Europe | Norway
February 11, 2008
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Lofoten Islands - Weekend Report

Discovering Norway's awe-inspiring high Arctic.

Flakstadøya Island in Norway's Arctic Lofoten Archipelago
Two am. As I put my book down, the reflection of the fishing wharf hardly wavers in the mirror smooth sea. Behind a clutter of workshops and freezer plant rise the gnarled contours of a mountain, piebald in granite and short-cropped grass. Across the harbour the rust-red clapperboard of the old captain’s house smoulders in horizontal orange-filtered light. Everything is silent; all totally still. On a perfect Midsummer’s night, Vestvågøya Island beyond my window rests, suspended in a consummate state of grace.

For information on organising your own weekend in the Lofoten Islands click here.

Fearful beauty

With around 10,000 souls, Vestvågøya is the most settled of the wild Lofoten archipelago, high up the shoulder of Scandinavia off the north Norwegian coast. Everywhere the Lofoten landscape is extraordinary. For almost a hundred miles, improbable peaks bristle directly out of the sea: a magnificent confection of spires, turrets and crenellations, Disney couldn’t have done better. More interested in safe harbours in the teeth of a winter gale, Norway’s matter-of-fact sailors refer to the eye-popping beauty simply as “the Wall”. But it is a wall with chinks, and between the islands, as between the teeth of a comb, powerful tidal forces sluice the narrow channels with rips, vortices and whirlpools – including the original maelstrom.

Unique treasures

Moskenesøya, the southernmost major island, is where the fantasia of fairy-tale mountain-building reaches its storybook peak. But each of the others brings unique charms of its own. Flakstadøya has its serenity and unspoilt nature, Vestvågøya its farmsteads and freshwater lakes, and Austvågøya the roughest, toughest terrain and the archipelago’s only town.

Gentle pastures

I arrived anticipating rockbound drama, but my greatest surprise - and delight - has come from the summer softness. To the north of Siberia, through winter Lofoten endures blizzards, polar night and the wildest of storms. But thanks to the long reach of the Gulf Stream, the archipelago can also enjoy summer days of settled fine weather and daytime temperatures rising to 20° C or more. By June, meadows of buttercups and cow parsley counterpoint the jagged heights, clouds of white arctic butterflies play along the shoreline and open woodlands of shimmer-leaved rowan and birch cloak the valley slopes. Nowhere else in the Arctic does the palette of nature play such a generous tonal range. The music of Sibelius and Grieg may roar round the summits, but it’s the intricate melodies of Liszt and Mozart that play through the pastures.

Frozen tropics

Lofoten has one further surprise in store. Along the northern coast, in between cheerful wooden fishing villages, run a string of pure silver beaches, ranging from open strands for striding out to intimate sheltered coves. Just offshore, the shallows twinkle a piercing turquoise irresistibly reminiscent of far more southerly shores—an illusion that was immediately shattered when I dipped a toe: lapped by the Arctic Ocean, the year round average water temperature is a meagre 2°C.

Cod-given bounty

While two degrees might sound uninviting to you or me, the rich food churned up by the strong currents makes the waters between Lofoten and the mainland heaven for Arctic cod, which migrate here in huge numbers from January to March.

For over a thousand years fishermen have followed to harvest an annual bounty of rich fishy protein. Faced with the problem of how to preserve and transport the seasonal glut, early on they struck on the solution of hanging the decapitated and gutted raw fish out to dry in the open air on great wooden A-frames of lashed poles.

The chill prevents the fish from spoiling, and after two or three months the dehydrated husks can be stacked like wrinkly sheets of card and stored almost indefinitely. When needed, these “stockfish” can simply be soaked in water until softened – aficionados maintain that a good hammering improves the texture further – and used as a flavoursome addition to stews and casseroles.

Peanut stew

To this day, the Lofoten economy is underpinned by stockfish exports – mainly to Italy, where it is sold as top-grade baccalà. Ranged on frames around every fishing village thousands of corrugated cod corpses hang stiffly like so many dried wash leathers. Surprisingly, there is usually next-to-no smell. The exception I discovered yesterday, when exploring the furthest reaches of the little port at Mortsund. Hidden away from the eyes of casual visitors were racks of desiccating cod heads, mouths grotesquely agape. These, it’s fair to say, gave out an almighty pong. (Reluctant to let all that decapitation effort go to waste, Lofoten fishermen years ago discovered a ready market in West Africa, where dried cod heads - minus the tongues, which the Norwegians keep for themselves - are the key ingredient in a popular peanut stew. Yum!)

Stilted lodgings

To encourage the stockfish trade (and increase his tax take), in 1120 Norwegian King Øystein ordered simple huts to be built to accommodate the itinerant fishermen. Called rorbuer, these were the first permanent buildings on Lofoten (and in the whole of Arctic Scandinavia). While fishermen still come to Lofoten each winter, many rorbuer have more recently been converted for use by visitors. Although usually fairly spartan, their spectacular coastal locations – often on wooden stilts right out over the water – makes them an authentic and very atmospheric holiday base.

Sleepless sun

Which, to come full circle, is why I am sitting by the window of a pine cabin looking out across a tiny fishing harbour. As to the time, travelling to Lofoten has realised two long-held ambitions. Crossing the Arctic Circle was accomplished around 36,000 feet, but seeing the Midnight Sun has taken a little longer. However, a short while earlier on, after walking up to the rocky bluff above the rorbu, I was watching from the granite as the liquid disc of the sun sank slowly to its lowest point, lingered a lengthy moment, and then started its daily climb to tomorrow—all the time bathing me in its soft golden rays. It was a priceless experience, and rich reward for a couple of hours lost sleep.

For information on organising your own weekend in the Lofoten Islands click here.
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