Barents Road – A Different Kind of Road Trip

Ever fancied driving from Bodø in Norway to Murmansk in Russia? Me neither. But that’s exactly what we did earlier this summer. Or rather, almost did, as we finished our trip in Finland – getting a Russian visa to continue all the way to Murmansk was just too much hassle. Instead, we decided to stop in Salla, a lovely municipality in Finland, with a motto of “In The Middle Of Nowhere.” And yes, Salla didn’t lie – it was totally in the middle of nowhere.

But first things first. What is the Barents Road? Stretching for more than 1500 kilometers from Norway to Russia and crossing the Arctic Circle twice, it’s an ancient trading route from the times when the reindeer sled was the preferred mode of transport. Things are much more comfortable these days, and you can travel either by bus, or drive.

The adventure begins in the Norwegian coastal city of Bodø just north of the Arctic Circle. From there, the road snakes along a fjord to Fauske and then continues through wild nature via Saltdal to Sweden. After crossing into Sweden, you’ll also cross the Arctic Circle on your way to Arjeplog. Many people are quick to say that Arjeplog is the last untouched wilderness in Europe. Personally, I didn’t find it at all enchanting. The Silver Museum however, with the largest collection of Sami silver in the world was quite nice. From Arjeplog we pressed on through Arvidsjaur to Luleå. Luleå has long been one of my favorite towns in Sweden. It bills itself as a shopping destination, but in my opinion that’s a bit of an overstatement. It’s also the home of Gammelstad Church Town – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is definitely worth a visit.

Image courtesy of the Barents Road Organization

From Luleå it’s a short trip to Haparanda, or Tornio, as it’s known on the Finnish side. Technically, it’s one town divided by a river and a time zone – Finland is one hour ahead of Sweden. From Tornio, it’s just a quick drive to Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Klaus. How this perfectly unremarkable little town has been turned into a major tourist destination is a testament to the power of PR and advertising. We attempted to be there for the Jutajaiset International Folk Festival, but missed it by a couple of days. The dates for the 2009 festival are June 18 to 28 and next year I definitely plan to be there on time.

After Rovaniemi, you cross the Arctic Circle again, this time going north, and it’s easy driving all the way to Salla – In The Middle Of Nowhere. The Salla border crossing into Russia was reopened in 2002 and if you have a Russian visa, you can continue all the way to Murmansk. But even if you have a valid visa, make sure you can take your car into Russia without any problems. Nobody seemed to be able to answer our questions regarding car insurance and required documentation, and since it sounded like too much trouble to go through with both the car and the visa, we turned around and headed south to Vaasa instead, and back home to Sweden.

We drove in our own car and stayed in rented cottages at camping grounds along the way. Prices varied from 200 to 350SEK per night per person, only because I insisted on a cottage with a bathroom, I’m not a “shared facilities” kinda person.

If you plan to rent a car, make sure you inform the rental agent you want to take the car out of the country and be sure to purchase appropriate insurance. Despite Norway, Sweden and Finland all belonging to the Schengen zone, they all have different laws when it comes to rental motor vehicles and it’s best to be safe than sorry.

So, was it all worth it? Absolutely! I plan to do it again, this time in winter!