Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/24 posted by hidden europe on

Early European travel was hugely driven by Christian virtue. Those of the truly devout who had the resources would try to visit Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela. The fifteenth century English mystic, Margery Kempe, managed all three, and then topped off the grand trio of shrines by travelling to Bad Wilsnack near Berlin, which was then one of the premier pilgrimage sites in northern Europe.

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Dear fellow travellers

It is a challenge to identify any spiritual meaning in the hassle of much modern travel. The check-in queues at airports try many travellers' patience, and only those of the most saintly disposition would deem it a prayerful experience. But travel was not always thus. In the busy bustle of hectic lives, perhaps it is good to recall that, in times past, faith was the greatest spur to travel. In some communities it still is. Many Muslims, who might in their entire lives never otherwise leave their home regions, still aspire to make the once-in-a-lifetime haj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Early European travel was hugely driven by Christian virtue. Those of the truly devout who had the resources would try to visit Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela. The fifteenth century English mystic, Margery Kempe, managed all three, and then topped off the grand trio of shrines by travelling to Bad Wilsnack near Berlin, which was then one of the premier pilgrimage sites in northern Europe. Kempe travelled by ship to Stralsund on the Baltic coast, then spent several days navigating marshy and tick-ridden forests to reach Wilsnack. Today it is just an hour from Berlin by train and yet Wilsnack's religious history has been all but forgotten. The wooden shrine - alleged to contain hosts from which dripped the blood of Christ - is long since gone, but the town's main church still has a painting of the shrine. Wilsnack may have lost its erstwhile religious pulling power, and no-one goes there nowadays to buy indulgences. Today it is a different kind of traveller who takes the waters at this small German spa town - one more likely to be seeking the elixir of youth to prolong his or her stay on this planet, rather than searching for a fast track route to heaven.

the road to Petsamo

Late summer sunshine may still linger across much of Europe, but in Finland's northern forests, summer has already slipped into autumn. For fifty minutes, the early morning bus from Ivalo jolts along a rutted forest road. Eventually it reaches Nellim. This small community of wooden houses has a magnificent modern orthodox church, a school and what must surely be the remotest Internet café in Finland. This is the end of the road. But in the name of the new wooden church there is a reminder of Nellim's past connections with the Barents Sea coast. For one of its dedications is to St Triphon of Petsamo. Until World War II, Petsamo was Finland's key Arctic port, and Nellim was a way-station on the main highway to Petsamo. In 1945, Petsamo and the mineral rich region along the Pasvikelva river were ceded to the Soviet Union. Today known as Pechenga, this ice-free port now thrives in Russian hands.

The road to Petsamo became the road to nowhere, fizzling out in the forests of the Pasvikelva valley. But it still ran on some way past Nellim. Then in 1947 Finland sold a chunk of land to the Soviet Union. The Russians were keen on this area because it had a hydroelectric power station which was strategically important for powering the industry in the areas ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945. Thus was created an intriguing dogleg in the Finno-Russian frontier. The former Finnish community of Janiskoski, abandoned anyway after the Winter War of 1939-40, was suddenly in the Soviet Union. And thus it is, that, for more than half a century, the buses from Ivalo on the old road to Petsamo have run only to Nellim, the last village before the post-1947 border.

Beyond Nellim, visitors can walk down to the border at Virtaniemi. There a tangle of fences marks the frontier, and, according to the season, the Finnish border police use either jeeps or snowmobiles to survey the outer edge of Fortress Europe. But there is a gate, and, although the road to Petsamo is not open to the public, there have been occasions when officials from communities on either side of the border have been allowed to pass here. All a far cry from the days before 1939, when affluent Finnish tourists would drive to Petsamo, and the annual migrations of the indigenous Sami people took them hither and thither through this remote region without let or hindrance.

That countries swap or sell parcels of land may come as a bit of surprise, but there are many instances of such exchanges in Europe. In the next hidden europe, due out on 3 November 2006, we shall report on an intriguing exchange of territory, agreed in 1985, between Finland and Sweden.

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

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.