Everyone has their favourite coastline that causes wonder and longing. For what it is worth, mine are the coasts of North West Scotland and Albania. Or rather were. The Lofoten Islands have surplanted all.
They are an intense scattering of islands in the Artic sea, off the west coast of Norway, whose nearest neighbours are Finland and Russia. The islands are linked by a dark, sharply splintered ridge of mountains and, since the sixties, by an engineeringly-inspired series of tunnels and bridges. This massive government investment has most certainly kept the small population on the islands and ensured a healthy economy in dried cod – stockfish – and tourism.
We had one week only. I am an art historian who specializes in Central Europe, my husband is an industrialist, we are not walkers but foodies and keen on contemporary art. Taber Holidays took all this on board with great intelligence and imagination.
We came at the end of the season in the second half of August, after ‘the midnight sun’, and before the start of the Northern Lights. Much was closed after the 15th of August. The days were warm, sometimes hot, even in the early evening. The weather is as variable as the landscape of farms and wetlands on the numerous islands. Many of the great crags still had snow in their crevasses. However, the farmers were cutting their second harvest of silage. The cattle were sunbathing in many of the sandy coves.
We hired a car although there are buses, judging by the interesting mix of bus stops, and there are heaps of bikers and hikers all looking wiry and bronzed.
Bodo was the starting point. Taber Holidays chose a hotel on the harbor and booked us the excellent Restaurant Bjork for the first evening. We learnt fast that at £9 a glass, this was to be a wine-free hol. Practically food free too, although my miniscule half langustine with ginger and beans at £11 was very good. The next morning we headed to the maelstrom at Saltstraumen, the strongest in the world. The local newspaper has the tide times. Our luck was out, the narrows were calm. Beyond lay Kjerringoy, a trading outpost since the 18th century. It might be Virginia or Georgia with painted clapboard houses and turfed roofs, the main house, very Swedish, with simple, elegant swags over the windows. We had a rather disgusting open sandwich in the museum café as there was a huge group of OAPs who had to be fed ahead of us. Curator apologetic and charming.
The road to Kjerringoy was partly by a surprise ferry and they were road widening too – blasting the rock. I had not bothered to read the joining instructions for the ferry to the Lofotens and only arrived in the nick of time especially after queuing for the wrong ship. We were cheerily welcomed and the car dealt with. We had been efficiently booked in for first sitting at 18.30. Waitresses charming but food and system as school. The possible cruise on this famous Hurtigruten line (founded in the 1890s with a museum to itself in Stokmarknes) can continue for 11 days up and beyond the Artic Circle. Not for me but perfect for travel north and south of this amazing coastline.
We disembarked at nine and made our way into Svolvaer and across onto the little island holding our hotel and other rorbus – fishermans huts. These are prevalent throughout the islands; they are painted the colour of old British Rail red and are frequently built on wooden stilts over the rocks. We were in a modern house, again clapboard, perched high over the village. The views from our balcony were wonderful. Our host owns the entire island, the restaurant was the old store and is beautifully done. His grandfather was a painter. The Lofotens have attracted artists for decades, sadly we only succeeded in getting into couple of galleries and the sculpture trail around the islands passed us by.
Many galleries were closed and the churches all completely unvisitable with no handy telephone number to find the key. Expect to get lost, Norwegian signage is terrible. At Kabelvag some of the houses were lovely but there is an unkept feel to the centre of the little town that we did not find elsewhere. Nearby, is the old trading station of Vagar complete with manor house and outbuildings. The most interesting exhibit was a film on the lighthouses and lighthouse keepers and their families. Some families had their own governesses – just imagine that life.
We dined two nights running in the restaurant which was a mistake as the menu is the same each night with stock fish which, to my taste buds is akin to woolly sock and the lamb at £35 was the same consistency. The local lamb should have been delicious. With a garnish of red onion and courgettes piled high in the middle, the ingredients are wonderful but the presentation was too fancy. The staff were charming and largely Romanian.
The journey down the Southern Lofotens to the tempting Å at the bottom and back to Svolvaer took all day. The bridges and tunnels linking tiny communities are of great beauty. Fearsome mountains, white beaches, broad valleys where every inch is farmed and the farmhouses all painted the most lovely colours. Some parts were like Glencoe others as if trolls had chucked down slabs of granite. The stop offs were fascinating. The Viking Long House at Borg is accompanied by filmed interviews of the archeologists involved. Earphones with a sophisticated point and play which was fun to use. The filmed story of the site was Thomas Hardy meets Eastenders but who cares. The church built since the last blew down in the eighties was again firmly shut contrary to the notice on the door. I walked down to the site where the long boats had been found. The Viking owner had gone to Iceland in the 10th century.
Onto Nusfjord which is a UNESCO site as one of the best preserved fishing villages. It is terrific. All settlements retained a cod liver oil processing plant. I wanted to know about my school daily dose but no explanations to this process, which closed here in the early 1990s. Avoid eating a fish burger in the otherwise excellent Restaurant Christiana. There is a modern art gallery in the old Caviar factory, with a good shop selling non-machine made Norwegian and Danish things. There is also a good craft shop which embraces a glass blowing studio. The best visit of all was to the Art Gallery. It has a powerpoint of the history of the Lofotens and is a tourist puff. The collection of paintings are fine and a reminder, if you visit in summer, of how the winter must effect these small communities. The gallery has 70,000 visitors a year, a huge percentage of these off the cruise ships. These monsters of mass tourism are killing Venice but they are bringing welcome income to these remote islands.
Next was the very attractive Reine. We attempted to visit the Gallery Eva Harr but it is only open from 11 to 15.00.
Finally, the last stretch to Å. Again with cod liver oil plant, the huge warehouse showing the history of the town was closed, all else was closing. However, luckily there was a fine warehouse open filled to the brim with boats, nets and all fishy things.
I am the child of a sixth generation net maker. I just longed for my father – the last of his business line – to bore me silly about knots, materials and mesh size. Returning on the E10 was a pleasure as everything looked different and, as we were not stopping, it allowed the perception of the change of landscape and usage and, of course, seascape.
On our third and last day we headed north again on the ferry and the E10. The ferries are so efficient. Our attempt to visit the beautiful-looking manor and courtyard failed in Melbu and, by happy accident, we first took the country road on the west of the island. More lovely farms with huge tractors cutting silage for the winter. White beaches where I managed to dip a toe in the Artic.
On up to the Hurtigruten Museum before the fresh crowds off the cruise ships. The line suffered badly in the war as did the whole of Northern Norway. The retreating Germans had a burnt earth policy in front of the advancing Russians. What a transformation now with help of oil money I would guess. Mind goes to Palermo where so much of importance has been kept in war time ruins. Handy pub next door giving too large helpings. One pizza will do two. Then back via Hadsel Kirke of the early 1800s with an interesting altarpiece of 1520 only to be glimpsed through a window. Why don’t the clergy put up a number for key hunting like everyone else?
Back to Svolvaer and disaster struck. David found he has lost his camera. We retraced our steps to the War Museum when we were checking time of entry – rather odd 11.00 to 14.30 and 18.30 to 20.00. Nothing. Downcast – that photo of me paddling in the Artic for instance. We went on to book dinner in the Kjokkenet on Lamholmen Island… and returned to our billet for a stiff gin.
We walked across the bridge into the centre of town to the War Museum which is unlike any other. One man’s passion for collecting everything to do with the Lofotens and the Second war. The Gestapo in Svolvaer and the whole set up of the SS and the German army, the Resistance, the Polar campaign. There were many British uniforms and bits from the Tirpitz, amazing things dealing with all facets including a German padres kit. It is a must. Onto dinner and soon as we sat down a charming girl came up and asked if we had lost a camera outside the museum! She and her boyfriend, coming into work in the restaurant, had picked it up looked at the last photo to see if the camera was working. The last snap was of me. She was Czech. Norway takes their share of immigrants as the tiny school children prove. The food was delicious carpaccio of whale (only minke was allowed). This was followed by mounds of sea food.
Our last day, we take the ferry to Skutvik on Hamaroy and drive south. It was a Sunday and nothing seemed open apart from a rather good contemporary building on the side of the road. It proved to be the museum to the life of Knut Hamsun, Norway’s major writer. I knew nothing about him but learnt about his dedication all his life to the Nazi cause. He even wrote in praise of Hitler after his suicide. Despite this, I recommend ‘Growth of the Soil’ and a visit. There is a pleasant café.
A few miles on, the Kobblev Vertshus is no ordinary motel – on the edge of a lake by a waterfall and with very good food. The owner, who is charming, has a bookshelf of childrens’ books in the dining room – so civilized. On the beach below there is the entrance to the Polar railway and nearby a generating plant built with slaves as part of the German defense against the Russians. Thousands of war prisoners died here.
Back to Bodo via the Aircraft Museum, again, a must see. Tracing the early days, the two World wars – the Norwegians just before they were invaded in April 1940 had swopped four aircraft made in Italy for dried cod. They had been neutral but their closeness to Britain made them an important attack base for the Germans.
This is an incredibly sympathetic and beautiful country to visit and we have much history in common. And I still think the Lofotens will remain my favourite coastline. The itinerary was made even more special by the timings and choice of hotels by Taber Holidays.