July 29, 2014
After leaving the Hurtigruten ship, we took their shuttle bus to the airport, so we could pick up our rental car from the Hertz counter there. The trip to the airport only took about 15 minutes, so we were an hour early to pick up the car. All of the car-rental counters were closed, so we sat and waited. Finally at 10:45 am the clerk arrived. She thought that we were normal car renters who would be arriving on the 11 am flight from Oslo so she was quite surprised to find us there.
Once the paperwork was complete we loaded our bags into the VW Touran, which was a considerable upgrade from the small compact car we had ordered. It was a long time since Rosemary had driven a car with a standard transmission, so it took her a while to get used to using the clutch and the gears. Anyway, first stop was shopping, where we bought food for the next couple of days before heading out the E105 towards Russia. Our home for the next two nights was the Sollia Guesthouse, about 14 kilometers out of Kirkenes and only about 500 meters from the Russian border.
The place was easy to find, and upon checking in we were given cabin number 10, which was up a fairly steep gravel driveway. (More practice with the clutch!) It had a sitting area, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom. Very roomy for the two of us and more importantly, very quiet. We made our lunch and sat at the little table to eat it.
After lunch we headed out for a drive. We went past (not through) the border posts and continued north on Highway 886. This went through some rural areas and then along the Jakobselv river, which forms part of the border between Norway and Russia. There were a lot of big signs there telling us what to do. It wasn’t good enough to just stay on our side of the border; we also weren’t allowed to communicate with people on the other side or to use a tripod while taking a photograph, for example.
There were still a few houses along the road, but most of them seemed to be just fishing cottages. Every so often we could see the border posts, which were yellow on Norway’s side and red and green horizontal stripes on Russia’s side. We didn’t see any border guards on either side of the river, but we were sure that they saw us from the watch-towers which were situated on nearby high points.
Near the end of the road was one of the highlights which we had looked forward to seeing, the stone chapel which was built in 1869 on the orders of King Oscar II (the same king who visited North Cape a bit later) to promote friendship between Norway and Russia. But to our dismay it was surrounded by scaffolding, as they were replacing the slate roof! We couldn’t even go inside for a look. We stopped next to it anyway and walked through the small cemetery. There were graves dating back to the late 1800’s and more modern ones as well, with a variety of ethnic groups represented.
The end of the road was at a small beach on the shore of the Barents Sea. The wind was cold but refreshing, and luckily the weather was only overcast, with no rain. We didn’t go swimming or even wading, but the water temperature didn’t seem too bad when we put our hands into it. After looking at the assortment of flowers which were found in sheltered places there we turned around and headed back.
When we got back to the guesthouse it was about 5 pm. We hadn’t bought food for dinner because we hadn’t been sure what kind of cooking facilities we would have; as it turned out we had a nice kitchen with a good selection of pots and cooking implements. But the #1-rated restaurant in Kirkenes happened to be at our place, so eventually we decided to go there for dinner. The restaurant was named Gapahuken, which we later found out means “The Lean-to”, and it was situated on the shore of the lake which is bisected by the international border. Through the big picture window we looked down the lake towards the border posts and up on a large rocky hill there was a guard tower.
Both of us had reindeer stew, freshly made as we waited. Unlike a meat stew that we would make, this was very small pieces of thinly-sliced reindeer meat sautéed and then served in gravy. Alongside this were potatoes, broccoli, and carrots. It was quite tasty but seemed a little bit salty. For dessert Rosemary had chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream and Paul had apple cake; once again, really good. Along with a glass of red wine and a soda pop the meal cost us about $165, but it’s a gourmet restaurant in the north of Norway so that was to be expected.
Back in our room we checked the internet (we were to find out that Wi-Fi was just about everywhere in Norway). After a while we noticed that Caroline was online so we talked to her on Skype for a while, something which we hadn’t done before. Going to bed was strange because it took us a while to get used to the lack of the ship’s engine noise.
July 30, 2014
We slept in until nearly 9 am this morning, then cooked up our nearly-instant oatmeal for breakfast and spent some time doing some laundry. By about 10:30 am we were ready to head out and explore. Some discussion ensued about where to go, and eventually we drove south towards Øvre Pasvik national park. On the way we stopped off at the grocery store to pick more food, including something for dinner tonight.
Our route first followed the E6 out of Kirkenes and then turned south along Highway 885, which went down the little bit of Norway which looks like a thumb and sticks down between Russia and Finland. After only a couple of minutes we drove on the “Worst Road in Norway”, according to a large and official-looking sign, but luckily it was only a short bad stretch caused by heavy truck traffic from the local iron mine. The rest of the road had a reasonably good surface.
We carried on down the road through both birch forests and pine forests and through a number of villages where we had to slow down to 50 km/h, until finally we came to the village of Svanvik where the park’s visitor centre was. The building seemed to be some kind of hotel or conference centre, but up on the second floor was the actual visitor centre. We paid our 50 NOK each to visit it; the displays were very well done with signs in English, so we read about the animals and plants and other natural things occurring in the park, especially the flagship species, the brown bear. Outside we walked through the small botanical garden, with some very lovely flowers including the Himalayan blue poppy. This was the first time we had ever seen them blooming. One part of the garden was testing different rose species to see how they would do in this cold climate; they were similar to the ones we have in our garden at home.
We continued farther along Highway 885, but it became obvious that the park was a lot farther down the road than we had originally thought. Even though we were in the land of the midnight sun and it wasn’t going to get dark tonight, we still preferred to be home by dinner time. So we found a picnic table by a lake a few minutes down the road and stopped there for lunch. The sun had come out and it was very pleasant to sit beside the lake, and after lunch we were lucky enough to see a big bull reindeer down at the end of the lake. He seemed to be coming our way but soon he disappeared into the forest.
We decided to carry on a bit farther, but the road was only going through the same kind of forest, so when we came to a big lake from where we could see the border posts we decided that would make a good turn-around spot. It was lucky we stopped here because we found a tall purple flower growing here which turned out to be an orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii. We were quite surprised to find orchids this far north but when we researched it later it turned out that it’s quite a common species across northern Europe.
On our way back we continued into Kirkenes to have a look around, but there wasn’t that much to see there so we went back to our little cabin to make dinner. We had pea soup and buns, and then we went and climbed the little hill behind our cabin. There was a marked path which might have been a ski trail and it only took a few minutes. The evening was lovely and we had a good view from the top, over the tundra to the north and the boreal forest to the south, including the smoke from the smelter and the Russian town of Nikel.
July 31, 2014
Today we were off to Tromsø, our next port of call. We heard it raining at about 6 am but as we were travelling today it didn’t really matter. After breakfast we handed in our key and headed off to the airport to catch our flight. But we had to refuel the rental car before turning it in, so we stopped at the gas station closest to the airport. After about five minutes of looking around and fruitlessly consulting the car’s instruction book we finally figured out how to get the gas cap open. Next we pulled into the diesel pump, only to find that the nozzle didn’t fit. It turned out that “Diesel 2000” wasn’t for us but “Diesel” was. Once we had the right pump we filled the tank, but then the machine at the pump wouldn’t accept our credit card and made us go inside to pay.
Anyway we arrived at the airport in good time and dropped our key into the little hold at the Hertz counter which was still closed. We checked in for our flight, dropped off our bags, and then went through security. We didn’t know whether the heightened security was still in force, but at any rate the security check didn’t take long, and once through that we found a place to sit in the crowded departure lounge. We were ready to go to Tromsø.