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March 2, 2012 9:53 pm
There’s something a little perverse about taking your summer holiday in the Arctic Circle. If you’re a sun-starved northern European, why head even further north? Why not just jet off to the Med and be done with it? Well, for one thing, in Greece you can’t sit on your terrace at midnight, as I did in the Lofoten Islands, drinking Arctic Beer (made in the world’s most northerly brewery) ... and sunbathe.
The Lofoten Islands look like they’ve been drawn by a child with an over-active imagination. Glimpsed through the windows of the noisy Dash-8 aircraft as I came in to land at Leknes airport, this otherworldly archipelago in the far reaches of northern Norway revealed itself to be a place of improbably jagged, snow-capped mountains surrounded by sea as clear and sparkly as liquid diamonds. The meadows were the colour of a particularly luminous green Caran d’Ache pencil I once had at school, with little wooden candy-coloured houses scattered across them and clusters of rust-red cabins perched precariously on flimsy posts around the rocky coastline.
If one of the CGI designers on the Lord of the Rings films had created a landscape like the Lofotens, the director Peter Jackson would no doubt have canned it for being too unreal. But unreal is what these islands do best – and when the reality of the Mediterranean is gloomy conversations about the euro, it’s a refreshing spot to get away from such temporal concerns as boom and bust cycles, defaults and quantitative easing.
My girlfriend and I had come to explore these fantastical islands, and to walk and swim, and worship the midnight sun. Home for the week was to be a traditional rorbu – one of those rust-red fishermen’s cabins I’d spotted from the air – in the tiny fishing village of Mortsund on the central island of Vestvagoy.
The Statles family have been fishing here for decades and let out their first rorbu to tourists in 1964. Today, staying in these quaint cabins is becoming increasingly popular; there are about 65 available to rent in Mortsund and in June this year the Statles will open a further nine.
Our single room cabin had just weeks before been part of their large fish warehouse but you wouldn’t have known. Inside, it had been lined with pine and a hardwood floor, and it opened on to a deck that looked out on a smattering of tiny islands. Unlike the early rorbu in which itinerant fishermen slept curled up in short bunks (they believed you’d lose your soul if you slept stretched out), ours had all mod cons (oven, microwave, dishwasher) and nothing to disturb us bar the gentle lapping of the sea against the cabin’s supporting pillars and the perpetual sunlight streaming through the window.
The Lofoten Islands make up a 100 mile-long ribbon of granite known as the Lofoten Wall. Seen from a boat or the aircraft from Bodo, this seemingly impenetrable rock promontory rears up out of the Norwegian Sea like Jormungand, the sea serpent of Old Norse mythology that the Vikings believed encircled the world, keeping it together. This “wall” is, in fact, hundreds of islands, separated by inlets, lakes and fjords, and dotted with tiny deserted white sand beaches.
Driving between them on the islands’ single, gracefully sweeping road, we had to keep pulling over to gawp at waterfalls or marvel at the clouds spilling over ragged mountaintops. Had a flock of pterodactyls emerged from behind a ridge I wouldn’t have been the least surprised.
In winter, the islands are cold and inhospitable – in December and January they don’t see the sun at all. In high summer, though, the sea is (just about) warm enough for a bone-chilling dip and the sun never sets. In fact, from May to August the islands settle into a sort of perpetual spring. Bright yellow marigolds and the creamy heads of cow parsley nod in the breeze by the roadside, birds chirrup incessantly, either confused or invigorated by the 24-hour sunlight, and the fields and mountains are carpeted with wild flowers and bright green ferns.
Forty per cent of Europe’s sea eagle population lives in the cliffs here. Heading in search of these massive birds, we took a cruise aboard the MS Orca from Svolvaer, the capital of the archipelago, into the Trollfjord, reputed home of those wild-haired supernatural beings from Norse mythology.
A narrow cutting in the rock leads into the spectacular fjord framed by sheer cliffs with cascades of water dancing down them. Fish practically leap out of the water into the boat (OK, that’s an exaggeration, but when I dipped unbaited lines into the water to catch fish to lure the eagles I caught three with little effort). I waited an age to see my first eagle, which swooped in to snatch up the fish. An hour later I’d had enough; sea eagles were diving in from all sides, their unique selling point – rarity – evaporating rapidly.
The trolls might not exist but, just south-west of the archipelago, the infamous maelstrom that pulls in the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea does. “As you know, at the turn of the tide, the waters confined between the Varrö and Lofoten Islands rush out with irresistible violence,” says Professor Pierre Aronnax, Verne’s narrator. “They form a vortex from which no ship has ever been able to escape. Monstrous waves race together from every point of the horizon. They form a whirlpool aptly called ‘the ocean’s navel’, whose attracting power extends a distance of 10 miles. It can suck down not only ships but whales, and even polar bears from the northernmost regions.”
Although the maelstrom is not quite the whale-endangering vortex of Verne’s vivid imagining, it is one of the most ferocious ocean currents in the world and the sea here can be treacherous. In the beautiful wooden church at Flakstad, which dates from 1780, there is a plaque listing the 147 men from that one village alone who died at sea between 1850-1950. In the centre of the church above the aisle hangs a little model fishing boat as a reminder: fishing is what makes this place tick. Every winter, cod come to the waters off the Lofotens to spawn and during this season – known as the Lofotfisket – fishermen come to catch them. This annual harvest has dictated the rhythm of life here for centuries but where 20,000-30,000 migrant fishermen once came, now there are perhaps 2,000-3,000 – hence the empty rorbu available for tourists.
A short drive from Flakstad is Nusfjord, a sort of model fishing village. In the tiny sheltered harbour, strings of dried fishheads dangle in the breeze watched over by teams of seagulls taking it in turns to dive-bomb the tourists as they explore the old cod-liver oil factory, the smoking hut and the gift shop. It’s all very quaint but life here was anything but idyllic. The men would set out in small open sailing boats into treacherous seas to catch tonnes of cod. Returning in the winter dark, they would gut and behead the cod and tie them in pairs, which they’d then throw over large wooden racks to dry in the pure Arctic air. This dried fish, stockfish, is the staple “crop” here and you see these rather gothic leathery pennants nailed above doorways, hanging from windows and in their thousands roosting like bats on the wooden drying frames by the roadside.
Stockfish looks inedible, like giant dog chews. But we tried it at Gammelbua, a delightful little restaurant in Reine, that was once the village’s general store and dates from the late 1700s. The stockfish had been soaked in water for a week to rehydrate it – not a great prelude – before it was cooked just like a fresh cod fillet and served with lardons of bacon, capers and butter sauce. The fish was rich, firm and delicious, not at all salty or tough. Reine is a traditional fishing centre and also on the menu was minke, caught by the town’s own whaling boat, served either hot or cold, smoked in wafer thin disks like carpaccio and accompanied with Arctic cranberries.
Dining late in the evening by candlelight while the sun streams through the window is an odd sensation; 24-hour daylight can be eerie. The sun doesn’t set, it just grazes the horizon killing time before morning. The light shifts from a bright yellow late-spring glow during the day to a frozen blue and then a pale beige during the long “white nights” that stretch to dawn. Once the immediate novelty – “the sun’s still in the sky!” – has worn off, these white nights offer a stunning opportunity to explore the islands. Throughout the long, light nights people walk their dogs on the islands’ wild beaches, hikers tramp along old coastal tracks and fishermen drop their lines from bridges into the fjords.
One evening, after a day sunning ourselves on the bleached sands of Haukland beach and bathing in the ice blue water, we decided to climb Himmeltindan, the highest mountain on Vestvagoy. The vibrant green ferns were glazed with a honey-coloured evening light that cast long shadows across the mountainside as we climbed in near silence. At about 9.30pm, we neared the ridge below the summit and gazed out in breathless awe at the ribbon of jagged peaks snaking into the distance, the glassy fjords and, beyond, the wide flat sea curving away to the North Pole.
Carl Wilkinson was a guest of Inntravel (www.inntravel.co.uk) and SAS (www.flysas.co.uk). Inntravel offers a week’s rental of a one-bedroom rorbu, sleeping two, from £1,650, including six days’ car hire, transfers from Leknes airport and walking notes. A two-bedroom rorbu costs from £2,042. The properties are available between May 1 and September 25. SAS offers return fares from London to Leknes from £409. For more information, see www.visitnorway.co.uk
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