hidden europe 16

No ordinary boat trip: northern Norway

by Nicky Gardner


Vardø is a Norwegian town where they used to burn witches. It's further east than Cairo! Join us on a remarkable ship, the MS Lofoten, as we explore the parts of Norway that most travellers never reach.

Summer may be scarcely done and dusted but already the communities around the Barents Sea are beginning to batten down for the winter. The Arctic terns and barnacle geese have long since flown south. The sparse grass on the rocky tundra has that worn end-ofseason look. There is a dusting of early snow on some of the higher hills, and in just a few weeks the sun will be setting in the early afternoon.

In Kirkenes, there is not a lot to do to pass the time of day. You may think you've reached the end of Europe when you get to Istanbul and gaze over the Bosphorus. Make it to Kirkenes and you know you've reached the very end of the world. Kirkenes is even further east than Istanbul. Check that one out on an atlas.

Mid-morning the bus arrives from Murmansk in Russia - the passengers, all a little bone-shaken after five hours on the road, step down gingerly onto the tarmac. Russia lies just over the hill: a ten minute drive from Kirkenes harbour and you can be eye-to-eye with a Russian border guard across a wire mesh fence.

The harbour is the place to be, especially around midday. At that time there's always a bit of bustle as folk get ready to board the boat. Scan the shipping schedules, and you'll find there is just one departure a day from Kirkenes. Always at 12.45 pm. The vessel changes from day to day, but it always leaves at a quarter to one. These boats have a knack of defying the worst weather that the Barents Sea can throw at them. From Kirkenes, it is a short hop over the mouth of the Varangerfjord to Vardø. It takes just over three hours, time enough for a coffee or two on the boat. Whale steak and chips for lunch if you want.

On a good day, you might catch a glimpse of Russian patrol vessels away to the east. Officials from Moscow and Oslo sat down together in May this year and hammered out another treaty on quite where in the Varangerfjord runs the maritime border between Norway and Russia. Mere blue spaces on the map of the Barents Sea, but every bit of Arctic water matters in a region that may be fabulously rich in oil resources. On a bad day, when the wind sweeps in from the Kola peninsula to the east, you won't see much but foam and spray on the crossing over to Vardø. The boat will possibly pitch and roll and a few stomachs may turn. A lot depends on which boat you are on.

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