Shades of Russian Grey
After several picturesque ports along the Norwegian coast, our vessel docked in the Russian port of Murmansk.
Reputedly the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk is set amongst a beautiful natural landscape which includes a deep harbour and wooded hills which roll away to the south.
It would take dedication and several decades of hard work to turn this pleasing natural topography into an ugly place to live, but the Russians have succeeded admirably in doing so.
Murmansk is one of the most unpleasant places Huckleberry B and I have ever visited.
From the moment we boarded the Cold-War era bus which met us at the dock and took us into the city, our eyes were opened wide in an effort to comprehend how uninspiring and unattractive a port city could look.
Our guide explained to us that most of the architecture could be divided into three distinct eras; the Stalin era, the Khrushchev era and the Brezhnev era. Whilst an eye trained in the joys of Soviet architecture may have been able to spot subtle differences in the building styles championed by these leading Communist dictators, they all clearly had one thing in common; dismal, dreary and desolate ugliness.
The buildings are so similar in design that our guide was compelled to tell the story of a friend who left a party briefly to visit the outside loo only to find, upon his return, that he was lost because he had forgotten which door he had to use to return to apartment hosting the party. The most surprising aspect of this tale, from my point of view, was that anybody bothered hosting a party in Murmansk. The place looks so glum that you’d have to wonder whether there was any point.
The city seems to consist of little more than stevedoring cranes standing against a background dominated by row-upon-row of bleak grey apartment blocks. The occasional construction stood out as a feature building because it may have been painted in a more pleasing shade of grey. However, even the former KGB headquarters – always said to be housed in the grandest building of any Soviet town – were cheerless and miserable.
Our half-day tour of `happy-town’ took us to a natural history museum, a monument to honour Russian sub-mariners and a non-descript Orthodox church with a blue roof, which was something of an oasis amongst the uniform grey.
However, the highlight of our trip to Murmansk was seeing a massive statue honouring the unknown soldier. Aloysha, as he has been nicknamed, stands to the height of a forty storey building. We could see him on a distant hill from our stateroom window. It’s quite an impressive structure, right down to the grey paint.
Interestingly, we learned during our tour that Murmansk had only been a blight on the Russian landscape since 1916 when Czar Nicholas II ordered the construction of port outside the reach of the German Navy, with whom Russia was at war. Murmansk was chosen because, despite being well beyond the Arctic Circle, the climate was relatively mild, thanks to the famed Gulf Stream, and the port would rarely freeze during winter. Throughout both World Wars, Great Britain and America brought essential supplies to their Russian allies through the port at Murmansk. Despite its gloomy exterior, the port certainly serves a purpose.
At the end of our tour, our rattling little uncomfortable Soviet-era bus brought us back to the port and returned us to the comforts of Ocean Princess.
We were pleased to see the hideous town disappear over the horizon. However, I am glad we visited. Towns like Murmansk help remind us how lucky we are to live in Sydney.
71 Degrees 10 Minutes North
After the pulsating excitement of Murmansk, Ocean Princess retraced her steps and headed west along the northern coast of Norway. This brought us to one of the true highlights of our voyage; visiting North Cape.
Whilst technically the northern point of an island close to the mainland, North Cape is said to be the most northern point of the continent of Europe and Asia.
Ocean Princess docked at the small – but delightful – fishing village of Honningsvag. The colourful gingerbread houses had returned and the grey boxes of Murmansk were now no more than an unpleasant memory.
Boarding a bus worthy of the 21st Century, we enjoyed the hour long journey across the island to North Cape. Along the way, we saw rolling hills covered in tundra, mountain peaks covered in snow and lovely blue lakes reputedly populated by salmon and tuna.
When we visited Antarctica, over the Christmas 2009, my memory is that we ventured no further south than the 65th degree of latitude.
By contrast, North Cape lies at 71 degrees and 10 minutes north.
Surprisingly, however, whilst certainly chilly – especially in the face of a brisk wind – it was not that cold even though the polar icecap lay only just over the horizon. My estimate is that it may have been around 10 degrees Celsius as we stood on the cliff face at North Cape looking towards the North Pole.
Visiting North Cape was quite a thrill. The coastline was incredibly beautiful. Moreover, it was thought-provoking to contemplate that all the great cities of Europe and Asia – and all the entire populace of those continents – were situated to the south of the point at which we were standing. Only those fellow-tourists standing closer to the fence line than us at North Cape were to our north.
Little did we know – or at least comprehend – that our voyage was to venture further north yet.
The Ice Bar at Honningsvag
After returning from North Cape, we had a quick lunch onboard Ocean Princess, before setting out on foot to explore Honningsvag.
The streets of the fishing village were now familiar to us as they conformed with the Norwegian style. The gingerbread style houses, with their peak roofs, were painted in pleasing pastel colours. Fishing vessels of various shapes and sizes bobbed gently in the water. The township was slow and peaceful.
The highlight of our walk around Honningsvag, however, was a visit to the Arctico Ice Bar.
Some local entrepreneurs had spent forty days – with the assistance of 14 men – cutting ice blocks from a nearby frozen lake and using them to construct a bar where all the features were built from ice, including the wall paneling, the seating and the bar itself. A compressor kept the temperature at a chilly 5 degrees below Celsius. We were given Gortex overcoats before entering the ice bar to keep warm.
Like anything novel, enjoying a couple of (non-alcoholic) drinks in the ice bar was a lot of fun. When we left, we were encouraged to throw our glasses – also made from ice – into the nearby harbour and to make a wish. We were happy to comply!
On 18 June 2011, Huckleberry B and I ventured further north than we are ever likely to travel.
We woke shortly before 7am to find Ocean Princess approaching the island of Spitsbergen which lay a day’s voyage north-west of the North Cape. By 9am, we had reached 79 degrees and 34 minutes north; the most northern point of our journey. The North Pole lay only 765 miles over the horizon (no longer than the drive from Sydney to Melbourne).
In addition to crossing every degree of longitude across the globe – as many have done – Huckleberry B and I have now also achieved the less common deed of traversed each degree for latitude from 65 degrees south to 79 degrees north.
Our vessel ventured into beautiful Magdalena Fjord. Only as wide as about two football fields, steep cliffs rose from the icy water of the fjord. For the first time during our journey, the stunning vista was dominated by snow. Each of the striking peaks which rose above us was capped with white snow which ran down their rifts and their crevices to the sea. Several valleys were blanketed with snow. At the apex of the fjord lay the famed Magdalena Glacier.
For the first time on this trip, the landscape was truly reminiscent of our journey to Antarctica in 2009. The only aspect missing was a bountiful supply of icebergs. Whilst the odd block of ice had broken away from Magdalena Glacier, and floated past our vessel, they were paltry by comparison to our Antarctic experience.
Standing on our balcony onboard Ocean Princess, gazing upon the majesty of Magdalena Fjord, Huckleberry and I are unlikely to ever be so far away from home.
During the afternoon, Ocean Princess docked and we were able to walk amongst the buildings of Ny Alesund. This is said to be the most northern permanent community on the globe. There are small communities further north, however, they do not sit out the long winter months. At Ny Alesund, there are always a group of hardy research scientists in residence.
Those scientists come from all over the globe. We saw huts occupied by the Japanese, Koreans, Indians and Norwegians. The Chinese hut featured two crouching lions at the front entrance.
Amongst the houses occupied by the research scientists, lay a house from which Roald Amundsen had launched his campaign on the North Pole. Following our journey to Antarctica – where I had regaled B with stories of Amundsen’s victor over Scott in the race to the South Pole – this had some special meaning for us.
Whilst visiting Ny Alesund, we were ordered to keep to the designated track and not venture further afield. Firstly, the surrounding tundra was said to be a very vulnerable eco-system. Secondly, polar bears were said to live in the area. Compared to the tundra, it’s we humans who constitute an extremely vulnerable eco-system when confronted by the polar bears. That said, whilst happy not to have one contemplate how tasty I might be for dinner, I was disappointed not to see a polar bear, even if from a distance.