Friday, August 11, 2017


It was our fourth time in Russia.  We've visited the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific Coast and now the Arctic Coast of Russia.  Before the trip, I told some Russian friends that we were going to Murmansk.  They said, "Why would you want to go there?"  Precisely!

Murmansk is the largest city in the world north of the Arctic Circle. It is located on the Kola Peninsula, not far from Norway.  It is closer to the North Pole than it is to Moscow.  Murmansk is a city of 300,000.  The population used to be 500,000.  When people were no longer forced to live there, they voted with their feet.   The sun does not come up for 2 months in the Winter and it gets bitterly cold up here--the January average temperature is 5F (-15C).  In January, the mercury can dip close to -40F (-40C).  Despite that, the port remains relatively ice free, even in Winter because of the Gulf Stream.

Murmansk is a relatively new city.  It was founded in 1916.  Czarist Russia needed a seaport beyond the reach of the German Navy during World War I.  The city was called Romanov-on-Murman.  "Murman" or "Nurmann" was the Russian word for "Norman" or "Viking".  The Vikings had sailed to this area 1000 years ago.  When the Red Army took over, a couple of years later, they changed the name to Murmansk. 

Our ship docked opposite the huge Soviet era nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin, written in Cyrillic letters.  Not John Lennon, but Vladimir Lenin.  The Lenin can cut through 10 feet of ice.  It sails to the North Pole and takes tourists there.  A friend we met on the cruise, Doug from British Columbia actually did take that cruise.  He told me that several times, the ship got stuck in the ice, so it backed up and rammed through it.  He even took a dip in the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole.

Murmansk serves as the headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet and is a major nuclear submarine base.  To keep the sea lanes open in Winter, the Russians keep 4 nuclear powered icebreakers in the Murmansk harbor.  This is an extremely busy commercial and industrial port, but not known for its scenery.  It is the end of the line on the Kirov Railway from Moscow and St. Petersburg.  We saw many long fully loaded freight trains from the South.

The most iconic sight in Murmansk is the enormous Alyosha Monument honoring the Soviet soldiers of the great Patriotic War, which we call World War II.  This monument is on a hill with a panoramic view of the city.  It is a 116 foot tall sculpture of a brooding soldier dressed in Winter gear with a rifle slung over his shoulder.  It is the second tallest statue in Russia.  It was built in 1974 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the defeat of the German forces in the Arctic.  It contains the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  On the 60th anniversary, in 2004, they added the Wall of the Hero Cities, memorial plaques and capsules containing dirt from the various "hero" cities on the plaques--Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad and others.  Although the names are written in Cyrillic letters, I could generally decipher them because they have some similarity to Greek letters.   Many Russians celebrate their weddings at the Monument despite the usually bad weather.

There are many languages spoken in Murmansk. We're talking Russian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, Byelorussian, and Georgian. but not English.    Dianne is from Georgia, but the Georgian they speak is not the Georgian they speak near Atlanta although Southern Russians do speak with a drawl.

The Murmansk landscape is dotted with dozens of huge Soviet era apartment complexes as far as the eye can see.  In the U.S., these would be called "the projects".  They are drab, gray stone buildings, many with peeling paint.  In Russia, they call them Khrushchevs, after the 1950's and '60's Communist Party leader who ordered the construction.  They are obviously not luxury living, but the Russians don't expect much. 

Before they were built, many Russians lived 3 families in one apartment.  Apartments were scarce because the city had suffered extensive destruction from the German bombardment in World War II. Khrushchev kept the people happy by giving them their own apartments.  Some of these buildings are now being replaced by modern apartments.  I didn't see any single family homes, and I asked our guide about that.    She told me that many Russians do live in single family homes, presumably in the suburbs.

Murmansk does have many of the amenities of Western cities.  We drove past the huge indoor Volna Shopping Mall which has the only McDonald's I saw, the Northernmost McDonald's in the world.  '  A Big Mac in Murmansk costs only about $1.53, less than a third of what it would cost in Norway.

Murmansk has a sister city, Jacksonville, Florida.  That one floored me.    During World War II, much of the allied aid to Russia came by way of Jacksonville.  After the War, Jacksonville sent medical equipment and trained Russian doctors.

We had a nice lunch at the modern and upscale Park Inn by Radisson Hotel in Murmansk.   We ate blinis which are pancakes with fruit and brown sugar.  They also make blinis filled with caviar, fish, melted butter or sour cream.  Russians eat a lot of caviar because they get it locally.  I stayed away from the borscht. 


We visited the statue of the local hero, Sergei Kirov.  It stands in front of the Palace of Culture, also called the Kirov Palace.  Kirov was Stalin's right hand man, a loyal Communist.  He was appointed the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  Kirov was a party guy as well as a Party guy.  He was a hard drinker who lived the good life and perks of his office.  He was popular with the Party cadre, even more popular than the austere Stalin.   Not good.

The Party faithful considered him a reformer, and his influence continued to grow.  Indeed, Kirov gave a speech at the 1934 Party Congress advocating a more relaxed approach in the future.  Apparently he forgot to clear that with Stalin.  The Central Committee elected Kirov with just 3 negative votes.  Stalin received far more negative votes, and those who cast them were probably never heard from again.  Working for Stalin, if you're not totally in agreement with him, that's not good for one's career.  Kirov may have had some indication when he was starting to not get invited to certain Politburo meetings.

Kirov was assassinated in December, 1934 at his office under suspicious circumstances.  All indications were that the assassin, who was later executed, was hired by the NKVD (secret police) on Stalin's orders. Kirov normally had a 4 to 8 guard security detail, NKVD people.   For some reason, on the day Kirov was killed, the bodyguards were all out to lunch or nowhere to be found.  Indeed, after the assassination, Stalin personally interviewed the killer, an unprecedented event.  Then Stalin had the guy's whole family executed. 

This event touched off the Great Purge of the 1930's in which many of the Old Bolsheviks were arrested and executed.  The first thing Stalin did to usher in the Great Purge was to disarm everyone--all Party officials carried weapons, distributed by the Party.  No longer.  There was no Second Amendment in Russia.   After the arrests, the prosecution in the show trials charged these people with "complicity" in Kirov's murder.  They were all forced to confess.  Several years later, all the NKVD agents on Kirov's security detail were also executed because they knew too much. 

After the assassination, the Stalin regime portrayed Kirov as a hero.  Many places were named after Kirov.  There were the cities of Kirov, Kirovohrad, Kriovakan, Kirova and several Kirovsks.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kirovakan, in Armenia reverted to its original name, Vanadzor.  Kirovabad, in Azerbaijan similarly reverted to Ganja.    Azerbaijan also removed the massive Kirov statue in Baku in 1992.  In the Ukraine, it took a little longer, until after the Crimean crisis.  Then the Parliament following its de-communization laws changed Kirovohrad to Kropyvnytskyi in 2016.  The Ukrainians didn't much like the guy.  He was in charge when more than a million Ukrainian farmers, the Kulaks, died of forced starvation or were executed in the 1920's. 

The Murmansk statue was built in 1960 when Khrushchev rehabilitated Kirov.  Today, many things, at least in Russia, are named after Kirov--streets, railways, factories.


The other thing worth noting about this God forsaken area is the nearby relic of the Cold War, the Kola Superdeep Borehole.    During the Space Race, the U.S. and the Russians were also competing to see who could drill the deepest hole into the Earth's crust.  Ultimately, the Russians prevailed on this dubious distinction, and science did learn many new things about the world under our feet.

The hole is located a few miles outside Murmansk, and you'd need an all wheel drive vehicle to get there.   This 9 inch diameter hole goes down 7.5 miles (40,230') into the Earth.  It took 24 years to drill it--longer than it took to travel to Pluto.  At that depth, the rock had been thoroughly fractured and saturated with water, a totally unexpected finding.  The temperature of this superheated liquid water was 180C (356F), far above the boiling point.  The scientists finally had to stop drilling because the high temperatures at the bottom caused the rock to behave like plastic, and the drill could not proceed any farther.  The plan had been to drill down to 15,000 meters (49,000'), but the intense heat destroyed the drill.

To me, the most interesting discovery coming out of this project was the microfossils--the preserved remains of 24 species of single cell marine plants--plankton.  The rocks in which they were found are 2 billion years old.         

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Dianne and I recently took a trip to the Arctic.  It started with an 8 hour plane ride, Chicago to London.  We looked forward to 11 days in which it never gets dark.   On the plane, I sat with a middle aged black music professor taking a new job in London and a Hasidic Jewish rabbinic student with 5 kids.  His wife lives in London.  This motely group of characters made for some interesting and stimulating conversation which made the time pass quickly.

The cruise ship was docked in Dover, about a 2 hour bus ride from London.  Shortly before we got to Dover, we passed the exit for the Chunnel to Calais, France which is only 20 or so miles across the English Channel.  When we arrived at the port, we could clearly see the famous White Cliffs of Dover.  Hundreds of locals were fishing off the pier, facing the beautiful White Cliffs.

The Pacific Princess went full throttle across the rough North Sea which is known for its terrible weather, and it didn't disappoint.  This was our second trip across the North Sea, and it hasn't gotten any better.  We're talking huge swells.  The ship made its way through the heavy gray seas against 40 knot winds blowing down from the Arctic.  From time to time we passed oil drilling platforms which have made Norway a wealthy country.

Our cabin was freezing, and we then realized that we still had the air conditioning on.  The sliding doors of our cabin didn't keep out the cold winds--it was still drafty.  We were queasy for a couple days.  Many other passengers must have been also because they didn't come down for dinner.

We especially like exotic cruises to destinations like the Arctic because most of the passengers have similar interests.  Most have traveled to other exotic locations worldwide, and we get ideas to add to our bucket list.  For example, I was reading the most recent Jean Auel book about Stone Age people, and we expressed an interest in visiting the Lascaux Caves in France which are famous for the primitive wall paintings of mammoths and other extinct animals.    Several people on the cruise have visited there and reinforced our desire to see the caves. Also, I spoke with at least 2 families who traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow by way of Ulanbaatar, Mongolia.  I'd like to try that also, but Dianne is not keen on that idea. 


Our first port was Bergen, a seacoast city of 300,000.  This was our second trip to Bergen.  It is a quaint and beautiful old city, with colorful 18th Century houses framing the waterfront. The city was founded hundreds of years ago as a port of the Hansetic League.  Don't confuse it with the American League or the NFL.  The Hansetic League was a network of merchant guilds and their cities, mostly German, which formed a trade association.   For over 3 centuries in the Middle Ages, the Hansetic League was very powerful and wealthy, dominating the Baltic maritime trade.  It had its own legal system and even armies for protection and aid.

The Hansetic League Museum, built in 1704 overlooks the harbor.  UNESCO has designated it a heritage site.  To visit it, I had to climb a narrow, rickety and dimly lit staircase to the third floor to see a trading room, a merchant's office, sailors' bunks and tools, instruments and maps of the Hansetic network.  On the lower level of the building were the storage and processing rooms for fish and cod liver oil.  The various period items were collected from surrounding farms in the Bergen area.  They don't have a Norwegians with Disabilities Act, so there was no elevator, escalator or ramp to get to it.  Dianne couldn't climb the stairs, so they refunded her admission fee. 

Nearby, we visited the outdoor market, called the Torget (not the Target)  where we saw displays of every type of fish.  The most popular in Norway is laks, which we know as smoked salmon (lox).  The Norwegians don't normally serve bagels with it.

As a seaport city, Bergen is very cosmopolitan.  I was surprised by the number of Chinese and Thai restaurants.   It was lunchtime, and I found a vendor cooking Spanish paella with local seafood in a large wok like bowl.  It was delicious. 

Norway is very expensive.  At the Torget, they have a bathroom for tourists at the information center.  You have to pay 10 kroners to use it, about a buck and a quarter.  Do I pay the buck and a quarter or do I suffer? 

We decided to see the city on the bright red On-Off sightseeing bus.  On our previous trip to Bergen, we walked around downtown and took the funicular railway up to the top of Mt. Floien where our lunch was a $17 cheese sandwich.  (see KENSUSKINREPORT August 21, 2011).  This time, we saw the concert hall named after hometown composer Edvard Grieg.  There is a museum devoted to Grieg.  You can visit his villa, his cabin and even his grave.  We didn't do so. 


Trondheim is world famous for hosting the Winter Olympics.  They have a ski slope where you can downhill ski even when there is no snow.   Tourists flock to see it.

We were blessed with a mild sunny day.  We were told that it was the sixth day this year when the sun was shining.  Hey, it was the end of June.  Most days, it rains.

The shuttle bus from the pier took us to the magnificent Nidoros Cathedral, the most iconic sight in Trondheim.  It was build over the burial site of St. Olav, the 11th Century Norwegian king who is the patron saint of Norway.  He was killed at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and the construction of the cathedral was begun in 1070.  There must have been a problem with the permits, because it took 230 years to complete.  During the Reformation in 1537, the Lutherans kicked out the Catholics and took over the cathedral.  It is used for coronations of Norway's kings. 

The building has been ravaged by fires several times over the centuries although the stone walls remained intact.  The current restoration and rebuilding was begun in 1869 and finally completed in 2001.  The main architect was a guy named Christian Christie who was not related to the New Jersey governor.  Christie had made a name for himself restoring many medieval monuments in Norway.  He died in 1906, and they finally completed the work 95 years later.    Construction can be a slow process. 

We walked around town and saw the other iconic site, the king's official residence, called Stiftsgarten.  At 43,000 square feet, it is one of the largest wooden buildings in Scandinavia.  The building has 140 rooms.  Across the street, we visited the courthouse and city hall where several weddings were being performed.  The colorful murals painted on the courthouse were quite interesting, depicting 18th century barristers.

To see how normal residents live, we visited a hardware store and a supermarket where the prices appeared to be about 50% higher than in the U.S.   When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.  We then found our way to the indoor shopping mall downtown, The Trondheim Torg and visited the McDonalds. 

The main industry of Trondheim other than fishing, is copper mining.  We could have taken a tour of the mine but decided against it.  I've visited coal mines, and it can't be than much different. 


We continued North, past the Arctic Circle to begin 11 days for us where the sun never set.  We crossed 75 degrees latitude, the same as Northern Alaska.  Some showers were in the air on this July afternoon.  We thoroughly enjoyed the spectacular mountains and glaciers along the Norway coast. We left the top of Norway and journeyed several hundred miles across open sea in the Arctic Ocean to the Svalbard Archipelago at a latitude of 78 degrees and change--about 800 miles from the North Pole.  Needless to say, it was cold.  About 60% of Svalbard is covered with glaciers.  There are no trees.  Where the land is not covered with glaciers, it is covered with green lichens.  Reindeer and caribou graze on it.

We docked in the principal city, Longyearbyen, a town of about 2000.  This town was founded in the early 20th Century to  serve the nearby coal mines, some of which are still operating.   Most houses and buildings are brightly colored prefabs with pointy roofs.  Houses are built on stilts because you can't dig a foundation in permafrost.  I was told that 70% of the households consist of 1 person.  Most are scientists staying temporarily.  When it's dark outside for over 4 months, people get depressed and want to leave.  They come back in the summer.

Longyearbyen can be dangerous.  It's not street crime they are worried about--it's polar bears.  The city maps have a warning sign:  "Highlighted area.  Safe for walking about without an armed guard."  Back home on the South Side of Chicago, that is normal, so I didn't think anything of it.  The danger is the polar bear who sees you and thinks it is dinner time.  The gun laws  are the opposite of most places.  In Longyearbyen, all residents are required to carry a high powered rifle at all times because of the polar bear situation.  However, they are required to check their guns at the door when entering a retail establishment. 

The island archipelago is called Svalbard, and the largest island is called Spitzbergen which means "jagged peaks".  It was discovered in 1592 by explorer William Barents, and they named the nearby Barents Sea after him.  It is part of Norway, but Russians live there also.  More on that later.

Spitzbergen's other claim to fame is the Global Seed Bank, officially called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is buried in an abandoned coal mine in a sandstone mountain which is usually covered by snow.  It is 430 feet above seal level in a geologically stable area.  Even if the ice caps melt, presumably it will stay dry for a few thousand years. 

The facility was built in 2008, and is funded by the Norwegian government.  The purpose is to keep a supply of plant seeds, "spare" copies if you will, of food crops in the event of loss of seeds in other gene banks during a large scale crisis, e.g. Nuclear holocaust elsewhere in the world.  As I learned, there are 1600 seed banks scattered around the world.  These crises often occur as a result of mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts and natural disasters.  The seed bank in the Philippines was damaged by flooding and later destroyed by fire.  The seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq were lost completely. 

I went to see it, but they won't let you in.  This is sensitive stuff, so it is well guarded.  Not as much as Area 51, but guarded nevertheless.  To get in one would have to go through four sets of locked doors. 

When we were there, we saw construction equipment around the entrance, but I got a photo.  There had been some water damage in 2016 because of heavy rainfall, and the government is making improvements which include waterproofing the tunnel walls and digging drainage ditches.  There are four layers of protection for the seeds, and the water seepage only reached the first layer. 

The guide told me the vault contains about 2 billion seeds in Tupperware containers, actually, in special 3 ply foil packets, heat sealed to exclude moisture.  One thing you won't find there is genetically modified seeds, prohibited by Norwegian law.  The storage rooms are air conditioned to a frigid 0 degrees Fahrenheit--about the same as your freezer at home.

Most of the time, the Global Seed Bank takes in deposits, and it is free to end users.  The only withdrawal so far was made by Aleppo, Syria.

After visiting the Global Seed Bank, as it were, my tour continued a few hundred yards down the road.  We began a hike up a 1000 foot mountain dotted with small niveous glaciers.  There is no path, and most of the climb is on jagged rocks.  We forded a stream where I got my wool socks wet in the icy water.  We hiked up a slippery glacier, and it was cold and windy.  About halfway up, I couldn't go anymore.  I was afraid I would die of a heart attack.    Fortunately for me, it is illegal to die in Svalbard because the graveyard closed to new business 70 years ago.  The bodies don't decompose in the permafrost.  If someone dies illegally, the body has to be shipped to Norway for burial. 

The guide walked me down the mountain, on the same rugged terrain, but downhill.  A young man named Mats brought a van to take me back to the ship.  I bribed him to take me into downtown Longyearbyen instead, about a mile and a half from the ship.  That turned out to be a good move.

I visited the post office, the small shopping mall, the supermarket.  Several of the stores in town are outfitters and tour guides.  They sell polar bear rugs, seal skins, and reindeer skins.  There are lots of sled dogs, but you won't find any cats.  They are banned, to protect endangered Arctic birds.  If you're planning to hike to the North Pole, this is a good place to start.    "Clothing gear for your expedition."  They do have a Radisson Blu hotel, as well as a couple other hotels.  They have restaurants you wouldn't expect, like Arctic Tapas and sushi. If you want whale stir fry, you can get it here--to go.

I walked back on the road toward the ship.  On the way back, I came upon the Svalbard Brewery, so I went inside.  The beer is brewed with glacier water.   The offered me all the beer I wanted, but I don't much like beer.  Most things in the Arctic are expensive, but alcohol is relatively cheap because there are no taxes.  You can even play golf here, but the course is inside a Quonset building. 

Every year, on March 8th, the residents celebrate shortly after Noon when the sun comes out--for the first time since October 25th.

Dianne took a different tour in Svalbard, a catamaran ride to the Soviet era town of Pyramiden, named after the pyramid shaped mountain outside of town.   She was enthusiastic about the 30 mile boat ride because an enormous gray whale was sighted, larger than the boat.   Her group snapped many photos.  After their adventure, they were warmly greeted at the dock.

The story behind this is that until 1920 the Svalbard Archipelago was not a part of any nation.  Then, the U.S., Britain, Norway and a few others, but not Russia, executed the Svalbard Treaty which granted Norway sovereignty over the area.  The treaty granted the signatories equal rights to develop and pursue commercial activities in the islands.   Within a few years, Russia and over 40 other nations signed the treaty.  In 1927, the Soviet Union purchased the Pyramiden area and acquired the rights to develop the coal fields there.  They established a model community there analogous to a collective farm.  Today, that community is a museum with a window into how workers lived during the Soviet era.    In 1936, a state run coal company, Trust Arktikugol, assumed responsibility for the mining operations of Pyramiden and also Barentsburg, about 60 miles away.

During World War II, the Soviets poured money into this barren area, constructing drab, Soviet style apartment blocks as well as a hospital, a hotel and a recreation center, plus the obligatory statue of Lenin.   The coal mines were not profitable, but the Soviets liked having a presence in the West.  Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russians had other priorities, and the subsidies dried up.    Morale went down, but the crowning blow was the 1996 crash of a chartered Arktikugol plane which killed 141 people, most of them family members of the mineworkers. 

Finally, in 1998, the Russians abandoned the place, lock stock and barrel.  Today, it is largely a ghost town although a handful of workers live there, for limited maintenance and to guide tourists.  Recently the Tulip Hotel reopened for the Summer months only, to serve the tourist trade.  Most of the buildings are locked to prevent vandalism and theft of artifacts, which has been a problem.  You need special permission to go inside.  Dianne's group had lunch at the hotel and they were given a guided tour of the recreation area and the post office. 


We celebrated the Fourth of July at sea.   There were no fireworks because the sun didn't go down.  Tromso is known for its spectacular Northern Lights, but you can't see them when it doesn't get dark.  Tromso is a city of 68,000, the largest Norwegian city north of the Arctic Circle.  It is located on an island near the North Cape of Norway.   It faces beautiful snow capped mountains. 

We explored the city and found there is a lot to see in Tromso.   A short walk from the pier, we came upon a statue of the great Arctic explorer, Roald Amundsen--with a disrespecting seagull perched on his head.  Tromso was the staging point for Arctic expeditions in the early 20th Century.     

Tromso has an aquarium, the Polaria, a world class facility in modern architecture.  We arrived in time to watch the keepers feed the 4 seals.  They do this twice a day with large crowds of tourists jostling for space by the rail.  It was explained to us that seals need mental stimulation, and the attendants throw out small basketballs into the water.  A seal really can balance a ball on his nose.  Then they showed us a panorama film about Arctic wildlife in Svalbard.

Next door is the MS Polstjena, a whaling and sealing boat which was in service until the 1970's.  I donned earphones and heard the whole story as I clambered over the boat.   The voice described seal hunting in great detail, more than I needed to know.  The boat could bring in 3000 seals during the two month Spring hunting season off the East Coast of Greenland. 

I climbed into the control room, the living quarters, and the small kitchen.  Up to 10 men would stay in the hold, pretty much all the time.  The guide explained that between the seal oil and the unbathed sailors, it smelled pretty bad down there.

Nearby, just down the street is a statue of Ludwig Mack who started a brewery in Tromso in 1877, and it still operates today. It wrongly claims to be the Northernmost brewery in the world, but I visited the one in Spitzbergen, hundreds of miles to the North.  Although we didn't take the tour, they charge based on how many tastings you want.  It is $20 or so for two tastings and about $35 for four tastings.  If you're really thirsty, it's probably a good deal.

Tromso's other must see sight is its modernistic A-frame Arctic Cathedral, built in 1965.  I saw it from the ship but didn't visit because it was on the other side of the bay across a long bridge.  In town we walked to the wooden Tromso Cathedral, built in 1861.    The city has only 350 Catholics, but two cathedrals.  Pope John Paul II visited in 1989.

On our way back to the ship, prominently displayed in the city part was the unexpected (to us) monument to honor the 20 Tromso Jews who were forcibly removed and killed in 1943.  Their names are inscribed--5 members of the Caplan family, 5 more of the Shotland family, 3 Sakolskys, Smith, Klein, Resnick and a couple more.


The ship sailed on to Honningsvag, about 30 miles from the North Cape.  This town is not a big deal, but what IS a big deal, at least to Europeans, is the North Cape, the Northernmost point in continental Europe.  The town has a little over 2000 people, but several things about it were interesting to us. 

This area of Norway is called Finnmark County, and the native people are called the Sami.  They have their own separate languages.  We know them as the Laplanders, although the Sami people in Norway consider the term Lapp to be insulting.  Not so much in Sweden and Finland.   They are famous for raising herds of reindeer, and Norway does not allow anyone but Sami people to herd reindeer.  These nomadic folks are of European origin, and they have a 10,000 year history in the area.  The UN considers them as an "Indigenous People". 

You'd think they could have gone somewhere warmer, but they thrived in the North.  Like many other native peoples, they faced struggles when the Norwegians tried to stamp out their language and culture and make them Norwegians.   They were treated as second class citizens by the Norwegians for years, especially in the early 20th Century, but with pressure from the UN and other countries, they are OK now although they don't yet have casinos. 

The downtown area of Honningsvag is about two blocks long and is called Little Chicago.  There has to be a story behind that, and we were determined to find out.   There was a lot of competition between whalers and fishermen, and it heated up into a major bare knuckled brawl in 1904.  According to locals I spoke with, the violence inspired the locals to think of Chicago.  Some things never change. 

One establishment we didn't visit was the ice bar.  That is crazy to us.  It is cold in this area, so who would anyone want to visit an ice bar.  We had visited one in St. Thomas.  They turn the temperature down to 27F.   They hand out parkas, mittens, and scarfs.  To us Chicagoans, 27F is not that cold, and certainly not cold enough to wear a parka. 

In the local bakery, we ordered a "Lille Chicago" which turned out to be a chocolate mousse cake.  It was very rich and sweet, and we could only eat a few bites.  We walked down the street to the market where we bought some Pringles for about twice what they charge in Chicago.  On the ship, we had met a retired man named Harold who had once been the product manager of Pringles when he worked for Procter & Gamble.  I learned everything I wanted to know about Pringles and then some.  For example, it only worked with Idaho russet potatoes--Maine potatoes didn't work well.  The problem for him was that between McDonald's and Procter & Gamble, there weren't enough Idaho russets.  Harold had to meet with the potato king Mr. Simplot himself to work it out.  Then they had to come up with new technology to make each chip precise and also to properly space the chips in the cardboard tube so that it didn't look like the box was only half full.  So I bought a box just to see for myself. 

At the museum, we learned about the seafood industry.  Everyone in Norway eats fish and seafood--its the main industry.  They brought in king crabs from Siberia.  These critters are 5 feet across and weigh 25 pounds.  They are an invasive species, so the government encourages catching and eating  them.  The locals run crab fishing safaris for tourists. 

The town of Honningsvag exists for tourism.  During World War II, there was a major battle nearby, and the city was completely destroyed except for the church.   Today, hundreds and maybe thousands of people visit the town daily.  They board dozens of tour buses for the drive to the North Cape.  Many others drive their campers up the narrow two lane road which is open only in the Summer months except for a couple hours daily in Winter only for convoy driving.   They get a lot of snow in Winter.   At the North Cape they have separate parking lots for buses and for cars and campers.  Hordes of people milled around, taking photos of the sheer cliffs and the monuments.   Many of these people brought small kids in strollers over the rough ground. 

It was cold!  We visited on a sunny July day which is apparently a rare event in the area.  Strong winds off the Arctic Ocean brought the wind chill into the single digits (Fahrenheit). Our guide said they get 15 sunny days a year.  But then, for three of the months, the sun doesn't come up and it is dark all day.  The Gulf Stream moderates the temperatures somewhat, and the ocean does not freeze over, but it creates huge snowfalls each Winter.

The scenery at the North Cape is spectacular.  The rocky cliffs overlooking the Arctic Ocean are more than 1000 feet high.  There are numerous glaciers on the aprons.  Nearby, herds of reindeer and caribou graze on the slopes. 

The Norwegians built a modern facility, North Cape Hall, to accommodate the crowds of tourists.  they get 200,000 visitors a year.  It has everything you could want--a movie theater, post office, cafeteria, museum, a large souvenir gift shop, and it is on multi levels.  In the cinema, we watched a 15 minute video depicting the seasons.  On the North Cape, there are two seasons, Winter and Spring.  July is considered Spring.  Then Winter comes back with a vengeance.

The large globe monument is the symbol of the North Cape at 71 degrees latitude.  Thousands of visitors photograph it each year.  People come to see the Children of the Earth monuments--circular clay reliefs molded by 7 kids from different nations in 1988 expressing their creativity.    These reliefs were then cast in bronze and framed by granite.  They stand outside the North Cape Hall.   Next to that, as part of the exhibit, is the full size Mother and Child sculpture by Eva Rybakken.  The Children of the Earth organization awards an 18,000 Euro prize each year to a person or project who has shown compassion or helped suffering children in the world.  It is presented at North Cape.  Another monument is an obelisk overlooking the cliffs which honors King Oscar II, the sardine guy, who visited the North Cape in 1873.


Farther down the Arctic Coast are the Lofoten Islands with beautiful green mountains  rising starkly out of the sea.  This area is dotted with small fishing  villages and dairy farms.  People live in colorful houses overlooking the fjords. 

The Lofoten Islands are famous for the Maelstrom, the strong tidal current which occurs twice a day.  The tidal currents can reach speeds as high as 20 mph.  The water currents funnel through a narrow channel between two islands. The unusual shape of the seabed with a shallow ridge amplifies and whirls the tidal currents.   The effect would be comparable to water draining down a sink or bathtub. 

The Maelstrom is the subject of countless literary works and films.  Edgar Allen Poe's Descent into the Maelstrom and Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are two noteworthy works, but they greatly exaggerate the effect.   In Poe's story, two fishermen are swallowed by the maelstrom and one miraculously survives.  The Norway Maelstrom is even mentioned in Melville's Moby Dick.   As a practical matter, although small craft can be in danger from the swirling waters, large ships are not. 


Geiranger is a town of only 180 permanent residents although a few thousand more come each Summer to work in the hotels and B & B's.  The town is nestled between a mountain and the fjord.  Our ship sailed several miles up the winding fjord amidst magnificent scenery.  The fjord, with sheer rock faces on both sides, is a UNESCO world heritage site and is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Most visitors to the area take the trip to the summit of Mt. Dalsnibba, 1500 meters (4757') which overlooks the fjord.  The two lane road to the top is winding, to say the least.  There is no center line.  It has 35 switchbacks each way.  Navigating that road in a tour bus takes special talent.  The road is closed in Winter  because of avalanches, but it is dangerous in Summer also because cars are competing with the tour buses.  If you veer off the road, it's a 2000 foot drop. 

The nearest hospital is in Eidsdal, 2 1/2 hours away over another road, the Eagle Road, open in Winter.  Don't get sick in this part of the world.  In Geiranger, the doctor comes every Wednesday. If you get sick on Thursday, you're in trouble.

On the lower levels of the road, the view is breathtaking.  As we got higher up the mountain into the clouds, it was raining, and on the top, it was snowing, not unusual in July.  Traffic was gridlocked at the top, with probably a dozen tour buses and a thousand or so people squeezing into  a small gift shop and lined up for the rest rooms.  The view up there is amazing, at least on a clear day, as we could tell from looking at the postcards.  With the snow and the clouds, we couldn't see much.

What we could see is that at and near the peak, somebody laboriously piled rocks resembling trolls on thousands of flat rock surfaces.  Trolls are uniquely Norwegian.  Sweden and Finland have other stuff like dwarfs, elves, etc.  I thought about the children's story about the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

The mountain has hundreds of glaciers and waterfalls, large and small.   The road runs alongside a raging alpine river, a white water rafter's dream.  Actually it's not--nobody could survive the rapids and waterfalls. 

About halfway up is Flydalsjuvet, a giant overhanging rock.  Many tourists climb out on that rock for photo ops.  It's a 2000 foot drop down the granite cliff.  I didn't go out there.  I remembered the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire.   It used to be the state symbol until one day a few years ago, when it broke off and tumbled into the valley.  No sir!  I did get a lot of good photos.

On the way down, we stopped for tea and a Danish (a Norwegian?) at the beautiful Djupvasshytta Lodge by the shores of a deep blue glacial lake, Djupvatn Lake.

Our guide was a co-ed from Lithuania with a good sense of humor.  This was her Summer job.  She told us of the legend of the Seven Sisters and the Suitor--waterfalls.  The suitor was determined to marry one of the seven sisters.  He proposed to each one in turn and was rejected each time.  Maybe he should have gone on the Bachelor show.  The discouraged suitor turned to the bottle, and none of the Seven Sisters ever married.  Good story.

This area is also famous, at least in Norway, for its pizza.  You've all had Norwegian pizza, right?  Pizza Grandiosa, produced in this area, is Norway's most popular frozen pizza. 


For our last port in Norway, it was a sunny, mild July day.  Haugesund is a fairly large town of 36,000 in Southern Norway.  Historically, it was considered the birthplace of Norway when King Harald Fairhair and his Vikings united the country in the year 872. 

Today the main industries in Haugesund are a herring factory and a plant that makes oil rig equipment.  We walked around the commercial district which has a pedestrian mall and an enclosed shopping mall.  One block has many restaurants with un-Norwegian names like Tony's Pizza and Rabinowitz's CafĂ©. 

We found an ice cream store and stopped in for milk shakes.  Well, the store takes no credit cards, no Euros, no British or American money.  Only Norwegian kroner, about 8 to the dollar.  Frustrated, we left the store and came upon a bank a block away.  I went in and exchanged dollars for kroner.  The two shakes cost 98 kroner, and they were delicious. 

The tourist guide said we could visit the Scandic Maritim Hotel and see a 22 minute film about Norway on the wide screen.  It was along the fjord, several blocks from the commercial area, but we walked over.  On the way, near the harbor bridge, was a store called "Shabby Records", a name created by a marketing genius who probably got fired.  Apparently they sell classic phonograph records.  We finally got to the hotel, and the desk clerk showed us into the auditorium.  We were the only people there, so we could make as much noise as we wanted.  We thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

After the film, we walked up to see the town hall which claims to be the world's only pink city hall.  The impressive neo-Classical 1931 structure overlooks a large park and a fountain.  What we found interesting about Haugesund is that the city was built according to a plan, a quadrature system with parallel and perpendicular streets, unusual for Europe, but then the city is only about 150 years old.  The corner houses on each block are architecturally stylish, with towers and turrets of Classical, Swiss and Jugend styles.