Mrs Bassman operates as my trip advisor, whether it be booking overnight stays driving down to Corfu, or to places of interest on cruise ships. We have a penchant for heading up north and have made it up to Kirkenes in Norway (four hours from Murmansk on the daily bus service) a couple of times on the Hurtigruten Line. The border with Russia in winter is one of those places that still retains that Cold War frisson, even though crossings by locals from either side are unimpeded. When Mrs B spotted a Fred Olsen cruise up to Spitsbergen at a reasonable price – she will pay no other – I jumped at the opportunity. Spitsbergen is 650 miles north of Kirkenes, so it is seriously northerly. The itinerary took us up from Liverpool to the Lofoten Isles, Tromso and Honningsvag to Pyramiden and Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen, which is the largest and only inhabited island of the Svalbard archipelago. The island was first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which it was abandoned. Coal mining started at the end of the 19th century, and several permanent communities were established. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognized Norwegian sovereignty and established Svalbard as a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone. Anxious to retain a foothold, the Russians maintain a working coal mine in Barentsburg, and a derelict mine in Pyramiden, which they hope will become a major tourist attraction.
When we eventually anchored in Pyramiden (named after a mountain close by) the ship used tenders to get us ashore. The weather was quite kind, being summer, and the midnight sun meant there was no problem about daylight. Even so, three or four layers of clothing were about right. So far north there has been nothing to corrode or decay the works and buildings, so it is a perfectly preserved ghost town. Finally abandoned in 1998, it is now occupied by a dozen or so young Russians employed by the mining company to act as seasonal guides and protectors. The buildings are now locked as a result of vandalism and theft of artifacts by visitors (the only crime known in Spitsbergen), but organised trips get access. Our guide was the diminutive and utterly charming Anya, who pertinently announced that “I am only one who can save you from polar bear – I have raaafle.” Indeed she did, and it was about the same size and weight as her. Somehow one felt complete confidence in her. She was hard enough not to bother with socks. The polar bear menace does not rear its head too often in Pyramiden – but it does. A couple of years ago one made it to the hotel and broke into the bar. A guide scared it off with a flare gun. Let’s be clear about polar bears: unless you are armed you are dead. Even the most juvenile creature will see you off. The mature ones can run faster than Usain Bolt. After being sternly warned by Anya to keep off the grass (the reindeer eat it) she showed us the various buildings which bear the unmistakeable mark of the Soviet era. Nevertheless, Pyramiden was one of those Potemkin villages (where have I heard that name recently?) acting as a showcase for the wonders of communism. The miners’ salaries were high and only the best were recruited, mostly from the Ukraine. Food and accommodation were free. There was a thriving social life, but little by way of alcohol was permitted and miners were breathalysed on turning up for work. Probably a bit hard on the Ivans, that one. This short golden age departed forever with the collapse of the Soviet Union as all subsidies were pulled. The town possesses a working hotel (Anya: “some rooms are Russian style – they have atmosphere but nothing. European rooms have everything but no atmosphere.”) There is a bar and canteen plus souvenir shop where we were served free Russian pastries, and surprisingly good they were. I particularly liked one that looked like a doughnut but was in fact filled with meat – of a sort, anyway. Time just to wait outside for the shuttle bus and see a scraggy-looking Arctic fox which didn’t seem to give two hoots about us.
Our ship then sailed slowly down to Longyearbyen (named after John Longyear, an American coal mine owner of the early 20th century) and the following day we boarded the catamaran Aurora Explorer for the 45-min run to Barentsburg which still operates its mine. Pyramiden lost the toss to this place because its own mine was half way up a mountain. Much to my disgust I am not the great sailor every Englishman should be, and remained up on deck to avoid the queasiness of down below. It was freezing at high speed, but kept away the mal-de-mer. On shore who should pop up again but Anya, this time without rifle but still with no socks. We were a bit short of time because the catamaran is a shuttle which operates a timetable between Longyearbyen – Pyramiden – Barentsburg. The buildings are a little less brutal than Pyramiden and there is a micro-brewery and bar with Belgian equipment. It isn’t possible to escape the grim gaze of a statue of Lenin. Some of the miners were around, and a rugged lot they looked. It’s debateable how viable the mine is, but the only reason for foreigners to be on Spitsbergen is coal-mining or research, so the Russians probably subsidise it just to keep an eye on the area. Anyway, they apparently export coal to the UK. You know it makes sense. As a matter of historical interest, it received a stonking from the Tirpitz in WW2. The run back to Longyearbyen seemed a lot smoother and we were all able to sample some Norwegian dry rations called Turmat. I had a beef stew and there was plenty of it. I’m from the eat everything put in front of me school, and didn’t think it too bad at all. I’ll try the reindeer soup next time.
We didn’t spend much time in Longbearyen, though it’s compulsory to have your picture taken at the famous polar bear road sign. It’s illegal to go beyond it without a gun. Longyearbyen is a thriving and busy enough place, but we were a bit tripped out. Also, we really came to see the frontier-type places, and Pyramiden and Barentsburg fitted the bill nicely. Longyearbyen is certainly frontier, but is provided with facilities and transport systems which make it just a little bit less austere: I might not think that in winter, though. There is an airport connected to Tromso and Oslo, constructed in the teeth of Russian opposition as they considered it a breach of demilitarisation. They softened after being told that Aeroflot could use it, and now for their one flight a week they manage to sustain an office of six staff. I wonder what they do all day?
All in all, one of the best trips I have been on, and highly recommended for those who like to stray a little bit off the tourist track.
© Bassman 2018