Used by the Nazis to ship out iron ore from its ice-free port, the mining town of KIRKENES was bombed more heavily during World War II than any other place in Europe apart from Malta. The retreating German army torched what was left as they fled in the face of liberating Soviet soldiers, who found 3500 locals hiding in the nearby iron-ore mines. The mines finally closed in 1996, threatening the future of this 4000-strong community, which is now trying hard to kindle trade with Russia to keep itself afloat. The sterling part Kirkenes played in the war is recalled in the Sør-Varanger museum and also by a couple of monuments – one dedicated to the town’s wartime women in the main square, and a second to the Red Army, plonked on Roald Amundsens gate, just to the east.
Thanks to the bombs, Kirkenes is now almost entirely modern, with long rows of uniform houses spreading out along the Bøkfjord, a narrow arm of the Barents Sea. If that sounds dull, it’s not to slight the town, which makes the most of its inhospitable surroundings with some pleasant public gardens, lakes and residential areas – it’s just that it seems an awfully long way to come for not very much.
Crossing into Russia
Crossing into Russia
From Kirkenes, it’s just 16km southeast along the E105 to Storskog, Norway’s only official border crossing point with Russia. You can take photographs of the frontier, provided you don’t snap any Russian personnel or military installations – which rather limits the options as there’s little else to see. The crossing is busy for much of the year, but it’s not open for casual day-trippers; in any case, the only convenient settlement nearby is the ugly and heavily sullied Russian mining town of Nikel, around 40km further to the south, from where you can – extraordinarily enough – travel by train all the way to Vladivostok. Several Kirkenes travel agents organize day- and weekend tours into Russia, the most worthwhile being those to the Arctic port of Murmansk. The trips include both a visa and the fee for the invitation you need to acquire said visa (500kr for one day, 675kr for three), which the agents can arrange in a few hours once they have your passport, a completed visa application form, an extra passport photo and the money; if you do it on your own, reckon on at least one week, possibly two or three. Among these travel agents, Pasvikturist, in the centre at Dr. Wesselsgate 9 (
t78 99 50 80, wpasvikturist.no), is as good as any. They have details of trips to Murmansk, both one-night (2900kr per person) and weekend (3200kr) excursions – a return bus trip alone will run you 600kr (or 1750kr in a taxi, which seats three passengers). Incidentally, there is a Russian consulate in Kirkenes, at Arbeidergata 6 (t78 99 37 37, whttp://www.kirkenes.mid.ru), but they will not shortcut the visa process, which costs 315kr (excluding invitation) and can take between 5 and 10 days. If a Russian jaunt proves impossible, you’ll have to be content with the reflection that if you have made it to Kirkenes and the border, you are further east than Istanbul and as far north as Alaska.