I was in a store in the mid-eighties when I spotted the most spectacular photograph on the lid of a jigsaw puzzle. On the side of the box was printed Reine, Lofoten Islands. I bought it and built it then swore that one day I would go to this Reine, wherever it was. I later found it in the atlas, off the coast of Norway.
It took almost twenty-five years to fulfil my dream. I saw a fly-drive holiday to the Lofoten archipelago in the Inntravel brochure and booked it with a friend. We went in early June 2008 just before the tourist season started.
After three flights and a short drive from the airport at Leknes, we arrived at our rorbu in Mortsund. This converted fisherman’s cabin was in a small holiday complex where the wooden huts are raised on stilts over the water. Mortsund features on several different Inntravel itineraries – we opted for the single-centre holiday as this meant we wouldn’t have to stick to a schedule. We had been provided with maps and information sheets, so we could be much more flexible and, of course, the weather would be a deciding factor.
The rorbu was very spacious with a large picture window to view the ocean and mountains. Just below, an oyster catcher was busy cracking a shell on the rocks and arctic terns were soaring overhead. This high up in the Arctic Circle there are 24 hours of daylight in the summer months so there was plenty of time for bird watching.
The next morning, we drove to Henningsvær, a little community about an hour away. It had a very good art museum and gallery with paintings of the area by Norwegian artists; a few craft and tea shops; and some flashy yachts in the pretty harbour.
Near the shore were racks of stock fish drying in the wind. This was how the Vikings preserved cod fish and is still the best method today.
On the way back to Mortsund we stopped at the supermarket to stock up. It is much cheaper to self-cater in Norway. Alcohol is expensive so six small cans each were going to have to last a week. We made supper and then, as it was such a lovely evening, went back out at 11pm and drove up the coast to a well-known spot for viewing the midnight sun.
We paused a while to look at the beautiful and serene white sandy beach at Haukland before going through a long tunnel to arrive at Utakliev.
There were a few people making campfires and others putting up tents. The low sun was casting a warm glow over the rocks and the cushions of pink moss campion. It was a truly special midnight experience.
The sun sank to just above the horizon, hovered for a few minutes, and then it was all over as it rose again. We walked back to the car and drove home. It was 2am.
Despite the very late night, we were up early, eager to do one of the recommended walks. The journey was very scenic, skirting around glassy fjords on quiet roads. I did a double take and pulled over when I saw sheep grazing on the roof of a farmhouse. Many of the homesteads have grass roofs so maybe the sheep act as lawnmowers.
A bit further along we stopped again next to a magnificent fjord. There were meadows full of bright yellow dandelions and a backdrop of turquoise water and snow-capped mountains. With all this beauty around, we would never start our planned walk.
The circular walk from Nesland to Nusfjord turned out to be much harder than expected. It involved climbing up vertical log ladders and holding onto chains attached to the rock to help scramble across huge outcrops. The waymarks were just arrows daubed onto the rock and easy to miss.
I was glad when we eventually reached our destination after what felt like an army assault course. Nusfjord is the best-preserved fishing village in Norway. Most of the buildings were closed for the season but the Post Office & General Store was open with its original fittings and vintage cans of provisions on the shelves. On one of the turf huts I noticed that even the chimney had a little grass roof. It was good to have a rest with a plate of smoked salmon and an alcohol-free beer before heading back.
The next day was grey and cold. We put on our waterproofs and set off to do a shorter walk. Once we left the village of Eggum with its brightly painted houses, the landscape turned very bleak and atmospheric. Dark mountains shrouded in cloud hovered menacingly above a lake. The surrounding grassland was the bright green of a place that often sees rain.
We continued to the coast and sheltered amongst the rocks while we ate sandwiches for lunch. All around were bits of rusting metal and the huge bleached vertebrae of whale skeletons. It looked like the scrapyard of the sea. Ewes and their lambs were nestled between the boulders as if they expected bad weather. Sounds grim but it was great for photography.
By late afternoon the skies had cleared. We stopped on the way back to look at an unusual wooden church which was unfortunately closed. All the buildings here were painted the same colours regardless of their function.
So, on Day Four, here it was right before my eyes – the picture on my jigsaw puzzle.
I was finally in Reine, the place I had dreamed of for 25 years. I stood and stared for a long time soaking it all up. As far as the eye could see were fairy-tale pointed mountains stretching into the distance.
Then I got back into the car and we continued our journey to the end of the road. I was happy.
At the far southern end of the Lofoten Islands is a small fishing village called Å (pronounced ‘oh’). It has a Stockfish museum which we visited, trying out the delicacy for ourselves. There were racks of it drying in the wind as we had already seen farther north. In the tourist season there are boat trips out to the famous maelstrom mentioned in one of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories.
This had been the longest drive of the trip. Wendy and I took it in turns to take the wheel. The roads involved long tunnels through the mountains and narrow arched bridges linking the islands to each other. Everywhere I looked the scenery was breathtaking.
It was time to explore the local vicinity. There was so much to see on our doorstep in Mortsund.
Our hill had a great viewpoint with well-marked paths amongst meadows of wildflowers. It was at the top that I met this dog and made him pose with me for a photo.
Just around the corner from the rorbu was a small island with one white house on it. The sun was sinking turning everything to orange and teal.
This small unassuming flower which I found growing in abundance on the hill behind the rorbu produces one of my favourite jams. Cloudberries are only found in Northern climes and resemble apricot coloured raspberries. The jam is delicious.
We spent our last full day in Svolvær, the only town in the Lofotens and main port for cruise ships. The motor caravans were starting to dominate the narrow roads, so the drive took longer than expected. Luckily when we arrived at the harbour, a boat trip was just about to depart for the Trollfjord. It was lovely being out on the ocean and seeing these islands from a different aspect. As we entered a narrow channel between jagged snow-peaked mountains, a circus of puffins suddenly appeared in front of the bow. Soon the sky was full of seabirds following us.
Off to the left, I spotted a white-tailed sea eagle standing on a rock. He would soon be fighting with the gulls for the herring thrown by the crew.
This large gull stole my sandwich right out of my hand. He then invited his friends and relatives to join him. In the end, I had to put the rest of my lunch away.
Years later my photograph of the greedy gull was exhibited in Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham.
In complete contrast to the natural environment of the Trollfjord cruise was a visit to the Svolvær War Museum. It was crammed with memorabilia from WW2, all from a private collection. There was a powder compact owned by Eva Braun and some watercolours by Adolf Hitler including this one of Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. AH was obsessed with this Disney cartoon and had his own copy of the film.
The next morning, we packed our bags and left Mortsund. The flight back to the mainland was in the afternoon so there was time to visit the excellent Viking Museum at Borg. The longhouse, a replica built on the original site of a Viking village, has an exhibition of artefacts that have been found nearby. In the middle of the house is a huge banqueting hall where you can watch demonstrations. Down by the water’s edge is the Boathouse, Forge and a copy of a Long-ship. This visit was a great way to spend our last few hours here.
The plane left Leknes airport and I looked out of the window as the islands grew smaller and smaller. Soon all that was left was a memory of a magical realm far out at sea… But in my bag was another jigsaw puzzle.