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The Norwegian town that came back from the dead

  • Written by  Oliver Lowenstein
  • Published in Development
The Norwegian town that came back from the dead
30 Dec
Vardø, Norway’s most northeasterly town, was once on the verge of dying out as its inhabitants sought livelihoods elsewhere. But a passionate local is hoping modern arts and traditional crafts might be key to turning its fortunes around

Cod is Great’ announces the massive graffiti lettering on the side of a waterfront warehouse in Vardø, northern Norway. A few blocks downtown, it is ‘Everything Is A Story’. And just a couple of further streets away a dilapidated timber shed bears the legend in full white capitals, ‘It’s not down on any map. True places never are.’

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Vardø sits at the extreme northeastern edge of Norway, seemingly far from the rest of the world. The town’s population of 2,100 live on two islands; houses and terraced bungalows clustering around a protective harbour. Throughout history, access to the area was only possible by boat. In more recent times, Vardø at least has tangible connections to the mainland – a 3km-long road tunnel opened in 1982, stretching under the Bussesundet strait, reaching some 88 metres in depth.

The town’s history belies its current predicament. For centuries Vardø was a major fishing and trading centre, sharing with its neighbours – the Russian Pomor people – the Norwegian-Russian Barents Sea coastline. From the later Middle Ages onwards, up to and until the turn of the 19th century, the fishing port was the centre of the region’s busy seaborne commerce. In 1897, when construction of the harbour was completed, it was the largest in Norway, capable of sheltering 1,800 fishing boats and a hundred trading ships. This Arctic trading hub even included the town in its name – Vardøhus; the house of Vardø.

Vardø’s population today mainly centres around the harbourVardø’s population today mainly centres around the harbour

Through the last century however, there has been a downward spiral. In the early 1900s, the summer population rose to 8,000 or so, with seasonal labour from Russian swelling the numbers. But after the Russian revolution, the Pomor left and did not return. The collapse of cod fishing in the 1970s was almost a knock-out blow, reducing the area to a shadow of its glory days. And in the 1990s, when the rest of the fishing industry crumbled, the town went into free fall. People left in droves. Within a few years, the population shrunk to just over 2,000, most using the tunnel as a way to find livelihoods elsewhere in Norway’s mainland.

Today, many of the mainly timber buildings are in unrecoverable states of disrepair. A quarter of them stand empty and all need to have electrical heating on throughout the winter to forestall further decay. In the main, the cost has been born by the municipality, an example of just how many of the owners have disappeared and washed their hands of their properties. A few, however, have seen repair work undertaken at the instigation of a project called Vardø Restored, an initiative whose aim is to turn the town’s misfortunes around.

Fishing is still a key part of Vardø’s existenceFishing is still a key part of Vardø’s existence


When local Vardø boy, Svein Harald Holmen, returned from a series of army tours in Kosovo, he began working in Hamningberg. A fishing village 50km up the Varanger coast, it had lost the last of its permanent residents, and Holmen was convinced that Vardø could go the same way within two generations. ‘I’d already witnessed broken, dysfunctional communities, but Vardø was very troubled, although in different ways,’ he says. He could see that the then top-down approaches to the problems were not working. However, it was only after some time spent in Canada, experiencing the restorative justice-like community processes in action there, that he began to introduce these in his home town. The new approach proved dramatically effective in bringing the community together; and in 2011 precipitated Holmen setting up Vardø Restored.

The built fabric was the immediate priority. Holmen co-ordinated a programme of workshops, initiating a dialogue aimed at helping to restore houses across the town. Conversation began with around 60 house owners, funding support followed, and connections were made with the main government bodies that could advise on building repair and restoration. People would not put their own money into what were the cheapest buildings in all of Norway, but with grants accounting for half the costs, and Vardø Restored’s encouragement, a sizeable number took up the offer of support. It was, according to Holmen’s Irish colleague, Brona Keenan, the beginning of a fragile recovery that has gradually aided the town to regain some of its self-belief and confidence.

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Vardø harbourVardø harbour

Ten years earlier Vardø seemed, like many of the small fishing ports dotted along the Barents Sea coastline, as if it was destined to become a ghost town. The local council was chasing big oil, convinced that the town could be the next Barents Sea oil entrepot, while ignoring what was on its doorstep: Vardø, and the unique Varanger peninsula nature culture. One of those who saw the potential, was Tormod Amundsen, founder of Biotope, the Nordic’s – and possibly the world’s – only architecture and birding specialist studio.

‘I wanted to connect people and engage them positively with nature through architecture. Vardø felt like a place with a lot of untapped potential,’ he says, although initially he wasn’t quite prepared for how extreme the situation was. He observed what seemed to be a sense of collective depression. In a national poll, Vardø was voted the very worst municipality out of 430 in Norway. ‘It was like everything came together,’ he says, ‘but the worst of everything.’

Vardø’s graffiti festival has helped revitalise the town’s communityVardø’s graffiti festival has helped revitalise the town’s community


2012 was a turning point for the town. The depopulation trend bottomed out between 2011 and 2012 and numbers have stabilised since. That same summer saw graffiti artists come to paint the town red and every other colour of the rainbow.

A graffiti festival had begun earlier the same year when a Norwegian street artist called Pøbel was invited to Vardø. At the time Pøbel had been living on the Lofoten Islands, where comparable if less extreme rural and depopulation issues are also a challenge. When he arrived, Pøbel realised that compared to Lofoten’s problems, Vardø was ‘ten times worse.’ He gathered ten international graffiti artists, creating ‘Komafest’ to, as he put it, ‘wake the town up.’

The Northern Lights  above the townThe Northern Lights above the town

Pøbel had originally thought he’d work anonymously, but Holmen insisted that he work with the town’s local community. The ten artists were each assigned a building to work on and, over the summer of 2012 Komafest garnered attention throughout the country. Much of Norway heard about the strange goings on in the country’s most northeasterly town and pictures of the graffiti art covering building façades – as well as an upended lorry standing stock upright next to the mainland side of the town’s tunnel – began to go viral. ‘It had a transformative effect on people in the community,’ says Keenan.

Since the festival premiered, Vardø Restored has broadened its scope, now including training and workshops for local builders, carpenters and craftsmen. Part of the emphasis is to reintroduce traditional crafting methods. ‘It’s about going back to the very basics,’ says Holmen, ‘learning how to use original timber material and to ways repair a house.’ Knowledge of traditional building methods had all but dried up. ‘People didn’t know how to insulate or damp proof the buildings, or how to jack up old buildings in summer to replace rotten timber. All this is now being re-learnt.’

Vardø’s recovery is, as Keenan says, still fragile. Holmen’s hope is that the town has turned a corner. With tourists starting to return and more local-led initiatives starting up, it is, at least, back on the map.

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Geographic location: Northern Norway, Finnmark region
Latitude/Longitude: 70°22’13”N, 31°06’38”E
Population: 2,110 (as of 2018)
Spoken languages: Norwegian, Norwegian Bokmål, Norwegian Nynorsk, Northern Sami, Finnish
Land area: 585 sq km (226 sq miles)


• 1307 First church built in Vardø in and the first fortress established
• 1740 Vardø grows in prominence as it becomes a hub for trade with Pomor people
• 1789 Granted city status from King Christian VII of Denmark
• 1850 Population reaches 500
• 1910 Population reaches 4,000
• 1995-2017 Population shrinks to 2,100, due to a declining fishing industry
• 1998 Creation of the Globus II radar dome, a highly controversial surveillance system, 40 miles from the Russian border, administered by the Norwegian Secret Service


The Globus II radar system has been a controversial landmark

Globus II is a radar system (pictured above), 40 miles from the Russian Kola Peninsula, a territory studded with high-security naval bases and restricted military zones. The project is administered by the Norwegian Intelligence Service. When the radar was built, the Norwegian official statement was that it was going to be used to monitor objects in space, such as satellites and space debris. This information was to be added to the orbital database provided by the US Space Command. In April 1998, a Norwegian journalist, Inge Sellevåg, discovered that NASA had no knowledge of a new radar being added to the system. This led him to suspect it had other purposes and Sellevåg discovered that it was also going to be used for national purposes such as intelligence gathering.

In 2000, during a storm, the radome was torn off and uncovered the radar dish. At that time, it was pointing directly towards Russia. A local newspaper editor commented: ‘I’m not an expert, but I thought space was in the sky.’ Official comments claimed the radar was still being tested and that pointing towards Russia was a pure coincidence. Russian general, Leonid Ivashov, said in a statement to the Norwegian newspaper, Dagbladet, that Russia had programmed tactical nuclear weapons to attack the radar station.

In May 2017, work to lay a new electricity cable from the Norwegian mainland to the island began. The additional electricity is needed to power a new US-funded radar system called Globus 3. The Russian ambassador in Oslo responded by warning Norway that it should ‘not be naïve’ about Russia’s readiness to respond to this development. ‘Norway has to understand that after becoming an outpost of NATO, it will have to face head-on Russia and Russian military might,’ the ambassador, Teimuraz Ramishvili, told Norway’s state broadcaster, NRK, in response. ‘Therefore, there will be no peaceful Arctic anymore.’


web fugler white tailed eagle havørn sign T Amundsen Biotope

Internationally, Vardø and Varanger are well known as one of the world’s foremost Arctic birding destinations. The rich Barents Sea provides all of the components needed for an impressive array of bird life (such as the white-tailed eagle, above). Hornøya Nature Reserve is now established as one of Norway’s most popular nature attractions. Nearly 100,000 seabirds live around the reserve. Species include puffin, guillemot, shag and razorbill in large numbers. The birds spend their life at sea, only landing to nest. The Arctic fox also lives in the region being very well-adapted to the cold climate conditions. They build dens in the low mounds or eskers in the Arctic tundra. These dens will often have many entrances and be used by many generations, some have been inhabited for hundreds of years.

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