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In Norway, Cod, Caves and White Nights
By BETTINA EDELSTEIN
THE ocean seemed calm, the voyage promising. Bits of blue peeked from the mist around the spiky green and granite mountains, the geological backbone of the Lofoten Islands of Norway, rising from the water like the spine of some ancient sea creature. The boat was waiting in the Reine harbor, next to a small warehouse where we could see, and smell, stacks of dried cod. We were off to the end of Moskenesoya Island, the final jewel of this archipelago 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was to be a pilgrimage of sorts, a trip back in time to a lonely spot where painted figures some 3,000 years old danced on the walls of a cave.
There was only one catch: the legendary maelstrom, the Moskstraumen. Since at least the 16th century, seafarers and those inhabiting their world, if only in the mind, have noted this tidal current, said to be one of the strongest on Earth. Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville all wrote ominously about this maritime monster, this "whirlpool from which no vessel escapes," as Verne described it. They exaggerated, yet the maelstrom is a force that commands respect.
About an hour into our journey, the sea turned suddenly and violently choppy. Seriously seasick, a woman in the German party of five aboard the boat staked out a spot aft and out of view. The young man of the group, wearing an earring and a marijuana-leaf charm on a chain around his neck, cracked open another beer and lighted another hand- rolled cigarette. Would we go on? After a brief consultation with the captain, our guide, Stig Einarsen, returned to deck. "I am sorry but we must turn back," he said. As consolation, we stopped to fish, churning the reels attached to the cutter's side. Only the German fellow caught anything, triumphantly slamming a couple of pollocks into the hold.
Back in Reine, my partner, Bill, and I agreed that it was too bad about the cave, but then again, we'd hardly planned on seeing it. We didn't even know about it until we found a brochure in the local tourist office. And so what if we had already spent the morning on the water, on a four-hour ferry ride from the mainland? Though we had two and a half weeks to explore Norway by car, we had chosen the Lofotens as our priority destination, hoping for an Arctic adventure.
The country's famed fjords, we had decided, could wait. And so, we figured, could the cave. The ferry we took with our rental car to the port of Moskenes leaves from Bodo, a 12- hour drive from Trondheim, Norway's historic capital. The jagged mountains, known as the Lofotveggen, or Lofoten Wall, are the first thing you see and they are startling. And thanks to the Gulf Stream that wends its way here, the islands are green and lush. (But the water is cold, so I wasn't tempted to swim.) In the Lofotens, cod rules, and it has been so for hundreds of years.
From the end of January to April, when the cod swim south from the Barents Sea to spawn, life on the islands turns to the fishery, which employs some 40 percent of the working population. Much of the catch is turned into stockfish, dried cod, exported mainly to Italy. The best way to get the flavor of the place is to stay in one of the cabins, or rorbuer, originally built for fishermen and updated to accommodate tourists. Ours was on the last stop on the main road through the Lofotens, the E10, in a 19th-century village called A (pronounced Aw), which also happens to be the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet. The tiny village consists mainly of a cluster of red clapboard rorbuer leading to a boardwalk with a restaurant by the harbor, and a small supermarket, an 1844 bakery and a few historical museums with displays on village life over the past 200 years. Each rorbu has a name; ours, with a sliding door secured by a padlock, was Anton. The little house, with living room and eat- in kitchen, cooking implements and dishes on hand, was sweet and tidy, with floor, ceiling and wall paneled in blond wood, and a thoroughly modern bathroom. The reception office supplied linens.
Though we'd planned to stay just two nights, we immediately booked a third. Visitors to the Lofotens often stay a week or longer, mostly during the peak season from June 15 to Aug. 15. Though some 250,000 people come to the islands during summer around 30 percent of them Norwegians, 30 percent Germans, 30 percent other Europeans, 5 percent Americans and 5 percent from elsewhere the villages don't feel crowded. At most, there's a relaxed kind of bustle. Many who do their holiday homesteading in the rorbuer dine on fish they have caught and food they have brought or bought. We didn't fish for our suppers but we did eat at home one night smoked salmon, briny shrimp and crayfish sold in plastic containers, fresh bread, rye crackers and flavorful tomatoes and cucumbers, all from the convenience store in Reine. Unlike quaint A, Reine (population 700) is a real town.
After our encounter with the maelstrom, we headed for sustenance to a restaurant just off the dock called Gammelbua, recommended for its stockfish stew, and joined our guide, our captain and his assistant for a few beers. I wondered what islanders typically did on summer Saturday nights. The answer was familiar: when there's night life on tap, they go out. "There is going to be a band playing in A tonight," Stig said. "Perhaps you want to go?" We could hear the country music swinging as we stepped out our door in the crisp air and down our village dock to the Brygga restaurant and bar. At 10 o'clock, the white night sky was still filled with the promise of daylight. The cover charge was $8.
Stig found us in the upstairs bar, dark and smoky, where we splurged on Scotch (about $7.50 a pour). As midnight edged in, people did, too. Because most Norwegians speak English, it was easy to chat with those around us, some fishermen and another tour guide, whose teenage son was busy on the dance floor. At one point, the talk turned to the cave paintings, and we were urged not to miss this marvel.
Never mind the maelstrom, Stig said. In a Zodiac, a motorized raft, we'd have no trouble. He would pick us up at our dock at noon. Deal.
Downstairs in the restaurant area we joined the crowd toasting, buzzing, dancing. The hours had zoomed by, but the daylight outside had warped our sense of time. At 3 a.m., the band quit, but the music didn't. People sang an old Leadbelly tune, clapping and thumping on tables.
At noon the day looked gray. But changeable weather is part of the Lofoten experience; you just go with it. We put on the windbreaker jumpsuits Stig provided, and roared off. In the Zodiac the maelstrom really was a cinch. Before long we were putting in at the rocky shore of Refsvika, by a tiny coral beach, curious seals popping up out of the water 25 or 30 yards away.
Once there was a small fishing village here, blessed with beauty, cursed with a poor harbor. In 1951 the villagers took the government's cue and abandoned the place, then as now accessible only by boat. To get to the cave, we hiked a hilly trail, snacking on crowberries we plucked from bushes. To our right was the sea, to our left a row of mountains. For some 50 years, whenever the weather kept the boats at harbor or the fishing kept the boats at sea, children walked this path to the school in the next village, on the other side of the mountains. At a certain crevice they would swing across on a rope; a rope hangs there still. As we trudged along, for an hour or so, I half expected a schoolboy to dash up behind me and yank my braids. The entrance to the cave was a cleft in one of the mountains, some 150 feet high and 36 feet wide. Donning the helmets that Stig took out of a wooden box just outside, we followed him in.
The space had the aura of a cathedral, with soaring ceiling and chambers on either side. Flashlight in hand only guides may carry them, and no cameras are allowed Stig led the way into one of the chambers. Just where the light from outside began to fall into darkness, we stopped. There the red figures were revealed. To describe them as stick figures is to understate their humanity. They are rich with movement; at least one has a rounded body. Very likely, the painters made the pigment from iron oxide veins found in the cave. But who painted them and why? Are the figures moving into light or darkness? Do they tell of birth, spiritual or otherwise, or the inevitable journey toward death? Awe-struck, we huddled on the rocks, whispering and listening to the ancient plink of water on rock. "I have been here many times, but it is always special," Stig said. "I am never bored with it."
We stopped at a beach to eat lunch, and then it was time to go. We were not long on the water when Stig turned the Zodiac into the harbor of Hell (in Norwegian, "helle" means a flat place), where another village once stood. In the old days children watched the maelstrom from a cliff for entertainment. Hell also had Norway's first radio telephone station. Built in 1928, it established communication with Sorvagen, just up the road from A. Hell was green and peaceful. Yet it felt abandoned.
Sea eagles wheeled above us with fringed wings. But where were the puffins I had read about? I had seen none along the rocky coasts they are reputed to favor. Stig pointed to a flock of small black birds in the distance. "There," he said. "Now you can say you have seen the puffins."
Exploring an Arctic archipelago
For information on the Lofoten Islands, the tourist center's Web site, www.lofoten-info.no, is very helpful.
The tourist center itself is in Sorvagen, three miles from the ferry in Moskenes; (47) 76 09 15 99; fax (47) 76 09 24 25.
The departure point for the Lofoten Islands is the northern Norwegian city of Bodo, 795 miles north of Oslo, accessible by train, plane and car.
By car, allow 12 hours from Trondheim on the E6, one of the main roads in northern Norway.
Bodo is the last stop on the Norwegian railway, and there are daily trains from Trondheim and Oslo; from Trondheim, it's a 10-hour ride. Fares vary; basic cost without discount, $83.50, at 8.8 krone to the dollar.
You can also fly to Bodo, and on to Leknes Airport on the island of Vestvagoy, a half-hour flight from Bodo. For fares and schedules, call SAS Scandinavian Airlines in the United States at (800) 221-2350.
The four-hour ferry trip from Bodo to Moskenes leaves four or five times a day in summer. (The ferry runs all year.) One-way fare is about $13 for pedestrians and $48 for cars, with driver. Park your car in line about two hours before departure. For schedules call OVDS, the steamship company: (47) 76 96 76 00 or fax (47) 76 11 82 01.
From Bodo, you can also take the daily Hurtigrute coastal steamer, which takes four hours to Stamsund, on Vestvagoy in the center of the Lofoten archipelago; for bookings call OVDS at (47) 76 96 76 00.
Also, a daily express passenger boat takes four hours to Svolvaer on Austvagoy farther north. Call to book ahead: (47) 75 54 17 41.
Where to Stay
In A, rates for a rorbu (fisherman's cabin) vary from $40 to $125 a night, depending on size and comfort level. At A Rorbuer, a delightful cabin on the main boardwalk with two bedrooms that could sleep up to eight, a living room, an eat-in kitchen and a modern bathroom with shower costs about $100 a night.
Two rental agents for rorbuer in A are
A Rorbuer, (47) 76 09 11 21, fax (47) 76 09 12 82, and
A-Hamna Rorbuer, (47) 76 09 12 11, fax (47) 76 09 11 14.
Where to Eat
Seafood dominates menus, with cod dishes a local specialty.
Gammelbua, Reine; (47) 76 09 22 22. The signature dish of this cozy restaurant by the harbor is stockfish stew, in a tomato base with thinly sliced potatoes and plump, juicy olives. Open for lunch and dinner; closed Sept. 1 until mid-May. Dinner for two with beer, around $65.
Brygga, in A; (47) 76 09 15 72. Pretty views of the harbor enhance seafood and other dishes for lunch and dinner in this simple place; dinner for two with wine, $48. Closed Sept. 1 through May, though groups can call for reservations year round.
What to See
Trips to Refsvikhula, the cave with the 3,000-year-old paintings, can be arranged through the tourist office at (47) 76 09 15 99. A group excursion of about six hours leaves from Reine harbor Mondays and Fridays from June 1 to Aug. 30 if a minimum of six people sign up (trips are possible year round except in December and January; call ahead to arrange); about $50 a person. If the maelstrom is too fierce, the boat will turn back; in our case, we were charged only a partial fare.
A trip to the cave with a guide on a motorized raft can be arranged through Adventure Rafting Lofoten; $67 a person (minumum five people); daily mid-June to mid-August; rest of the year, charter trips only. Call (47) 76 09 20 00 to book or the tourist office.
The Lofoten Stockfish Museum in A, (47) 76 94 81 29 18, has a thorough exhibition on the production and trade of salt cod, Norway's oldest export. Open weekdays June 6 to 20, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; daily June 21 to Aug. 20, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission $6.25.
The Norwegian Fishing Village Museum in A, (47) 76 09 14 88 or (76) 94 81 31 29, consists of numerous buildings in the village, with the focus on Lofoten fishing life. The 1844 bakery, which makes exquisite cinnamon rolls with period ovens, is part of the museum. You can also visit Norway's oldest cod-liver oil factory. Open daily from June 20 to Aug. 20, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; weekdays Aug. 21 to June 19, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission $6.25.
Lofotr, the Viking Museum, Borg; (47) 76 08 49 00. A bit farther afield, but well worth the journey by bus or by car (a 49-mile drive from A to the town of Borg on the island of Vestvagoy), this museum is the site of the largest Viking Age house ever found. The reconstructed chieftain's house has displays on Viking life with people in costume, and exhibits of Viking relics. On the reconstructed Viking ship docked nearby, you can go rowing daily at 2 p.m. (weather permitting) in summer. Open May 23 to Sept. 3, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Open the rest of the year for groups only; call ahead. Admission $9.
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