Welcome to the Witch Capital of Norway
November 21, 2018 11:49 AM   Subscribe

Vardø, Norway, makes Salem look like a walk in the park.

"Happy Halloween,” said the young Norwegian museum attendant in crisp, British-accented English. She sounded solemn, like she was welcoming me to a funeral. I was an American in the Pomor Museum in Vardø, Norway, and, judging from the emptiness of the museum, the streets, and my hotel, I was the town’s sole tourist.

posted by poffin boffin (18 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Now I want to go to Vardø.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:42 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine did her graduate thesis on this memorial, and the coolness and beauty of it just melted my brain. To the point where I feel bad about my reaction to the aesthetics overshadowing my reaction to the sadness of the story.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 12:46 PM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I visited the Steilneset back when it opened (and in truth wasn't quite finished), courtesy of the Norwegian Tourist Board. Vardø is a fantastically bleak and atmospheric place, so cold like you wouldn't believe but dry and crisp too. The town of Vardø was decimated by changes in fishing practices (catches are now processed in factory ships offshore) and many of its houses have been empty for years.

What the article doesn't mention is the looming presence of the Globus II radar installation, a 'space monitoring' system belonging to the USA that actually points straight at Russia... The radar is also apparently the reason why the E75 road tunnels expensively below the Barents Sea to the island rather than going via a bridge. If you ever get the opportunity to visit anything along the Norwegian Scenic Routes I recommend it - one of the true wonders of the automotive era.
posted by srednivashtar at 12:57 PM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

you can take a ferry, fly in a puddle-jumper plane, drive a car, or take the bus to Vardø — options that look rosy in print, but in reality are depressing because of time, cost, and inconvenience.

That'd be a 240km drive on this road which goes around a fjord on the Barents Sea coast to get there. I'm not sure what the depressing part is supposed to be if you can get a car there, unless perhaps you do it in winter.
posted by sfenders at 12:59 PM on November 21, 2018

There are only four ways to Vardø — none are good, and all originate at Kirkenes, a shithole in the way that only towns that are waystations to other places can be.
I considered having coffee in the one open café, but it looked too desperate, too needy; I couldn’t give it a pity visit.

Maybe next time they should send someone who doesn't think they're Above It All and Too Cool For the Sticks.

Jesus, this article was half informative, half condescendingly insufferable.
posted by tclark at 1:27 PM on November 21, 2018 [17 favorites]

Despite the insufferable hipster writing that’s much too pleased with the way it bashes a struggling community, the article did manage to interest me in the topic of the witch museum.

I considered having coffee in the one open café, but it looked too desperate, too needy; I couldn’t give it a pity visit.

Jesus, it’s coffee, not marriage. Maybe next time someone with broadened horizons and a more compassionate outlook can visit Vardø.
posted by angeline at 2:13 PM on November 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

Nosing around Google Maps in the adjacent area, I came across this quite remarkable sculpture, out in the middle of windswept nowhere. (More info.) It's a good thing the writer didn't come upon this unexpectedly in the half-dark, given how nervous just being in the town itself seemed to make her. (God, how I'd love to visit this area; and the Shetlands, and the Faroes, and Iceland.)
posted by Kat Allison at 2:48 PM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I came here also to mention Globus II as my only prior data point on Vardø. I remember it hitting the news when that happened; as a child of the Cold War, I was always grimly fascinated when such intrigue bubbled up around the world. (I immediately wrote a song about it for my next album.)
posted by mykescipark at 3:10 PM on November 21, 2018

Circling back to say OKAY BUT SERIOUSLY for this white hipster chick to visit Finnmark, an area of Norway that is home to a large chunk of the country’s Sami population (despite political gains in recent decades, the Sami are still facing harassment and discrimination on the regular), and to just trash it to bits in her ooh spooky article, that’s like...super extremely gross. Okay. I’m done. I think.
posted by angeline at 3:22 PM on November 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

A witch ønce bit my sister, yøû knøw.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 3:24 PM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Wow, Vardø is *right* on the Russian border. It's actually north of a bit of Russia. Murmansk is so close - just 6 hours by pretty convoluted driving, according to Google Maps.
posted by doctornemo at 4:29 PM on November 21, 2018

FWIW, I’m Norwegian, and I liked the article. The frank hostility in her writing is kind of refreshing actually, and captures the sadness of former vibrant, independent communities being forced to cater to tourism as their former economic foundation gradually withers away. This part sums it up: There was, instead, a very weird, very earnest town in a punishing landscape with a long history and no clear future.
posted by sov at 4:40 PM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

Co-designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, the Steilneset Memorial honors the 91 people who died, most burned at the stake, in the witch persecution that started in 1600 and ended in 1692.
The last half of the period of witch burnings includes most of the Maunder minimum, and its entirety is fairly neatly encompassed in "the little ice age."
posted by jamjam at 5:29 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

There are only four ways to Vardø — none are good, and all originate at Kirkenes, a shithole in the way that only towns that are waystations to other places can be.

Heeey, no need for that. I happen to like Kirkenes, although I've never been or heard about it before accidentally running into their town's livestream on YouTube. It's particularly nice in the summer when you can see daylight almost 24/7.

Kirkenes Centrum

View over Bøkfjorden
posted by Ender's Friend at 6:30 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Vardø witch trials (1621)
During the 17th century Finnmark had many witch trials. Northern Norway was a place with weak central security, where the local authorities had a great deal of power. These officials were not Norwegians, but often men from Scotland, Germany and Denmark, countries with a history of witch trials. They were influenced by the contemporary prejudice in Europe, where religious experts often claimed that "The evil came from North," from Nordkalotten, the home of the Sami people, who were not Christians and had a strong reputation for sorcery.
posted by pracowity at 11:48 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's good to finish the rest of that quote:
These officials often believed in the teachings of the European clerics that "magic came with the Northern wind" down over Europe, and they had been placed there to correct the population according to Protestant orthodoxy. They painted the Sami as a people of magicians, and disapproved of Scandinavian women along the coast being alone at home for months when their husbands were out at sea fishing, suspecting them of committing adultery with demons. About 150 people were executed for sorcery in Northern Norway between 1621 and 1663, before legal security and administration became better organized in 1666. Of these, all the men were Sami and most of the women were Norwegian.
It is a shame the OP author wasn't a bit more well-versed in the area; as soon as I saw the wood structure I thought of the cod-drying racks. It's not just a little similar, it's essentially the same structure, with a roof and textile installation meant to represent each of the 91 victims individually. Nice piece on it and interview with Zumthor here.

Likewise it would have been nice for a bit more of a deep dive here on MeFi? One-off "ooh how foreign" articles by Americans who interview a few random people with a lot of baseless assumptions aren't great, do a disservice to the history and people involved, and place a lot of emotional labor onto those of us on the site who do happen to have done work but don't necessarily have the time to do more of it when someone throws out yet another Oh Hey I'm American And Saw A Thing.
posted by fraula at 2:32 AM on November 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Fascinating place (the whole area, not just the museum). And I love the webcam links posted above.

Thanks for posting!
posted by sundrop at 6:52 AM on November 22, 2018

Americans use their own country as a jumping off point for the future; it is other places that we expect to commemorate their pasts, especially transgressions. The details aren't important to tourists; it is their own pasts they are engaging with, now at a safe distance, the alien can be comfortable when it is performing penance. But there are people in this town that walk past the monument we came to see on quotidian errands; it is part of their everyday. Like seeing naked Germans strolling around without shame on a beach, we reflexively laugh because we are deeply unsettled.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 10:40 AM on November 22, 2018

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