hidden europe 15

Where towering cliffs in ocean stand: Lofoten

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Hamnøy harbour at the mouth of Reinefjord on the Lofoten island of Moskenesøya (photo © hidden europe).


Capture the atmosphere of one of Europe's most magical landscapes with our account of two communities in the Lofoten islands in northern Norway. Nusfjord is an old fishing station that has reinvented itself through tourism. Meanwhile, the tiny hamlets that cling to the edges of Reinefjord teeter on the brink of extinction.

You may recall that Professor Pierre Aronnax, the narrator in Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea', was held captive in the submarine Nautilus, which, under the command of Captain Nemo, roamed the world's oceans in utter secrecy. After a nasty brush with a giant squid ("un calmar de dimensions colossales" wrote Verne), and an ill-judged encounter with a whirlpool, Professor Aronnax is finally thrown clear from the Nautilus with his two trusted friends, Conseil and Ned Land.

When Aronnax regained consciousness in a fisherman's hut in the Lofoten Islands, he may possibly have assumed that he had died and gone to heaven. I certainly would have done. For if pushed to identify the most heavenly corner of Europe, the outer islands of the Lofotens would surely have a strong claim.

As always, Jules Verne mixes geographical fact with cartographic flights of fancy, but at the western end of the Lofotens, where the serrated peaks of the island archipelago peter out into the wild waters of the Atlantic, there really is a dangerous maelstrom. Locally, where the whirlpool has both fascinated and frightened mariners for centuries, it is called Moskenstraumen, taking its name from the nearby island of Mosken.

Jules Verne nicely captures quintessential Lofoten when he locates Aronnax' return to consciousness in a fisherman's cabin. The huts are the very symbol of Lofoten. Set against a backdrop of stark mountains and rugged coastline, the coloured wooden cabins are as iconic as the dried fish that for so long underpinned the islands' economy. The Lofoten stockfish (tørrfisk in Norwegian) is a magnificent northern speciality - and one that is much sought after in southern Europe and parts of Africa. In the thirteenthcentury 'Egil's Saga', there is an early account of dried fish from the Lofotens being taken to England and traded there for flour, honey, wine and cloth.

Dead cod, a dangerous whirlpool, jagged mountains and fierce weather may not amount to a tempting proposition, but look more closely and the Lofotens really do seem to offer a little corner of heaven on earth.


The western flank of Mount Nesheia drops down precipitously into Nusfjord. Great exposed slabs of slate-grey rock, punctuated occasionally by deep crevices, form a mountain wall that hangs over the fjord. Little ledges in the rock face are laced with snow, and in deep gullies there is hard packed ice - the latter evidence of a winter that clings tenaciously on into spring. Nusfjord is the name of the narrow sea inlet that makes a gash on the south coast of Flakstadøya. And the fjord gives its name to the solitary settlement that clings to its shores.

Nusfjord's small harbour - the landed cod is dried in the moist and salty air of the Lofoten islands (photo © hidden europe).

Nusfjord is no ordinary village. It is one of the oldest and best preserved of the fiskevær (fishing stations) in the Lofoten Islands. A cluster of wooden rorbuer, nowadays used by tourists rather than fishermen, line the quayside. A hundred years ago, fifteen hundred fishermen were based here at Nusfjord for the prime fishing season — and they would come from far and wide in their open boats to make their living from a provident sea full of cod. From Helgeland, from Finnmark, and from small communities on the other side of Vestfjorden — over three hundred boats would make for Nusfjord.

The village made its name in the premier league of fiskevær. During the cod fishing season from late January to mid-April, Nusfjord was packed. And during that three month season, a million fish or more would be landed at Nusfjord. The fishing station was perfectly placed to catch the Norwegian cod as they migrated to spawning sites. The fish were gutted on the quayside; some were salted and shipped south to dry, and the rest were hung on racks outside the rorbuer. Nowadays, many of the drying racks that surround Lofoten villages stand abandoned, but at Nusfjord they are still used: air drying in the salty moist air makes for the best stockfish anywhere in Norway.

It is a strange feeling to wake up early on a spring morning, open the front door and bump your head on a dead cod. Tourism may have eclipsed cod-fishing as the principal industry in Nusfjord, but the smell of fish lingers. The rorbuer are a little posher than ever they were when used by the cod fishermen. Visitors from Munich and Milan fly in, stay for a summer week when the sun never sets, make short fishing trips and feel the pulse of this little community by the sea.

The seagulls swoop over the confusion of rocks and reefs in the bay, and they perch on the drying racks and try to snitch a hasty meal of drying cod.

But in late April, the tourists have not yet arrived, and Nusfjord is reserved for cod. The wind and the rain have yet to do their work and wash away last winter’s snow. The seagulls swoop over the confusion of rocks and reefs in the bay, and they perch on the drying racks and try to snitch a hasty meal of drying cod. The solstice may be eight weeks away, but already the days are unbelievably long. In the evening, the wind drops, the seagulls settle and a heavy calm envelops Nusfjord. Where once a thousand fishermen would sit around in the open air gutting the day’s catch, now there are the cleanscrubbed empty boardwalks that link the rust red huts. The dipping sun gives expression to the rocks on the other side of the bay. By day they seemed black, but now they take on subtle shades of mauve and serpentine — even a hint of gold in this idyllic fjord that was once a great volcanic cauldron.


The deeply indented fjords on the southern shores of the Lofoten Islands are home to many old fiskevær. Some, like Henningsvær, are tucked away at the end of side roads and retain something of the atmosphere of the days when hundreds of boats jostled for position in a tiny harbour. Others, like Stamsund and Svolvær, have found a new calling as ports on the Hurtigruten - the regular coastal shipping route that serves over thirty ports on its long journey along Norway’s coast from Bergen to the Russian border.

Bjørn Pedersen has no great voyages in mind as he nudges the Fjordkyss alongside the little pier at Reine. Merely the afternoon boat trip up into Reinefjord, taking the mail, today’s newspapers and a few groceries to folk who live in tiny hamlets on the very edge of civilisation. Reinefjord is a glacial gash of giant proportions on the east side of Moskenesøya, perhaps the most exquisitely beautiful of all the Lofoten islands.

A little string of islands lace the mouth of Reinefjord, nowadays interlinked by bridges. Here are the twin villages of Hamnøy and Reine - the first still a working fiskevær, and Reine a place with shops, a bank and other trappings of modernity. And Reine is the home base for the Fjordkyss, which every afternoon weighs anchor and speeds up the loch with the essentials of life.

Bjørn lived for many years at Ternneset, a tiny fleck on the map on the west side of Reinefjord. The now abandoned village is no more than a handful of wooden houses under the shadow of a mountain that towers to over a thousand metres. The slopes are precipitous. In these islands the mountains stand knee-deep in water.

“Ternneset,” says Bjørn, “is the second best spot in the entire Lofoten islands.” The top prize, it transpires, is reserved for a tiny uninhabited valley that lies on the other side of the mountains. Most things in the Lofotens, it seems, are on the other side of the mountains. Bjørn talks of the hardship of life in Ternneset, where the snow lingered for many months. During the winter, the only way to get fresh water was to melt snow. And he tells of being taken by his grandfather on summer excursions over to the valley judged by his family to be the best of Lofoten: Hermannsdalen. For years and years an old man lived here alone. He fished for cod, then rowed and hiked for an entire day to sell his catch in Reine. They still remember him in Reine: old Hermann from across the mountains, who came to town when the catch was good. He would sit and watch life in Reine for an hour or two, then set off for the valley beyond the hills.

Yet the Lofotens are changing. Young people are moving away from the remoter villages on Reinefjord. Ternneset is already abandoned. At Vindstad the old school has closed. Ferries and little boats like the Fjordkyss were lifelines to remote communities. Now the road network is extending, and soon all the major islands will be linked to each other by tunnels and bridges. This time next year, the once daily direct bus from Narvik to the western Lofoten islands won’t need to use any ferries. In Reine, Nusfjord and a dozen other coastal communities they are busy building new rorbuer to accommodate travellers anxious to catch a whiff of the best dried cod in the world.

The location of Hamnøy harbour at the mouth of the Reinefjord on the Lofoten island of Moskenesøya.



Nusfjord lies on a by-road that leads south from the E10 as it traverses Flakstadøya. Accommodation is offered in rorbuer that range from simple spartan huts to renovated cabins with all mod cons. For more details see www.nusfjord.no. During the brief summer season between June and August, Nusfjord has a grocery store, bakery and restaurant. Off-season visitors need to take all their own supplies.



The MS Fjordkyss makes an afternoon trip to the remote villages on Reinefjord at 3 pm daily (except that there is no service on alternate Sundays). There are additional morning journeys on certain other days according to demand. For details contact Moskenes Shipping on +47 76 09 20 90 or +47 99 49 18 05. More timetable details are available on www.177nordland.no (in Norwegian only).


Lofoten bound

The two areas featured in our article (Nusfjord and Reinefjord) are both located towards the outer edge of the Lofotens. Don’t underestimate distances in this remote region. Narvik on the mainland is almost four hundred kilometres away. There is a daily Hurtigruten ship from Bergen that takes three days to reach the Lofoten ports: the steamers serve both Svolvær and Stamsund; the latter is more convenient for Nusfjord and Reine. Details on www.hurtigruten.no. Hurtigruten also operate a car ferry service between Bodø and Moskenes. Schedules are on www.177nordland.no. Widerøe provide direct flights from Bodø to Leknes airport, which gives good access to the western Lofoten islands (see www.wideroe.no).

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