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  • 179 - the logo again.jpg

Narvik

  
  - darkometer rating:  3 -

A town in northern Norway with a short but quite significant historical record, including that of having been one of the most contested places in WWII, due to its strategic location and its ice-free iron-ore port. Today it's a comparatively untouristy spot but quite rewarding from a dark tourism perspective, especially for its excellent war museum.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

   
More background info: Narvik is a young town. It owes its existence almost solely to the iron-ore mines of Kiruna in Sweden (cf. Boden), where some of the world's most substantial and highest quality reserves of iron ore are being exploited. However, transport to the markets in the rest of the world posed a major problem initially. The only seaport within Sweden that would be in fairly easy reach is at Lulea on the Baltic coast – but it is not suitable for larger vessels and remains frozen in pack ice for long periods in winter.
 
Narvik, on the other hand, is situated at an ideal point: on the edge of a deep fjord that allows practically any size of ship easy access, and it is ice-free year-round thanks to the warm North Atlantic Current (the last vestiges of the Gulf Stream – cf. Murmansk).
 
Narvik is actually closer to Kiruna than the latter is to the Swedish coast. The only problem was: there are mountains in the way. Still, at the end of the 19th century it was decided to construct a railway line from Kiruna to Narvik. It was a great engineering feat, involving an army of workers that are still held in high esteem in Narvik (as the local museum testifies).
 
The line is called "Malmbanen" in Sweden (literally 'iron-ore railway'), and "Ofotbanen" in Norway (after the Ofotfjord that Narvik is located on). It was opened in 1902 – the same year as the official founding of Narvik. Both the train line and the massive iron-ore loading terminal are run by the Swedish company LKAB. It's one of Europe's main suppliers of the sought-after raw material. Interestingly, Sweden even continued selling it to Nazi Germany in the run-up to and during WWII, despite its official neutrality (some say, in order to defend its neutrality) and despite the fact that in the other direction Sweden welcomed so many Norwegian refugees as well as some from Nazi Germany itself.
 
Securing access to Narvik's strategically important iron-ore port was ultimately one of the key reasons why Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Norway in 1940 (another reason was gaining access to the heavy water plant at Vemork – see under Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum). At the same time, Germany's reliance on Narvik for its iron-ore supplies did not escape the attention of Great Britain, so Narvik became a bitterly fought-over bone of contention between the two nations in the early phases of WWII.
 
Outside Narvik some of the worst early WWII naval battles took place between the Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine.
 
Not long after the Germans took Narvik in April 1940, the British, together with Norwegian and allied Polish and French troops, managed to recapture the town in May 1940 – a success that is regarded as the first defeat of German forces on land in WWII. It was not to last, though.
 
By that time the war had started raging the heaviest in France rather than in Scandinavia. I.e. it had got closer to the England's doorstep; and the evacuation from Dunkirk was imminent. So the British withdrew from Narvik again shortly afterwards, on 8 June, just leaving a cache of rifles and ammunition for the Norwegians to fend for themselves with. On 10 June, Norway had to surrender Narvik to Germany again.
 
The Norwegian Resistance carried on fighting in a kind of guerrilla fashion. But the time of German occupation dragged on until the end of the war (cf. Norwegian Resistance Museum, Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum).
 
This period also brought hardships for POWs from Poland, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union who were used by the Nazis for forced labour constructing roads and further railways in the north of Norway – see under Blood Road Museum and Falstad Centre.  
 
The town of Narvik itself was bombed flat from the air in the German invasion but was rebuilt soon after the war (hence its architecturally rather bland appearance). It still functions as an important iron-ore harbour, whose facilities dominate the town visually and economically. At least since the recent construction of huge underground silos for temporary storage of iron-ore pellets, the town has been relieved from the typical red dust that used to permeate it as long as the heaps of ore were still stored in the open air. This is now confined to the actual loading area only.
 
Apart from being the important iron-ore port that it is, and the terminus of the Ofoten railway line, Narvik is also a regional administrative centre and makes a good base for exploring the area. In contrast to most other larger towns on Norway's northern coasts, however, Narvik is not a stop on the ever so popular Hurtigruten ferry-cum-cruise-ship line (see under Norway). That way it escapes the associated sudden flooding with tourists whenever a Hurtigruten boat is in town, as regularly happens in places such as Tromsø, Kirkenes, or Bergen. Narvik thus remains comparatively less touristy, which is a relief for the more independent type of traveller. At the same time it has all the conveniences for such travellers who do pass through here by other means of transport. In fact, some of the accommodation options rank amongst the very best in the whole of Norway (see below).  
 
 
What there is to see: The history if Narvik is covered in two museums in town, one of which is likely to be the main focus point for those interested in the darker sides of WWII, and it is thus given its own separate entry here:
  
 
The other museum, formerly known as the "Ofoten Museum", but now renamed simply "Museum Nord", concentrates more on the other aspects of Narvik's history, in particular its intricate relationship with iron-ore mining, shipping and the glorious construction of the Ofoten iron-ore railroad. Other local lore and customs are covered to some extend too but these parts will only be of (at best) minor interest to the dark tourist. The museum is housed in a surprisingly stately brick building at the southern edge of town ca. half a mile (800m) from the main square and the Red Cross Museum. (Opening times in the short summer season between 30 June and 5 August: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, and noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; rest of the year only noon to 3 p.m. at weekdays and closed altogether at weekends; admission 50 NOK, students/seniors half price).
 
To the north of the town centre (ca. two thirds of a mile/1km from the train station by the E6 main road) the cemetery is also worth a look. It has a large section of German war graves and also Allied parts including, of course, one for the British Navy.
 
More war memorials are dotted around town, such as outside the brick church in the western part of town beyond the railway line. By the main town square you can spot are rather surprising and weirdly designed monument. Its main part is an almost scarily oversized bronze baby sculpture lying on its side on a plinth of red marble. Only the inscription reveals that this is supposed to commemorate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On another red marble slab next to the giant baby, a small block of rock is supposedly from the hypocentre of the Hiroshima bomb. A tall needle clad in mirror-shiny metal further south in the small park with the bandstand is a monument thanking the Allies of WWII for peace and freedom. The group-of-naked-children-sculpture nearby in the park has a somewhat more disturbing quality about it. It's probably supposed to symbolize youthful innocence or some such thing, but could just as well have sprung from a paedophile's wet dream.   
 
Those who instead have a penchant for seeing massively imposing industrial installations up close (like I do) should go on one of the one-and-a-half-hour guided tours of Narvik by bus that are offered during the summer season between ca. 16 June and 18 August (2012 dates) on Tuesdays and Thursdays (departing from outside the tourist office/train station at 11 a.m.). These aren't ordinary bus sight-seeing tours. Their principal attraction is the fact that they include as their main ingredient a ca. 45-minutes tour of the LKAB iron-ore terminal that so dominates the town but which otherwise is completely out of bounds to ordinary folk. Only on these bus tours can you get in and see up close the gigantic loading bridge, the red-dyed monstrous storage sheds and some historic buildings from the earliest days of Narvik's industrial heritage. The allegedly also available walking tours of the iron-ore terminal as mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, on the other hand, turned out to be a myth – it was pointed out quite clearly to me that "of course" LKAB wouldn't let any tourists into their premises on foot!
 
 
Location: In the northern part of Norway's Nordland region, some 400 miles (650 km) north-east of Trondheim, over 600 miles (1000km) north of Oslo, and ca. 100 miles (150km) south of Tromsø (as the crow flies – road distances are far greater up here).
 
Google maps locator:[68.434,17.403]
  
 
Access and costs: Remote, but not too difficult to get to, either by road, plane or even train (from Sweden); overall as expensive as Norway generally is, but there are also relative bargains for accommodation in town.
 
Details: Narvik is right on the main E6 road that goes all the way from Oslo to Kirkenes and thus is THE backbone of all road traffic in northern Norway. So road access is good – but the distances to the next bigger towns are also great. So time is required if you want to drive it all yourself.
 
Getting to Narvik by train is only possible from Sweden (there are connections all the way from Stockholm!), but not from within Norway. Buses connect the town to Bodø, though, where the inner-Norwegian rail network terminates.
 
Narvik's tiny airport provided convenient domestic flights to Bodø in 2012 when I was there. The future of Narvik's own little Framnes airport, a walkable distance just outside the town at the end off the peninsula north of the iron-ore loading port, is unfortunately uncertain, as I was told. This airport may not even continue to be in operation at all by the time you read this, which would mean you'd have to use the busier Harstad-Narvik airport, which is a long bus transfer away (the airport bus takes 1 ¼ hours and costs a hefty fare an top of flight costs). Better check ahead carefully and don't get the two airports confused.
 
In fact, I already felt the beginnings of the insecurity with connections form the little local airport when I booked my flights for my 2012 summer trip. At first I booked my Bodø-Narvik-Bodø flights with Wideroe, the domestic off-spring of Scandinavian Airlines (see under Norway). Then I was suddenly informed that the contract for flights to Narvik had been given to a different, Danish company, so I had to re-book. Then this changed again – only this time all I had was a cryptic email from the Danish company saying that they "no longer fly to Lofoten". Since I hadn't booked any flights to Lofoten I at first ignored this – until I checked my booking status and found that my flights to/from Narvik were indeed no longer existent. My enquiries with the Danish airline were only answered rather tartly and with almost a fortnight of delay. But fortunately I was able to re-book with Wideroe who again had taken over the connection (not that anyone had cared to inform me of that when the change back to the original set-up occurred).
 
Once you've made it to Narvik and require overnight accommodation there are some real jewels to be found here. This includes what must be a candidate for the title of Norway's best B&B. It's called Norumsgarden and is so celebrated in the guidebooks that its merely four rooms tend to book out well in advance, so try getting a booking secured as early as you can.
  
The place is not only a delight (and compared to hotel rates in Norway almost a bargain!) of pretty (if occasionally kitschy) antiques, good personal service and a stupendously good breakfast, it also has historical connections that may be of interest to the dark tourist: the house was used during WWII by German Nazi officers (their mess was in what today is the small school/nursery just across the road – not in the B&B building itself as the Lonely Planet guide book claimed).
  
The proprietor can show you an old bottle of Pepsi (not Coke – LP wrong again) manufactured under license in Germany in the 1930s namely in Harburg, next to Hamburg's harbour (but not in Hamburg itself – LP got that wrong yet again too … still, it was close enough for me to feel a surprising "connection" to my original hometown up here).
 
If Norumsgarden is booked out, there are alternatives, including the spectacularly modernist tower of the Rica hotel (now under the Scandic brand name), which has become a new landmark of Narvik. Room rates are on the pricey side, but the views from the upper floor rooms (or the luxuriously overpriced cocktail bar at the very top) are a definite bonus. And the breakfast buffet was one of the most exuberantly lavish affairs I ever encountered in any hotel in Norway.
  
More modest and basic options are also available (several even, which is rare in Norway). For eating out, there are the usual fast-food joints or, if you want something classier, the restaurants of the upscale hotels offer tasty treats (again I found the Rica/Scandic to be at the top in this category). If you manage to secure one of the rooms with a kitchen(ette) in the Norumsgarden B&B you can comfortably self-cater and thus save more money.
 
The fish market next to the war museum on the main square has fishy take-out snacks too and is very popular, especially in summer when you can sit outside and devour your purchases there and then if the weather allows it. Whether the market's controversial but proudly advertised offerings of whale meat will appeal to foreign visitors, though, is more doubtful.
 
 
Time required: The two museums within Narvik can be done in half a day, but allow extra time for a tour of the iron-ore port if that's your kind of thing, and/ or for a trip up the mountain for exceptional views. With extra excursions during the day, two nights' accommodation in Narvik are the minimum to plan in, possibly more if you intend to use the place as a jumping off point for a train trip to Sweden too.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: In the region around Narvik you can find a set of memorial and information plaques about various events in the 1940 Battle of Narvik in WWII. These have only recently been installed in association with the Norwegian military, and they are indeed quite detailed – but really aimed more at true military history buffs. To see them all would also be quite a quest as they are dotted around a pretty large area. The most easily accessible ones are a couple to be found en route north just by the main E6 road (e.g. en route to the Polar Zoo – see below).
 
The place most conveniently reached from Narvik isn't even in Norway itself, but over the border in Sweden. The train line that serves the iron-ore mines of Kiruna is also used for passenger trains (usually two a day) which go all the way to Lulea. En route it passes through Boden, the base for a days' worth of exploring the Boden Fortress. It makes for a perfect two-night side trip to northern Sweden, which is otherwise less accessible from within Sweden itself (though there are also onwards trains all the way down to Stockholm – but they take time).
 
For more dark destinations within Norway, Narvik's tiny domestic airport could be useful. In August 2012, at least, I used it for my flights from and back to Bodø – and Bodø is a jumping-off point for a trip to see the Blood Road Museum. There were also flights to Tromsø, which in turn is a hub that has onward flights to Kirkenes as well as out to Svalbard. But as pointed out above, things may have changed by now and you may have to use the much further away Harstad/Narvik airport for such onward travel.
 
By road, the next points of interest for the dark tourist are all rather far away, making it hardly worthwhile the long driving times. The Blood Road Museum south of Fauske and Bodø may just about be in a day's drive's reach. But everything else would require at least one stop-over somewhere (e.g. Kirkenes in the far north, or Falstad further south near Trondheim).
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Narvik may not be the prototypically Norwegian-pretty coastal settlement of the usual picture-book look (far from it) but it does have a very pleasant and, I found, rather more "authentic" feel … in the sense of being contemporary and for "real" inhabitants, rather than appealing to tourists' folkloristic clichés. And it has a few decent non-dark attractions of its own too, such as the spectacular views to be had from the top of Narvikfjellet mountain just south of town. This can easily be ascended by cable car. In winter there are further ski lifts right to the summit. In summer daring mountain bikers plunge themselves down the steep slopes. On the way up to the lower cable car station you pass rows of rather more cliché-compatible wooden residential houses too.
 
A very unusual, and really rather weird local attraction is the "geyser" that's set off twice a day from the local hydroelectric station on the hillside high above the train station (and visible from down there pretty well). It's of course not a real one, since there is no geothermal activity anywhere near here. It is only a valve opened to let out a powerful spout of water. But close up the local kids love it to get wet under it. And from a distance its just a mildly bizarre spectacle to behold.
 
Further afield, the whole region around Narvik is superb scenic, starkly Arctic in nature and just stunningly beautiful – not just on the famed Lofoten Islands. The latter, however, can be reached with relative ease from Narvik. They are a classic favourite with most Norway tourists.
 
In the other direction, on the mainland north of Narvik about an hour's drive away is a very special attraction for animal lovers: the Polar Zoo. As you can expect, it houses all the typical northern wild animals of Norway such as wolves and bears, elks and reindeer, and also the elusive wolverine. Their old musk ox Klaus, however, had just passed away shortly before my visit. But there are plans to get a replacement. It's an unusually expansive kind of zoo – and the hillside slope it is located on means lots of climbing of steep tracks. And most of the time you won't see any animals. Whether it's worth the truly hefty admission fee, depends on how much you really are into these species of animals.
  
  
 
  • Narvik 01 - main squareNarvik 01 - main square
  • Narvik 02 - Hiroshima memorial with fish hall and museum in the backgroundNarvik 02 - Hiroshima memorial with fish hall and museum in the background
  • Narvik 03 - view over the bay in evening lightNarvik 03 - view over the bay in evening light
  • Narvik 04 - modern part of the town centreNarvik 04 - modern part of the town centre
  • Narvik 05 - empty bandstandNarvik 05 - empty bandstand
  • Narvik 06 - reflective memorial thanking the Allies for peace and freedomNarvik 06 - reflective memorial thanking the Allies for peace and freedom
  • Narvik 07 - crumbling old stepsNarvik 07 - crumbling old steps
  • Narvik 08 - the iron ore port dominates the townNarvik 08 - the iron ore port dominates the town
  • Narvik 09 - local history museumNarvik 09 - local history museum
  • Narvik 10 - with models of the iron ore portNarvik 10 - with models of the iron ore port
  • Narvik 11 - iron ore from KirunaNarvik 11 - iron ore from Kiruna
  • Narvik 12 - older houses on the hillsideNarvik 12 - older houses on the hillside
  • Narvik 13 - Narvikfjellet in the backgroundNarvik 13 - Narvikfjellet in the background
  • Narvik 14 - cable carNarvik 14 - cable car
  • Narvik 15 - high above townNarvik 15 - high above town
  • Narvik 16 - new port developmentNarvik 16 - new port development
  • Narvik 17 - distances and summitNarvik 17 - distances and summit
  • Narvik 18 - NorumsgardenNarvik 18 - Norumsgarden
  • Narvik 19 - stone churchNarvik 19 - stone church
  • Narvik 20 - war memorial in the churchyardNarvik 20 - war memorial in the churchyard
  • Narvik 21 - German war cemeteryNarvik 21 - German war cemetery
  • Narvik 22 - in the British sector of the war cemeteryNarvik 22 - in the British sector of the war cemetery
  • Narvik 23 - one of a series of memorials in the hinterlandNarvik 23 - one of a series of memorials in the hinterland
  • Narvik 24 - bunker relic in townNarvik 24 - bunker relic in town
  • Narvik 25 - the tiny Framnes airportNarvik 25 - the tiny Framnes airport
  • Narvik 26 - iron ore train, geyser and photographerNarvik 26 - iron ore train, geyser and photographer
  • Narvik 27 - artificial geyser made by the local hydroelectric station opening a valveNarvik 27 - artificial geyser made by the local hydroelectric station opening a valve
  • Narvik 28 - Rombaken fjordNarvik 28 - Rombaken fjord
  • Narvik 29 - Ofotbanen train line from SwedenNarvik 29 - Ofotbanen train line from Sweden
  • Narvik 30 - iron ore train from SwedenNarvik 30 - iron ore train from Sweden
  • Narvik 31 - on a tour of the iron ore portNarvik 31 - on a tour of the iron ore port
  • Narvik 32 - main iron ore loading bridgeNarvik 32 - main iron ore loading bridge
  • Narvik 33 - industrial heritageNarvik 33 - industrial heritage

  

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