Greenland is the 12th largest country in the world, yet its entire population would just barely be able to fill Michigan Stadium to half of its capacity. Virtually all pictures taken on the enormous island encapsulate this sparsely populated, remote nature, such as this one taken by Mads & Trine on Flickr. Greenland is a place with towns so small they have almost no signs, as residents already know where everything is. This photo was taken in Sisimiut, a town with a quaint population of just over 5,000 where the local school turns into a hostel for the summer. Located just north of the Arctic Circle, it’s an ideal place to catch the Northern Lights.
I’m in a northern state of mind. Perhaps it’s the hail tickity-tacking off my window, or maybe it’s because Gadling is sending me to Estonia this February. That’s right, I’ll be freezing my butt off for your edification and entertainment.
Reading about the great Estonian castles such as Narva and Paide, I wondered which is the northernmost castle in the world. That great provider of facile and not always accurate information, the Internet, came up with several answers.
It all depends on how you define “castle,” you see.
If you’re going for traditional medieval castles, there’s general agreement that St. Olaf’s Castle in Savonlinna, Finland, is the northernmost at 61° 51′ 50″N. You can see it here in this photo by Mikko Paananen.
Called Olavinlinna in Finnish, construction started in 1475. At the time, the sparsely populated Savo region was in the hands of the Swedish crown but the Russians also wanted it. In fact, the Russians wanted it so badly that they attacked it several times, even before the castle was finished. The Russians finally took it in 1714 and kept it until the region became part of Finland when that nation became independent in 1917.
A castle this old always has its share of legends. The most persistent is the tale that a beautiful maiden was walled up in the castle as a punishment for treason. She must have been innocent because a rowan tree grew near the spot, with flowers as white as her virtue and berries as red as her blood. A nearby spring has a water sprite, and the castle was once saved by a giant black ram that made so much noise the invaders fled.
There’s a museum of Orthodox religious items on site and you can even hire out the castle in case you want to get married in the far north. The town of Savonlinna is a four-hour train ride from Helsinki and hosts an annual opera festival.
%Gallery-176848%If you aren’t a traditionalist and any old fort will do, the prize for northernmost castle goes to Vardøhus Fortress at 70° 22′ 20″N on a Norwegian island in the Barents Sea. There was a castle there as early as 1306 to control the fur and fish trade but nothing remains above ground today, so while it once may have been the northernmost castle in the world, it’s no longer standing and doesn’t count in my book.
Instead there’s a well-preserved star fort from 1738 that offers tours. Star forts came into prominence in the late 15th century as an adaptation to early cannons, which could knock down a castle wall before you could say, “We’re facing superior technology, run!” These forts had earthen embankments faced with stone and were laid out in the shape of a star to deflect cannonballs and provide crossfire.
Vardøhus Fortress proved vital to Norway’s interests yet never saw action until World War II. It’s still operating today and the five-man garrison has the duty of firing a cannon on national holidays and also when the full disk of the sun first appears over the horizon on January 21. This event is a holiday in northern Norway. You can find out more about Vardøhus along with plenty of photos over on The Lost Fort blog.
While no stretch of the imagination could make Thule Air Base in Greenland a castle, you have to tip your hats to the men and women of the United States Air Force and their NATO allies for living at 76° 31′ 52″ N. That’s 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It’s said to be the northernmost military base in the world. I suspect the Russians would disagree if they were willing to divulge that sort of information.
Like castles? Don’t miss our posts on the World’s Ten Scariest Haunted Castles and the Ten Toughest Castles in the World. Want to learn about life in a town that has lots of records for northernmost things (including the northernmost ATM?) check out our posts on Svalbard.
When it comes to travel, Greenland has its own rules-which are nature’s rules really. In fact, nature rules so completely that the weather report determines your itinerary, as do the tricky logistics of Greenland’s giant glacial geography.
For starters, Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world: for every human being who lives on the coastal fringe, there are 15 square miles of silent, empty ice rising up in the middle of the country. More than 80% of the land is covered by permanent ice cap, which can only be crossed by air or by skis.
Also, did I mention? There are no roads between any two towns. Getting from A to B in Greenland is very much an adventure in its own right.
What is most shocking about traveling in Greenland is how remarkably empty a place it is. Most of us have never confronted such vast, undisturbed landscapes–no matter how well-traveled we pretend to be. The feeling of being this tiny singular person up against such gargantuan nature is odd and overwhelming. Our intellects tend to panic a little–where are the highways, streetlights, the telephone wires, the ambient glowing dome of the suburbs at night? After you’ve arrived in some town, your mind ponders the landscape and begins to realize that the only way out is to hike–and then to where? On foot, most villages are a good 4 to 5 days apart–and that’s in the summer when the weather is nice.
If you’re the kind of traveler who enjoys wandering in their rent-a-car or hopping from one place to the next in some tightly-packed trip, please skip Greenland. For the others out there–those of who sit all week at desks with computers and crave the open outdoors, then Greenland is the pinnacle of our big hiking dream. Back at home, you might drive a few hours to reach the closest state park that’s overrun with hot-dog roasters living in RVs with blasting rap music. In Greenland, a two-minute helicopter hop puts you into true and utter wilderness where if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll die.And so, Greenland separates one kind of traveler from another. In my hotel lobby, a giant wall map of the country spells out the tiny fishing villages around the coast, then announces the big, white center of the country in bold letters: IKKE OPMÅLT (“Unexplored” in Danish). If that makes your mouth water a little, then Greenland’s gonna be good to you.
Just bear in mind that getting to Greenland is the easy part. There are only two major international commercial airports in Greenland: Narsarsuaq in the south and Kangerlussuaq, right above the Arctic Circle. Both were built by the US military back in the days of the Korean War, and both runways are laid out in glacial deltas of grey silt that lie at the base of tremendous fjords.
From either airport, smaller flights connect to various regions of the country–north, south, east, and west (the most populated area). But due to the rugged landscape, and the overall remoteness of so many towns and villages, a lot of these “flights” take place in helicopters, scheduled daily, like busses that stop in one town and then the next. They are also very, very expensive.
Air Greenland is the country’s flagship carrier. With a virtual monopoly, very low passenger numbers, few and scattered airports, highly seasonal travel and even higher costs, a ticket on Air Greenland can be depressingly pricey. For instance, flying from Greenland’s west coast capital Nuuk to the east coast town of Kulusuk will set you back $1,800 round trip (yes, in economy class). Air Iceland offers several (cheaper) seasonal flights from Reykjavík, but it means leaving the country every time you want to reconnect to a new place.
What that means is that Greenlanders don’t travel so much in their own country. Many Greenlanders who live in one part of the country have never visited another part. When flying to Spain is cheaper than flying to the next town over, most Greenlanders choose Spain. For that reason, family reunions sometimes happen outside the country-it’s usually easier and cheaper to gather relatives for a week of shopping in Copenhagen then for everyone to meet up in some chosen Greenlandic town.
Similarly, the reality of transportation in Greenland is a major limiting factor for visitors. Many come with the erroneous belief that they will “do” Greenland, darting around the country like a tour of England, only to realize their budget or a flight schedule confines them to one tiny corner of the country or even a single town. Accept the reality of Greenland and enjoy what you can see. Pick an area–say the South–fly there, and then invest your budget in shorter jumps between towns. This might be on the subsidized helicopter rides (about $100 a pop) to boats and ferries between “closer” towns, ranging from $50-$100.
Another word of advice–always get a window seat. On helicopters, that means being a little pushy since the seats are not assigned. You’re spending a lot of money to be in this country, and while the flights and boat rides might seem long and functional, they are always scenic. It’s how you will see the in-between places that define the country as the great arctic wilderness that it is.
Air Greenland provided transportation for the author during his travels in Greenland, for which he is very grateful. He still thinks their tickets are very, very expensive.
In a few weeks time, Norwegian explorers Borge Ousland and Thorleif Thorleifsson will set out on a daring expedition in an attempt to become the first people to sail around the North Pole, a feat that has only become possible in recent years thanks to global climate change. The two men will have to successfully navigate both the Northeast and Northwest Passages if they want to accomplish their goal.
Ousland is a well known polar explorer, who has visited both the North and South Pole by skis in his numerous cold weather adventures. Thorleifsson is more at home on the water, being a very experienced sailor, and will be the captain of the small sailing ship they will use on their voyage.
The plan is to set off on June 21st, and sail for the Northeast Passage, which fully opens up for navigation in August. That route runs through the ice filled waters of the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. Once they have completed that part of the journey, they’ll then take on the Northwest Passage, which runs across the northern region of Canada. At one time, both of these routes we considered unnavigable, but thanks to global warming, the ice now breaks up more fully, allowing ships to pass through.
There are a number of obstacles that Ousland and Thorleifsson will have to face on their journey. For instance, the ice flows will be very unpredictable, and they’ll need to rely on satellite imaging to help find their way. On top of that, they’re using a small ship that is quick and light, but won’t allow them to carry too many supplies with them, and although it has been retrofitted with Kevlar to help protect it against the ice, its hull is none too thick. The two men have also had to deal with Russian bureaucracy, which is never an enjoyable prospect, but a similar expedition was halted last year when the ship didn’t have the proper paperwork to pass through Russian waters.
The journey is expected to take four months to complete, and they’ll be covering roughly 10,000 miles in the process. Once they get underway, you’ll be able to follow along with their progress and adventures on Ousland’s blog, which can be found by clicking here.
[Photo Credit: http://www.ousland.no/]
Spitsbergen is the “last stop before the North Pole,” a cold, remote landscape of snow, ice, and arctic wildlife. And you can explore it with Hurtigruten, an adventure tour company.
While some of their longer tours may be prohibitively expensive for a lot of travelers (9-day tours cost around $5000 per person). they do offer a much more affordable 6-day Polar Encounters cruise starting at just over $1300 per person, plus airfare.
Passengers on the cruise will go ashore twice per day with an experienced guide, looking for glaciers, fjords, seals, whales, walruses, and polar bears. Stops include the towns of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny-Alesund, which vary in size for two thousand to less than two dozen residents.
Hurtigruten also offers cruises around Norway, Greenland, Antartica, the Baltics, and Western Europe.
[via Camels and Chocolate]