Monday, 9 August 2010

Norway 3 - The Lofoten Islands

The Lofoten Islands are seen as a “must” on the tourist trail of northern Norway – particularly in motorhome circles. The islands stretch along just off the northern coast, with a range of spiky mountains running up through their centre, curved like some prehistoric animal’s spine. Their reputation of stunning beauty is well deserved, as below the serrated granite teeth of the bare topped mountains lie glistening fjords, quaint fishing villages with their collections of fisherman’s huts, or rorbuer, and stretches of white sandy beaches.

If you didn’t know where the Lofotens are…

In the right light all of this scenery is so very photogenic, and in Lofoten that light is not always going to be sunny. It might be seen as something of an understatement to say that the weather is very changeable. If blankets of grey, woolly clouds draped over slabs of ancient rock towering above you is what you want this is the place to come, as you are bound to see them at some point. It doesn’t always rain, but when it does you can see sheets of the stuff blowing across the faces of the mountains. Yet when the sun shines through it is glorious, all the more so as it reveals layers of the landscape that you missed in all the cloud and rain, with skies of deepest pink through to bright blue and back to moody, threatening grey.

Lofoten scenery

We had fallen asleep on the 4:30 a.m. Monday morning ferry from Bodø and were woken by the announcement that we had reached Moskenes and drivers should return to their vehicles. We couldn’t see the famed spine of mountains - the ‘Lofoten Wall’ or ‘Lofotenveggen’ - through the driving rain, and as Moskenes had not yet opened its doors at 8 a.m. we decided to move on to the town at the very beginning of the island range – the aptly named Å (pronounced awe). We parked, along with the many other motorhomes, in the large carpark by the museum village and fell asleep to the drumbeat of raindrops on the roof of the van.

Å in the rain

We woke again in the early afternoon to much the same sound on the roof, and the same view, only different vans, plus the day’s coach tours, outside our window. We visited the museum at Å, which seemed to take over most of the small fishing village, and mused on how hard life was and how truly disgusting cod-liver oil is, having tasted some in the little shed where it used to be produced as one of the village’s economic mainstays. It really is made from boiling down the livers of many, many cod.

Å village museum

Å has many of the features found in Lofoten fishing villages - a jumble of wooden storerooms and workshops for fishermen and fishing equipment built out on stilts above the rocky creeks around the harbour, all painted the uniform rusty red and with a backdrop of sheer mountains. The wooden huts are called rorbu (‘rowers’ dwellings’) for the small ones and sjøhus (‘sea house’) for the larger, but these days very few in such scenic places as Å serve their original purpose, having been converted into lucrative, and very attractive, tourist accommodation. These conversions were so successful as tourism took off in from the 1960s onwards, that many new rorbuer and sjøhus were built specially as holiday homes. This phenomenon went hand in hand with the decline of much of the older small-scale fishery and subsistence agriculture, and brought a welcome income to communities facing uncertain futures.

Å rorbu

Fishing is the Lofotens’ main industry, although vying now with tourism in the short summer. Many small boats are still used, although recent fisheries policy has favoured larger trawlers. In the winter the seas hereabouts teem with fish, and most of the catch is brought in during these busy months. The Lofotens specialise in dried and salted cod, or ‘stockfish’, and have done for centuries. Much of the bacalao / bacalhau consumed in Spain and Portugal comes from here, and it is traditionally dried on large wooden racks that stand in the open air on rocks above and around the fishing villages. These, like the rorbuer, are a feature of the landscape, and in summer they stand bare and stark on the hillsides, but in winter and spring will be covered with thousands of cod carcasses hung up to dry.

Cod drying racks

We only saw Å in the rain, but then moved on up the coast of the island, Moskenesøya, which is the last and westernmost of the chain. It is almost split in two by a three-pronged fjord that cuts deep into the craggy mountains. At the mouth of the fjord, the road threads across a series of causeways and high, one-way, bridges linking the villages of Reine, Sakrisøy and Hamnøy. The road then skirts the southern edge of the islands, with fantastic views on a good day of the wall of mountains stretching in a seemingly endless line, and on a very clear day, the snow-capped peaks of the mainland running almost parallel to the south-east. Not that the views were so good in the rain on Tuesday (20th July).

Cod heads at Sakrisøy for export to Nigeria for use in a spicy soup - Egusi

The rain actually eased off enough on Tuesday afternoon to give us a chance to try our hand at fishing, so we stopped at the harbour in Sund where two lads seemed to already be hauling a fair catch. We ummed and ahhed a lot at first, embarrassed at being complete beginners in front of the natives, but after they’d given us one of their coley – ‘sei’ in Norwegian, and very plentiful hereabouts - possibly out of pity, we decided to try it ourselves. I’m sure that anyone watching us cast would have been in stitches. Armed with the instructions from the back of the rod’s shrink wrapped packaging and using a 5 kroner coin, which has a hole in the middle, to practice with instead of our 15 kroner lure, we began our first casts. Unfortunately, due to rubbish knot tying, the coin flew off and plopped into the harbour – and that was 50p down the drain. Then, our complete failure to understand equipment as simple as the reel meant that every time we cast all the line sprang off and tangled into a mess. We retreated back to the van with the only option being to Google for fishing tips at our next internet opportunity and in the meantime to untangle the line. Still, the whole fishing trip can’t be classed as unsuccessful as the two lads gave us another 3 fish, one of which was a small cod.

Fishing at Sund

The weather improved on Wednesday so we headed back to Reine to take a boat trip on Reine fjord, after spending an hour untangling our fishing line following Tuesday’s attempts on the hunting front. The plan was that I (Rob) would get off at the tip of the fjord and make my way overland via footpaths to the place where we were camped, while Lesley and Charlie would take the round trip and return in the van, but alas the boatman had other ideas, insisting that round trips were offered only in the mornings, so I ended up going alone. And by Thursday the rain had descended again so we never got the scenic round trip of Reine fjord.

Camping spot at Selfjord – daytime and one in the morning

My walk across the island to our camping spot was the mother of all underestimates. It was about 3:30 p.m. as I got off the boat at a tiny sprinkling of wooden houses called Kirkefjord (or Kjerkfjord – the spellings varied) and followed the at first clear footpath over a steep col, which then revealed a broad uninhabited U-shaped valley ending in a beach on the roadless northern shore. So far so good. I had no proper map but had seen a marked route on tourist information boards, and was sure from these that it should be less than 10 km to the next road. How long can that possibly take? So I took my time, detouring to the beach at Horseid, then stopping to take in the views on the next col. However, not all 10 kilometers are the same, and these ones were bigger than I’d expected. It was not just the climbs, although there were a good number of these, but the descents were very long and the path often treacherously boggy, disappearing in the lower reaches over rocks and among tangled beech woods, making progress very slow. And finally I had not added on the time once I reached the road! Anyway, the upshot was that I walked back to Lesley and Charlie, camped by the roadside, on a quiet dead-end branch of Selfjord, at a quarter to midnight, and we sat down to eat just as the sun set. (Note from Lesley – He said he’d be back by 8 p.m. Luckily we had mobile signals this time.)

Boat trip up Reine fjord and view of Reine fjord and village of Kirkefjord

On Thursday, as the rains returned, we moved up the Lofoten chain to the next island, Flakstadøya, which was as mountainous as its neighbour. We visited a couple of small fishing villages on the south side, giving lifts to young German and Swedish hikers on the way. Nusfjord particularly was attractive, a huddle of rorbuer and wooden harbour buildings in a narrow fjord and, like Å, largely given over to a museum, although we were there quite late and just wandered through. We stopped that night at a proper campsite at Flakstad, a low-key affair where you camped or parked right in the dunes, and as the clouds began to disperse (in the biting wind) we almost saw the midnight sunset.


On Friday the weather began to brighten, and we crossed via an undersea tunnel to the next island Vestvågøya, which is larger than the westerly ones and has a flatter agricultural central area, hemmed in by mountains along its north and south coasts. The main town Leknes was modern and bland but well equipped with shops, and the end of the day saw us heading up the minor road to Unstad looking for a place to stop. Unstad is the end of the road, a small farming community beside a beach in another wide glacial valley. It is reached nowadays via a road tunnel, but the old route snakes up to the top of the pass above, and this is where we found the ideal spot for the night, with panoramic views over tiny Unstad and beyond it, the setting sun. OK, the sun went down behind a headland, but for a van with a view this was hard to beat.

Unsted – a great evening view

We had been commenting to each other for most of the time in Norway, and particularly in the Lofoten Islands, that we had seen hardly any Brits since Germany. Imagine our surprise then to be quietly having our breakfast on the abandoned road over the mountain pass to Unstad on Saturday morning when 2 coaches lumbered up carrying 60 or so British OAPs on a sightseeing trip from their SAGA cruise. It was only then that we realised that the abandoned road is now used as the local viewpoint and tourist attraction. Through the day we had several coaches come up, park, take photos, turn round in a big space just right for the job and drive back down. We had cars full of people who drove up for the fresh air and a fag, and we had groups of hikers dropped off there to walk to the village of Eggum, around the headland. One guy climbed to one of the mountain peaks with his mates and then, when he got back to his car, decided to change his sweaty clothes. It wasn’t until he popped behind the van to change his underpants that he realised anyone was still sitting in there!

Unstad – the next morning

In between all these visitors to our mountain viewpoint, and while Rob rode down the mountain and back, and then walked to the top of a nearby peak and back, I made use of the long stretch of abandoned road to perfect the art of casting a Danish 1 krone coin (only worth 10p if I lost it), having mastered tying it on securely.

We left this spot late afternoon and visited the Lofotr Viking Museum. Rob almost need resuscitation at the whopping 120 kr each admission (£12.50), but it was a really interesting place and we had a guide all to ourselves. It has left us wanting to know more about the Vikings, such as their interaction with the Sami people, their emigration to other lands, their forced conversion to Christianity, and their old Norse gods.

Viking gods and horse decorations (never dragons!)

After the museum we headed to the village of Eggum on the north coast, where the car park by the beach offered a view of the horizon over the sea which was uncluttered by headlands, villages or large islands with mountains. It was the perfect place to watch the sun set and rise, and the dozens of motorhomers, cars and hikers sharing the spot obviously all felt the same. The atmosphere, as the sun set at around 23:45, was almost partyish in a low-key sort of way – or maybe that was just the bottle of riesling we’d cracked open by way of celebrating a jolly good sunset and to fortify us to meet the sunrise some two and half hours later (not that it got dark in between).


Then, on Sunday, a British guy cycled past us at Eggum and started chatting. It turned out he was from Leicestershire – Barwell, a village just next door to where we’d both worked at some time or other - which only goes to show that it is indeed a small world.

Eggum sunset and sunrise

Eggum was also the site for another one of the 33 Artscape Nordland sculptures. We’d passed a few already on the Lofotens. On Moskenes we must have parked near one of them about three times – apparently “Laurel Leaves” – but missed it. However, if you are ever on the E10 between Raine and the Sund turn there’s a large car park with a view point and the toilets there are a work of art in themselves. “Epitaph”, on Flakstadøya, was a round stone wall about 8 ft high, but we’d picked up a couple of hitch-hikers at that point and didn’t stop at the sculpture. At Eggum there’s a gentle walk about half a kilometre along the headland from the car park to a sculpture by Marcus Raetz, called “Head” which is, as titled, a head, mounted on a metre high pole. Viewed from different angles it is variously a head in profile, an interesting set of carved lines and a head upside down. I (Lesley) liked it, but it was a lot smaller than it seemed in the clever photography of the tourist brochures.

The Head – Four of the sixteen different views

From Eggum we moved a tiny distance up the southern Vestvågøya coast, where the bays proved shallower and no good for fishing. Doubling back on ourselves a bit, we crossed over the straight to the southern flank of Gimsøy, and then on to Austvågøy – the last island that counts as part of the Lofoten chain. We took the minor road towards Brenna, where we tried fishing off a quay, this time with some success. No actual fish, but no tangled line, decent casts and very few instances of getting caught in weed. We found a lovely wild camping spot from where we watched another great sunset, only this time one our own, rather than with a whole car park of folk. Still having no success on the hunting front, we turned to gathering instead. Rob had seen an advertisement for locals to pick sea snails for restaurants, so we decided they must be good and collected some for our own version of pasta and clams – in this case the seafood being good old winkles.

Brenna wild camping – we’ve been really lucky with some of our spots

Almost since we arrived in Norway, and certainly for the whole of our time in the Lofotens, Charlie dog has taken to travelling on our second passenger seat. At first we shouted back to him to get off, but soon gave up in the face of his dogged defiance and the fact that the old dog is thoroughly spoilt. He is obviously enjoying the scenery too much and when he isn’t staring out of the window at the many sheep, aimlessly wandering about accompanied by the sound of clanking neck bells, he somehow manages to curl up on the small cushion and snore away contentedly. Still, it makes up for not being allowed anywhere off the lead in Norway, where from April through to August all dogs must be leashed. That’s all very well for those trained to do their business on a lead, but Charlie is used to a bit of freedom to find a secluded patch for his bodily functions. Talking of which, the poor dog got dived bombed by an angry gull at Henningsvær, the results of which can be seen below!

Charlie dog came too – got bombed, got spoilt and got to see some wild life.

Our last few days in the Lofoten islands were all spent on Austvågøy. We stopped one night at a quite popular free camping spot by a small beach at Kalle on the south coast, only to be surprised by car-loads of young Swedes (and not a few Czechs) arriving until gone midnight and setting up tents. The next day, as they donned solid-looking plastic helmets and pointed up at rock faces we realised we had stumbled across a corner of the rock-climbing world, the mountains around here apparently being   particularly suited to the sport (and the Lofotens of course a rewarding trip in themselves).

Strange cloud formation at Svolvær

Some of the charm of the museum-villages was beginning to wear off by now. Henningsvær we found more touristy than its appearance merited, and Kabelvåg was an attractive 19th-century small port town, but did not have enough to detain us for long. This end of the Lofotens was far busier and more visited than the other end at Å and Reine, and the mountains not so craggy and in-your-face. We stopped in Svolvær which is the main town on the islands, and despite some commercial sprawl on the edges, I (Rob) found it quite an appealing place with an unpretentious core of wooden buildings on the usual grid pattern and a spruced-up leisure harbour. However, the crowning glory of this end of the Lofoten chain came for us at the end. One rainy afternoon we decided to stop at a proper campsite for a day or two, and chose the Sildpollnes Sjøcamp (the last bit just means ‘sea(side) campsite’, the first bit is literallu ‘herring bay head’), a few km beyond Svolvær. It was located on a headland in the middle of Austnesfjord, a large and classically high-sided fjord that reached from the south coast deep into Austvågøy island. As the clouds gradually lifted we were rewarded with views of magnificent vertiginous hillsides opposite us over the water, the tops a corrugated mass of gullies and pinnacles. The third day dawned so bright that we stayed on for an extra night, and I (Rob) clambered up a hill on this side of the fjord to be rewarded with breathtaking views of mountains, water and islands. It may rain for days here but when the sun comes out you forget all the bad weather in an instant.

Views around Sildpollnes

And while staying here we caught – or more precisely Lesley caught – our first fish, a diminutive coley that some may have thrown back, but not us. To celebrate our triumph it was soon filleted and lightly fried in butter and flour. Mmm, lovely, the taste of success (at last).

The fishy taste of success (well, it was once we cooked it)

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