When visiting Lofoten in Norway you will get to experience a place which is absolutely spectacular and unique in the world. The archipelago features an unparalleled fishing community still practising the traditional preservation method and technique of drying fish in the cold air. If you arrive at the right time of the year, you may even get to see an abundance of brimming wooden racks of stockfish dispersed all over the Lofoten Islands. Already when you from the seaside approach the main coastal town, Svolvaer, you will be met by tons of fish hanging on ‘hjell’.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 21 JAN 2020
From the outset we have wanted to include Svolvaer and Lofoten in Norway in our spring trip plans. A Hurtigruten voyage along the Norwegian west coast inevitably passes by the small group of islands, and we have taken it as a welcomed and long-awaited opportunity to include a stop on the alluring archipelago.
Having started out in Tromso (or Tromsø in Norwegian) on a southbound Hurtigruten ship, we are now approaching Lofoten from the north side.
Our Hurtigruten ship is both a means of transport for people living in remote coastal areas in Norway as well as it is being used as a cruise ship for tourists wishing to get close to the unique Norwegian fjords and mountainsides. An expedition team organises on a daily basis activities related to Norwegian culture, flora and fauna, on board as well as on land-based tours along the coast.
The Trollfjord at the Lofoten Islands in Norway
We will be entering the breathtaking Trollfjord soon, but before then a group of passengers will leave the ship to go on a sea eagle safari. I have not really been able to figure out how they will set off while the ship is still out on the sea. My attention is now suddenly caught by a small vessel catching up and coming all close to our ship.
I hear a deep, distant roaring sound. From the window of our cabin we are now baffled to see a gangplank rolled out from the ship side, way above the water surface! 15-20 passengers seemingly dressed in polar clothing step out on the platform, which is then slowly being lowered as a lift until it reaches the deck of the small boat! Shortly, the boat detaches from our ship and leaves for awesome nature experiences in the biting cold!
The Trollfjord is the unusually narrow and stunning canyon-like fjord at Lofoten Islands, and Hurtigruten has on the southbound route in direction of Svolvaer incorporated a tiny detour in between islands and mountainsides for mere sightseeing purposes. The captain competently maneuvers our huge ship, MS Richard With, around, such that all passengers can get a remarkable glimpse of one of the top-rated Norwegian fjords. At its narrowest point it is only 100 m (328 ft) wide, and at its deepest point the depth is 60 m (197 ft). Our immense ship navigates around the narrow stretches of the fjord in a nearly surreal way.
The fish on ‘hjell’ in Norway – Svolvaer on the Lofoten Islands
At 6:30 p.m. we arrive in Svolvaer (or Svolvær in Norwegian). Although already having very high expectations, the entrance is even more scenic than I have imagined. As MS Richard With enters the Svolvaer harbour area, we pass by the traditional Lofoten racks which during the month of April really abound with fish on ‘hjell’ as they say in Norway.
We have booked a room in the hotel Scandic Vestfjord Lofoten in Svolvaer which is within walking distance of the harbour. To our delight our room even turns out to be with a real spectacular view to a couple of fish racks!
The cod on ‘hjell’ is part of the old fishing culture and heritage on Lofoten in Norway. Traditionally, fish are dried here during the months of February until May.
The process of drying fish is one of the oldest known preservation methods for fish and has been practiced here for more than a thousand years. It was already an export commodity in the Viking Age and later the most significant Norwegian product in the Medieval trade. Evidence of this is provided in the 13th-century Icelandic prose work Egil’s Saga.
Over the years it has grown to a popular export to the Mediterranean countries, mainly Italy and Portugal, as well as to South East Asia, North America and Africa. The vast majority of the cod caught on Lofoten and in Norway in general comes from the North-East Arctic / the Barents Sea.
Stockfish differs from clipfish as it is not salted at all, but solely dried in the wind. The conditions on the Lofoten Islands in Norway are optimal since the climate here is mild, and the fish therefore hardly ever freezes. It dries so fast in the Lofoten cold and salty wind that it does not rotten, but instead undergoes the process of fermentation where bacteria mature the stockfish.
Lofoten Islands in Norway
Northern lights in Svolvaer
All day we keep an eye on the weather and the weather forecast, in particular the chances of viewing the colour play of the northern lights. We have actually before our trip followed the forecasts for beginning of April closely. The evenings and the nights start getting lighter now, and therefore the chances are smaller than during winter.
In the evening we treat ourselves to delicious fish cakes from a local place. An hour or two later I, all of a sudden, observe an elongated ‘cloud’ on the dark sky from our room window. Can it be …? We act swiftly, put on all our winter clothes and get out. Then we see the long, green stripes on the sky. Waving lights turning into clear stripes. The night is starry and we become spectators of a light show of shades of green.
The aurora is caused by the interaction of electrons with neutral atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere. The green northern lights result from oxygen atoms being excited and subsequently emitting photons and visible light of the wavelength producing green colour, when the electrons return to their original position and energy level. This is what creates the green northern light display. We are captivated by what we see, and extremely grateful that we actually get to view this great phenomenon as late as in April. The forecast for seeing the northern light during our trip is only about 20%, so we are more than happy!
Car trip on the Lofoten Islands
Next morning we wake up to a clear, azure sky. We have booked a rental car to be able to get all the way out to the tip of the Lofoten Islands – or, more specifically, to picturesque Reine and Aa (Å), which is as far as we can get on a road. Anticipated 300 km (190 miles). The car has, as all cars on Lofoten and this part of Norway, studded tyres, such that we can drive safely on snowy and even icy roads.
The Lofoten Islands are geographically like a neat row of drops in the sea, connected with bridges as well as tunnels through the mountains. Before coming we have heard about the changeable weather here, and now we get to see it for ourselves. Each island surprises us with its own specific weather conditions.
When we take the narrow road from Svolvaer in direction of Henningsvaer, the weather abruptly changes. Without warning the air gets thick with snow. Due to the snow storm we, unfortunately, have to give up visiting Henningsvaer, one of the prettiest coastal villages on the Lofoten Islands. Luckily, there are other enchanting villages to visit on the Lofoten Islands.
During the day we happen to go through all kinds of changeable weather from enjoying the brightest sunshine to enduring a real snow storm or two.
Instead we traverse the next couple of islands, heading for the small fishing community Nusfjord on Flakstadoya Island. When we arrive, it is now calm and windless again, and we are met by absolutely streaming sunshine. It is hard to believe that we half an hour ago have experienced a veritable snow storm, since it is now strikingly picturesque here!
This turns out to be our ultimate Lofoten experience! Steep mountainsides rise around the small fishing village and provide shelter. Ocre and red fishermen’s cabins, traditional fishing boats moored along the pier and racks of dryfish in the sunlight essentially make up the setting. The village is situated just above the still water mirror hiding the deep fjord – and at the same time humbly lying at the foot of the massive mountains.
A sea gull colony has settled down on the rocks opposite, and a few alert birds have found a nice spot to reside on the houses, above the doors and windows. Although it is said to be a popular place to visitors, it is surprisingly quiet today. We meet only a few people working on their boats when we curiously walk around to take a closer look at the hanging dryfish.
The fishermen’s cabins are the so-called rorbu cabins which used to house the fishermen on Lofoten.
Around 1900 Nusfjord experienced its heyday. There was a cod-liver oil factory that produced both high quality cod-liver oil used as medicine, and a low quality oil used in primarily lubricants and paint. Some of the old houses still exist: the boathouses, the smokehouse, the bakery, the power station and a still working old shop from 1907 having both the original till and counter. Intrigued by the old setting we enter the shop to have a look.
It is not much more than a hundred years since 1500 Norwegian fishermen still kept Nusfjord busy as their convenient base to operate out of Lofoten. Since then it has continuously, although with time to a lesser degree, been an active fishing community.
Nevertheless, about 20 years ago, due to structural changes, the village was rather turned into a museum and a holiday resort where people come to get the feel of the old Lofoten fishing community and traditional way of working. The present-day fishing industry has moved to a new location.
On our way across the islands we pass not just thousands, but millions of dryfish on ’hjell’ in the small local communities. There is a mix of massive racks with an uncountable number of fish and then these really tiny racks – or maybe just a pyramid rack with one wooden stick of the few fish needed in the family household. In a single case we spot even a dozen of fish just hanging on the house wall next to the entrance door!
Apparently there are several categories and qualities of the dryfish. In some places we spot the entire fish hanging, and in other places it is only the ‘bodies’ or the heads tied together, hanging to dry in the clear and cool air.
As we understand it, the finest quality of fish is exported to Italy. Italy is the most significant importer of the stockfish owing to the Italian, Pietro Querini, who brought the first dryfish home to Italy from a stranded Venetian merchant ship. Due to its relatively dry and mild climate, Lofoten is the ideal place in Norway, and even in Europe and in the rest of the world, to dry the fish, and therefore the worldwide export has grown real big.
Intending to go to Reine for a spontaneous picnic, we stop at a local shop to buy Norwegian lamb sausage.
However, Lofoten in Norway is unpredictable. Just as unforeseen as earlier today, the weather changes and in beautiful Reine, all among the numerous fish racks, we experience the powerful forces of nature and another snow storm. Undeniably, we need to put off our picnic!
Ramberg on the way back to Svolvaer
Half an hour later we are back at Ramberg for the picnic and the fine, old coral beach. It features the most pristine, white sand and clear turquoise-emerald water. Solely looking at the water and the seabed, it could easily be mistaken for more southerly and warmer regions.
The white snow bordering the beach is a quaint contrast to the spectacular shades of green. Even if the temperature is close to the freezing point, we nearly feel like immersing ourselves into the inviting crystal clear water. We are told that it is an outstanding beach in summer due to the Gulf Stream, which we have no difficulties believing after seeing it now in April!
South of Flakstad we all of a sudden spot an impressive prey bird very high up. It is a sea eagle majestically soaring into view. Its serrated wings remove any doubt that it really is a sea eagle. Moments later we identify another one which hardly moves in the air at all, but seemingly uses its super eyes to scan the sea for prey.
Filled with impressions from our trip around the Lofoten Islands with their exceptional stockfish culture, unique in Norway and in the world, we return to Svolvaer by the end of the day. We go for a walk along the traditional rorbu cabins which today are highly reputed accommodation on Lofoten and in Svolvaer. If you can stay in a rorbu with a view to the drying cod on ‘hjell’ as well as the scenic fjord landscape, it just cannot be any better!
Have you considered what you will do in the (unlikely) event of something unforeseen happening? Do you need a travel insurance? Click here to get a quote and buy your travel insurance.
Have you checked if you need a visa for your trip? Click here to check and apply for a visa.
GET MORE INSPIRATION