I didn’t know what to expect of this Norwegian town that saw so much horror during the Second World War, a horror made worse I suspect, by it being inflicted on a neutral country. I found that the war had left a deep scar on Narvik, at its most evident in the Museum devoted to the conflict and in the many statues dotted around the town.
Lying just 137 miles inside the Arctic Circle, and like Andalsnes encircled by mountains, Narvik is one of the world’s most northerly towns, but warm North Atlantic Currents and the mountains that shelter the town ensure relatively stable and high water temperatures even in winter. Unlike the Arctic Sea, the Norwegian Sea is ice-free throughout the year which means that Narvik’s naturally large port is always negotiable; this allows boats of virtually any size to anchor.
Although known to be inhabited since the bronze age little was known about the inhabitants of Narvik until the port was developed to receive the ore from Sweden’s Kiruna and Gallivare iron mines in 1883.
Today this town, grown rich on its iron-ore industry, is a quiet place, but it was the iron-ore plus the advantages of its deep sea port that were the cause of its being invaded and subjected to a blitzkrieg that flattened the city in 1940.
A brief history of Narvik’s role in the war.
Poorly armed, neutral Norway became the first victim of the war in western Europe in April 1940. Neither the Allies nor Germany respected Norwegian neutrality and both sides wanted to get their hands on the iron ore mined in northern Sweden and transported to Narvik. Both Britain and Germany were a also aware of the importance of the town’s deep port and both had been pressuring Norway’s strict neutrality since early 1940 when they realized how important this ore was to the war effort. By April, both sides were hastily preparing forces to land in Norway (Britain had earlier sought to interrupt the flow of iron ore by mining the sea lanes) but Germany got there first.
A full scale invasion was launched on 9 April 1940 and in a series of attacks, the Germans seized Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik. Despite initial gains and losses on both sides, the poorly equipped Norwegian and Allied troops were outnumbered and outgunned and by 2nd May most had been withdrawn. Fighting continued at Narvik until Germany invaded France and Belgium, after which the remaining 24,000 Allied troops were evacuated for use elsewhere. Before they left, the troops destroyed the port and the railway and blanket bombing by Germany followed. The town was re-built after the war, which accounts for its somewhat bland appearance today, notwithstanding one or two outstanding buildings.
The above image is Narvik’s National Freedom Monument, a mirrored triangle by Espen Gangvik, a gift from the Norwegian government to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation in 1945. The inscription reads “For peace and freedom. Thanks to our allies 1940-45. Thanks to those who fought.” Made of high polished steel it is 59 feet tall and is located in the town center near the War Museum. Two more views of the Monument are below.
Narvik would appear not to have a lot of English-speaking tourists – although all the people in the town with whom I had contact, spoke the language perfectly – because there was little information in English about the statues and monuments, and the inscriptions on the statues were only in Norwegian. In fact, the tourist office assistant apologised charmingly about this fact, saying with a smile, “We have a long way to go yet, but we are trying”!
I bought an guide book in English from the Tourist Office, and as it was raining outside I put it straight into my bag. Not until much later did I find that it wasn’t in English, but in Norwegian! So, I got most of my information by stopping young people in the street and asking them: they were fine with the translations but not so good with the history!
This is Lille Petter by Jozef Marek. I couldn’t find any information about this sculpture, but his face is haunting and I’d love to know the story.
And here are a couple of very modern pieces, make of them what you will. The white one really has me puzzled.
I wouldn’t like you to think that Narvik is only about past war history, there is a lot more to do there if one has time. The great disadvantage of a cruise is the lack of time allowed to explore the places one stops in, en route. Narvik is teeming with things to do and places to go – apart from the War Museum where you can spend half a day at least.
Bandstand in centre of town
What To Do in Narvik
There are City Bike Rides on electric bikes with a guide, city walks with or without a guide, climbing and trekking in the mountains which surround the town, and of course, the world’s most northernmost animal park, the famous Polar Park, opened in 1994. Home to Norway’s large predators such as bears, wolves, and lynx, as well as deer, moose, reindeer and muskox, all in their natural surroundings, you can easily spend a whole day there seeing and interacting with the animals in their near-natural habitat. Add to this, dog-sledding, husky wagonning, snowmobiling in the winter light and you can see that Narvik offers the visitor a tremendous amount of things to do.
The very brave may fancy some ice-fishing, and best of all perhaps, the fantastic cable-car ride to the Narvikfjellet Restaurant at 656 m, which is the perfect starting point for hiking, skiing, northern lights hunting, snowshoeing and tobogganing. From the upper cable car station you get a panoramic view of the deep fjords, the historic iron ore harbour and Narvik city, which makes the cable car ride an experience in itself, much like the one I did in Andalsnes.
But I didn’t get to do any of these! I spent too long in the fascinating Museum of the War and then got so engrossed in chasing up the names of the artists who did the carvings that I missed my chance to visit the Polar Park. The weather turned nasty, it began to rain so the cable-car was out as the mountain top was covered in black clouds, so there was nothing for it but to adjourn to a warm coffee house and find some inner sustenance in the form of venison sausage and mash served with a local beer.
So, I’ll go back to Narvik one day, maybe in summer time, to do that cable-car ride, to get up close and friendly with a wolf, cuddle a husky and come face to face with a growling brown bear. And to get some better photographs on a day on which the sky won’t be black!
All photographs by Mari apart from the header one with the white deer, which is courtesy of Narvik Tourism.