplemented by natural gas. Since the 2006-opening of Snøhvit Natural Gas Field, just 140 km offshore, Hammerfest has become somewhat of a boomtown. Other alternative forms of energy are also being explored, thus keeping with tradition, as this was the first city in Northern Europe to install street lights, the alternative energy of the day in 1891.
Struve and his geodetic arc
If you’re in Hammerfest, you’ve been further north in the world than most. And if you’ve stopped in front of this column, you’ve also seen the world’s second most northern UNESCO World Heritage site (surpassed only by Russia’s Wrangel Island, which at 71°14’N is less than 1° nearer the North Pole).
The column commemorates astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Struve’s project to measure the exact size and shape of the earth. The Struve Geodetic Arc is a chain of 34 survey points reaching from Hammerfest to the Black Sea, passing through 10 countries along the way. The points are marked in various ways on its route southwards – it could be a hole drilled in a rock, an iron cross, a cairn, or an obelisk or column, as here in Hammerfest.
If you’re into world records, you might also like to have a look at St. Michael’s, the world’s northernmost Catholic church.
Kirkegårdsbukt means Cemetery Bay. An intriguing name. And twilight seemed just the right time for a bit of stumbling about in ruins. At Kirkegårdsbukt, archaeologists have uncovered traces of settlements dating back to the Stone Age, more than 5000 years ago.
I had the area all to myself; deliciously spooky in the swiftly approaching darkness. A gentle breeze wafted the tang of salt ocean air, tickling my nose. This would make an excellent setting for a crime novel. Perhaps featuring a naked body washed up on shore with ancient symbols carved on the left upper thigh…
I wondered how it must have been 5000 years ago, living in a turf cabin by the sea, occasionally warding off warrior tribes from Russia and doing a spot of rock carving. Probably not bad, I decided. No commuting to work, no rushing home to pick the kids up from kindergarten, plenty of fish in the sea and reindeer skin to keep you warm.
On the way back to town, outside the cute little airport, another pair of reindeer – a teenager and her younger brother, I think – crossed the street. They really are lovely animals; ethereal almost, with their extraordinary, long antlers. A Bombardier Dash 8 taking off soon drowned out the distinctive clicking sound of their hooves as they faded into the night.
To the locals reindeer are mostly annoying, since they eat shrubs and flowers. Anything willing to grow in this harsh climate is protected. Trees don’t grow naturally so they’re planted and treated with the utmost care, including a nice, snug winter wrapping.
Next morning saw me up bright and early so as not to miss the northbound Hurtigruten. (Internationally, Hutigruten is mostly thought of as a cruise ship. Up here, it’s local transport, and the shortest route between Hammerfest and North Cape.)
As I watched Hammerfest vanish in the distance, I felt somewhat melancholic. It was a lively and colourful place, this remote outpost close to the North Pole. I expected it to be cold and bleak and grey. Instead, I found it warm and inviting.
When should you visit Hammerfest? If you want to experience the midnight sun, she (the sun is feminine in Norwegian) is up 24/7 between mid-May and early August. I’m more attracted to the enigmatic dark polar night period – no sun at all between mid-November and mid-January, and the chance of seeing the spectacular Northern Lights are greatest during this period. If you like festivals, Hammerfest will tempt you with a dance festival in spring, a beer festival in summer and a polar night festival in November.
The meridian column in Hammerfest is the northernmost survey point of Struve Geodetic Arc, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites we’ve visited around the world.
This is an updated and shortened version of my article on Boots’n’All. I’ve left out an odd dialogue with a not-very-cooperative transport company representative. I’ve also left out Odd. And his recipe for a drink which will make you the star of the party. Pop over if you’re curious.