Hammerfest, Norway: The Town On Top Of The World!
At latitude 70º, Hammerfest lays claim to being the most northerly town (of any decent size) in the world.
It certainly feels like you have left civilisation behind you as you cross the open expanse of tundra from Alta on route 94. The bleakness is wild and thrilling, with huge herds of reindeer drifting across the plateau.
The road breaks free of the wilderness and winds along the coastline before sweeping over a crest and twisting down into Hammerfest: the ‘northernmost town’ snuggly clustered around the harbour.
At this first glance, Hammerfest probably isn’t the prettiest of Norway’s coastal towns but what it lacks in traditional wooden buildings it makes up for in location, enthusiasm, and friendliness.
Hammerfest is a colourful modern town that’s thriving high up in the Arctic Circle.
And yes, that is a polar bear (in the photo), and you are quite correct: It is silver!
Due to a bit of an automotive breakdown, we ended up spending a night or two longer in Hammerfest than we planned, and it ended up being one of my favourite towns on the trip!
I think it was the name that enticed us up there initially. You know, when you look at a map and names of places jump out at you? There was Hammerfest – the name sounded bold and fierce – a dot on the edge of an island almost at the very top of Europe.
We parked the van overlooking the harbour and walked down to the Tourist Information office to get our bearings, find out a bit about the town and make use of the free wifi.
The staff were super helpful and even printed out our proxy vote forms for the EU Referendum (ah, woe is me), as well as telling us where we could get a (free!) shower.
It was a glorious sunny afternoon so we had a wander around the town. It seemed remarkable that we were so north, so very north. Restaurants had tables outside, people strolled along the waterfront, and sunlight bounced off the sea and glittered on the glass-fronted Arctic Culture Centre.
Could we really be at 70º north?
The white, black, and red livery looked handsome against the grey clouds that had rolled in overnight.
Suddenly the town swelled. People poured off the boat: mini buses whisked groups off to adventures outside the town while other passengers milled around the Tourist Office and waterfront taking photos and buying polar bear-emblazoned souvenirs.
We walked up to the viewpoint overlooking the town, it was easier to imagine the Hurtigruten making its coastal voyage around Norway from here.
We had seen the Hurtigruten at various ports of this trip, and we would see it again in Kirkenes a month later.
No sooner had the boat arrived than it was sailing out again, taking the crowds with it.
They vanished, we lingered.
That afternoon we took an exploratory drive out of town and the pickup’s engine over heated. We pulled off the road, flung open the bonnet and let it cool down while frantic calls were made back to the UK.
It seemed our long-time nagging engine issue had finally reached breaking point: in almost the most awkward, northern, remote place it could!
We limped back to Hammerfest and the staff in the tourist office again excelled, helping Chris with his inquiries.
Not only did he get recommendations of automotive shops, he also came back to the van with a badge and certificate declaring he was now an official member of The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society!
The polar bear is the symbol of Hammerfest, not because they roam the streets but because Hammerfest was the setting off point for hunting in the arctic. Many live and dead polar bears passed through this northern town, as well as seal pelts and walrus ivory.
A rather grizzly distinction but a notable one.
What does membership of the The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society get you? It recognises that you are one of only a small percentage of people who have visited this most northerly town: official recognition, if you will, for your adventurous soul.
It gives you the prestige of being a lifetime member of the club and you can attend the annual general meeting.
Chris seemed over the moon with his membership to the club anyway!
We ended up deciding that if the engine did need to be fixed – the head gasket was likely problem – we would rather not be in Norway. The decision was made: we would drive to Finland where hopefully things would be marginally cheaper, and also because I have friends there.
We left Hammerfest a day later with heavy hearts and concerned thoughts. It was a nervous drive to Finnish Lapland, where we tried a few garages – in Ivalo and Sodankylä.
The short story is that we eventually found a garage in Sodankylä who put our minds at ease that we could carry on driving the pickup and it should get us home.
Oh, and I now know the Finnish word for head gasket: kannentiiviste, if you ever need it!
Hammerfest. If you get the chance, go.
It’s a great drive out to it, or a spectacular boat trip there on the Hurtigruten. It’s fascinating to see such a thriving urban hub in such a wild outpost, on top of Europe, deep into the Arctic Circle!
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