Andersgrotta, bomb shelter, Finnmark, Hurtigruten, King crab, Kirkenes, MS Trollfjord, Murmansk, Norway-Russia border, SS Irma, Syrian refugees, taiga, Vardø
At 09.00 I was normally having breakfast. But on Day 7, along with many others, I had to be ready to disembark at that time. In the next 15 minutes, six excursions were to be underway, everyone sorted into their different buses on the quay, and another bus would be taking those passengers leaving the ship permanently to the airport. In addition to the excursion I was to do, people were variously: visiting a snow hotel, going dog-sledding, having a ‘King Crab Adventure’, hiking with the expedition team, and riding snow scooters.
The trip I was doing was a historical/political one, taking in a WWII bomb shelter, the Russian border, and a beautiful view.
Kirkenes is further east than both St Petersburg and Istanbul. It is the nearest town to the Russian border. The role of Kirkenes in WWII, second most bombed town in Europe after Valletta, is described here, as the Germans, who had occupied Kirkenes almost unopposed in June 1940, tried to take Russian Murmansk, 200 kilometres away. (They didn’t get further than halfway there.) The bombing was by the Soviet Union, resisting the German advance. The Russians were greeted with open arms as they liberated Kirkenes on 25th October 1944, and, as our guide kept emphasising, relations have been most cordial with the local Russians ever since, across the border which had been fully open until very recently. Recently, that is since Putin invaded Ukraine. Now the inhabitants of the town were very, very afraid.
Our visit was to the Andersgrotta bomb shelter in the centre of the town. Our guide, born in 1940, while not recalling much of the war but growing up in its aftermath, was passionate about his town’s history.
After showing us a short film – we sat on ranked benches with blankets he provided from a chest – in English with German subtitles, he spoke for some 10 minutes in English, followed by the same length of time in German, about the town’s experiences during and after the war. He felt that the Norwegian government had ignored the needs of north Norway – Finnmark – for reconstruction, and said that only in the 1980s did the town receive a royal visit and apology for neglect. He emphasised several times the cordial relations between the townspeople and the Russian, and indeed the many other nationalities living there, including an influx of Syrian refugees who had entered the country via the Russian border in 2015. (Imagine the desperation.)
He said that books about Norway in the war ignored the experience of the north of the country. He himself had sought to make up for that by writing a short book, translated into three languages. I regret not buying it. I have now read the whole of the Wikipedia entry on the German occupation of Norway, from which this is an extract, ‘By the end of the war, German occupation had reduced Norway’s GDP by 45% – more than any other occupied country. In addition to this came the physical and patrimonial ravages of the war itself. In Finnmark, these were considerably important, as large areas were destroyed as a result of the scorched earth policy that the Germans had pursued during their retreat. Moreover, many towns and settlements were damaged or destroyed by bombing and fighting.’
It was good to be outside again.
We now drove for some 15/20 minutes from Kirkenes to the Russian border. We were entering a different kind of vegetation, the taiga forest. I took these photos through the bus’s window. It’s interesting how the human eye accustoms itself to different light conditions, as it really didn’t seem this dark.
We got out of the bus, and were told we could go anywhere – except beyond the gateposts (though I noticed one or two did, just, with no ill consequences).
This sled appeared from I-don’t-know-where, and unfortunately I felt obliged to accept, when offered, a very short ride on it. Not short enough for me – I felt most insecure. And I’d have preferred anyway to walk on that lovely crunchy snow. The ride was to a solitary shop, which was as unattractive as most gift shops are.
By the shop was tethered this husky, and a jar of treats, which our guide dipped into – for the dog that is.
The main road signs in the area were in Cyrillic letters as well as Roman.
We were driven back towards Kirkenes, and arrived at a viewpoint over the town.
My camera zoomed, MS Trollfjord takes centre stage again.
Today’s English language briefing, mentioning excursions for the next three days, was at 14.30. Telling us again about the walk to the Vauban-style fortress at Vardø was a bit a question of left hand and right hand. The timing would already have been tight, but this scoot had already been cancelled by the rather late departure of the boat from Kirkenes. This was again due to the non-arrival on time of some passengers, but in no way was it their fault this time. Two planes bringing passengers has been late arriving at Kirkenes Airport. The boat had waited for one, but could not wait for the second, ‘so those passengers have not joined us yet’. That was the last we heard about them – presumably they were bussed to a later port.
At Hammerfest it would be possible to see this monument to the Struve Geodesic Arc, about which more in the next post.
The trip to the Hurtigruten Museum would happen on Day 9. This slide is of SS (DS in Norwegian) Irma, a Hurtigruten steamship on the coastal route, and controversially torpedoed in 1944, between Bergen and Trondheim. It received a memorial in 2002, seemingly another very belated acknowledgment by the Norwegian government of wartime suffering.