Henningsvær / Lofoten Islands, Norway / February 2016
On the jaw-dropping beauty of the remote Lofoten Islands, lots of codfish, and light above the Arctic Circle.
The Lofoten Islands are one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. After a time I began to feel like a broken record, ooh-ing, aah-ing and oh my god, oh my god, look!-ing as we rounded every corner. The place eventually renders you speechless, muted in the same way a fresh snowfall brings a solemn hush to a landscape.
Scenic beauty comes in many forms. Some coasts are warm, sunny, and inviting;1 they look like they will coddle you with umbrella-festooned drinks and sanitize your brain of all unpleasant thoughts. Other coasts are wild, rugged, and intimidating; they seem imminently dangerous, and like they will force you to contemplate your fragile existence in the world. The Lofotens, of course, fall into the latter category.
Forged by glaciers during the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, the Lofotens are home to Europe’s oldest mountains – the “Lofoten Wall”, which ranges from 800 to 1,000 meters high. Legend has it the Lofotens were created by Thor throwing handfuls of rocks into the sea,2and according to Norse folklore, the mountains are rife with trolls and Valkyries (female spirits who escorted slain warriors to the underworld). Viking history runs deep in the area, which you can tell just by looking at the epic landscape.
The entire archipelago is a chain of small islets extending like a 100-mile finger from the northwestern coast of Norway. One scenic road, the E10, connects the islands to each other and the mainland through a series of bridges and tunnels. All of the islands have a distinct “edge of the world” vibe about them, but we decided to drive the full length of the E10 until we reached nearly the end of the road. Actually, we3drove quite a bit further – nearly 7 hours – just to get to the Lofotens, and later an additional 3 hours or so to drive the length of the archipelago. Message boards about visiting Norway all contain frantic posts about driving in winter conditions, so we picked up our rental car4in Tromsø with some trepidation. By the time we left the parking lot an actual blizzard had started and I felt already conquered by the Norwegian winter. We crawled for miles5until darkness fell, and then continued on, only white walls of snow on either side and the weak beam of headlights between them.
And so it was that we reached the Lofotens in pitch blackness, exiting a tunnel and running smack into the sea, with Orion shining above, his arrow pointing the way. I think this was the right way to arrive; we felt the presence of the mountains around us before actually seeing them. I have always loved reaching places in the nighttime because everything remains to be discovered the next day, even the view when you fling open the curtains in the morning.
Besides epic scenery, the Lofotens are known for their long and storied association with cod fishing. The archipelago has been inhabited for nearly 11,000 years, and cod has probably formed the backbone for life on the islands since that time. Between roughly January to March each year, millions of pregnant Arctic Cod (skrei) migrate from the Barents Sea to the relatively warmer waters of the Loftens to lay their eggs, leading to a prize catch for many fishermen. Once caught, the cod is dried for months en masse on hjell, or tall, A-shaped wooden frames, in the maritime winds. The resulting product – stockfish (torrfisk) – is prime for export given it is a quarter of the cod’s original body weight, retains the original nutrients, and can stay edible for months, even years. Norway has been exporting stockfish from the Lofotens since the Middle Ages (often via Bergen) and especially at the height of Catholicism in continental Europe, in which longer periods of meat fasting (amounting to almost a third of the year) meant high demand for stockfish. Today, Italy is the primary market for stockfish, though Portugal must also be a high-demand country given the ubiquity of bacalao on the Lofotens.
Aside from the hjell dotting the landscape (with or without hundreds of cod on them), the other iconic motif on the islands – also a by-product of the fishing industry – is the rorbu.6Originally, these small, red, wooden cabins were constructed across the Lofotens to house visiting fishermen who came to Norway during the high season for cod. The juxtaposition of the cabins against the stark scenery – sheer cliff faces, endless expanses of water – makes them look a bit like toy houses that were dropped on a beach miles away before somehow washing up on these improbable shores. Today, most of the rorbu have been converted into cozy vacation rentals. For a few blissful days, we had one duplex cabin all to ourselves, in a cluster of rorbu facing a completely still lake and a majestic mountain peak.
We made it to almost the end of the E10 by the time the sun set one day, hopping out of the car near the village of Reine. Though the Lofotens are miles above the Arctic Circle, their location in the Gulf Stream means they enjoy a relatively more temperate climate,7and the brisk weather is invigorating. Here is where you can feel truly at peace – washed in a fresh, briny sea breeze, gulls calling faintly in the background, and the eternal, timeless landscape stretching out in all directions.
Surrounded by sweeping vistas of mountain peaks and humanity’s persistent inroads amidst them, I had the revelation that there is something truly special about the light above the Arctic Circle. Perhaps it is all the reflective surfaces around – water, snow, ice. But it is as if a high definition switch is flipped during the day, and then a soft dimmer one at twilight. While sunrise and sunset occasion explosions of color which bleed into the sea, during the day the Lofoten universe exists in shades of greys, blues and violets in a range I can’t imagine existing anywhere else on earth. There is the dark blue of the sea beneath clouds, which mirrors the dark blue of a stormy sky, and the grey of snow on a mountain, which is the same as ice on the sea. Land, sea and sky all begin to merge seamlessly. After all, when you’re standing at the edge of the world, horizon lines become meaningless.
And . . .