When Wessel suggested we do our annual cycling tour in Lofoten, I had to answer, Lo-what? Where the heck is that? That was a couple years ago, and while I can’t say that all roads now lead to Lofoten (pronounced LOO-foo-ten there), a Norwegian archipelago above the arctic circle, I have noticed the name a few times. For instance, National Geographic Traveler last year ranked it as one of the world’s best (and best-preserved) island destinations. Still, not one American I mentioned our trip to had heard of Lofoten, and I noticed only a few Yanks during our weeklong visit there in June. (Not that I’m complaining!) On the other hand, there was a steady stream of folks from Germany, the Netherlands, and France. Vacationing Norwegians were mostly due to arrive in July, when school is out and most folks go on holiday. If you want to catch the Midnight Sun, you’ll need to go from late May to late July.
I’m writing a travel piece on our cycling trip for August publication in the Boston Globe, so here’s a little preview.
The words that kept going through my mind the first few days of cycling were: “impossibly beautiful.” Really, it was crazy gorgeous, and now, when I look at our photos, I’m again amazed by the scenery. Jagged snow-capped mountains rise from a clear blue sea, roads wind along rocky coasts, and red fishing shacks dot the land. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We were blessed with several days of bright sun, which made the raw, damp, and cloudy days a bit less painful. Different parts of the island were quite varied, from farmland to woods, mountains to sea. The water was so clear it reminded me of the Caribbean. I wonder how the growing cruise industry here will affect that.
There are a few cities here, but mostly tiny to small fishing villages and farm communities, some without any services. The most characteristic building is the rorbu, a fishing shack usually painted brick red. Some stand alone, while others are clustered together to form a village of “rorbuer.” They are picturesque and fairly scream “Norway.” Many have been updated as mid-range or upscale lodging, and some have been built as new, which means they’re kind of fake, but they’re still lovely and comfortable, so unless you’re a rorbu purist, they’re fine. Some are on hills overlooking the water, some are just back from the water, and others are on stilts right over the water. Some rooms over the water have a hole in the floor for in-room fishing!
The craziest sights were the wooden racks of drying cod all over the island. Cod is the biggest export business here and it is huge. Most of the dried cod (sans heads) is exported to Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where it is a kitchen staple. (I lived in Portugal and know this to be true!) The cod heads are sent to Nigeria, where they’re used in a spicy soup. It’s common to see a few fish hanging from a house (sometimes just for decoration) but the wildest sights are the humongous racks you’ll encounter in a town, with hundreds, no, thousands, of fish hanging to dry. We were at the tail end of the drying season (cod fishing is done from January to April) and were lucky to see so many. Wessel could not stop photographing them — every single day in every conceivable way.
While there are more cars than bicycles here, Lofoten is a very popular place for self-contained cycling, meaning you carry your own gear. The four islands that make up the archipelago are connected by bridges, and all of Lofoten is only about 110 miles from end to end. Of course your mileage will grow considerably when you zigzag from town to town. We saw only a couple cyclists the first few days, but just before we left, in late June, they started pouring in. As for the cycling itself, in some places the roads are narrow and curvy, without shoulders and with traffic. For the most part drivers were incredibly polite, but tour buses, of which there are many, sometimes got waaaaay too close for comfort. There also are a few tunnels, but most can be bypassed using the “old road” (in various states of repair) outside the tunnels. I can see how beginner cyclists might find the main road rather nerve-wracking. There are great side roads, but they all have to be reached from the main road. So if you’re comfortable riding in some traffic, cycling around Lofoten is, for the most part, two-wheeled nirvana.