Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/23 posted by hidden europe on

The places at the end of Europe are always interesting. Driving through Iceland's northeast corner, you really have a sense of touching the nerve ends of the continent. The most northerly point on the Icelandic mainland, called Hraunhafnartangi, falls just short of the Arctic Circle, which lies a tantalisingly short distance further north. Just a couple of kilometres. There's a lighthouse, a scatter of driftwood on the beach and a burial mound, said by the locals to mark the spot where a thousand years ago some Viking ruffian met his end in a revenge killing.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

The places at the end of Europe are always interesting. Driving through Iceland's northeast corner, you really have a sense of touching the nerve ends of the continent. The most northerly point on the Icelandic mainland, called Hraunhafnartangi, falls just short of the Arctic Circle, which lies a tantalisingly short distance further north. Just a couple of kilometres. There's a lighthouse, a scatter of driftwood on the beach and a burial mound, said by the locals to mark the spot where a thousand years ago some Viking ruffian met his end in a revenge killing. The road round this northern extremity crosses wild tundra, and the little cinder cones left by recent volcanoes serve as a reminder that nature has its own ways here. This is the terrain of the Arctic fox, who keeps himself to himself, and the noisy Arctic terns which dive bomb innocent walkers who venture too close to their nests.

Odd, isn't it, the way that some of Europe's remotest beaches recall past lives and troubled deaths? In northeast Greenland there's even a cove called Daumannsbukta (Dead Man's Bay). Around the coasts of Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the Norwegian Arctic, there are the forlorn graves of explorers from a dozen nations. One of the most impressive of old Svalbard settlements is Smeerenburg (on Amsterdam Island). Little is left of it nowadays, but in its heyday this remote whaling station had a dozen furnaces and sixteen houses, all built in Dutch style with timber brought from the Netherlands. Two big graveyards, with about one hundred graves in all, are reminders that life at Europe's nerve ends hasn't always been easy.

hidden europe 16

We explore some of Europe's nerve ends in the September 2007 issue of hidden europe magazine. Some of our favourite spots are those which lie on the outer edges of the European Union. In hidden europe 16, we report from the Saimaa Canal, on the border between Finland and Russia, and from the Narva river, which marks the frontier between Estonia and Russia. Some old frontiers get a mention too: the old borderline between Moorish territory and Christian Spain in the Sierra Morena, and the former Austrian military frontier across the northern Balkans that once delimited Habsburg and Ottoman spheres of influence.

As always we take in our fair share of quirky communities - from Vardø to Bydgoszcz, and from Marinaleda to Iskenderun. Bydgoszcz is a quintessential hidden europe spot and we feature the Polish town in this upcoming hidden europe. The city is a gritty sort of place, a spot with factories and canals perched on the edge of Pomerania. That doesn't sound great, does it? But Bydgoszcz is fabulous. A handsome old-town square, with a monstrous monument to the victims of fascism; hints of former mercantile wealth; some remarkable art nouveau design; and a lithe athlete who balances on a tightrope over the Brda river. We like it. Not quite tamed, and the sort of spot where you can still scuff your shoes in the dust as you walk the banks of the river. For the next month or so you can download the full text of our Bydgoszcz article from our website. Just click here.

What else? Well, we follow Wordsworth and Ruskin on a pilgrimage to La Grande Chartreuse, an extraordinary Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, and we track down a small community in southern Spain where the cult of Che Guevara is still going strong. All that plus notes on Hungarian fashion (!), a look at Europe on film, and a few thoughts on why alphabets are so very important a component of national identity. Why not take a look at the full table of contents for our September issue. Copies of this new issue, as well as subscriptions, can be ordered online.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.