Beautiful and Mysterious Svalbard

The Arctic frontier, the Svalbard archipelago is the playground of intrepid travellers looking to immerse themselves in the land of our most pioneering explorers. One and a half times the size of Denmark, the archipelago is sparsely populated but thrives still, used since the 1700s by whalers and walrus trappers from all over the world.

One of the few pockets of Europe that is more wilderness than civilisation, Svalbard archipelago is home to the Arctic adventure you have been dreaming of. With soaring mountains, sheer icebergs, rare wildlife and colossal ice fields, an escape to Svalbard combines history, wildlife and the welcoming hospitality of Norwegians to create an enriching Arctic experience.

A brief history

Once the domain of intrepid whalers, it was not until the 1920 Svalbard Treaty that Norway gained sovereignty of the archipelago. When coal was discovered in the area the Hurtigruten ships transported supplies, people, freight and mining equipment regularly to the little inhabited land. During the 1920s both Norway and the then USSR established more permanent communities in the area.
Today, the Hurtigruten ships that visit the area in Spring and Summer time carry important cargo as well as the many guests who wish to explore this fascinating archipelago. With an abundance of wildlife and a captivating history, a voyage aboard Hurtigruten offers unique insights into this remote region.

Wildlife roams free in Svalbard

Spitsbergen polar bearsCurrently the population of Svalbard sits at about 2, 700 people with at least 3, 000–3,500 polar bears. In fact, the prevalence of polar bears means that it is illegal to go out beyond the realms of the small towns without a gun for protection!

A visit to Svalbard is truly a nature lovers dream with many examples of unique Arctic flora and fauna to be seen. Walruses, Arctic foxes, reindeer (and of course polar bears) roam the land, while in the sea many species of whales including the beluga, sperm and killer whale can be seen.

During the Springtime, Arctic ringed seals nest on ice floats in the sparkling fjords, ready to spring away at a moments notice when a polar bear comes into sight. There are also a number of puffin colonies that guests on Hurtigruten can see from onboard or up close on one of the Shore Excursions.

Spitsbergen, the largest island

In the Springtime and leading into Summer, while the Midnight Sun hovers above the horizon for two whole months, wildflowers appear on the islands, dotted around year-round glaciers. 60% of the archipelago is covered in glaciers and the largest island is called Spitsbergen, which literally means pointy mountain, after the (yes, you guessed it) pointy mountain that dominates the island.

Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and most guests to the archipelago choose to stay here. One of the most peculiar facts about the people of Svalbard is that they can’t die on the island – in Longyearbyen it is illegal. The last burial in the graveyard was about 70 years ago, nowadays if you are ill you are flown off the island to the mainland. This is largely due to the practicality of the ground being permafrost and the effect this has on bodies decomposing.

Graveyards aside, many activities such as snowmobile safaris, snow shoeing and boat trips out to puffin populations run out of Longyearbyen, so it is a good place to have as a base to explore this sparsely populated land.

The ghost town of Pyramiden

In 1936, the Soviet Union acquired the rights to use Pyramiden, a small settlement at the base of a large pyramid shaped mountain, for their coal mining industry. And so a little slice of the USSR was born, in the far northern reaches of the world! Today the town stands as a relic of the Soviet world, once offering everything a small town would need.

“It was meant to be an ideal Soviet society. It was a town where any foreigner could come without a visa, so it served as an exhibition of the best of the Soviet Union.”

PyramidenStill owned by the Russian state-run coal company, the town has been abandoned since the late 1990s. A village frozen in time and hinting at apocalyptic disaster, the first visitors to Pyramiden could see books still on shelves, sheets folded neatly on beds, and hand fashioned coat hangers waiting for a coat. It has been named by National Geographic one of the top ten ghost towns in the world and provides a fascinating look into recent history.

In the Springtime, a large lawn grown out of imported soil still thrives, dominating the central square, replete with the most northerly bust of Lenin, and flowers that spring up in the often barren icy surrounds. The architecture is classic brutalism and all guides must carry a shotgun thanks to the visiting polar bears.

Whatever you choose to do, Svalbard is at once beautiful yet remote, a wild frontier that will bring you close to the North Pole without the hardship of an Arctic expedition. Hurtigruten runs voyages up to Svalbard through Spring and Summer and still is one of the best ways to see this region – by ship, just as the first polar explorers did.

Norway in a Nutshell

Norway offers travellers exceptional natural beauty, comfortable accommodation and delicious local delicacies – but how best to make the most of this large country on limited time?

Bentours’ Norway in a Nutshell itinerary takes the best of Norway, from famed train journeys to crystalline fjords to cosmopolitan cities, and wraps it up into a neat two to four day package.

One of our most popular tours in Norway, the four day Norway in a Nutshell package begins in Oslo and finishes in Bergen.

Oslo – Voss: enchanted forests & rolling hills

From Oslo, begin your journey through the gentle farmlands of Norway, surrounded by deep forests and glacier covered mountains to the adventure-capital of Norway, Voss. Known for its strong food heritage as well as abundance of extreme sports, Smalahovetunet farmhouse dating back to the 1700s is well worth a visit to sample local delicacies such as traditional style lamb, sour cream porridge and various cured and smoked meats. Smalahove actually means sheep’s head which is, you guessed it, the farm’s specialty.

Voss – Flam – Voss: dramatic fjord & breathtaking railway views

Day two brings you to some of Norway’s most spectacular sites of natural beauty. A coach will take you through the valley of Gudvangen, with low lying clouds and quintessential Norwegian farming communities. Surrounded by verdant green meadows, dotted with wild flowers in the spring or a winter wonderland in the colder months, you will behold Naeroyfjord, the narrowest in Norway and arguably the most beautiful. This arm of the Sognefjord is perhaps the most dramatic and you will catch a ferry across it, the bow of the boat cutting through the crystal cut reflections of the surrounding snowy mountains.

Naeroyfjord is only rivalled by the beauty of the Flam Valley, where you will have the chance to admire ingenious engineering onboard the electric train, a 20km train ride up the valley with magnificent mountain scenery. You will pass towering mountains and cascading waterfalls as the train zig-zags its way up  to Myrdal. Hear for yourself the passion of the people who work on this line in this BBC clip below.

From Myrdal, catch the train back to Voss for the night, through the 5km Gravhals Tunnel and try to process all of the incredible nature you have witnessed in just one day!

There is an option for guests to stay in amongst the lush valley of Flam or in Stalheim, overlooking the Naeroyfjord, instead of returning to Voss for the night.

Voss – Bergen: from lakeside to seaside

After a leisurely morning, day three is a slow train ride from Voss to Bergen, voted one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys. It was from Voss that King Haakon VII opened the Oslo to Bergen railway after years of setbacks in 1909, claiming it was “our generation’s greatest accomplishment”. Hugging the shoreline of a lake, you will then climb up alongside the River Vossa, and eventually end up beside the sea. Views out to the Norwegian Sea are breathtaking, only interrupted by copses of birch trees and lonely wooden cabins painted in the classic Norwegian deep red. The coast takes you to Bergen where you will stay the night in this bustling seaside city with a rich trading history.

While in Bergen, make sure to check out the the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bryggen, the colourful portside old town, with rickety wooden buildings, interesting craft shops and museums. Bergen is also known for its jam-packed cultural calendar – make sure to check out what shows or performances may be on while you are there.

Alternatively, Bentours also offers Norway in a Nutshell as a three day package (Oslo to Bergen via Flam);  or a two day package (Oslo to Bergen via Voss, or Oslo to Oslo via Bergen) and we can, as always, work these incredible sites into a wider Norway itinerary, tailor-made just for you.

Contact Bentours today to discover the wonders of Norway and you might find, you just won’t want to leave!

Bergen International Festival

Music, dance, opera, experimental performance, circus and free concerts – all of this and more is on offer at Bergen’s International Festival! Held at the end of May each year over 15 days, the festival is the premiere northern European arts festival, with over 250 events from local and international artists at 20 different venues.

Bergen is one of the old Viking towns of Norway and fascinating at any time of year. The old port of Bryggen is UNESCO World Heritage listed and a look into the past centuries of prosperous trading that Bergen has experienced, with colourful wooden trade guilds and old ships aplenty.

From the 24th of May to the 7th of June, Bergen city will declare a state of emergency as the city comes alive for the annual International Festival, showcasing art in all its guises.

With over 100, 000 visitors each year, the festival gives priority to new music and the premieres of productions, commissioning new and exciting work each year. Their aim is to challenge our perspectives and our understanding of art and to engage everybody, no matter their age.

The program features three categories of events, catering for all tastes:

  • Festivities: entertainment and surprises – engage your head, heart and feet, great for all ages.
  • Foundations: appreciate the classical artistic traditions from huge concerts to intimate household gatherings – everyone coming together in an appreciation of art.
  • Friction: experimentation and new technology – challenging the artistic traditions and widening our horizons.

Visit for a day or stay for the whole time – tickets are available online. There is a Festival Card available for purchase which will give you 40% off on tickets (purchased before 16 March, after this date it will be 30% off) as well as discounts at festival restaurants and reserved seats at free concerts.

Better yet, incorporate a trip to Bergen in a Bentours ready- or tailor-made itinerary of Norway. How about Norway in a Nutshell from Oslo to Bergen through fjords and snow-capped mountains? Or take a trip up the Norwegian coast with Hurtigruten, calling in at the Bergen port.

Don’t worry if you can’t make it this year – the festival will be held from the 23rd of May to the 6th of June in 2018 and there is plenty of time for us to get planning your itinerary!

Discover Game of Thrones in Iceland

The icy plains of one of the world’s largest glaciers, the ruins of a demon city of volcanic rock and rolling green pastures interspersed with jagged rock – Westeros or Iceland?

Since 2011, millions of people around the world have regularly watched the wilds of Iceland flash across their screens. The scenery of Iceland has always been that of almost another world in its untouched perfection and the makers of the hit TV series Game of Thrones obviously thought the same thing. Although much in the series is created through CGI, the landscapes are genuine, even when they appear so breathtaking you’d be forgiven for believing they aren’t.

For those fans among us, add on some of the real life locations to your expedition cruise or follow our Beyond the Wall five day itinerary. This itinerary takes you to the filming locations of Game of Thrones with local guide Jon Thor Benediktsson, the guide of the crew on set in the third season.

Hverfjall Volcano = Beyond the Wall

Situated in the Lake Myvatn region, it is at the foot of the Hverfjall volcano that many of the scenes beyond the Wall are filmed. This half collapsed mountain got its slope shape 2000 years ago when the volcano erupting caused a landslide.

The crater of Hverfjall is 999m wide and can be hiked up to. This is, however, a walk for experienced hikers as there is loose rocky terrain and a steep ascent to conquer. From the top of the enormous crater, steam plumes of the nearby Namafjall geothermal area can be seen.

Grjótagjá = Jon & Ygritte’s cave

The gorgeous lava cave of Grjótagjá is where Jon and Ygritte have their first intimate encounter and although showed only briefly in the show, it is a beautiful spot to visit. The cave shelters a thermal spring of a turquoise blue and was used for bathing until the mid 1970s when a nearby volcano eruption sent the temperature of the springs soaring. In the 1700s, an outlaw Jón Markússon evaded the authorities by living here.

Today, the temperatures are slowly coming back down sitting around 50 degrees.

Dimmuborgir = Wildling camp

Dimmuborgir (i.e. Black Forts) is a volcano rock formation shaped like a disintegrating fortress where Mance Rayder etsablishes his community beyond the Wall. In Icelandic legend, this structure is thought to be a hell city where murdering trolls run rampant, proving a lot more scary than even a few Wildlings.

In some legends, these trolls are the parents of the 13 Yuletide Lads, mischievous lads who put rewards or punishments in children’s shoes every evening for the 13 days leading up to Christmas eve.

To fully appreciate the desolately beautiful volcano fields and other interesting rock formations, take a hike through the area towards Hverfjall. If you are up to it, this can be incorporated into the walk mentioned earlier up to the edge of the crater.

Vatnajökull = North of the Wall

Vatnajökull or the Vatna Glacier in English is one of Europe’s largest glaciers. Panorama shots of this land are shown as North of the Wall. Like many glaciers in Iceland, under the icecap there are several volcanoes, creating a number of lakes across the landscape. Vatna glacier is said to have the world’s longest sight line, according to the Guiness World Records, of 550km. This stretches from Slættaratindur, the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands.

The glacier was also the setting for the opening scene of James Bond film ‘A View to Kill’ where Bond kills a number of mercenaries before escaping to a submarine.

Höfðabrekka = Frostfang Mountains

Höfðabrekka near Vík is shown in sweeping panorama shots as Jon makes his way beyond the Wall and towards the Frostfang Mountains. Höfðabrekka is at the foot of the Myrdalsjokull glacier which is on the Katla Volcano.

Vík is the southernmost city of Iceland and has famous black sand beaches, including the beautiful ‘Diamond Beach’ where fragments of icebergs litter the shore year round. According to legend, trolls stole the beloved wife of a husband and froze her. The husband threatened the two trolls and made them swear never to kill anyone again, so now the wife’s free spirit is at home among the rocks, sea and ice diamonds.

Thingvellir National Park = mid-Westeros

Part of the Golden Circle, Thingvellir is the only place in Iceland where shooting occurred during the summer. This national park is an important spot historically, being the place where the first Icelandic Parliament was held in 930 and continued to be held there until 1798. It is also where the European and North American tectonic plates are ever so slowly pulling apart, creating a deep rent in the earth.

Scenes were shot here when Arya and Sandor Clegane were making their way through mid-Westeros between villages. It is also where you will find the treasured resource in the GoT universe, dragonglass, represented by obsidian (cooled lava).

If that doesn’t get you excited about mystical Iceland, then we don’t know what will! Call us today to map out your Game of Thrones itinerary, although these are breathtaking sights to see whether you are a fan or not.

In the meantime, GoT calls…