Visiting Malta and Svalbard
Within the space of six months, I visited two archipelagos in the extreme south and extreme north of Europe: Malta and Svalbard. It was a fascinating set of contrasts. I spent a few days in Malta in late December 2016. This was my first visit there, but hopefully not the last.
Malta’s location in the southern Mediterranean has historically given it great strategic importance as a naval base. Different peoples such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spaniards, Knights of St. John, French and British have ruled the islands. The Maltese also showed bravery during the Second World War. The country became a republic in 1974. Malta joined the European Union (EU) in 2004 and adopted the euro currency in 2008.
Valletta is the nation’s capital and largest city. It is named after Jean de Valette (1495-1568), a French nobleman and Grand Master of the Order of Malta. He and his forces fought bravely against numerically superior Ottoman forces during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
Valletta’s impressive fortifications reminded me of another walled southern European city, the medieval Old Town on the Greek island of Rhodes. The fortifications in Valletta and the City of Rhodes were built by the Catholic order the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John to protect the islands against Islamic raids. However, if you visit the Old Town of Rhodes, you will see several mosques dating back to Ottoman times. On Rhodes, Christians fought bravely against the Turks, and lost. On Malta, Christians fought bravely against the Turks, and won.
Maltese is a strange dialect of Arabic, but with many Italian and English words due to historical influences. The Maltese language is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters. Today, the people of Malta are overwhelmingly supporters of the Roman Catholic Church. They are devout Christians who are proud of having beaten back Muslim invaders. And they will say this — in Arabic.
St John’s Co-Cathedral, a Roman Catholic co-cathedral dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, is the most lavishly decorated church in Valletta. It is a must-see for any visitor. It also contains a famous oil painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. I also found it interesting to see an exhibition where locals had created many nativity scenes with the baby Jesus. This was obviously something they took very seriously.
The Megalithic Temples of Malta are impressive constructions for such small islands. Some of them are older than the Egyptian pyramids. The first ones from around 3600 BC predate the foundation of the ancient Egyptian state. They were built at the same time as the Sumerians developed a written language in Mesopotamia. The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta gives a good overview of these developments.
I visited two of these megalithic temple complexes, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. Both are located on the main island of Malta. The neighboring island of Gozo also harbors some of these very ancient stone temples. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to visit Gozo in December 2016. The Azure Window was a famous limestone natural arch on Gozo. On March 8, 2017, it collapsed after a heavy storm. I had missed my one chance of seeing it.
During a taxi ride outside Valletta, I noticed some African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers in the small town of Marsa. Apparently, there was a reception center there. Yet I also saw some recent immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in Valletta. Most of them were young men. They were not tourists, like me, but they did not seem to be working, either.
I asked the taxi driver about this. He commented that if you talked to them, many of these immigrants freely stated that they simply want a better life for themselves by migrating to Europe. While that may be an understandable urge, I pointed that out that Africa will grow by more than one billion people in the coming 30 years, twice the population of the entire European Union. The global population growth in just a couple of days is enough to overwhelm a small nation like Malta, with less than half a million inhabitants.
I also commented to the Maltese taxi driver that the euro currency and perhaps the EU itself may collapse within a generation. Interestingly, he did not disagree with me in this view.
You will probably see more veiled Muslim women in Oslo or Stockholm in far northern Europe than you do in Valletta. However, I did see some of them. The Maltese people have suffered many Jihad attacks and slave raids by Muslims, as have other Europeans. They have fought fiercely and bravely for centuries to keep Muslim out of their lands. Now they are members of the EU. They are supposed to be “tolerant” and let Muslims in without resistance.
While Malta has received some migrants, most of the boat migrants in the Mediterranean have bypassed these southern islands. In late 2016 and early 2017, the bulk of the migration waves from Africa to Europe went via Libya to Italy. Some Western humanitarian organizations have essentially aided human traffickers and acted as taxis for illegal immigrants.
Svalbard is a Norwegian-controlled archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The largest island is Spitsbergen. Almost all the human inhabitants live there. The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic Ocean. It has a major impact on the climate in parts of northwestern Europe, including Svalbard. Its climate is Arctic, but Spitsbergen enjoys significantly higher temperatures than places at the same latitude in Russia or Canada.
If you visit in the winter, as I did, Malta can be slightly chilly and windy. Even in mid-winter, however, Valletta, Malta is usually warmer than Longyearbyen, Svalbard is in mid-summer. When I visited in May 2017, the temperature in Longyearbyen hovered around minus 5 degrees Celsius (23F). It rarely gets higher than 15 degrees above (59F) during the summer.
The most striking contrast between Malta and Svalbard is population. The population density of Svalbard is about 0.045 human beings per square kilometer. The population density of Malta is more than thirty thousand times greater than this. Svalbard is substantially larger than Denmark (excluding Greenland and the Faroe Islands), but has fewer than three thousand inhabitants. Much of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. It looks a little bit like northern Europe may have done during the last Ice Age.
I took a direct flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen with the airline Norwegian. The trip lasted nearly three hours, making it probably the longest domestic flight in Europe, at least outside of Russia. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and “capital” of Svalbard. In the summer, its harbor is usually ice-free and can be visited by ships.
Located at a latitude of 78°N, Longyearbyen is closer to the North Pole than to Oslo. It is a modern community of families with a university campus, a newspaper, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, shops, museums, kindergartens, a church and various cultural activities. It is the world’s northernmost settlement of any kind with greater than 1,000 permanent residents.
Known as Longyear City until 1926, the town was established by the American coal miner John Munro Longyear (1850-1922). He started coal mining there in 1906. Operations were taken over by the Norwegian company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani in 1916.
The second-largest settlement in Svalbard is the mining community Barentsburg, located 40 km to the south-west of Longyearbyen. The small research station of Ny-Ålesund on Spitsbergen is claimed to be the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. A few settlements are farther north in Canada or Greenland, but these are populated by rotating groups of researchers or military personnel. There are families with children living on Svalbard, with schools operating in both Longyearbyen and Barentsburg.
Svalbard is Norway in some ways. It has Norwegian telephone numbers and postal addresses and uses Norwegian kroner for commercial transactions. Yet it is not quite like the mainland. For instance, Norway is a member of the Schengen Area. Svalbard is not. Activities on Svalbard are regulated by the unique Svalbard Treaty from 1920. All countries that have signed this treaty recognize Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard. Yet commercial activities on the islands should be equally open to all countries that have signed the agreement.
I was told that the last country to sign the Svalbard Treaty was North Korea. Does that mean that North Koreans can start coal mining or running dog sled tours for Chinese tourists there tomorrow? Technically yes, they can. However, they must respect Norwegian law, they cannot use their own national currency there and, most importantly, they cannot set up any military base there. Svalbard is a demilitarized zone.
Barentsburg is populated by Russians and Ukrainians. They seem to get along well there, despite tensions in the Ukraine. The relationship between Russians and Norwegians has been good for years, even during the Cold War. Barentsburg has a statue of Lenin dating back to Soviet times. But it also has a museum, a brewery/pub, a hotel and a small Orthodox Church.
More people have snowmobiles than cars in these settlements. There are only a few kilometers of roads where you can drive a car. If you want to travel between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, you use snowmobile, ship or helicopter.
Coal is still mined in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, yet on a smaller scale than before. Most of the coal is exported. Some of it is used in local coal power plants to generate electricity for the settlements. Tourism and research have become increasingly important to sustain and employ the people living in Svalbard.
Svalbard has two species of land mammals: The Arctic fox and the Svalbard reindeer. The polar bear spends most of its time on the ice and is thus considered a marine mammal. The small, short-legged Svalbard reindeer is a unique local breed. They have few natural enemies and are therefore not shy. The preferred prey of polar bears are seals. You can see wild reindeer walking around inside the human settlements in the middle of the day.
There are no trees on in this region, just a few small bushes and some grass. The reindeer eat whatever sparse vegetation they can find on the islands. It is illegal to pick flowers, which are rare, but legal to pick up fossils, which are plentiful.
It is claimed that there are more polar bears than people living in Svalbard, with perhaps 3000 polar bears and around 2700 humans settled there. Due to the danger of polar bears, any person traveling outside the settlements must be equipped with appropriate means of frightening and chasing off bears. Firearms are necessary equipment. Several people have been killed by polar bears in Svalbard, also in recent years. They are apex predators weighing hundreds of kilos.
On the other hand, there is very little crime. The local communities are small and transparent. Any person showing criminal tendencies will be deported. There is a post office and a small bank in Longyearbyen. Yet if you rob the bank, you can’t really go anywhere, unless you want to swim thousands of kilometers to the mainland.
Longyearbyen has a hospital for emergencies, but it is small and has a limited capacity. If a major accident happens, those who are injured will normally be transported by airplane to the hospital at Tromsø, the largest city in northern Norway. Women who are pregnant are expected to leave for the mainland and come back after they have given birth. It is not legal to be buried in Svalbard. The permafrost makes burials difficult.
Longyearbyen has pubs and several restaurants with decent food. The restaurant Huset (“The House”) even has a wine cellar with thousands of bottles of fine wine.
In one of the restaurants, I tried an Arctic menu with reindeer sausages, plus meat from mink whale and seal. Reindeer meat is quite common in Scandinavia. Whale meat is also reasonably common in Norway. It was the first time I had eaten seal, though. It reminded me a little bit of liver. Whale meat is tricky to get right. I had eaten whale before when it tasted like cod liver oil. This whale meat was well prepared and tasted almost like beef.
I first visited Svalbard in 1998. Since then, more ethnic groups have joined the local community there. They no longer include merely Norwegians and other Europeans, but also Thais and Filipinos. I saw at least one man from the Middle East, who was driving a taxi. However, I did not see any veiled Muslim women. There are many Somalis living in Scandinavia. I did not see any of them in Svalbard.
In sharp contrast to the rest of Scandinavia, there is no welfare state in Svalbard, and no social benefits to collect. You must be able to support and take care of yourself, or you must leave for the mainland. The tax rates are low, at 16% or less. These tax revenues are used locally for infrastructure and other necessities. For strategic reasons, the Norwegian state also provides some funds to ensure that there is a constant Norwegian presence on the archipelago.
Many food items are obviously more expensive than on the mainland due to transportation costs. Fresh fruits or vegetables are not cheap. However, if you want to buy a bottle of cognac or fine wine, doing so can sometimes be cheaper in Svalbard than elsewhere in Norway. Taxes on alcohol in Norway are so high that transporting bottles literally half-way to the North Pole can still make them cheaper than buying them in the state-run wine monopoly.
Apart from food, the main costs of living in Svalbard will be housing expenses. There is a shortage of housing, and the price you pay for rent is quite high per square meter. On the downside, you also have 3-4 months without any sunlight during the dark season. Sure, the Northern Lights are spectacular. You also have months of midnight sun during the summer.
The long, cold and dark winter season will be a challenge for some people. If you can handle that, Svalbard is an exotic place to live. It is usually not a problem to get applicants for most jobs there. Svalbard today may have restaurants, a supermarket, hotels and Asian tourists, but it has still retained a little bit of the original “Arctic Wild West” feeling.
For a complete archive of Fjordman’s writings, see the multi-index listing in the Fjordman Files.