It started with a doodle. At an unexciting work meeting last summer, my mind wandered away from the heat of central London to the mysterious lands of the Norwegian Arctic. My hand swiftly followed, mapping a 2-week travel route between Trondheim and Kirkenes – a daydream with a chance of coming true.
And, exactly one year later, I find myself in Norway preparing for a trip of a lifetime: a journey of over 2,500 km north by a combination of air, sea and ground transport, and encompassing some of Northern Norway’s most famous landmarks.
Trondheim, the royal city
I begin my journey in Trondheim – a buzzing student city known as Norway’s religious and royal capital. My first stop is a local photography hotspot, the Bakke Bridge overlooking the Wharves (Bryggene), old timber houses built on stilts into the Nidelva river – unmistakably the face of Trondheim.
I continue to the island of Munkholmen. Trondheim’s former prison and execution ground, the island now houses a restaurant, a crafts gallery and a fort – all decidedly peaceful, they make Munkholmen a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Hundreds of birds rise up hastily as I venture onto a narrow man-made pier outside the stone walls. They are the true locals of the place.
Two days I spend in Trondheim are enough to take in other famous sights. Rising over the city on top of a hill, the Kristiansen fortress offers a wonderful viewing platform. And if urban life gets a little too much, the foresty area of Lian in Bymarka – the “lungs” of the city – is reachable by an old-style Gråkallbanen, the northernmost tramline in the world. It is raining, and the only living creatures on my way are squirrels, ducks and the ubiquitous seagulls.
Of course no visit to Trondheim is complete without the Nidaros Cathedral (Nidarosdomen). The cathedral is really what makes Trondheim the religious capital: for it is there that the remains of St. Olaf – the patron saint of Norway – are believed to rest. St. Olaf’s death is widely commemorated in Norway every July, when Trondheim becomes the centre of numerous festivities. Many pilgrims from Northern Europe make their way to Trondheim to pay tribute to the former king.
The less pious won’t walk away disappointed, either: the bell tower offers great panoramic views of the river-embraced city. While coronations are no longer a constitutional requirement in Norway (Trondheim used to be their sole host city at some point in the past), the Royal Regalia of Norway are on display in the Nidaros Cathedral. My train up north is not until midnight, and I linger at every exhibit.
Across the Arctic Circle
Perhaps the most inspiring episode of Joanna Lumley’s In the Land of the Northern Lights series is when she boards an old fashioned train in Trondheim, preparing to find herself on the other side of the Arctic Circle – in Bodø – some 729 km later. The Nordland train line (Nordlandsbanen) is Norway’s longest and indeed the only one to cross the Arctic Circle. It is among the most picturesque railway journeys of Norway, even if somewhat unfairly overshadowed by the country’s other famous rail routes.
Our overnight train leaves Trondheim in blazingly scarlet sunset; but no darkness awaits. To the unmistakeable whistle only vintage trains pull off properly, we begin our exodus from twilight. With every kilometer won against the polar frontier, the morning colours become more intense – until the splendidly pink horizon explodes in eternal sunshine. We have reached the land of the midnight sun: the place where, for a good part of the summer, the sun refuses to set altogether.
It is not long till Bodø, and, watching the beauty of coastal Norway unwind at my feet, I realise I haven’t slept at all that night. I lie back in my pleasantly wide window seat – they surely knew how to travel in style back in the days – and put on my eye mask. Covering the eyes away from the incredible landscapes in front of me might just be the way of getting some rest onboard the Nordlandsbanen.
Off to the Lofoten
On a Saturday morning, Bodø deafens with silence. It looks like most of the city’s 50,000 residents are still asleep as the tiny trickle of new arrivals make their way to the city centre. In vain I search for a hot pølse (not even the fallback option of a Narvesen is open at this early hour) – until three boatmen selling shrimps emerge on the central quay. Hanging my feet off the jetty, I let a large shrimp melt in my mouth. So fresh is the unmistakeable taste of the Norwegian Sea; who’d need a pølse after that?
Bodø is soon transformed almost unrecognisably into a busy provincial town on a weekend day. The Narvesen opens and the streets fill up with people. I visit the Bodin kirke – a stone church dating back to the 13th century and one of the few surviving pre-war buildings in Bodø – and stroll down to the pleasant little marina. Bodø officially presents itself as the “town with the world’s most beautiful shoreline”, owing perhaps to the dramatic distant peaks and a dense population of sea eagles on the outlying skerries. A respective boat tour is about to depart; I am tempted to hop on but there is little time to spare. My Hurtigruten boat to the Lofoten islands is already waiting.
Hurtigruten is as quintessentially Norwegian as the fjords it sails. Established over a hundred years ago, the famous passenger and freight line begins its journey in Bergen on Norway’s western coast. Literally translated as Express Route, Hurtigruten is admittedly a bit of a misnomer. It will be 11 days until the boat is seen in Bergen again – exactly the time it takes to make a return voyage to Kirkenes in the far north-eastern corner of the country.
There is no need to set off for the entire 11 days though. The World’s Most Beautiful Sea Voyage, as the Hurtigruten is lovingly known, brings with it the convenience of port-to-port service to 35 coastal locations. Of which the Lofoten islands – my next destination – are the near undisputed highlight.
Our Nordlys is one of 13 ships making up the fleet of Hurtigruten. Her name, Norwegian for Northern Lights, honours the country’s well known natural phenomenon. It is early July, and we have little hope of seeing the stunning aurora borealis; luckily though, another Hurtigruten ship is soon seen heading towards us. By almost unbelievable chance, Midnatsol (Midnight Sun) is shining on her side. She blasts out three long signals, which our ship duly returns as we wave energetically at the passengers across the water. The Northern Lights meets the Midnight Sun – what else could I wish for on my first ever journey through Northern Norway?
A few hours later, the Lofoten Wall (Lofotveggen), a seemingly uninterrupted stretch of pointed peaks of the namesake archipelago, begins to loom on the horizon. The islands are celebrated for their natural beauty – the beauty where craggy mountains soon seem as normal as the snow covering them year-round, sandy beaches look like snapshots from an exclusive Mediterranean resort and cute fishing villages – like a postcard sent from a fairytale.
We are not in the Mediterranean though, and, naturally, I wonder what weather awaits us along the 68th parallel. I need not worry: the sky grows clearer and the air warmer the closer we are to the Lofoten. The archipelago’s climate may not always guarantee a suntan but is still the most striking positive temperature anomaly in the world. In fact, temperatures on two outlying Lofoten islands stay above zero throughout the year.
But it isn’t only the climate this time; I am exceptionally lucky with the weather. Every day of the five I spend on the Lofoten brings brilliant sunshine and warmth of over 20C degrees. If it wasn’t for the patches of snow resting on the slopes of the highest peaks – and for the sea water of temperatures decidedly defying its tropical disguise – one would have a hard time believing they were in the Arctic latitudes.
From the Lofoten’s administrative centre, Svolvær, I explore the narrow Trollfjord on one of the local excursion boats. The water is magically full of codfish. We catch a few in barely 10 minutes, throw one up in the air, and – before you know it – a sea eagle emerges out of nowhere, plunges down and soars up again, the cod hanging from its claws. The Lofoten islands are literally swarming with wildlife, with millions of sea birds populating the archipelago year-round, the surrounding seas covering the world’s largest deep water coral reef, and mass-scale cod migration from the Barents Sea taking place during the winter months.
The cod is indeed king here: its populations may have dwindled over time (blame the persistent over-fishing) but the annual catch still reaches around 50 thousand tonnes. Every self-respecting village on the Lofoten sports the distinct A-shaped wooden racks for cod drying that get decidedly covered up towards late spring, the end of the fishing season.
Cod aside, the Lofoten’s steep grass-covered slopes create a perfect environment for sheep grazing. I first discover the fact as I edge along a popular hike separating Eggum and Unstad, the villages in Vestvågøy island’s northwest. The seascapes around me are nothing short of breath-taking and a lone lighthouse is looming ahead promisingly in a haze of the afternoon sun. But the slope is so steep that I dare not look down; doing my best to avoid the sheep dip generously deposited under my feet in multiple patches of the trail, I finally reach Unstad. A 9 km hike seems to have lasted a lifetime – and cost me a few nerve cells – but so will also the memories of the superb views along the way.
Many choose to explore the Lofoten on bicycle. I rent mine for a day. After an early morning visit to the fishing village of Henningsvær – possibly the world’s prettiest – I rush back to Svolvær where a bigger adventure awaits. Past vast marshes, lakes and stretched mini fjords, the ride takes me to a quiet fishing village of Laukvik. After a brief stop, I continue to Fiskebøl (known for little more than its ferry connection to the Vesterålen archipelago) and eventually rejoin the E10 back to Svolvær. The return journey of just over 100 km has been exhausting but rewarding to say the least.
My final stop on the Lofoten conveniently shares its name with the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet. Å (often referred to as Å i Lofoten) sits at the southern end of the Moskenesøy island. With its adorable rorbuer (fishermen’s homes turned tourist lodges) and stunning displays of the midnight sun amid the dramatic peaks, it neatly summarises the essence of the Lofoten.
I venture to the far less secluded Reine for that must-have postcard shot – the village was once voted Norway’s most beautiful – and further north on Moskenesøy. The Nusfjord village somewhat disappoints with its busloads of tourists. I head to Ramberg instead; boasting a spectacular setting around a sandy beach, the village is unexpectedly tourist-free. A closer look reveals why: the wind from the Atlantic is so strong (and decidedly cold) that venturing near the water – let alone dipping in – takes a hard mind to tackle.
Midnight falls onto the Lofoten. It is my last night here, and, naturally, I am still awake. For it is that fraction of a moment when the lingering sunset turns into sunrise – a new day – that cannot be missed. In front of me, the mighty Atlantic moves gently as the Bodø ferry makes its way to Moskenes. Thousands of seagulls dot the distant skerries, and several oystercatchers hurry away on their funny long feet as I approach.
Goodbye, Lofoten – the magic land of the midnight sun.