Svalbard: A cool escape

78° 13′, just less than 12° from the North Pole, there are very few lands at this latitude: Greenland, the October Revolution Island in Russia, and the only place you can easily reach by plane: the Svalbard Archipelago. This set of islands is so remote that nature reigns supreme here. Join me on this summer trip around the islands to discover the mysteries of this archipelago – you will be surprised by what can be found here.

This trip was proposed to me by a newfound friend, Jasir, whom I got to know after moving to London. I was delighted to find someone who shares my passion for extreme trips (and cheese as well).

The main city is called Longyearbyen, named after the American businessman, Longyear, who visited the islands during a cruise in 1901. Seeing the abundance of coal, he recognized the potential for business development in mining, and five years later, he founded the city, hence its name (in Norwegian, “byen” means “city”). This is the northernmost community in the world, and here you will find the northernmost of many things: the northernmost supermarket, the northernmost university center, the northernmost bus stop, and so on.

We landed on the only runway the airport has, with flights coming exclusively from Oslo. After leaving our luggage at the Svalbard Hotel Polfareren, we headed straight to explore the community.

The economy here is driven by coal mining and tourism. The village consists of the main road, lined with shops (the northernmost shops in the world), bars, and pubs, and several other streets mainly dedicated to residential areas. There is also a zone called Beverly Hills due to its resemblance to the more famous one. Near the sea, on the fjord, you’ll find the industrial zone, home to various companies and farms. Here, you can also visit the university center, the Svalbard Museum, which showcases exhibitions about the incredible natural life and interactions between humans and the environment in the archipelago, and the North Pole Expeditions Museum, mainly focusing on the Umberto Nobile and Amundsen’s expedition on board the airship.

On a small hill to the left of the main street, there is the church. The town has everything needed to support human life: a cinema, a sports center, a mall, a hospital (although it seemed closed from the outside with no one working in it), a post office, a supermarket, bars, pubs, restaurants, and cafes. The first thing that struck us was the sign at the entrance of every indoor place, forbidding the entrance with guns and rifles. It is not uncommon to see people walking around the village with rifles on their back. Additionally, no one is allowed to leave the village without a rifle or a guide who possesses one. This is because the real danger outside the village comes from polar bear attacks.

The population on the islands is about 2600 people, while there are 3500 polar bears, making them the majority on this land. Polar bears typically feed on seals and walruses, and occasionally birds, but they view humans as prey, making it risky to venture out of town without protection. In 2020, due to the presence of a polar bear wandering the streets, nobody could enter or leave the archipelago. As a curious fact, neither the cars nor the houses are ever locked. If anyone finds themselves in trouble due to a polar bear, they can always seek shelter in any nearby car or house. Polar bears can run at speeds of up to 30 km per hour, with peaks reaching even higher speeds of 60 km/h. Outrunning them is impossible, so the only ways to survive are to find shelter or scare them away with warning shots. Killing polar bears is not allowed, as they are a protected species.

Another interesting feature we noticed was the position of the post boxes. Instead of being located next to each house, they are gathered together in small cabins on the main streets, providing better protection from snow and ice during the long winter and easier access for postmen.

On the same night we arrived, we fulfilled our first mission: to observe the midnight sun. It feels very strange for those not used to it, sitting in a pub at midnight or 1 a.m. and watching the sun move horizontally high in the sky, as if it were 11 in the morning. One of my favorite pubs in town is Kroa, where the atmosphere inside is very cozy, but I would not recommend trying their pizza…

With the sun so bright at night, one doesn’t really feel tired, and we felt like we could live the “night life” all night long, even though we couldn’t afford it, as the next day was already waiting for us. So, we closed the windows and went back to sleep.

In the “morning,” if we can really call it that, we went to the Husky’s cafe to have our “morning” coffee (well, not me, as I don’t drink coffee). Here, the dogs and huskies can “work,” and they have proper turns since some of them cannot work together due to incompatibility. They probably do one of the best jobs on the planet – going around the tables to be cuddled by clients.

Afterwards, we headed for the beach near the harbor and decided to brave the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. I knew it was a bold move, not really because of the temperature around 4°/5°, but because I knew my friends would be upset as I don’t like bathing at the sea, even in Apulia in August, because the water is too cold for me. I also knew they would use this episode to convince me to go to the beach with them afterward. Anyway, the entrance to the water was hard, but then I started feeling the effects of hypothermia and tried to enjoy it. Just kidding, the bath didn’t last more than a few seconds, as soon as I entered, I lost feeling in my legs.

In the afternoon, we went to the entrance of the World Seed Vault, a special facility located on this island that stores seeds from all over the world. Its purpose is to maintain the biodiversity of plant species in case of natural disasters or war. Countries from all over the planet can send their seeds here to be safely stored in the cold. The vault is located inside a mountain at a certain height to safeguard the seeds in the event of a rising sea level scenario. It has already been utilized by Syria when their seed bank was destroyed during the war, and they withdrew their seeds from the World Seed Vault. We were unable to enter, so we stopped by in front of the facade. During the winter, the artwork on the facade reflects the light, creating the illusion of the Northern Lights. However, in the summer, it appears as just a grey passage inside a mountain. Nearby, there is also the Arctic Data Centre, another facility used to safely store world data. The entirety of the Github code is stored here, as well as data from the Vatican and other types of data. The only way to see it is by visiting Mine number 3, as the World Data Centre lies inside the mountain.

Later, we went hiking with a guide on the mountains near Longyearbyen, where we observed a couple of reindeer filling their bellies to survive the long winter. At the top, we were able to taste the typical blackcurrant syrup with Norwegian biscuits.

The next day, we boarded the “Polargirl” for a boat trip to Pyramiden because when you are already north, you can sometimes go even further north, even if only slightly this time. On the boat, we met several people, including a Svalbard guide and entrepreneur who first settled on the island in 1964. I made him stand up every time I went out to observe animals popping out, and although he might not have liked me at first, we eventually started laughing about it. There was also a group of very energetic Germans who grew louder as the trip went on; they had been drinking since they stepped on the boat. During the journey, we observed a walrus, many puffins, Belugas, a Minke Whale, and even a polar bear, which is very rare to spot, especially in the summer.

Finally, we arrived at Pyramiden, a village named after the shape of the mountain next to it. Pyramiden is a Soviet ghost town that was once a mining village, but now only hosts a hotel and a bar. A total of 15 people live here, working in the hotel or as guides. The city remains intact thanks to the cold, and one can truly feel the Soviet atmosphere in this frozen-in-time village. There are still USSR flags, and a Lenin statue dominates the main street, named after the 60 years anniversary of the October Revolution. Inside what used to be the canteen, the school with the gym and the swimming pool, and the social building containing a theater, a library, and a leisure center, we observed the mine, residential buildings, and hospitals from outside.

Apparently, people living there say that when you want an alcoholic drink, you are supposed to have the same amount of alcohol in it as the latitude of the place you are in. Thus, in their bar, they serve a typical drink called the “78°40′,” which is 78% alcohol. I had to try it, but I cannot really tell how it tastes because for me, it was like fire in the mouth.

On our way back, we stopped by one of the many glaciers they have. Going closer than 200 meters to the glaciers is prohibited, as doing so could result in a fine and the loss of the boat license, as the glaciers must be preserved in any possible way.

Let me just pause a bit on their food. Fish and meat are at the base of their cuisine; cod, salmon, and the Arctic trout can be easily found anywhere, as well as reindeer, which is one of the most common and traditional foods of the islands. By the way, it tastes like a normal steak to me. If one is really into trying every possible dish on the planet, they can find some delicacies that are inaccessible elsewhere, namely the meat of whale and seal. Also, in Longyearbyen, there is the northernmost brewery where they produce their own beers, which you can try in the various pubs and bars on the main street. Most of their beers take the name from the most famous animal there, the polar bear. The brewery aims to extend and become a distillery as well.

This is a place that strongly changes with the seasons, so one should visit it several times. We both agreed that we need to come back during the long winter and even in spring. There are still so many experiences that need to be done, like running a dog-led sleigh on the ice, sleeping in an ice cave, bathing in the Arctic Ocean during the winter, observing the long night, watching walruses, seals, whales, and even the Arctic fox (which changes color with the season, switching from winter white to summer grey/brown and unfortunately, we couldn’t spot during this trip, but they are so cute). Living the Longyearbyen life during winter and, if lucky, observing the Northern lights.

In the end, we need to go back.