A town called Å ... and from Å to Bö
Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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I raced through all the main tourist attractions, of which there are quite a few - Nidaros Cathedral, the most northerly Gothic church in the world, built over the tomb of St Olav (one of the earliest kings), and where Norwegian Kings were traditionally crowned; the Royal Residence (largest wooden building in Norway); old Jewish Synagogue, etc; have dinner and a stout at the micro-brewery pub, and get in some tango before my train leaves at 11 that night.
I wake around 5.30 to views through the train window of a landscape of snowy mountains and valleys studded with pine trees. A couple of hours earlier the train had been through a town called Mo I Rana, which is virtually on the Arctic Circle. Around 7.30, as the sun came up over the mountains I saw a herd of reindeer in the forest.
I arrive at Bodo (67 degrees north) and have a breakfast of jaffles, jam and cream, and hot chocolate with cream (in these cold northerly climates it's perfectly ok to have as much chocolate and cream as you like :).
I'm here to catch one of the Hurtigruten Line ships which ply up and down the Norwegian coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes (takes 6 days), the last town before Russia, but I manage to squeeze in an excursion to the Saltstraumen, the largest tidal flow in the world. Every 6 hours tides rush from one fjord to another through a gap about 150 metres wide at up to 40 km per hour (there can be up to 1 metre difference in water level between the fjords). Whirlpools form that can be up to 10 metres in diameter and 4-5 metres deep. There is also the largest sea eagle colony in the world there. It's bitterly cold in the wind and the guide keeps warning me to be careful as I am jumping over slippery rocks to try and get good pictures - no-one can save me if I fall in, he says
I board the good ship Mariella in the afternoon for the 6-hour voyage to Svolvær, in the Lofoten Islands (pronounced Lerfurten), an archipelago of 5 main islands (and hundreds of smaller) which stretch out west about 130-140 kms from the coast of Norway. From the sea it looks like a solid wall of mountains.
I arrive at Svolvær at night - some people get off with me but they quickly disappear - I am booked into a rorbuer (fisherman's hut) for the night, but I have no idea where it is and there's no one around to ask directions. I head off dragging my suitcase through the snow (hard to do as it banks up in front of the wheels), slipping and sliding and feet wet, eventually find somebody, who tells me it!s 2 1/2 kms away, get lost in the dark, but eventually find it - there's not much more fun to be had in life than this :).
Breakfast next morning was an espresso and a chocolate filled with cloudberry (what a beautiful name) cream - a thin line of real gold had been threaded around the chocolate I am told.
I hire a 2nd hand Peugeot 407 and head off for Å (pronounced like or without the r), 128kms away at the furthermost point you can reach by road in Lofoten.
The drive is fantastically scenic - snow-capped mountains, beaches, frozen lakes, Viking long house, and everywhere little fishing villages with racks of cod hanging out to dry - it's hung for 3 months and retains 10% moisture I'm told by the workers hanging out the cod
Arrive in Å about 8pm and tried to find accomodation. This is the off season and the accomodation is fishermen's huts and there's no reception or office - you have to ring a number and then the owner will come and meet you. I rang the number for Å-Hamma Rorbuer and the lady arrived and fixed me up with a cosy little rorbu overlooking the water, then I asked her where I could eat and she drove me up a hill and along some windy roads, then we walked down an icy path to the Holmen restaurant. Before she left we talked about her husband's business - he was involved in the fish export trade (the main business around here) and he had learned Italian as 90% of the stockfish (dried cod) is exported to Italy.
She reminisced fondly about her last holiday in Taormina in Sicily, and it was bizzare standing in the snow in the freezing cold dark night above the Arctic Circle with dried cod all about, both of us mentally imagining the bright hot sun, the lush colourful gardens, the easygoing and pleasurable way of life, and the dazzling blue-green Mediterranean.
I was the only customer at the restaurant so the assistant cook and I had a good chat as she prepared and served my meal. She was a young woman born in Mexico of a Swedish father and a mother with Swedish and Colombian parents - in fact she said, nobody who worked in the restaurant (apart from the owner) was Norwegian.
I had an entree of fried king prawns and bacon served with cloudberries and a herb garlic sauce studded with cowberries - cloudberries are a yellow berry that looks like a small raspberry and they only grow in northern climes. I almost chose another entree - smoked salmon and whale with cowberry cream and cloudberries (yes, there are berries with everything).
The next day I drove back to Svolvær - the highlights were: Reine, considered to be the village in the most beautiful setting in Norway (see picture); the Lofotr Viking Museum just outside Borg, the site of the largest Viking period longhouse in Scandinavia, which was inhabited from around 500-950AD; Eggum and Hov/Gimsoya, facing the open sea in the north (next stop North Pole), and I go through a town called Bö.
When I got back to Svolvær that night I was on the hunt for a traditional dish called Moelje. I went into one restaurant and they didn't have it and when I came outside I happened to look up in the sky and there were 2 pale green bands of light in the sky. All of a sudden there was some electrical activity and I just managed to get my camera out in time to photograph the northern lights.
I found Moelje at the next restaurant, Borsen Spiseri - it wasn't on the menu, as I don't think tourists ask for it, but they made it for me. I also wanted to try another item on their menu and persuaded them to make an entree size for me - crisp-fried neck of cod with cauliflower and mushrooms. Moeljee is a dish of cod simmered in seawater, served with cod-liver and onions, and slices of pressed cod roe
On the wall above me was a plaque with a charming poem about how the cod wanted a wife so he went to Ancona (on the Adriatic coast of Italy near Rimini) and married the olive, who was so in love she melted into oil, and the attendants at the wedding were garlic, onion, carrots, celery, etc - ie, all the ingredients that make up a dish called Stoccafisso al'Anconitana. A chef from Ancona worked here for a while and must have brought this with him. Dessert was a beautiful cloudberry pannacotta, another influence by the chef from Ancona. The digestive tonight was Linne Akvavit, made from potatoes and infused with Norwegian herbs.
The next day was Saturday and I decided to go on a fishing trip. At this time of the year the cod come south from the cold Barents sea to the north and are particularly fat and tasty. With me on the boat were Agnieszka (Polish but living in Norway), Anna & Svein from Oslo, Daniele from a town near Venice, and a group of 6 men up from Oslo for a weekend fishing and drinking trip. They were dressed in full immersion suits and brought several bags of drink on board. They started drinking as soon as the boat sailed - I chatted to one of the guys, who didn't look too well and he told me he had a rotten hangover and he had tried Jagermeister, beer and red wine, and none of them had helped his hangover - what can you say
The morning started out relatively sunny and warm, and Svein caught a couple of big cod fairly quickly. We then went out further to sea and it got much colder and the clouds came down low, and the other guys managed to catch another 3-4 cod, even though they were quite drunk by now - I kept my distance as I didn't wabt to be gaffed mistakenly.
I had dinner with Anna & Svein that night - Lofoten lamb, which was delicious, then a plate of 4 cheeses drizzled with syrup made from the sap of a Norwegian tree.
They told me that the skipper of our fishing boat was in Havana on New Year's day 1959 when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara drove out the dictator Batista - he had to go out on a fishing boat to sea to avoid the fighting.
Next morning I am off to Narvik by bus, my last stop in Norway and the furthest north I will get (68 degress, 25 minutes). The clouds are low and it's snowing. It's only 50 metres to the main street but it's almost impossible to walk up the slight slope dragging my suitcase because of the slippery ice (I have already fallen several times in the preceding days and have a sore bum - ice is very hard). The streets are completely deserted on a Sunday morning and I'm not sure where the bus leaves from and whether it even goes on a weekend. I finally see another person and he helps me then we have a quick chat - he asks where I'm from and I ask where he's from
The bus comes, to my relief, and we set off on the 230kms trip through a monochrome landscape - steep-sided mountains looming through the low clouds and rising straight out of the steel-grey fjords, the valleys covered with deep snow and dotted with bare, stunted trees, their branches tipped with snow. Occasionally we come through a dark green pine forest and every now and then there is a small burst of muted colour as we pass a hamlet of wooden houses painted dark red, green or yellow.
I have a funny experience going to the toilet - it's extremely hard to have a piss while standing up (possibly just as hard sitting down too), as the back of the bus where the toilet is located is like a bucking bronco, and it's hard to brace myself with only one hand - this is one of those situations where you really need 3 or more hands (others are when you are at a reception or party with a plate of food in one hand and a drink in the other and you have to shake someone's hand or applaud the speaker - the clever Swedes have solved this by clipping a small plastic device to the plate, into which you slip your glass, thus leaving one hand free).
According to Lonely Planet Narvik is considered to be the ugliest town in Norway - it was destroyed by the German airforce in 1941 and has been rebuilt in a not particularly attractive way. I arrive on Sunday afternoon and nearly everything is closed so all I can do is wander around in the snow, sludge and ice, my feet wet and my hands freezing. I would like to ski here but the mountains behind the town look pretty grim and I don't have the gear so I just catch the cable car up to have a look. Later I drop into a pub which used to be a Methodist church
Places to eat on a Sunday night are pretty scarce - the choice is Chinese or pizza, or the restaurant attached to the bowling alley - yes, there's a bowling alley in Narvik - another funny thing is that were a number of solariums.
So I order a hamburger on the restaurant side, and because of complicated licensing laws I have to go through a door to the bowling alley side and order my glass of wine there, but not before 8pm (because of children - presumably if children see you drinking before 8 it will give them bad ideas). Unfortunately the bar side didn't tell me this before I ordered the food, so my food comes out about 15 minutes before I can get a drink. I try and persuade the young barman to give me a glass of red wine to go with my meal, as there's only 15 minutes to go, but he's adamant, so in a negative piece of synchronicity I finish my meal at 8 and have no further desire for the wine.
The only reason I'm in Narvik is that the railway line starts here that connects with far northern Sweden, where I am returning again for a very special treat. More soon.