By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post
Sjogata Street in Bodo (Bodoe) is lined with modern buildings. Monotonous and boring, they are the result of the punishing bombing the city took on May 27, 1940, during the Nazi invasion of Norway. Even the older parts of the city are relatively new, dating from the mid-19th century. Sjogata has several hotels, and improbably, a giant tanning salon, with pictures of bikini-clad beauties that might be mistaken for advertising less family-friendly services.
The street runs parallel to the city’s long harbor, and at one gap in the row of buildings one finds a parking lot, some deck chairs and a large boat moored along the dock. The newly renovated building to the left has a giant salmon imprinted on it, and is labeled, in lowercase, “salmon center.”
Bodo’s salmon center, funded by the local fishing and salmon farming industry, was set up to showcase one of Norway’s major industries. “Norway produces 60 percent of the Atlantic salmon in the world. In 2013, Norway had exports of 61 billion crowns (kroner), with salmon and sea trout contributing 42.2 billion kroners,” says the friendly woman who showed us around the center, which just opened in May and still hasn’t worked out all the kinks.
The hi-tech displays are interesting, if not exactly educational. Six wide-screen monitors show virtual salmon swimming happily in a salmon farm mock-up. The tour guide can “feed” the salmon with the press of a remote, making them swarm. On the ground more paneling shows fish swimming happily; at the touch of a button, it becomes a virtual hand-painting canvas for kids. In the center’s shop are several salmon- skin purses. One pretty black one is 3,300 kroner ($600). The shop serves as a reminder that behind the beauty and rural pleasures of Norway, the little red fishing houses that festoon the coastline, is a prosperous tiger-like economy based traditionally on the sea; which has produced wealth for its citizens but also inflated prices for visitors.
NORWAY HAS around 5 million inhabitants, about 4 million of which are concentrated around Oslo and Bergen in the southern part of the country. We initially set out to explore the rest of Norway by ferry from Bergen. We headed north to Tromso, passed through the Arctic Circle which put us in the land of the “midnight sun,”north of the Arctic Circle at 66° 33’, where the sun never sets throughout a 24 hour day .
Bergen is a convenient place to begin the exploration of the Nordland region, as it is the headquarters of the Hurtigruten Ferry Company. Other cruise options are available, but Hurtigruten is the oldest and most interesting because it offers a working ferry with the amenities and pleasures of a cruise.
The company began serving 11 harbors between Trondheim and Hammerfest (one of the northernmost settlements in Norway) in 1893. Over the years, it has expanded the number of ports it services and modernized its fleet, now providing service to 36 ports. They have 11 ships, which range from the exquisite and gigantic MS Midnotsol (Midnight Sun) – which can hold up to 1,000 passengers and entered service in 2003 – to the handsome, workmanlike MS Lofoten, which was christened in 1964 and holds 340 people. The large cruise ship, with towering decks that make them seem like top-heavy, lumbering beasts doesn’t appeal to us. We choose the second-smallest ship of the line, the MS Vesteralen, named after the first ship the company used in 1893. For four nights, the MS Versteralen was home. The ship has several passenger sleeping decks, and we lodged down in deck B. The cabin is larger than a train compartment, with one twin bed and two other beds that can be pulled down from the wall. Two small round windows give some light, although they are located quite close to the waterline. Higher decks have slightly larger staterooms with better windows.
Despite a passenger capacity of 500, our ship never had more than 200 or so people on board. Regular announcements told us what we could glimpse from the outside decks and lounges that ring the topside of the ship. At the top level is a glass-encased sitting room with a bar and tables, where one can escape the wind but still take in the amazing scenery.
The plan for the boat is to combine its use as a ferry by locals – cars can also be taken – with transportation for the tourists who avail themselves of the opportunity. Around 70 passengers booked a round-trip voyage, going all the way from Bergen to the Russian border at Kirkenes (69 degrees north).
With the midnight sun, one can stay up all night and enjoy some of the most ethereal scenery in the world, ranging from small Fjords that almost scrapes the sides of the boat, to giant waterfalls, and photogenic, bucolic countryside with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains that appear too perfect to be real. Before boarding, we stock up on provisions in Bergen. The harbor is next to a beautiful old part of town, with pedestrian paths and typical Western stores and restaurants like Starbucks. dozens of stalls selling local Norwegian products lie alongside the harbor. The most disconcerting or exotic product that most visitors find for sale is whale meat.
Norway, a country that kept its own currency and has not acceded to the EU, has a fiercely independent streak and holds fast to its traditions. Yet in a June 2013 article in National Geographic, “Last of the Viking Whalers,” Roff Smith points out that the whaling industry is actually a fading.
NORWAY WAS NOT originally a major whaling area, like the eastern seaboard of the US (remember Moby Dick?) or Spain’s Basque Country. However, in the 1860s, with the innovation of the grenade-tipped harpoon, the country began whaling in earnest. Smith notes that in 1958, whalers based on the Lofoten peninsula brought in 4,741 Minke whales.
The common belief that whaling harms endangered species is at odds with the fact that Norway only kills whales from a sustainable population of 130,000 in the North Atlantic. The International Fund for Animal Welfare notes that Norway sets a quota of around 1,000 whales a year, they only bring in 500. This either means that demand for whale meat is low, and the whalers themselves have no incentive to meet the quota, or there are not enough whalers to do so.
Indeed, the problematic economics of whaling is on view throughout Norway. In Bergen, stalls sell whale meat packaged like sausage, next to reindeer meat and salami. Boastful shop owners try to entice tourists to “try whale meat,” just to raise eyebrows, but the meat actually tastes like the other products.
At a restaurant near Reine in Lofoten, a waiter from Uruguay offers us a whale steak. “Is it good, do you recommend it?” we ask. He makes a face. “It is exotic, people want to try it. Do you like liver, really fatty liver?” The message is clear: Order this just to tell your friends, not because of your palate. Two days later we go to a sandwich place in Moskenesoya, overlooking a quaint harbor. On offer is whale burger or “stockfish,” which is dried cod. I delve into the whale burger; it tastes like a cross between a veggie burger and normal hamburger meat that has been pressed together too much. Edible? Yes. Tasty? Not really. Ultimately, it appears that if you can’t tempt tourists with whale, and the locals don’t seem too taken with it either, so the “infamous” whaling industry may be heading for extinction.
The banality of whale meat is consisted with the fact that most Norwegian food along the coast is dull. Restaurants invariably have limited menus, consisting primarily of cod, which could be a good thing. Cod was and remains a major part of the fishing industry in the area, and despite the decline in Atlantic cod, the fish still spawn off the coast in large numbers. Traditionally, cod is dried to preserve it. In the rural towns of the Lofoten peninsula, it is common to see a veritable “fish forest” of staves and large triangular wood beams with thousands of dried fish on them. The odor engulfs you as one nears. Fish heads are exported to Africa, according to locals, and the bodies go to southern Europe.
There is something distinctly medieval in this trade. In the 16th century, one could understand why dried fish might be a major commodity in trade, because fresh fish doesn’t keep. But in 2014, selling lutefisk, or “rehydrated” cod – which means it was dried and made into stockfish, then put into water for a day – doesn’t make sense, when it can be preserved in other, better ways. In any case, most Norwegian restaurants along the coast offer a fish soup that is delectable. But after a few days, one feels he never wants to hear the word “stockfish” again. Salmon, which is plentiful but expensive, is a good alternative.
THE LOFOTEN archipelago of islands stretches out like a sharp-jagged knife from the coast. From above, it looks pockmarked by giant bombs; from the shore, its mountains rise up like shark’s fins into the sky. The barren landscape and small cottages give this place a foreboding look. Of all northern Norway, this area is particularly worth a stop. Difficult to access, one option is to go by ferry – traveling from Bodo by car is another.
In 1841, Edgar Allen Poe wrote an account of the unpredictable seas around here in Descent Into the Maelstrom. For Norwegians, it is a legendary place of trolls and other mysteries. One can see why: the fjords are narrow, cold, sheer cliffs that rise from the water. Many small villages are on diminutive islets, accessed by modern, hump-like bridges.
Until recently, most of the area was difficult to reach except by boat. Many photographers and painters have been drawn to the savage landscape, and locals cultivate an artistic atmosphere, with galleries in some villages. We enjoy walking here; an hour can put one high above the water facing a panorama that seems more Himalayan than Scandanavian. Norway, even in the rural areas, does not boast much wildlife, so the prospect of seeing thousands of sea eagles and puffins is hard to pass up. On the island of Vaeroy, which looks like a shooting location for the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones, we sought out the famous bird colonies.
Unfortunately, the weather does not fit with our plans so we hike up to the Haen Nato station instead. The station seems abandoned, and signs saying “photography forbidden” can be ignored. The ascent, up more than 300 meters, is brisk – especially with the howling wind – but worth it. The view is extraordinary, showing the glacier-scarred landscape, with sweeping views of the other islands and out to sea. An abandoned fishing settlement below and a deserted old airport on the other side of the island reveal the changing fortunes of the area. Back in the lone settlement of Sorland, we sit quietly at the diner. The large woman behind the counter promises something special, with “no stockfish”; she makes baguettes with ham and melted cheese, onions and potatoes. while pleasant Norwegians come and go from jobs in the fishing industry.
The ferry schedule shows one ferry a day from the island, and we still need to call to reserve space for the car. It is a reminder: The coast of Norway is striking and beautiful, but navigating it takes time due to all the fjords and islands… and lots of overpriced beer (70 kroner, or about $12 a pint), and menus bursting with stockfish.