My husband attended a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands last week. I got to tag along. From the air, Norway looks more like a topographical map than any other place I have ever flown into.
The Loftotens are an archipelago of islands strung along Norway’s coast, above the line where the Arctic Circle begins. The conference was held in Svolvaer, a city of 9000 and the Lofotens’ administrative center. Svolvaer’s deep harbors accommodate cruise and excursion ships, freight ships, enormous shipbuilding facilities, and the fishing and fish-export concerns that have driven the local economy for thousands of years.
We could watch the ships from the deck outside our rooms at Svinoya Rorbu, the conference hotel. A rorbu is a traditional fishermen’s house. The wooden red boxes, set on stilts, line harbors throughout the Lofotens. Some are still used for their original purpose, but many have been converted into tourist camps.
The “rorbus” at our place were two-story houses built to mimic the old buildings. We had two decks, two sitting areas, two bathrooms (one with a sauna), a fully equipped kitchen and three bedrooms. We shared it with two other philosophers. Meals were served in the hotel restaurant. Papers were presented in the art gallery across the way.
The gallery featured the work of Gunnar Berg, a painter who lived on Svinoya, the tiny island for which Svinoya Rorbu is named. A short walk to the east side of the island takes you past the house where Berg was born. The place where he is buried is a small park with rocks that offer quiet views of some of Svinoya’s fancier homes, and sublime ones of the wild Norwegian mainland.
On Tuesday, when we arrived, the weather was unseasonably warm (close to 60). The sun was astonishingly bright. The conference would begin on Wednesday. A message at the desk where we checked in announced that Wednesday’s schedule had been changed. Breakfast would begin at 7, and at 8 there would be a three-hour cruise to nearby Trollfjord.
The philosophers and their families filled the boat.
The scenery was nothing short of spectacular.
Our destination, Trollfjord, is named for the Norwegian folklore figure that inspired those long-haired dolls I played with when I was a kid. The place is best known for the 1890 battle between people operating modern steam-driven fishing boats and fishermen in traditional sailing boats, over access to the fjord’s fish.
On the return trip, our guide started feeding the sea gulls. She whistled loudly and threw chunks of bread into the water, and the gulls swooped in. When she cut up raw fish, the birds perched on her hand to eat it. The whole performance was actually pretty alarming. Should she be interfering with the birds like that? Wasn’t it dangerous to have them swooping in so close? Do we even like seagulls? In lots of places in the States, it’s illegal to feed them. They’re considered dirty nuisances. Flying rats.
Then a sea eagle suddenly arced in, cut through the fluttering gulls, and grabbed a bit of fish the guide had laid before her. That shut up our objections. A little later, a second eagle appeared. For this one the guide tossed a whole fish into the water. We watched the eagle snatch it up.
That pose of the eagle’s — wings raised, talons forward, beak down — is a favorite in the Lofotens. You see it as a silhouette nailed to the sides of houses, always with a fish clutched between the claws. It suggests the power and brutality of the fishing life, and also a sense of the natural order. The naturalness of predation.
Houses with these eagles sometimes also have their own private line of fish hanging out to ferment. This is the torrfisk – stockfish — for which the Lofotens are famous (at least among fans of cured fish).
Cod, haddock, and other species are fresh dried (that is, without salt) on wooden racks for three months, during which they naturally ferment.
The fish is then taken inside to mature for another two months.
You see the racks everywhere. The smell permeates the air. Commercially packaged stockfish snacks are displayed as impulse items beside the checkout counter at the supermarket. And stockfish shows up at meal after meal. The taste is mild but distinctive. Not bad, but boring. Especially after the third or fourth go-round.
This meal wasn’t much better. This was my lunch on Friday, eaten as I sat behind the wheel of my rented car in the parking lot outside the Mini Rimi supermarket in the fishing village of Stamsund. Tapioca pudding with lingonberries, and two moisture-sucking wasa crackers with a mildly nutty spread the texture of Crisco sandwiched in between. I probably could have chosen better, if I had been willing to ask someone to translate the labels on the packages. And I might have found a better place for my picnic if it hadn’t been about 45 degrees out, not to mention windy and raining.
Here’s the better lunch David and I had together on Saturday. His conference was over. We stayed on an extra day and used the time to drive the length of the islands, working our way west on highway E10. The weather was still nasty, and at noon we found ourselves in the sprawling metropolis of Leknes, which has more than 10,000 residents, as well as an airport. This is falafel, served on a “baguette” (really a soft, oversized hotdog roll), garnished with coleslaw and spicy, Indian-style lime pickle. It wasn’t bad. And the young woman who served it to us (dark-eyed, head-scarfed), had a nice, warm smile. Smile or not, eating in the Lofotens isn’t the greatest. The food is horrifyingly expensive, and generally mediocre.
And it doesn’t matter. Because food is beside the point when the scenery is this spectacular. Here’s Glassoy beach, on the North Sea, where David and I watched the waves lick the sand and the clouds hide and reveal the surrounding cliffs.
Here’s the harbor at Reine, where we decided it was time to turn around. (If we had pushed on another few kilometers we would have come to the town of Å, where highway E10 ends.).
Oh, and here’s a little tidal pond we happened to pass on Sunday, on our way to the airport. How could I not pull over and get this one last glimpse of the sublime before leaving this place I never imagined I would get to visit — if I had imagined it existed?