The Lofoten Islands

I don’t remember when I first saw pictures from the Lofoten Islands, in the far north of Norway, but it was many years ago, and I do remember thinking that they looked so remarkable and otherworldly that it was somewhere I would definitely visit one day. I’d loved my time in Norway in April so it seemed natural to progress further north for my next trip and see the islands.

The Lofoten Islands are inside the Arctic Circle and aren’t easy to get to, which is probably part of the attraction. There are various routes there, all of them complicated. In the end I decided to fly into Olso, and from there take a flight to Bodø, also inside the Arctic Circle. From Bodø a ferry goes to Moskenes in the extreme west of the islands, a (potentially rough) journey of 3-4 hours.

Having overnighted in Oslo I flew to Bodø the next morning. The town seems like a practical, no-nonsense kind of place. There was an amazing clarity of the light; you did get a sense of being inside the Arctic Circle.

Waiting for the ferry in the sunshine. I’d forgotten about the Nordic love of all things liquorice; I’d bought this ice cream without examining the label closely enough. and was expecting some chocolate but instead got a triple dose of liquorice, which came as an unpleasant shock.

The ferry journey to Moskenes on the Lofoten Islands takes about four hours. I’d heard that it can be very rough, especially in Winter, but today the weather was perfect and the journey smooth. People were even sitting out sunbathing.

For several hours we could see the islands on the horizon as we set a course straight for them, and it felt like a voyage to Middle Earth or somewhere else unworldly.

From the ferry terminal at Moskenes it was only a 10 minute bus journey to where I was staying - this was the first glimpse, through the bus window, of beautiful Reine, which has become a bit of a poster boy for the islands.

For my first two nights I was staying in a wooden cabin at Rostad Retro Rorbuer, (a rorbu is a traditional seasonal cabin used by fishermen, though many are now constructed purely for tourists) on the little island of Olenilsøya. I’ve stayed in some lovely holiday homes before but this was far and away the nicest place I’ve ever been in. The views were absolutely stunning.

That view from the cabin - incredible!

With the long days I was able to go for a walk around the area in the late evening sunshine. The high arched bridges that link the smaller islands here are very distinctive.

One of the most striking aspects of the Lofoten Islands are all the wooden drying racks for hanging out cod to dry - they’re absolutely everywhere (as is the smell of fish). The preserved stockfish is exported and is popular particularly in Italy.

Eliassen Rorbuer, just down the road from where I was staying, is another one of the iconic Lofoten locations. These were originally fishermen’s cabins but now it mostly provides accommodation for tourists, with a stunning backdrop.

I took this video on the terrace of the cabin just before midnight. At this time of the year in the Arctic Circle the sun never sets, and it felt a bit surreal. I had to force myself to go to bed - my brain was shouting, “But it’s still daylight!”. Thankfully the bedroom was quite dark and I didn’t have any issues getting to sleep despite the daylight.

The next morning I walked down the road to Reine, a couple of miles away. These monkfish heads were for sale outside a seafood restaurant - I didn’t realise they looked so scary!

Another drying rack - they’re great devices for literally framing the landscape.

If you like cabin porn this is the place for you.

Reine has a really stunning location. As a consequence, there are about 10 million pictures of it on Instagram. And here’s another.

This church in Reine seemed to mirror the shape of the landscape beyond.

Some traditional fishermen’s cabins in the centre of Reine.

Fortifying myself at a little cafe before attempting the climb up Reinebringen mountain, the one that looms behind Reine.

A few years back Nepalese Sherpas installed stone steps the whole way to the top of the mountain, which must have been a mammoth task in itself. It’s still very steep and very difficult - I made many, many stops on the way up, especially as it was pretty hot. It’s also quite busy at this time of the year so there’s a bit of waiting for people to pass by coming back down.

Reine View

The views from the top of Reinebringen are completely jaw-dropping, reputedly the best in the Lofoten Islands. It made the effort of the climb totally worthwhile.

Back in Reine, my reward for all that effort. I also had a stockfish burger, which didn’t sound that enticing but was actually delicious.

Later that evening  I was out walking near the cabin when I noticed something running along the road beside me. It turned out to be a stoat, with dinner in its mouth (it looked like a rat). The stoat was practising good road safety, looking carefully before crossing and disappearing into a ditch.

More cabin porn  - I could see this striking one from my own cabin. It’s another of those iconic Lofoten sights.

After two nights in Reine - way too short - I headed across the islands by bus to Svolvaer via Leknes. The varying landscape was stunning on the journey, maybe even a touch Irish in some places.

Svolvaer is the main town on the Lofoten islands, with a population of almost 5000 people. While it doesn’t quite have the charm of Reine, it still has a dramatic location, surrounded by jagged-edged mountains.

I was staying in the oldest part of the town, once a fishing village but now mostly catering to tourists. I’d booked a charming old house for three nights (Stormen 40 - “The name means ‘storm’”, the man at reception told me, with something that looked suspiciously like a grimace). It really was lovely, with beautiful views of the sea and mountains (and it did get quite stormy on my final night, which I rather enjoyed from inside the cosy and dry house).

More racks for drying cod, close to where I was staying - clearly these ones are in use, as you can see from the many remnants of fish heads.

It’s got to be haunted, right? This spooky house was close to where I was staying. I had a look around the back and there was an open door into a kind of cellar. I started to go in to have a look but there were swarms of flies. I decided to look no further.

One of Svolvaer’s top attractions is an ice bar, filled with sculptures made from - yep - ice, mostly depicting figures from Norse mythology, like Thor in his chariot pulled by two icy goats (something I’d last seen at the city hall in Oslo). Everything was made from ice - the bar, the tables, even the free drink (some kind of berry and wine concoction) was served in a glass made of ice, held inside an ordinary glass one. 

Very cool. Literally - you had to wear a warm cloak and gloves as the temperature in the bar was -5°C.

I visited the Svolvaer war museum and came away slightly feeling I’d been in a particular episode of Father Ted - the German memorabilia was definitely winning the battle for wall space, to such an extent that there was a painting apparently done by Hitler himself. The question “You don't have anything from the Allied side?” hovered on my lips but remained unasked. I’m exaggerating. Slightly.

One thing I learned from the war museum was that Svolvaer has the highest concentration of German World War II bunkers in Norway, following a successful raid by British and Norwegian commandos at the start of the war (the raid led to the capture of several hundred German prisoners and, more importantly, parts of an Enigma machine and its code books that allowed Bletchley Park to decipher German naval transmission for a time).

I went out for a walk in the evening thinking I’d keep an eye open for any, and promptly discovered three. This is the entrance to one.

At first I thought this bunker wouldn’t be accessible but a bit of a scramble on the rocks at the back and some poking around in the undergrowth revealed an access point, and with a bit of a shimmy through a doorway I was inside. Unfortunately I hadn’t a torch with me and it was pitch dark in the inner rooms, so I had to rely on the torch on my phone. It was incredibly eerie and I wasn’t quite sure what some of the things I was looking at were - I still don’t know what that thing on the roof was, and I most definitely wasn’t going to poke at it. As for the bed…

The next day I did a day trip to Henningsvaer, a traditional Lofoten fishing village about 12 miles from Svolvaer. This beautiful reflection was on the bus journey there.

Henningsvaer was originally a fishing village but now it’s become quite artsy, lots of nice cafes, restaurant, galleries and craft shops. The football pitch for the local team became famous as one of the most scenically located in the world.

Inside one of the art galleries in Henningsvaer. This seems to be another Nordic obsession, right up there with putting liquorice in everything - paintings of coffins arriving in boats. I saw lots of these in a gallery in Helsinki a few years ago.

Bacalao, a traditional fish stew eaten in the islands - delicious!

I bought this little picture in an antique shop in Henningsvaer. I thought there was something very haunting about it. The woman in the shop said it belonged to her aunt - they were selling some of her things after her recent death. She didn’t know the story behind it but thought it was possible it came from Lapland or maybe even Greenland.

On my final day I did a cruise to the famous Trollfjord, one of the narrowest fjords in Norway - the entrance is only 100m wide. Appropriately, in the morning before the cruise I’d seen the famous painting The Battle of Trollfjord, by Gunnar Berg, in a Svolvaer gallery (you can see it in one of the pictures above). It depicts a battle over fishing rights in 1890 between the new industrial-era steamboats and fishermen in traditional rowing boats.

Flying home from the islands; even the scenery from the plane is spectacular.

The most beautiful archipelago in the world? I think I must wholeheartedly agree!

My love affair with Norway continues, and I think I must return and consider heading even further North (though probably next year - the two trips this year have practically bankrupt me). A look at the map suggests a few possibilities…

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