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Sunday, June 22, 2008, in Reine, Norway

Hi all. We’ve been in the Lofoten Islands for about ten days, and today we sailed to a harbor called Reine. Last week, we’d just arrived in the main Lofoten town of Svolvær, where the Lofoten International Art Festival was about to begin.

The arts festival is a biannual celebration of contemporary art. The festival will last for months, but we arrived just at its start, and lucky for us, the official opening was presided over by Sonja, the Queen of Norway.

The day was another dazzler, and we took a walk through town before the festivities would start in mid-afternoon. When we arrived at the main square five minutes before the festival opening, we could still stand very close to the police barrier, which was a line of butcher’s twine that created a space of about twenty feet between the onlookers and the stage.

We heard the first musical act as we walked across the square, a rock band, singing in English, which is standard practice for Scandinavian bands with big dreams. They’d been announced as Funky Junkie, a fine name for a grunge band. Then we got closer and saw the band members. They were towheaded Norwegians, about twelve years old, singing about the various ways that reality bites. They were in black, to be sure, though the one tee shirt I recognized was the cover of the album Meet the Beatles, circa 1964, in other words, the birth year of their parents. So they were admiring the revolution of their grandparents��� youth. One of the boys of the band tossed his overgrown blond locks to the rhythm of the music. With his black bandana and the Beatles tee, he was not so much Kurt Cobain as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Which isn’t so bad in a twelve-year-old.

The next performance was by a choral group called Non Troppo, a name I liked. I could tell that the song they sang was tongue-in-cheek, although it was in Norwegian. I swear that one couplet ended in “pornography” and another in “LSD.”

Then the Queen arrived with her entourage. It seemed as though there was very little security other than the clotheslines that separated the crowd from the stage. The woman in the Tourist Office had told us that she’d never seen the local police in these crisp uniforms. I wondered if they were stored in a closet somewhere in case the Queen ever showed up, like those people who won’t take the plastic slipcovers off of their furniture in anticipation of a visit from the Pope. But there weren’t any men in dark suits with earpieces hovering around her. In fact, I’d seen more protection surround Rachael Ray at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival.

One man after another gave introductions. Then the choral group returned and sang some more. Imagine knowing that your little local musical group was to serenade the Queen of your country. How should someone select the song? The national anthem? A madrigal about royalty? I approved heartily of the choice they made. They took an old jazz number, “Lulu’s Back in Town”, and modified it to “Sonja’s Back in Town”. Here is a sample of the modified lyric:

Gotta get my old tuxedo pressed,
Gotta sew a button on my vest,
'Cause tonight I've gotta look my best,
Sonja's back in town.
Gotta get a half a buck somewhere,
Gotta shine my shoes and slick my hair,
Gotta get myself a boutonniere,
Sonja's back in town.

They substituted Sonja for each Lulu and there you have the performance for the Queen. Sonja herself seemed amused by the initiative. Gee, apparently even I am comfortable on a first-name basis with her.

The Queen made some remarks to launch the festival and cut a ribbon that unrolled the official Festival poster. Children dressed in traditional bunads greeted her and they all went off to sample the local fish soup at a table set up in the moat between the stage and the crowd. The restaurant that supplied the soup also provided samples to anyone in the crowd who wanted to try it. It was a rich, creamy, hearty soup not unlike chowder. The choral group got back on stage and sang “When my sugar walks down the street, all the little birdies go "Tweet, tweet, tweet."

Svolvær is an artists’ colony most of the time, so it’s no surprise that it hosts this festival. We were invited to visit a workshop that was taking place at the edge of town. A master artist was holding a watercolor seminar, and one of the students was living aboard her sailboat near ours.

The house itself had an unusual history. In the early 20th century, the house, with a commanding view of the harbor from the hill upon which it sat, was owned by a famous Swedish artist who was married to an even more famous Swedish architect. It became a sort of salon for artists. During the German occupation in World War II, the Germans liked the location, too, and not only because Hitler was a painter. They tore down the house and built a gun emplacement there instead.

After the war was over, the artists went back to the Germans and mentioned that they thought it would be nice if the Germans replaced their lost atelier. And the Germans did. Now the house is a bustle of workshops, with unframed watercolors taped to walls everywhere, studios with tubs of drippy hues, and sunny mountainous vistas pouring into the windows even at 10 PM at night in the middle of June.

The residents of this workshop were nearly all women, and a few of the professional artists with studios in town were also in attendance on the evening we visited. These students clearly held their teacher in the highest esteem, calling him “the master” and reveling in his attention and suggestions on technique. I was swept up a bit by his charisma, and I think that he liked that I told someone that he was very huggable. Soon after that, he signed a book of his work and gave it to me. We looked at the book together. It would have been better if I understood more about art, but I was moved by the work even in my role as an ordinary person. The paintings in the book depicted the Lofoten Islands. Watercolors can be haunting, or serene, or cheerful, and as I looked at each page, I could sense the season and even the air temperature of the day that he memorialized.

There were several outdoor choices to amuse us during our stay in Svolvær. It didn’t take long for us to rule out the first one, a climb up the most visible and photographed peaks facing the harbor. Svolværgeita, or “Goat’s Peak”, derives its name from the two points that grace its summit. These points are about four feet (1.5 meters) apart. It’s apparently considered sport to climb this monolith (which the tourist guide called a “technical climb” and I interpret to mean “lots of scary equipment”). Once you’re up on one of the peaks, you then leap to the other one. There are photographs on postcards of people doing this without wearing a harness. Yes, you just jump from one side to the other and hope that you don’t fall into the crevasse. Actually, the crevasse isn’t really the problem. It’s the granite mountain at the end of it. So we weren’t doing that.

Instead, we went for a walk around the harbor with two friends from a nearby boat. The walk conveniently ended at a hiking trail, so we hopped on, with the proviso that it wouldn’t end at the Goat. Not very long into the trail, I realized that I didn’t have the appetite for a challenging hike, and we parted ways for the afternoon, our friends heading on and us heading to the bike rental for our next day’s itinerary.

The movie we saw that night began at 9:30 and ended just before midnight. The experience wasn’t different from the matinees we usually attend at home. It was sunny when we went inside, and sunny when we came back out. But Svolvær differed from Fort Lauderdale in one important way – sunny weather doesn’t necessarily translate to warm surroundings. Though the theater was only about a block from the dock, I was chilled through by the time I got back aboard.

Summer is the time of the “midnight sun.” From the 30th of April until August 6, the lighthouses in Lofoten are switched off because they’re not needed. For us, seeing the midnight sun in the Lofoten Islands doesn’t happen every day. First of all, the mountains obscure the horizon for us, as we’re always at sea level. Second, we’re most often already asleep well before midnight, with the shades in the aft cabin all drawn, and sunshine peeking through. So we were at least outdoors at midnight for our movie outing, and it was light. No midnight sun, though, through the mountains. At best, we had “midnight sunny.”

And it was still sunny when we woke up the next morning to explore more of the area. The pedestrian road to Kabelvåg sloped gently up and down, and within a half hour of leaving Svolvær, we were at the main square in town in search of coffee. The café on the square was the first place we’d ever seen in Norway that offered a bottomless cup of coffee. Apparently a visiting New Zealander once made great use of that policy. He’d come in every day to sit and sip, refilling his cup whenever he ran out. The staff began to notice his presence and marveled at his capacity to tolerate caffeine (caffeine-free is uncommon in most of Europe and even rarer in cafés). So they decided to count his intake for one day. It took more than one shift to accomplish that, but his record stands at fifty-four cups. For anyone that’s counting, that’s about ten cents a cup. It isn’t easy to make Norwegian fare affordable.

We took the opportunity to taste a Norwegian specialty, a freshly-baked waffle, accompanied with crème fraiche and preserves. Across the square, the Queen was inside a small art gallery. Two men stood casually outside as security for her. When she and the woman accompanying her left the gallery, they disappeared into a red Toyota squareback and were driven away.

Then we were off on a sightseeing mission down the road to Storvågen. The settlement there dates back to the Stone Age and is probably the first town in the polar region. Several thousand years later, though the seats of Viking chieftains were farther west in the Lofotens, an economic and administrative center of importance stood there in the Viking age. Archaeologists speculate that this area was specifically neutral, a center for trade and diplomacy. The original village was founded as Vågan in the twelfth century AD by King Øystein. At the time, the fishermen slept inside their overturned rowing boats. The king built a church there, and devised and built fisherman’s cabins called rorbuer, a design that has flourished in the area. These seemingly altruistic investments were beneficial to the King, who controlled administration of affairs through the church, and was able to tax residents of the rorbuer for their fish commerce. Though the fishermen generally don’t live in these cottages anymore, the rorbuer provide accommodation for the visitors to the island, and maintain the picturesque appeal of the fishing village.

The museum comprised some old cabins and boathouses, providing artifacts and descriptions of the cod-fishing industry and the village life of the fishing families. Dried cod demand extended the Viking marketplace all over Europe. It’s popular even today as bacalao in Spain and as stockafissa in Italy. There’s even a theory that the origin of the word bacalao is simply a corruption of Kabelvåg. When we’d had our fill of seeing cod and cod accoutrements, we went to lunch at a nearby hotel. I had a dried-cod salad.

On our way back to the boat, we stopped into a gallery and watched a movie called “Islands in the Sea”, which provided a fine overview of the Lofoten Islands, its culture, the fishing industry, and its geography. There were some excellent views of the Northern Lights, which I appreciated from the comfort of springtime. You can’t see the Northern Lights when it’s sunny all of the time, and it’s highly unlikely that I’d be at this latitude in the bone-chilling season of total darkness.

In 1981, on the island of Vestvågøy, a farmer was plowing his fields and accidentally uncovered the remains of the dwelling of a Viking chieftain. This 83-meter longhouse has been recreated next to the original site (which is still being excavated, as are other buildings in the area) by copying the artifacts found on the site and in similar Viking settlements, and using traditional techniques. The resulting reconstruction is like Williamsburg, Virginia, except it recreates a lifestyle that’s 1200 years old and the ruins being uncovered go as far back as the Iron Age, another 2000 years earlier.

The site is called Lofotr Viking Museum, and we began our visit at the reconstructed longhouse. Part exhibition, part demonstration, the employees wore the clothes extant during Viking times, and worked as Vikings did, to the delight of the onlookers. One woman carved a design into a wooden table limb that will be used to decorate the longhouse, and wore leather slippers that she’d made for herself. A lathe stood at the ready, made from wooden dowels and rope, and a loom held a half-woven fabric near vegetable-dyed yarns. Another woman cooked lamb soup in a cauldron over a fire in the center of a large dining hall.

The beds were held together with dowels, as if the Vikings always expected to pick up and leave. The men were often traveling, and the women ran the farms, raised the families, and practiced medicine. Though gender roles were distinct, the women’s dowries belonged to themselves, and they were protected and held responsible by the law. The museum held bronze buckles, various tools, and jewelry, much of which was uncovered in grave sites. One of the most sensational artifacts was the wooden support for a bridge of wood and rock, a bridge that slid open to let friendly Viking ships into the harbor while keeping out aggressors.

On the waterfront, replicas of Viking boats sit in the water adjacent to replicas of boathouses that were built near the remains of boathouses. The woman we’d seen making a table leg in the longhouse had carved the large boat’s figurehead during the past summer. Though the Vikings had a well-deserved reputation for violence and piracy, they were also world-class traders, merchants, navigators, and explorers. To get the sense of how long ago this all took place, there’s an account of a visit to England made in the ninth century by a chieftain named Ottar. In his travelogue, he recorded that he’d given some walrus tusks to England’s King Alfred. You’ve never heard of the English King Alfred? That’s because the Battle of Hastings, the Norman conquest of England after which all of the land was owned by the king, didn’t happen for another 200 years. And when it did, the Vikings, or their descendants the Normans, created the English history that we do know.

The site is in the town of Borg, and the bus ride in each direction took about an hour and a half through the islands. The trip was part of our tour, by farmhouses of red and yellow and white connected by electric lines crisscrossing the landscape at a density well in excess of the buildings they connected. The mountains were near and far and sometimes rose straight up alongside the road, with misty clouds pierced by pointed summits, mountain bowls swooping into serene lakes, and traces of snow clinging to distant mountainsides.

We needed to get going if we didn’t want to get stuck in Svolvær through the weekend. It looked like we’d have good weather for one day, and maybe two, and then it would be downhill from there. We decided to move on to Henningsvær, a different harbor on the same island.

First, we took ourselves for a spin through a fjord whose entrance wasn’t far from our course. The fjord was Trollfjord, A visit to a fjord is necessarily a short one. You can’t anchor in it, because those mountains that rise up alongside also slope steeply under water, making it too deep for an overnight stay. Furthermore, the winds get fluky inside the fjord, and you might find yourself the object of the winds sweeping down the slopes alongside you, in a minor reenactment of “The Wizard of Oz.” minus Toto. So we had a drive-by sightseeing trip. The fjord itself was very slender in parts, and the waterfalls were infrequent, but grand, this late in the spring. The air was chillier than I’d hoped, and we both kept well-covered, even after we got inside the sunny harbor in Henningsvær.

There were two small guest pontoons, and each one had a side free. We selected the pontoon across from a boat we’d met in Ålesund and then again in Bodø. Our friends were onboard and helped us with our lines. Then we all disappeared below on our own vessels, into the warmth of the cabin.

It doesn���t take a whole day to explore Henningsvær. There’s a brief walk down the “commercial side of the harbor: three small hotels, two cafes, several gift shops, and some industrial businesses, probably supporting the codfish industry. Henningsvær produces more cod per capita than anyone, although with 470 inhabitants, it’s not clear that the ratio depends more on the cod or the capita.

But the fish racks are everywhere, like bunting decorating the ridges around the town. It’s a picturesque place, with glass-blowers, candle-makers, and other crafts underway in shops and studios. Of the places we’ve visited so far this season, Henningsvær put me most in mind of Cape Cod, where fishing artifacts are upstaged by cottage chic. But most of the year, the tourists are absent and the harbor teems with fishermen. They stay in the rorbuer fishing huts, and when the season is over, the owners of the huts rent them to gleeful vacationers.

We walked up the street to a field of cod racks, where several men were liberating the dried cod from the nooses on their tails that allowed pairs of fish to dangle over the rack to dry. The fish were covered with netting, which we guessed was a device to keep the birds away. Each fish made a thunk when it hit the ground, and I was surprised that they didn’t shatter.

Dried cod look really annoyed at their condition. Their mouths are open wide as if they’re hurling obscenities at their captors. They really don’t look all that appetizing, and you don’t have to reconstitute them to fishiness in order to eat them. There are lots of ways to consume them while they’re still in their desiccated state. Even when they’re reconstituted, they have a rubbery texture, like lobster or monkfish, but not as luxurious.

We were heading into the mammal world instead for our next meal. There was a birthday dinner that I’d postponed to wait for a restaurant worth the splurge, and we’d learned about one in Henningsvær while we were in Bod.

Dinner was in the restaurant of a harborside hotel. The dining room wasn’t trying to be the most elegant venue in town. Rather, it was decorated with handcrafts and rusty tools of cod fishing, rustic, but welcoming. Like other restaurants we’d seen, this one participated in the association called Arctic Menu”, restaurants committed to serving fresh, local ingredients in regional dishes.

My meal began with a carpaccio of lightly smoked whale meat. The fact that whale is still hunted for food in Norway (and Japan and Iceland and some other places) is a controversy that I leave to others. For me, I’m not convinced that a whale is all that different from a cow. Though I have some qualms about being a carnivore at all, I won’t rant about eating one animal rather than another, just because it’s cute. And whale is a regional dish, just like cod. The minke whale hunted in Norway is not endangered.

The carpaccio was presented with flatbread and a garnish of minced red onion and crme fraiche. The thinly-sliced meat was ruby-colored and only lightly smoked. It tasted very much like a beef carpaccio, so fresh that it barely had an identity.

My whale steak was encrusted with coarsely-ground peppercorns, with a dollop of goat cheese on top, and lingonberries (which were translated from the Norwegian as “cow berries”) cascading down and around the plate. The meat was tougher than a marbled tenderloin steak of beef would be, but it had the same meaty taste as you’d expect from beef. Art ordered cauliflower soup followed by a fish casserole, cod poached in a base of tomato, onion, garlic, and pepper. It wasn’t as adventurous as my meal, but it was delicious nonetheless. We walked back to the boat in the dazzling sunlight of evening.

The next day was rainy and chilly, and we stayed in port. It was almost dreary enough to stay onboard for lunch, but I have a high tolerance for adversity if it stands between me and a restaurant. We visited the café of the mountain climbing school in town and each ordered the creamy fish soup that is a staple of the Lofotens.

The weather wasn’t going to be stable for many of the next five days, and we couldn’t find sunlight or warmth as far as the forecasts went. We took the opportunity of a rain-free forecast to go to Stamsund, a fishing village that hasn’t fallen headlong into tourism. Though it was a short journey, we could at least sail for most of it. Above the Arctic Circle, the nautical charts have less detail than in more populated places, and what there is might be off a little bit. During our entry into the harbor, it appeared that we’d cut across land on our electronic chart display, and Art conscientiously trusted his eyes and stayed right in between the markers in the entrance to ensure that we didn’t obey the electronic illusion and cut across land for real.

Stamsund’s guest pontoon was new and tall and large, with a pub steps away and a large supermarket steps beyond that. It was the kind of place you could be stuck for a week, if you had lots of books on board.

We took a walk the length and breadth of Stamsund. The town was functional, but not photogenic. Though there were references to a theater week in June, there was no sign of any evening activity, and the pub’s menu was almost limited enough for me to offer to eat lunch onboard if we’d stayed for more than one night.

It was also cold enough that we’d avoid being outdoors unless we had some mission to fulfill. I was almost sorry I hadn’t worn my long underwear for the sail there. It was the first day of summer, and I was philosophically opposed to doing that, especially because I hadn’t bundled up like that for a week or two. Summer couldn’t be over before it began.

We were off again in the morning, a chilly time, and I was again underdressed. Our goal was Ballstad, another fishing harbor. Again the winds were kind, and we could sail, though the trip was only about eight miles. After looking around in the harbor, it was clear that the guest pontoon on one side would be too shallow an entry for us, and the marina on the other side wasn’t prepared for a boat our size. So we left to look for somewhere else to stop, missing an opportunity to visit the cod liver oil capital of the world. At least we got a look at Ballstad’s other claim to fame, the world’s largest mural, painted on the walls of a shipyard on the main harbor.

Our next failed dockage was in the town of Nusfjord. A tiny harbor in a postcard-ready village, the one small floating dock was taken by a single sailboat when we arrived. The entire Nusfjord settlement was recently purchased by a company whose goal was to make it a tourist village. Though there were cod-drying racks in sight, I feared that they were simply sets and props. Nusfjord was Epcot Norway, only a little more authentic, as it was actually in Norway, so you had to wear a sweater. This was the second place that had shut us out and it was cold outside, so maybe I was getting cranky.

We went on to Reine, the most scenic spot in Norway, and this according to a vote of Norwegians. Attesting to that is the fact that this harbor, in a winter photograph, graced the cover of my Lonely Planet Norway guidebook, and the same vista, in summer, covered the Norwegian cruising guide. There wasn’t much space, but we managed to raft to a German sailboat on the guest dock. After a quick stroll around the immediate area, we nestled back into the boat, with two heaters on, waiting for summer to arrive.

And that’ll be it until next week. Hope you’re all enjoying the long days where you are. Let us know how you’re doing.

Love, Art and Karen