Svalbard - Spitsbergen

  
  - darkometer rating:  2 -
 
An archipelago of islands in the Arctic, with Spitsbergen as the main island, which is why that name is sometimes also used to designate the entire territory. It's a very remote place, located about halfway between the North Pole and the northern end of mainland Norway, which is the country to which Svalbard officially belongs.
 
Despite this remoteness, Spitsbergen has developed into a proper tourist destination – in fact the northernmost regularly visible tourist attraction in the world! And for those dark tourists with a taste for it there are excursions to a couple of ex-Soviet/Russian mining/ghost towns to add to the general middle-of-nowhere exoticness. 
More background info: Even though Svalbard "belongs to" Norway, administratively and by sovereignty claim, these islands in the High Arctic are clearly separate enough both geographically as well as in political status to be treated as a separate country here rather than as a chapter subsumed under Norway.

Svalbard had long been out of human reach anyway. It was only with the onset of industrial-scale whaling in the 17th and 18th century that people first started to live there, at least in seasonal settlements. Given that whaling involved the hunting to (near) extinction of several species, even these very beginnings of human presence on Svalbard are of a rather dark nature (cf. South Georgia). The hunting down of other species followed, such as polar bears, walruses (for ivory), foxes (for fur). Ruthless exploitation of nature's riches was the order of the day.

In the age of polar explorers, Svalbard became the base for attempts to reach the North Pole – in particular by means of airships. This included the ill-fated attempt by  Italian explorer Umberto Nobile in 1928, whose airship crashed sparking an unprecedented rescue operation. Taking part in these was the Norwegian hero explorer Roald Amundsen – who had been the first to reach the South Pole – ahead of the tragically fated Scott (see Antarctica). This time around tragedy caught up with Amundsen too – he disappeared during one of the flights to rescue Nobile. Parts of the plane's wreck were later discovered but the bodies of Amundsen and his companions were never found. There's a monument to Amundsen at the former airship base and today's research camp of Ny-Alesund.

During WWII, Svalbard saw some battle action too, which included the destruction of the settlements of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, but Germany never fully "occupied" the place, as it did Norway, but merely maintained a meteorological station to aid its naval war effort in the Atlantic.

Around the beginning of the 20th century coal mining had begun on Svalbard – dark too, if in a more literal sense. Exploitation of not only animal life but now also underground mineral resources naturally also brought territorial claims on to the political agenda. In the 1920s, Norwegian sovereignty was granted by the Svalbard Treaty. This also determined that the archipelago was to remain largely demilitarized and an economic free zone.

The political status of Svalbard was especially unusual during the Cold War, when Norway, a NATO member, and the Soviet Union, the main Warsaw Pact "enemy", had an agreement of mutual land use on Svalbard. More precisely: both exploited the soil through coal mining, and the Russians were allowed to maintain full-blown settlements, with all the Soviet trimmings. In fact, the Soviets used these well-equipped and well-supplied outposts for propagandistic effect, as "model socialist settlements". It was a remarkable arrangement.

With the end of both the Cold-War-era East-West confrontation and exhaustion of much of the coal reserves on the islands, the Russians gave up almost all of their mining installations on Spitsbergen – with the notable exception of Barentsburg (see below).

The largest-scale Soviet mining endeavour of them all was at Pyramiden. Its mine and surrounding settlement were abandoned and the place is now an exceptionally atmospheric ghost town, and a time capsule of Soviet character. Today Pyramiden is therefore definitely the No. 1 dark tourism attraction of this faraway land.

Svalbard's main attraction in terms of wildlife is its large population of polar bears, which at times even outnumbers that of humans up here! But they are also the greatest danger to humans, so in a way this adds a dark element too.

This was made dramatically clear in August 2011 when a polar bear attacked a group of British teenagers on a school trip to Svalbard, injuring several and killing one of them (Horatio Chapple). Apparently the group had failed to properly set up trap alarms, not allocated a night watchman, and their gun also failed several times as they attempted to defend themselves during the attack. In the end, however, the gun did work and they shot the bear dead. So in terms of fatalities it was a "draw" … But you can't help feeling sorry for the bear at least as much, given how endangered the species is and how self-inflicted, through negligence, the incident had been on the part of the group of humans. In any case, this incident underscored once again what a massive danger any encounter with polar bears tends to be. So do adhere to all the local security instructions – and basically just keep a safe distance.

Most tourists are based in the safe haven of the islands' only town (well, large village, really), Longyearbyen. It is here that several hotels have been established since Svalbard was opened up for tourism in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War. Longyearbyen also sports a couple of museums, various shops, bars/restaurants and other recreational infrastructure as well as tour operators offering a plethora of activities year-round. The main season, however, is summer when Svalbard enjoys a long period of midnight sun. This is also when Svalbard is the destination of many cruise ships. In the long Arctic winter, which sees no daylight whatsoever, chances to see the Northern Lights are particularly good up here.  
 
 
What there is to see: Most people's prime reason for coming to Svalbard is simply the call of the exotic, the wild, the "adventure" of the High Arctic. It is one of the world's ultimate middle-of-nowhere destinations that can still be reached in comfort by normal tourist means. In addition, Spitsbergen also has an exceptional attraction for all those dark tourists with a penchant for ghost towns and the opportunity to time-travel back to the USSR, namely in the form of the ex-Soviet mining settlement of Pyramiden. It is therefore given its own separate entry here:
   
  
 
There is still one Russian settlement that hasn't (yet) become a complete ghost town but remains halfway active, namely Barentsburg, where some coal mining has still been going on in recent years. It's far from the showpiece socialist paradise village it used to be, and now rather run-down. But it still proudly sports its very own Lenin bust in the central square – making it second only to the one in Pyramiden on the list of northernmost Lenins. Behind the Lenin there is even an old monument that still stands and continues to proudly proclaim "communism is our goal". That's a lie now, and the monument thus decidedly redundant these days, but it's cool that they did not simply remove this relic of the olden days of Soviet times.

Unlike Pyramiden, Barentsburg is still inhabited by a couple of hundred Russians and Ukrainians as some business (mining) is still going on as well, though on a much smaller scale than it used to be. Barentsburg has a hotel, so you could even stay overnight here (at quite affordable rates too!), and there's a bar and tourist shop too. Moreover, by the "Olympic" sports centre there's a small museum, called the "Pomor Museum" (open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays to Fridays; admission 25 NOK). However, if you're on one of the regular boat trips from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg, then you'll be pressed for time and won't be able to do all of this within the hour or so of free time after the guided tour that you'll have in Barentsburg. So you'll have to be selective.

I opted out of the museum and instead spent my time exploring the ex-Soviet delights of socialist realist murals and monuments, popped into the idiosyncratic bar at the hotel and quickly had a look at the new chapel. Inside is a small memorial section commemorating the disasters of 1996 and 1997. The former was a plane crash in which 141 mine workers en route to Longyearbyen were killed, the latter was the worst accident that ever happened in the Barentsburg mine itself, when 23 miners perished in an underground explosion.

En route from Barentsburg back to Longyearbyen the boat passes the completely deserted former mining settlement of Grumant which was abandoned decades ago. But you can still see three or four large buildings in atmospheric stages of semi-dereliction as well as entrances to the ex-mine's tunnels …  The tour also takes in the surrounding fjords and the front face of the Esmark glacier tongue.

Svalbard's main settlement and only "town" (of ca. 2000 inhabitants) Longyearbyen is where virtually all foreign visitors to these remote lands will be based (see below). Apart from serving as the embarkation point for those boat trips to Barentsburg, Pyramiden and beyond, it also has a few attractions of its own, including two museums.

The larger of the two is the general Svalbard Museum, housed in a large modern building which it shares with the university, to be (easily) found at the bottom of the main street on the slope below the Radisson Polar Hotel. The exhibition is full of stuffed Arctic animals and apart from fauna and flora covers the whaling and trapping history of Svalbard as well as the more modern historical aspects such as polar exploration and science. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (in winter only from 12 noon); admission: 75 NOK (50 NOK for students/pensioners, 15 NOK for children).

Around the back of the big University Centre/Svalbard Museum building is the more specialized Spitsbergen Airship Museum. This concentrates on the polar exploration by air (mainly), and includes extensive coverage of the tragic Nobile/Amundsen story – see above. Opening times: in the summer season only (it closes from October), 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., daily; admission: 75 NOK; no photography allowed.

If you want to see both museums you should make use of the combination ticket offer of 130 NOK.

In addition, there is a whole range of activities on offer by various operators on Spitsbergen – some of them only seasonally. This includes trekking, birdwatching, kayaking, dog sledding (properly in winter, on wheels in summer) snowmobile tours (obviously in winter only), possibly even including a trip to a magical ice cave.

Apart from that, it's just the sheer rough charm of the scenery – and its wildlife! After all that's the main attraction of this middle-of-nowhere, faraway location: the fact that you are in the High Arctic, the land of ice.

That said, though, in summer the Isfjorden that Longyearbyen as well as Pyramiden and Barentsburg lie on, is completely ice-free. You can go by boat to the edge of the various glaciers – and the boat excursions to the Russian mining settlements regularly include such stopovers. But there won't be any pack ice in the fjord or any real icebergs to speak of. That also means: the polar bears are unlikely to be there either – in summer they mostly stay further north in the archipelago where more ice remains year-round. The same applies to walruses. Seeing those animals thus requires special expeditions well out of the comfort zone of Longyearbyen. On the other hand, you get a good chance of seeing reindeer even in the middle of Longyearbyen (especially in winter), and on the boat trips various seals or even orcas can be spotted within the fjord … Moreover there is of course abundant bird life, including the ever so endearing puffins.

One unique sight in the world to be found only in Svalbard is the Seed Vault. This is a huge "DNA-database", as it were, where millions of different plant species samples are being preserved for the future deep inside the permafrost of a mountain. This preservation of their amassed genetic codes is deemed a precaution … in case humankind further overstretches planet Earth's resources and continues to reduce the genetic variety of the biosphere too much so that we may one day need to fall back on the Seed Vault for access to otherwise extinct plant species for crops. The entrance to the Seed Vault is marked by a prominent triangular construction made of concrete and has become a new landmark of Spitsbergen. You can't go in, of course, but you can see the entrance on tours of Longyearbyen by minibus.
 
 
Location: halfway between Europe's northern end and the North Pole, ca. 600 miles (1000 km) north of Tromsø, Norway.
 
Google maps locators:

[78.22,15.65] – Longyearbyen

[78.065,14.209] – Barentsburg
 
 
Access and costs: easy to get to by regular scheduled flights from Norway, but not cheap (not at all!!!).

Details: Most people (other than those on cruise ships) who come to Svalbard do so by plane, from either Oslo of Tromsø, which land at the airport at Longyearbyen. This is also where most of Svalbard's tourist facilities are concentrated, including almost all the hotels. It is the main base for most visitors to the island … and the only place safe to roam without a gun to scare polar bears away. It is naturally also from here that excursions to fjords, glaciers, polar bears and, most interestingly for the dark tourist, trips to Pyramiden are organized.

Citizens of the ca. 40 signatory countries of the Svalbard Treaty do not need a visa to visit the islands, and these include most European countries as well as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and a few more.   

Svalbard is served by regular scheduled flights from Tromsø and Oslo. Fares are not cheap but if you book early they're also not necessarily as high as you might expect for such an exotic destination (my wife and I paid a bit over 500 EUR for the flight out from Oslo and return to Tromsø in July/August 2012).

Accommodation on Svalbard is generally expensive. The only relatively affordable options are one guesthouse with shared facilities or camping (but the latter obviously requires appropriate tents and camping gear). Otherwise accommodation costs will be a major part of your budget. The few proper hotels all charge well over 200 EUR for a double room. Svalbard also has what's been marketed as the world's northernmost full-service hotel (of an established chain), which obviously costs even more. I found the "Spitsbergen Hotel" the most atmospheric of the lot. It's the converted former residential building that the privileged mining functionaries' used to live in. Especially its bar, called "Funken Bar", bears luxurious witness to that legacy, with deep leather sofas and a sophisticated library-cum-gentlemen's-club atmosphere. And its  "Funktionærmessen" restaurant was where I had by far the best meal on Svalbard (not cheap, but as it was my birthday, so I decided to splash out – and it was worth it). The one drawback of the place is that it is located towards the end of Longyearbyen up the valley, which may be not quite as convenient as those hotels closer to the "centre" of the town.

Whatever your pick, it is advisable to book well in advance – as capacities are limited. And if your dates coincide with the arrival of a cruise ship whose passengers' package includes a stay onshore, then this can mean that entire hotels are booked out.

Eating out is limited, of course, but offers far more choice that you would expect in such a location, including two Thai places (both claiming to be the world's northernmost) and proper gourmet food in the upmarket restaurants, as well as a couple of rustic bar restaurants that are more affordable.

A major part of the traveller's budget in Svalbard will be eaten up by excursions, but since that's what you're here for, it has to be faced – after all, just staying put in Longyearbyen would hardly make any sense. The all-day boat tours described here cost in the region of 1400 NOK per person including pick-up/drop-off, lunch and English-speaking guiding; if you book two different tours with the same operator you may be eligible for a small discount (I was offered 300 NOK off the second tour by Polar Charter). See under Pyramiden for more details.

Finally a word about the climate. Obviously, it's arctic. But in summer it may actually be well above freezing for much of the time. When I was there in late July/early August 2012 the temperatures ranged between 3 and 8 degrees centigrade. And only on the last day did it get dull and drizzly. But weather is unpredictable here at any time, so be prepared and bring an appropriate wind and rain jacket, good boots and warm layers and a woolly hat. In the winter, temperatures drop to minus 16 or so. Still, that's nowhere near as cold as on similar latitudes in Russian Siberia or Canada. This is thanks to the last reaches of the warming waters from the Gulf Stream (or rather its continuation that is called the North Atlantic Current).
  
 
Time required: If you want to do both Pyramiden and Barentsburg you need at least three nights to allow time for the two full-day tours. To see the museums and other attractions in or near Longyearbyen as well, staying yet another day is necessary. That's all for the summer season when boat tours are offered. In winter, when overland tours by snowmobile or dog sled are the more adventurous alternatives, more time is required. The same applies if you want to get to places further out, such as the old polar exploration base of Ny Alesund.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Unless you are prepared to really go into the wild (i.e. on an expedition), this is the end of the "road" north for any tourists. The nearest other offerings in the dark department are back on the mainland of Norway. Flights to/from Svalbard go to/from either Tromsø (daily) or Oslo (less frequently). Oslo is the main hub for Norway, and it has important dark attractions to see, but it's so far south making many of the country's other dark tourist attractions rather out of reach. Tromsø offers a better starting point for exploring the north of Norway more – it has a few dark-ish attractions of its own as well (see under Norway – esp. the photo gallery). More importantly, from Tromsø you can also get a number of convenient (and quite affordable) internal flights to other northern places, such as Kirkenes or Bodø (see Blood Road Museum) – the latter also has onward connections to Narvik – or even Murmansk in Russia.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see under Norway – if you've made it this far north, then you're probably less keen than most people to see Norway's "other" northernmost point, namely the North Cape (Nordkapp), but it is a classic point of interest of mainstream Norway tourism. For me at least its appeal was lost not only because having been so much further north to Svalbard reduces the drama of seeing Europe's northernmost mainland point. I also read a lot of things that made me shy away for other reasons: the tourist crowds, the tack, the inflated prices (that is: inflated even by Norway's generally pricey standards!). And then there is the minor point that it isn't even really the northernmost point – that lies a bit further away and can only be reached on foot.

So I gave the North Cape a miss and instead used the destination of my flight out of Svalbard, Tromsø, as the jumping-off point to the far north-east of Norway: Kirkenes.

Tromsø itself is much more of a tourist hub – it is a busy port of call on the Hurtigruten route, so whenever one of the larger cruise ship-like ferries is in town it gets pretty crowded. Otherwise Tromsø is very pleasant – and offers some really cool museums, esp. the Polaria Centre, where you can watch live seals (including a large bearded seal) being played with in a pool, or watch a Northern Lights show in the big film theatre. The Polar Museum, on the other hand, has more on Arctic exploration (Nansen, Amundsen) as well as exploitation of the Arctic (trapping, hunting polar bears, clubbing seal pups to death, etc.). Tromsø has many "northernmost this or that" accolades, including the northernmost brewery and the northernmost university. The latter makes for a bustling student life – except in high season in summer, when most of the students are away.

 

 

  • Svalbard 01 - flying over SpitsbergenSvalbard 01 - flying over Spitsbergen
  • Svalbard 02 - merging glaciersSvalbard 02 - merging glaciers
  • Svalbard 03 - road to a remote mineSvalbard 03 - road to a remote mine
  • Svalbard 04 - stuffed polar bear in the airport arrivals hallSvalbard 04 - stuffed polar bear in the airport arrivals hall
  • Svalbard 05 - sign outside the airportSvalbard 05 - sign outside the airport
  • Svalbard 06 - midnight sunSvalbard 06 - midnight sun
  • Svalbard 07 - out on the fjordSvalbard 07 - out on the fjord
  • Svalbard 08 - Esmarkbreen glacierSvalbard 08 - Esmarkbreen glacier
  • Svalbard 08 - approaching NordenskjöldbreenSvalbard 08 - approaching Nordenskjöldbreen
  • Svalbard 10 - at the glacier frontSvalbard 10 - at the glacier front
  • Svalbard 11 - crushed ice and a sealSvalbard 11 - crushed ice and a seal
  • Svalbard 12 - towering cliffs at SkansbuktaSvalbard 12 - towering cliffs at Skansbukta
  • Svalbard 13 - really remote hutSvalbard 13 - really remote hut
  • Svalbard 14 - wreck of a stranded boatSvalbard 14 - wreck of a stranded boat
  • Svalbard 15 - bird cliffsSvalbard 15 - bird cliffs
  • Svalbard 16 - abandoned mineSvalbard 16 - abandoned mine
  • Svalbard 17 - mirror effectSvalbard 17 - mirror effect
  • Svalbard 18 - approaching BarentsburgSvalbard 18 - approaching Barentsburg
  • Svalbard 19 - Barentsburg on GrönfjordenSvalbard 19 - Barentsburg on Grönfjorden
  • Svalbard 20 - Russian mining industry at BarentsburgSvalbard 20 - Russian mining industry at Barentsburg
  • Svalbard 21 - Barentsburg has its own Lenin bust tooSvalbard 21 - Barentsburg has its own Lenin bust too
  • Svalbard 22 - at Barentsburg communism is our goalSvalbard 22 - at Barentsburg communism is our goal
  • Svalbard 23 - old Soviet industrial glory in BarentsburgSvalbard 23 - old Soviet industrial glory in Barentsburg
  • Svalbard 24 - sky-high ambitions of oldSvalbard 24 - sky-high ambitions of old
  • Svalbard 25 - the best Russian helicopter in the worldSvalbard 25 - the best Russian helicopter in the world
  • Svalbard 26 - sign of public lifeSvalbard 26 - sign of public life
  • Svalbard 27 - Barentsburg main streetSvalbard 27 - Barentsburg main street
  • Svalbard 28 - school in BarentsburgSvalbard 28 - school in Barentsburg
  • Svalbard 29 - Barentsburg harbourSvalbard 29 - Barentsburg harbour
  • Svalbard 30 - puffins in flightSvalbard 30 - puffins in flight
  • Svalbard 31 - floating puffinSvalbard 31 - floating puffin
  • Svalbard 32 - guillemot peacfully floating on a piece of iceSvalbard 32 - guillemot peacfully floating on a piece of ice
  • Svalbard 33 - seagulls joined in flightSvalbard 33 - seagulls joined in flight
  • Svalbard 34 - easy-going bearded sealSvalbard 34 - easy-going bearded seal
  • Svalbard 35 - spot the spotted sealSvalbard 35 - spot the spotted seal
  • Svalbard 36 - Arctic ex-animals in a fur shop in LongyearbyenSvalbard 36 - Arctic ex-animals in a fur shop in Longyearbyen
  • Svalbard 37 - Longyearbyen in summerSvalbard 37 - Longyearbyen in summer
  • Svalbard 38 - sign that only applies in winterSvalbard 38 - sign that only applies in winter
  • Svalbard 39 - Longyearbyen is a mining town tooSvalbard 39 - Longyearbyen is a mining town too
  • Svalbard 40 - wooden miner drilling sidewaysSvalbard 40 - wooden miner drilling sideways
  • Svalbard 41 - Lenin bust in a bar in LongyearbyenSvalbard 41 - Lenin bust in a bar in Longyearbyen
  • Svalbard 42 - airship museum in LongyearbyenSvalbard 42 - airship museum in Longyearbyen
  • Svalbard 43 - inside the main Longyearbyen museumSvalbard 43 - inside the main Longyearbyen museum
  • Svalbard 44 - celebration of whalingSvalbard 44 - celebration of whaling
  • Svalbard 45 - much more laudable contemporary preservation effortsSvalbard 45 - much more laudable contemporary preservation efforts
 

  

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