The Lofoten Islands themselves are famous for many things, chiefly their beauty. You’ll never find a more pleasing rugged-coastline-and-soaring-mountains combination……..the celebrated Lofoten fish. The islands are a kind of lush Eden for the codfish ……..every year the world’s largest cod shoal (indeed the planet’s only growing cod stock) drops by for the famous ‘skrei’ season. By virtue of the happy confluence of the Gulf Stream and inch-perfect submarine direction-finding, each February millions of these wonderful fish swim here all the way from the Barents Sea, over a thousand kilometres away……thanks to the Norwegians’ innate knack for practical forward thinking, they have never fished the things to extinction – au contraire, they have caught them through patient line fishing, always being particularly strict on themselves to respect their quotas, never taking more than is sustainable.
The way the shoal has grown and grown over the centuries remains an exquisite if rare example of man and nature living in per-fect har-mo-nee.
Driving in the Arctic……..is a good deal less perilous than you might expect. Yes, the road surface is invariably compacted snow and ice, but all the tyres are fitted with studs and this makes an astonishing difference
Strangely, even as you drive through the most mountaineous passes of Northern Norway, the radio signal stays remarkably constant…….I find that eerily impressive.
Narvik is the northernmost port in Norway – and famously the only deep-sea port in the Scandinavian Arctic to remain ice free throughout the year. This distinction has made Narvik strategically vital to the Norwegians …….as it means that the colossal iron-ore extraction just over the border at Kiruna in Sweden can be shipped from there all year round. Such useful attributes can come at a terrible price, though. Poor Narvik was the scene of vicious fighting in 1940 as Hitler went all out to bring Norway to heel…….the old town was completely destroyed by a series of battles that raged between April and June that year.
We travel by train along the iron-ore line over the Swedish border to Kiruna. This is said to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world
Kiruna……is on the site of an ancient Sami settlement, but the modern town wasn’t founded till 1900. The Samis are the indigenous people of that area of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia ………The Samis, who’ve been living in this region semi-nomadically for over twelve thousand years …….have been bullied terribly one way or the other by the dominant cultures of mainland Europe over the centuries, suffering the worst kinds of ethnic cleansing right up to the middle of the twentieth century…….At the first sniff of heavy industry and its riches the Samis seem to get shunted fairly unceremoniously to one side……..iron ore has been dug out of what is now called Kiruna since the seventeenth century…….It was only when the railway came along in 1903 that the output rose to anything like its current levels and the town expanded vastly. The Kiruna mine produces over 26 million tonnes of iron ore a year, which is exported all over the world……..To put that in context, the annual iron-ore output of the US is 47.5 million tonnes……..
Polar bear training is mandatory for anyone visiting Svalbard and involves a lesson in rifle shooting…….Its a sobering fact that on Svalbard all front doors have to remain unlocked so that people fleeing polar bears can run in and take shelter. That’s how often people run from polar bears, and presumably how a great many Svalbardian romances start……..One thing you see an awful lot of in the Arctic is stuffed polar bears…….
….Norway ….I have fallen heads over heels in love with it. The countryside is so heartbreakingly beautiful……Best of all, though, are the people…… I have come across such humanity and decency in Norway, such intelligence, such advanced social ideas (I haven’t even touched on their revolutionary penal system, which has all but eliminated reoffending), such entrenched contentedness and warmth. It turns out its not an act at all, they’re just wonderful, wonderful people.
Norway poses for photographs from the minute you arrive……..The tiny little bit of Iceland we’ve seen so far doesn’t seem to do this so much, or at least not in February…..
In Norway and Sweden they are aware of – and celebrate – their Viking past but it seems to survive more as a sort of colourful historic sideshow…..Iceland’s Viking heritage, on the other hand, is a chapter that hasn’t closed – they are still Vikings – its all around you all the time….its culture is proudly held up as the origin of all Icelandic life, its politics, even its religion. Until fifteen years ago, when outsiders started coming here to live and work, every single person on the island knew exactly what their Viking origins were, which branch of which clan they belonged to.
Its not just the people who are still Vikings – every species on the island seems to have some sort of Viking pedigree….Apparently there are also Viking sheep.
Ilulissat – formerly Jacobshaven – is a small town of just under 5,000 people (which still makes it the ‘third-largest city’ in Greenland)…..
He seems to have that thing that people on second marriages often have of being very careful to be fair and even-tempered at all times…….
You have got to say this for Fairbanks; five minutes out of town and you’re in some of the finest and most majestic scenery on earth.