Hammerfest, The World’s Northernmost City – Norway

“Reindeers have the right-of-way,” they grunted, the doe and her calf crossing the road in front of me, forcing me to hit the brakes hard enough for the seat belt to really fasten. They then proceeded to molest someone’s front yard. No need to prune bushes or mow lawns here!

Driving into a Hammerfest basking in the sunshine of a September afternoon, I immediately liked it. The wooden houses were a veritable palette of colours. A bright green house had a steep roof which looked fun to slide down on a frisky winter day. A midnight blue one with latticed windows peeked through trees behind a white picket fence. This was cosy!

On just one block I spotted at least four people busy painting houses. The hotel receptionist later told me the fierce weather requires frequent coats of paint, so you might as well be creative and bold. If you don’t like the colour, you have to repaint next year anyway.

Very few buildings pre-date World War II. Towards the end of war, the retreating Nazis weren’t going to make it easy for the advancing Russians so they burned most of Northern Norway, Hammerfest included. However, the inhabitants weren’t deterred and after the war they bravely returned to the devastated city and rebuilt it. It’s a story of courage and optimism and this spirit is noticeable even today.

At 70° 39′ 48″, Hammerfest is the northernmost city in the world, although nearby HonningsvÃ¥g contests that. HonningsvÃ¥g is further north but is it really a city? This has become a sore point for many locals. Hammerfest was granted city status in 1789 while tiny Honningsvag received its official status only 10 years ago. In an interview with the national newspaper VG, deputy mayor Kristine Jørstad Bock sums it up: “It lies in the soul of everyone in Hammerfest that they live in the world’s northernmost city. We’re born and raised with that.”

With 9,361 inhabitants and growing, it’s at least safe to say Hammerfest is the world’s northernmost city of a significant size.

Arriving in town, I was greeted by a large polar bear. Not a real one – contrary to popular belief, polar bears do not roam Norwegian streets, so this is one for the camera. Also, you can join The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, committed to preserving the Arctic way of life. It’s basically a museum and not that ancient, but the only way to join is to actually be there, so the silver and enamel membership pin is quite exclusive.

The Barents Sea and the natural harbour have always been the basis for life here and shipping and fishing the major industries. This is about to change and Hammerfest will become a boomtown when the Snøhvit (Snow White) Plant for export of Liquid Natural Gas will be operative by the end of 2006. Other alternative forms of energy are also being explored. This is in keeping with tradition as this was the first city in Northern Europe to install street lights, the alternative energy of the day in 1891, when the first trials took place.

Hammerfest’s other claim to fame is the Meridian Column, commemorating astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Struve’s project to measure the exact size and shape of the earth between 1816 and 1855. Along with 33 other points in the Struve Geodetic Arc, a chain of survey points reaching from Hammerfest to the Black Sea, the Meridian Column was put on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2005.

If you’re into world records, another place to visit is St Michael’s, the world’s northernmost Catholic church, easily recognisable by the lovely mosaic on the side.

Wanting to continue to North Cape by boat instead of backtracking, I stopped at a local transport company. Here’s my exchange with the woman at the information desk:

- “Is there a car ferry from Hammerfest to North Cape or Honningsvag?”

- “What do you mean?” Eyebrows raised.

- “Can I take my car by boat from here to North Cape or Honningsvag?”

- “No.” Eyes back to her paperwork.

- “How about a passengers-only ferry?”

- “The catamaran leaves in 10 minutes.” She looked up, sighing.

- “And does one return tonight?”

- “Are you crazy?” She really said that!

- “Eh… Perhaps a return ferry tomorrow then?”

- “Tomorrow is Saturday.”

- “???”

She did not elaborate.

- “Sorry?”

- “No boats on Saturdays.”

- “How about the boat that departs from Hammerfest every morning and every evening? You know, the old-fashioned way to approach North Cape, as it says on this poster here.”

- “I don’t know what you mean.”

(Of course the poster turned out to be an ad for her company.)

- “So how can I get to the North Cape by sea?”

- “Well, there’s the Coastal Express.” Exasperated!

- “Yeah? Tell me more!”

- “That’s not my company.” Dismissed!

As it turned out, the Coastal Express leaves at 07:45 every morning and it even takes cars. But, of course, it wasn’t her company.

By the way, I put this in as an example of something you may encounter. Most aren’t like that. Norwegians are actually pretty friendly but not all that polite. It’s just not considered important. If you ask a lame question (like “where’s the elevator up to that mountain top?”) don’t be surprised if you’re laughed at and called stupid. On the upside, you get to do it right back. So if you can handle that and really expensive alcohol, you’ll have a ball!

After my ordeal with can’t-be-bothered woman, I plonked down on the grass by the bright blue music pavilion and was soon joined by Gunnar, a scruffily-dressed local of undeterminable age, apparently in search of company. We chatted for awhile and when I asked where to get a decent meal in town, he recommended Odd. He looked like he expected an invitation, but I wasn’t about to extend one. He was harmless enough but a bit taxing and I, like Greta Garbo, wanted to be alone.

Odd’s Mat og Vinhus, a gourmet restaurant, specialized in local, traditional fare like Arctic fish as well as reindeer, hare and seal (yeah, all cute and cuddly). Norwegians don’t have a long tradition of eating out but Odd wanted his place to be for locals so he served food they would eat at home.

The décor was arctic maritime – with sealskin cushions and placemats made of catfish skin. I had the daily special fish menu; delicious salmon and monkfish. For dessert I had cloudberries and Odd’s Coffee completed the meal – a major splurge.

As an added bonus, here’s Odd’s Coffee: Mix a bit of 60% alcohol with sugar in a glass and use a gas burner to set it on fire. Sprinkle cinnamon in the burning glass and watch flying cinnamon sparks. Put out the fire and fill the glass half-full with a 50/50 mix of Kahlua and Aquavit. Add coffee and whipped cream (enough to feel naughty). Finally, heat more 60 and sugar in a kettle and pour it over the cream in a long, sparkling jet. Try this and you’ll be the star of the show at the next company Christmas party.

Wanting to explore the area at twilight, I went to Kirkegardsbukt (Cemetery Bay), where archaeologists have uncovered traces of settlements dating back to the Stone Age, more than 5,000 years ago. While no doubt a beautiful beach by daylight, it was now spooky and thrilling to walk among the ruins. A gentle breeze wafted the tang of salt ocean air, tickling my nostrils as I stumbled around in the swiftly approaching darkness. This would make an excellent setting for a crime novel. Perhaps featuring a naked body washed up on shore with ancient symbols carved on the left upper thigh…

I wondered how it must have been 5,000 years ago, living in a turf cabin by the sea, occasionally warding off warrior tribes from Russia and doing a bit of rock carving. Probably not bad, I decided. No commuting to work, no rushing home to pick the kids up from kindergarten, plenty of fish in the sea and reindeer skin to keep you warm.

On the way back to town, outside the cute little airport, another pair of reindeer – a teenager and her younger brother, I think – crossed the street. They really are lovely, like animals from a fairytale, ethereal almost, with their extraordinary, long antlers. A Bombardier Dash 8 taking off soon drowned out the distinctive clicking sound of their hooves as they faded into the night.

To the locals reindeer are mostly annoying, since they eat shrubs and flowers, and a reindeer fence around the city is underway. Anything willing to grow in this harsh climate is protected. Trees don’t grow naturally so they’re planted and treated with the utmost care, including a nice, snug winter wrapping.

Returning to Hammerfest, lights were on in every house, brightening up the dark sky. Every window looked like a warm pool of light and I felt very welcome.

Next morning saw me up at half past six to make sure I didn’t miss the northbound Coastal Express. Watching Hammerfest vanish in the distance, I felt somewhat melancholic. It was a lively and colourful place. The northernmost city in the world, a remote outpost close to the North Pole. I expected it to be cold and bleak and grey. Instead, I found it warm and inviting.

When to Visit
So when should you visit Hammerfest? Any time of year the scenery is stunning. If you want to experience the Midnight Sun, she (the sun is feminine in Norwegian) is up 24/7 between mid-May and early August. I’m more attracted to the enigmatic dark polar night period – no sun at all between mid-November and mid-January, and the chance of seeing the spectacular Northern Lights are greatest during this period. If festivals are what you’re after, Hammerfest will tempt you with several, including a dance festival in spring, a beer festival in summer and a polar night festival in November.

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Older comments on Hammerfest, The World’s Northernmost City – Norway

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29 October 2009

Great to see a story on Hammerfest.