The adventure continues!
I’m slightly euphoric to be back on dry land and inside the bus which takes me ten minutes up the road to Reine, where I’ll be based for a few days. It is the classic Lofoten picture postcard of a village – but I get to actually step into it. I feel my head going “wow” for long minutes. The surrounding mountains are approaching the Swiss scale of dramatic – the Norwegian flavour of Toblerone, with red-painted fishermen’s cabins (rorbuer) nestling down next to the water. The sun has allowed me a welcome, playing over the rocky flanks and highlighting sharp peaks. I’ve picked a slightly quirky (and budget friendly) place to stay which I hope will deliver. I’m curious. At the turn off to the house there’s a mini turf-roofed library, free for everyone to enjoy. Literally not much bigger than a small kitchen cabinet on legs. Yup. The omens are good. The long white-painted building was once the old town hall and is being lovingly restored by Runhild of Reine, a former actress who grew up here. Catogården Boutique Home and Activity Centre embraces you the moment you enter and select your pair of felted wool slippers. Each of the ten or so bedrooms is unique in colour scheme and decoration. Mine is the yellow room, complete with desk, sheep’s fleece throw and, best of all, a simple large window behind my pillow. It is open. The spicy sea air breathes over me and my travel-stressed being feels cleansed by plaintive calls of seabirds. The place seems timeless and grounding. A million miles away from the troublesome world of everyday life. Sun turns my room to gold and I hurry outside to get some shots in the weather window.
There’s a rack of giant bananas outside the house – of course they are bright yellow kayaks. Runhild runs courses for her more adventurous guests. And down near the sea, row upon row of wooden frames crammed with hanging fish heads drying in the wind. There is huge demand for these, especially in Italy and Nigeria. Dried fish is big. It adds a pungent kick to the air, but I don’t find it overpowering. You’d think it would be a paradise for cats, but I don’t actually come across a single one. All around me are deep drifts of wild flowers; pink willow herb, dazzling yellows, and the perfection of hairbells bobbing in the wind. That particular vivid blue with hints of lilac is elusive to capture with paints. Even the word blue doesn’t do it justice.
In the village square, I find my favourite kind of café. Quaint and doing a roaring trade in home-baked cakes, tarts and filled paninis. I settle on coffee and a slice of rhubarb pie, taking a seat in the window. Bliss. There are a surprising number of visitors, although mostly Norwegians with a few Germans and a lone camper van from Italy. Most people are well-equipped with proper hiking gear, mud-stained boots and, in many cases, an equally muddy dog. The largest mountain, Reinebringen, towers above us. It is a respectable climb, offering a spectacular overview from the summit. I and my less than reliable leg will stick to sea level. There’s a bistro too, where I later enjoy supper before heading back to relax. The roaring fire in the living room is most welcome. As is the bonus of a proper coffee machine and endless supply of free coffee. I hear a group of Danes come in, fresh from a climb. They seem cheerful and fiercely fit, already planning tomorrow’s challenges. People come and go, make food in the galley kitchen and find a table in the dining room. It is a sprawling area with many alcoves for peaceful moments and big windows on three sides looking out to sea. The furniture is a homely well-loved mix. In the middle of one table, someone has made a sunken square where a basil plant flourishes, ready for instant garnishing. More plants and cuttings thrive on the windowsills and everywhere there is thought and welcoming detail. I’ve brought books, sketching and writing materials. I do nothing but stare out, watching the ever-changing light.
I find the mattress perfect for my back and spend a long time that night savouring the breeze and sounds from my open window. I’m perfectly at peace. I try to tap into this when I get up next morning to try out Runhild’s free yoga session which she offers to all guests at an eye-wateringly early hour. Her studio offers more stunning views of the sea, and also includes a rowing machine filled with water, which I find enjoyable. I’m less sure about my abilities in yoga, but I join the other four guests who made it and try to find a comfortable position. Runhild is well-qualified as a teacher and her voice has a low, soothing tone that settles me. My back is not using a soothing tone. It is beginning to protest. I’m going to give this a go anyway. Runhild gets into another position and I can’t help giggling as I attempt to copy her. She assures me that I’m doing fine, but I’m glad to be at the back of the class. If my cat could see me now! I’m aching in unaccustomed places when we finally get to lie under blankets and rest, but I feel alert and ready for the day. Its a great option to try out.
Reinebringen looms moodily, like a mini Eiger, sulking above the fish heads. The minerals in the soil must be good – flowers seem to flourish. Around the house I spot lavender, pinks, hydrangea and marguerites alongside a row of Danish hiking shoes, propped up to dry out. I take a trip half an hour away by bus to Ramberg where I’m told there is a beach. The day is blustery, clouds chasing across the sky, but I’m wrapped up well in layers. It is such a sensory jolt as I step down onto the wet sand and take it all in. The waves rush and curl over my boot prints, reclaiming them. Oystercatcher cry and stalk through rocks. Abundances of seaweed, strange black bobbles and slimy green arms catching at my feet. The clean shine of wet sand as the foam recedes. The inevitability of the next wave. Comforting in its rhythm. Sharpness in the nostrils, an addictive smell that takes over the lungs and the memory. I’m on a Norfolk beach again. It was only once but it imprinted itself upon the child I was then. A summer surge of memory, of suncream. The ice cream that melts down your hand and mixes with sand. The ouch ouch scramble on tender feet over sharp stones. The shells you insist on collecting, and the sand which magically fell out of them at home. The insistent tug around your legs as you stand daringly in the waves. The magical taste of ordinary sandwiches. And the sand-buffed softness of your skin later. Standing on this beach is like opening a long-forgotten book. There’s a wide freedom here. A laying down of anxieties. And I’m grateful. Fill your lungs, said my gran on walks. I do so. Arctic and pure.
The weather plays fast and loose over the next few days but there’s always the warmth of the log fire and of getting to know fellow guests. A young German couple arrive, grateful for a last minute booking. They are hiking the length of Lofoten, no mean feat in this wild and stormy summer. They need a few days to dry out both their camping equipment and themselves. I take a shorter bus trip down to Nå, as far south as the road goes. The rain broods and falls with intent. Through the gloom, the red-painted buildings and fresh green grasses stand out in brilliance. I’m still glad to be wearing sensible Norwegian layers. All that knitting paid off. I stop for a bowl of classic fish soup, creamy and wonderfully restoring, even at the eye-watering price. There’s a historic working bakery and I duck in for a warm cinnamon bun and some coffee.
I take the bus north to Svolvær this time, a journey of several hours. I’m still carrying an unread book. The scenery from each side is just too absorbing for reading. Dramatic skies pierced by shafts of light which change and illuminate the water in sudden glittering bands. A painter’s paradise. The hurtigruten ship is arriving right under my hotel room window as I arrive. It looks as though it might be parking in my bathroom. Svolvær seems grey and more like a proper town, a slight shock after Reine. Still, there’s always a bit more research to do. I’ve heard about another Arctic gin – Bivrost. But is it better than Myken? Better make quite sure. After careful and dedicated consideration, I conclude that it is a worthy addition to my supplies shelf back home.
Just outside Svolvær is Kabelvåg, a sleepy coastal village sprinkled with more colourful houses and where I find a glass blowing studio. Gorgeous creations but both too expensive and fragile for me. I’m content with a stunning blue bead and a hanging glass icicle for my daughter. Walking down to the point, I’m admiring the rich colour palette – the orange, white and reds of houses in the distance, greens, silver-grey and rust of lichens on the rocks, blue-grey sea and startling green of wet grasses alongside raspberry pink of clover flowers. What inspiration for a Lofoten sweater pattern, knitting the landscape stitch by stitch! Silvery raindrops are beading every petal and leaf, a magical effect in my camera lens.
The sun comes out to mock me on my last day. I’m down south again, waiting for the same ferry to take me back to Bodø. Only, there is a surge of passengers and some of us waiting in line will not get on board. I had taken a chance, trusting advice that I didn’t need to book as a foot passenger. Lucky about the weather then. Because there isn’t another sailing until this evening and there is only a small shelter here. It is actually hot enough to sunbathe, so a group of us sit leaning against a wall, facing sea and sun. There’s a limit to how long I and my tortured back can do this but the remaining hours are enlivened at least by a walk to the nearest campsite for an ice-cream, and by someone getting stuck in the loo. We all try to come up with helpful ideas whilst a couple of young men try to look impressive with a bicycle repair kit. It doesn’t work. Should we call the fire brigade? It could be a couple of hours away. Finally the door gives up and lets the laughing woman out. No harm done.
The sailing back to Bodø is a hundred times better than the trip out, I’m relieved to say. Ironically, summer weather is returning to the North just as I leave it. My eyes have been opened though. My senses, and my lungs, are filled with Lofoten. What a gem. Ssh. Don’t tell anyone. Because I’ll be back.