At the top of Europe
At the same latitude as Siberia, Greenland and Alaska, this is the top of Norway, where the landscape swings eastwards and wide, deep fjords give way to high plateaux that seem to go on forever. Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county, is larger than Denmark. It is also the most sparsely populated, with communities concentrated along the coast and by the fjords.
Mining is a major industry: the ancient port of Kirkenes developed around iron ore, quartz is extracted at Tana, and Alta slate is a big export item. The county also has reserves of gold and copper.
“Multi-cultural communities are no novelty in Finnmark where, for centuries, Sami, Finns, Norwegians and Russians have left their mark”, says the Finnmark County Authority. However, as Finnmark is home to the main Norwegian population of Sami (Lapps), with Karasjok and Kautokeino the main population centres and seats of the Sami institutions, most visitors are keen to explore this unique northern culture.
The traditional Sami homeland, known as Lapland (or Sápmi in their language), is a region that extends far beyond Norway’s border into Sweden, Finland and Russia; smaller communities of Norwegian Sami are also found in parts of Nordland and Nord-Trøndelag. Half the 50,000 Sami thought to make their homes in the Nordic region live in Norway. The Sameting (the Sami Parliament) is situated at Karasjok, while Kautokeino is the focal point for science and education.
Reindeer herding, with hunting and fishing, is the backbone of traditional Sami culture. Although tens of thousands of the animals are still slaughtered every year, relatively few Sami continue to follow this nomadic way of life. However, the Sami have cooperated enthusiastically in efforts to market Norway abroad, and their unique brand of tourism continues to be a growth industry in Finnmark.
Festivals and attractions
The Easter Festival, for example, is an annual event with a long history. Easter is the time of year that Europeans and Sami from different parts of the region would traditionally converge on Karasjok and Kautokeino to celebrate the end of a long winter − and often a spate of weddings. In modern times, the long Norwegian Easter holiday is still the occasion for a range of Sami cultural events. The Sami Grand Prix (along the lines of the Eurovision Song Contest) in Kautokeino is undoubtedly one of the highlights; another major attraction is the annual reindeer race. Visitors are encouraged to take part in a special "tourist class" event, which generally means smiles - if not guffaws - all round.
Other festival attractions include a variety of concerts, productions and exhibitions ranging from youthful techno-parties to the mystical performances of the Beaivváš Theatre, featuring beautiful sets often made of snow with the northern lights as a dramatic backdrop.
In addition to the many variations on the Sami "experience", Finnmark’s attractions include some of the best − and wildest − salmon fishing in the world, in the Alta and Tana rivers. The North Cape, the northernmost point on mainland Europe, overlooks the Arctic Ocean at 71 degrees latitude and a height of 307 metres (1000 feet). It is one of Norway’s most popular destinations: even in darkest winter the place is fascinating, with the aurora flickering over snow-covered mountains and cliffs etched in moonlight. Honningsvåg, the nearest town of any size to the Cape, is a good base for exploring this remote but hospitable coastal region.
Summer is the season for daily trips to the Russian border by riverboat and “king crab safaris” from Kirkenes. There is deep sea fishing off the magnificent Kjøllefjord coast, and at the town of Lakselv you can visit the world’s northernmost winery for a tasting.
Although summer is, understandably, the main season for many activities in Finnmark, the county is on the go throughout the year, with a wide range of events that include a King Crab Festival in October, a blues festival in November and an organized snowball fight in April − not to mention the world’s northernmost sled dog race, “Finnmarksløpet”.
Many visitors travel to and/or from Finnmark on the Coastal Express (Hurtigruta) as a relaxing alternative to the very long and often difficult drive between Tromsø and Kirkenes, near the Russian border and Hurtigruta's final port of call.