A relatively modern town, NARVIK was established just a century ago as an ice-free port to handle the iron ore brought here by train from the mines in northern Sweden. The town’s first modern settlers were the navvies who built the railway line, the Ofotbanen, to the mines in Kiruna, over the border in Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century – a herculean task now commemorated every March by a week of singing, dancing and drinking, when the locals dress up in period costume. The town grew steadily up until World War II, when it was demolished during ferocious fighting for control of the harbour and its iron-ore supply. Today, the place makes no bones about what is still its main function: the iron-ore docks are immediately conspicuous, slap-bang in the centre of town, the rust-coloured machinery overwhelming much of the waterfront. Yet, for all the mess, the industrial complex is strangely impressive, its cat’s cradle of walkways, conveyor belts, cranes and funnels oddly beguiling and giving the town a frontier, very Arctic, feel. Perhaps inevitably, the rebuilt town centre rather lacks appeal – it’s the sort of place where the main street (Kongens gate) doubles as the highway (E6) – with modern concrete buildings replacing the prewar wooden houses, but it still musters a certain breezy northern charm. Of late, Narvik has had a fair old stab at reinventing itself as an adventure sports centre, becoming a popular destination for skiers, paraglidlers and scuba-divers – and developing a good range of guesthouses to match.
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One of the real treats of a visit to Narvik is the train ride into the mountains that rear up behind the town and spread east across the Swedish border. Completed in 1903, this railway line – the Ofotbanen – was, by any standard, a remarkable achievement and the hundreds of navvies that made up the workforce endured astounding hardships during its construction. The line passes through some visually stunning scenery, slipping in between hostile peaks before reaching the rocky, barren and loch-studded mountain plateaux beyond. The Swedish national rail service (SJ; wsj.se) now operates the Ofotbanen and trains arrive at and depart from Narvik train station two or three times daily, shuttling to and from Kiruna, three hours away in northern Sweden. The timings of the trains mean that a short day-trip into the mountains behind Narvik is easy enough, and the obvious target is RIKSGRÄNSEN, a pleasant hiking and skiing centre just over the border in Sweden – so take your passport. The journey from Narvik to Riksgränsen takes fifty minutes and costs 39kr each way. Most train travellers nose around Riksgränsen for a few hours before returning to Narvik, but the more adventurous can hike at least a part of the way back on the Rallarveien, the old and refurbished trail originally built for the railway workers. This extends west for 15km from Riksgränsen to the Rombaksbotn, a deep and narrow inlet where the navvies once started their strenuous haul up into the mountains; the trail also heads east deeper into Sweden, to Abisko and Kiruna. A favourite option is to walk from Riksgränsen back towards the coast, picking up the return train at one of the several Norwegian stations on the way.
The area around the Ofotbanen isn’t nearly as remote now that the E10 crosses the mountains to the north of the railway, but the terrain is difficult and weather unpredictable, so hikers will need to be well equipped. For details of other trails hereabouts, as well as cabins, contact Narvik tourist office and/or the DNT affiliate Narvik og Omegn Turistforening (
wnarvikfjell.no). Hiking maps are also available from the tourist office.