It was like living out of reality. The ground was frozen as well as the time.
Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, is a postcard in black and white painted only by the pastel coloured houses and by the Northern Lights. The village counts 2400 inhabitants, mostly short-term visiting people, for whom the call of the wild was so strong that they couldn’t resist leaving for a land so remote but fascinating.
I arrive on the island in late May when the midnight sun is busy making an elegant circular dance without touching the horizon. The magic of this motion makes time a relative quantity: an hour is like two, three or a full day. The night comes only when you decide to close your eyes.
A landscape, dominated by white mountains and frozen seas, appears at the opening of the airport doors and a sign of polar bear danger immediately makes clear that the nature here is truly wild. Enchanted by the landscape, I do not realize that the cold is slowly spreading beneath my skin.
At this time of the year, end of spring, Longyearbyen looks like a common village, there are houses, streets and cars, in short, everything you expect from a normal mountain place. All this seems true until you pay attention to the small details: numerous snowmobiles are parked in front of the houses, an area on the city map delimits the “polar-bears safe zone” where you can walk freely, and on the doors of some pubs are posted signs that prohibit entry with rifles or guns. Yes, because this island is one of the last lands where the polar bear has the pleasure of living. Man is only a guest here and the coexistence of the two species works only by paying respect to the landlords bears. Even the rare close encounters with polar bears are regulated by emergency procedures to safeguard the survival of this endangered species. In case you are wondering, seeing a polar bear is not very likely, so much so that it is a rare event for the villagers too: so I would like to say abandon all hope, ye who enter here…. Then who knows? Maybe you’ll be lucky enough. Unfortunately I didn’t see a polar bear but it does not matter much because I will never forget the beauty.
Things to do in Longyearbyen, Svalbard
There are plenty of activities to do on the island depending on the season of the year. May is when the ice begins to melt and some places on the island become accessible by sea. There is no precise date, however, it all depends on Mother Nature, in case she decides to continue blowing icy wind in the wrong direction you must be prepared to change your plans.
Our boat trip to Pyramiden has, in fact, been converted into a trip in search of a colony of walruses. Departure in the morning and daily duration. Two girls served as captain and guide, Veronika and Martha. Our flaming red boat like a real Ferrari darted on the frozen waters to discover enchanted places.
Fjords surrounded by whitewashed mountains were the backdrops to our journey as families of belugas brushed the water with their white bodies and nice birds were enjoying acrobatic moves around our boat. After almost three hours of navigation we reach a huge sandy beach, where a colony of walruses has taken root. This group of gigantic sea animals rests blissfully under the warm northern sun. We stop our boat and observe this peaceful scene eating an excellent reindeer soup prepared for the occasion.
The next stop was certainly the most exciting. Our little boat entered shyly in a fjord along the way back and suddenly in front of us a huge glacier stood up, leaving everyone breathless. His fractures reveal his story as the wrinkles of an old sailor while the colours trapped in his ice make him shine with life. Silence surrounds us and my eyes are carried curiously along its borders. It is immense but elegant.
The town of Longyearbyen is small but offers great restaurants and pubs where you can spend nice evenings while sipping local beers. On the island, in fact, there is a brewery that produces various types of beer that you can try both in the city pubs or on Friday nights inside the brewery.
The village also boasts the presence of a university. Located at the beginning of the village in a modern structure with wooden interiors, the University of Svalbard (UNIS) is a Norwegian institute specialised in arctic studies in biology, geology, geophysics and technology. It is possible to spend a quarter/semester here to deepen your studies or collaborate on a project. To be honest, if I can go back in time I would give it a thought.
Most of the tours organised on the island starts at your hotel and that morning Peter and his sweet hairy companion, Breeze, have come to pick us up. All hooded, we headed to the Foxfonna glacier. When I got out of the car, Peter instructed us on the safety rules to remember during the excursion and on the itinerary to be covered.
After putting the snowshoes on our feet and placing the lunch box in our backpacks, we started the hike to the glacier. The sky was overcast but fortunately the clouds were high enough to allow us to enjoy the fantastic view. The snowshoes floated on the snow and our breath was dispersed from our mouths in clouds of white steam. Breeze headed the line, though constantly checking that all the members of the group were following. This husky, when he was a puppy, was a sled-dog and afterwards it became a guide for polar expeditions. At lunchtime we stopped at the top of the glacier where a cold wind continued to blow.
Peter, armed with a serrated knife that reminded me of a bread knife, began to cut the snow like you cut a brownie cake, producing perfectly cubic blocks that were afterwards used to build an igloo. Piece by piece we managed to build the perfect shelter from wind and cold and it allowed us to enjoy our soup in peace. With a full belly and a body warmed by the tasty cranberry infusion, we continued the exploration of the glacier. The sun has peeped out from the clouds, accentuating the contrast of colours between the white snow and the blue sea in the distance. When we arrived towards the end of our walk we decided to take a shortcut for the descent: we removed the snowshoes, we sat in the snow, and we raced down the slope.
I spent a week on that island at the end of the world and when I came back to the mainland it was like I woke up from a wonderful dream. The memories of this adventure warm up the soul and the thrill that I felt when I saw the sunset again made me smile.
Visiting Longyearbyen, Svalbard – Practical information
All useful information can be found at the following website.
The excursions for the period of the year chosen for your trip are available on the website and the booking of the above can be made directly and solely from the site.
I recommend you keep in mind these islands, being Norwegian territory, are quite expensive.
How to get to Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Located between Norway and the North Pole, in the heart of the Arctic Ocean, the remote Svalbard archipelago is actually easy to reach. Flights to Longyearbyen, the only inhabited center, depart from the Norwegian cities of Oslo and Tromsø. The airlines serving the Svalbard islands are Sas (Scandinavian Air Lines) flying regularly from Tromsø and Oslo and Norwegian, flying from Oslo. The price of the flights starts from € 350 return. The view from above is breathtaking, so do not forget to book a window seat.
The Svalbard islands are not part of the Schengen area. To visit them is essential to have a passport and medical insurance, considering that the European health card is not valid.
Where to sleep in Longyearbyen, Svalbard
The cheapest accommodation is Gjestehuset 102. This guesthouse is located at the end of the village (so you will have to walk for about fifteen minutes to reach it from the city-centre) but it is equipped with all the essential comforts. It has both dormitories and single rooms. The rooms are a bit small but very clean.
Another great choice, at a higher price, is Svalbard The Vault Hotel. This hotel is located in the city-centre and is very comfortable.
Where to eat in Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Longyearbyen is also renowned for its excellent cuisine. If you want to spend a little more but enjoy an excellent dinner I recommend:
Huset – the bistro in particular is better for you pocket and on Saturday night the dining room becomes a nightclub
Polfareren – Svalbard hotel restaurant
At more reasonable prices there are:
Kroa restaurant – good-price good-food, traditional recepies like smoked minke whale, moose burger and cured arctic char
Svalbar – for an informal evening with pub food and drinks
A visit to the village brewery, the Svalbard Bryggeri, is a must.