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.