Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2009/35 posted by hidden europe on

You really know you have travelled a long way east when you get to Vadsø. The local church, which dominates the small town on the Barents Sea, is a late 1950s essay in poured concrete. But take a peek inside for a surprise. This is a Norwegian Lutheran church with an interior design that has striking Byzantine overtones. The chancel area has an almost Orthodox demeanour.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

You really know you have travelled a long way east when you get to Vadsø. The local church, which dominates the small town on the Barents Sea, is a late 1950s essay in poured concrete. But take a peek inside for a surprise. This is a Norwegian Lutheran church with an interior design that has striking Byzantine overtones. The chancel area has an almost Orthodox demeanour.

Interestingly, Vadsø is further east than Istanbul and in a part of Norway that has traditionally enjoyed good links with nearby Russia. We tend to forget just how much of Norway lies north of the Arctic Circle and how far east that territory extends. From Norway's northern rail outpost in Narvik - a town already well within the Arctic Circle - it is another 1000 kilometres by road on to Vadsø.

Vadsø turns out to be a culturally rather interesting spot. The town of 5000 is home to some of Norway's Kven community. These are folk descended from Finnish trappers, herders and fishermen who settled around Varanger Fjord in the nineteenth century. Some of the Kvens still speak a language that is very similar to modern Finnish. Linguists debate whether it really is a Finnish dialect or a distinctive language in its own right. A memorial in the town to the Kven settlers acts as a quiet reminder that this is a place with a very different history from townships in the south of Norway.

The story of the Kvens recalls that Vadsø and the Varanger Fjord region have for centuries seen migrants and explorers. On Vadsø Island, reached by a delicately arched road bridge from the town itself, the old cemetery has the graves of Russian, Finnish and Pomor travellers who perished while trying to make a living in this inhospitable northern land.

The island also has a mast once used for tethering airships. The 1926 Amundsen / Nobile trans-polar expedition on the Norge airship stopped off at Vadsø before heading north via Svalbard to Alaska. And two years later, Umberto Nobile was back in Vadsø, taking shelter from a storm, while on the ill-fated Italia airship expedition. You may recall that we had day-by-day coverage of the Italia expedition on our website last year - to mark the eightieth anniversary of the events that led to such terrible loss of life. Those reports are still online.

Vadsø and the other ports around the Barents Sea may be very remote but proximity to the Russian border gives everyday life an international dimension. And rich fishing grounds nowadays tempt trawlers from distant countries to the region. While fish stocks dwindle in other European waters, the Barents Sea is this year boasting better cod stocks than at any time in the last sixty years.

Yet the Russian and Norwegian authorities must be ever vigilant in their mission to prevent foreign ships exceeding their quotas. Fish fraud by incomers is a major threat to the livelihoods of the local fishermen in Vadsø. Earlier this year, the Norwegian authorities detained a Portuguese trawler which had a huge illegal catch of cod on board. And late last week the Russian coastguard arrested the captain and crew of a Faroese flagged ship which allegedly fished illegally in the Russian sector of the Barents Sea.

Susanne Kries and Nicky Gardner
hidden europe

You can see a picture of the interior of the church at Vadsø 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.