Like a Wild West gulch repositioned at the top of the globe, Norway’s Longyearbyen has a frontier aesthetic all of its own.
On the mountains overlooking Europe’s most northern town stand traces of its earliest residents. If the dilapidated wooden carcasses of decommissioned coal mines suggest early 20th century industry and aspirations, the adjacent white crucifixes hammered into unforgiving Arctic rubble give a reality check of the region’s hardships. Polar bear attacks, mine explosions and the psychological weight of being confined in an icy fortress 1000 kilometres north of the Norwegian mainland ensured only the hardiest souls lasted more than a year or two.
A hotel sign stating “All firearms must be stored in the weapons locker” suggests Longyearbyen retains elements of a frontier town, but it’s polar bears rather than coach-robbing outlaws that necessitate the guns around here. The Svalbard archipelago is home to more polar bears than humans, with Longyearbyen secured by fences to keep Europe’s largest carnivorous land mammals away from the town’s 2150 residents. Even so, tenacious bears have still been known to breach the perimeter.
“I had one outside my kitchen window last year,” Longyearbyen resident Hannah states matter-of-factly. The Swedish-born local has lived in the isolated Norwegian coastal community for eight years, taking tourists on horse rides along the shores of Adventfjorden.
Local holidaymakers were practically nonexistent before the 1990s, but the steady closure of the region’s coal mines and Longyearbyen’s unique locale means travel is now a principal industry.
“It felt more isolated when I came here the first time,” Hannah says. “In the last five years it’s become more of a tourist thing – they want to experience something different.”
Sometimes described as “the last wilderness” of Europe, 30,000 tourists now visit Svalbard each year, arriving in Longyearbyen by either cruise ship or plane. Travellers are sent grasping for cameras as they spot an Arctic fox scampering, barnacle geese waddling and reindeers mooching around Longyearbyen’s nameless streets.
Imported from Iceland in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Hannah’s four stocky steads are the only horses on Svalbard. The horses’ hooves can make impressions in the fragile tundra that last up to 10 years, so we’re careful to traverse a less ecologically-damaging route.
“It’s such a beautiful day!” Hannah exclaims, still enthusiastic about the wonders of the town she first visited a decade ago. While summers at a latitude of 78 degrees north offer 24 hour sunlight, it rarely equates to T-shirt weather.
Today the sun shines warmly as we ride past the large doors of the Global Seed Vault, which put Longyearbyen on the international scientific map when it was unveiled in 2008. Designed as an insurance against future pandemics, wars or devastating catastrophes, stored 120 metres inside this Svalbard mountain is an archive of 840,000 seed samples.
While there’s no fulltime staff at this botany Fort Knox, Hannah says scientists were “here last month putting a new collection in the mountain”. Security is fully automated, although a taxi driver later jests to me that “the vegetarians are the biggest threat – they’ll eat all the seeds!”
The Global Seed Vault isn’t the only sign the world is taking a keen interest in Longyearbyen. As we ride the horses back into town, Hannah points to the port. “In the harbour sits a ship with 6000 passengers on board,” Hannah says. “They’ve come along the coast as part of a big ocean cruise.”
Longyearbyen’s tourism influx has brought good fortune a century of mining never delivered. The last five years has seen a rise in new hotels and eateries catering to travellers wanting more than a squeaking metal bunk and pickled herring.
Opposite the Skinnboden souvenir store offering seal skin shoes and polar bear pelts, rustic restaurant Kroa’s interior resembles a warm and welcoming trapper’s hut. Up the hill from Longyearbyen’s neat and colourful Lego-esque rows of houses, Coal Miners’ Bar & Grill provides reindeer burgers for inquisitive travellers.
There’s a touch of Twin Peaks weirdness that permeates Longyearbyen thanks to its surreal laws (the dead are sent to the Norwegian mainland for burial, since Svalbard’s permafrost ensures anything buried here doesn’t decompose) and otherworldly daylight hours. While the months of total darkness over winter can bring an opportunity to witness the wonders of the Aurora Borealis, the black skies are surely just as likely to bring cabin fever.
As well as being a gateway to the top of the globe, Longyearbyen has its own unique charms and local characters. For Hannah, the town’s gentler pace of life offers many of its residents a psychological balm.
“The people are very friendly,” Hannah says as we take the bridles off the horses. “If you have problems then you can come up here.
“It’s a good place to come to heal yourself.”