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On the Vesterålen Islands, the legacy of the Vikings never seems very far away. As you view this mountainous, tough landscape, sculpted by long-gone ice, ever-present rolling waves and strong ocean currents, you half expect a wooden long ship to nose its way out of a hidden fjord, and make its way towards the plunder and riches of Europe. However, it was earlier Bronze Age and Iron Age settlers who made a vast impact on the landscape, cutting down the vast birch and pine forests that originally coated the islands, long since burnt or built into boats.
Today, the harbours and inlets of the Vesterålen Islands give safe harbour to the fishing trawlers that wait for the annual arrival of masses of cod in February. Fishing is about the only major industry in the Vesterålen region apart from tourism, which is mainly confined to the mild yet surprisingly wet summer months. However, the shipyards at Harsted reminds of the importance of keeping the fleet afloat, whilst the 12th century wooden Trondenes church proves that man could still build simply beautiful buildings amongst this unforgiving landscape. And just to bring you back to reality, the memorial to Soviet POWs killed by the Germans and the solidly impressive Adolfkanon (Adolf's gun) on the hill show that bitter memories of WWII are not easily forgotten.
Many tourists are tempted to drive to the more picturesque Lofoten Islands to the south, but in doing so, miss out on spectacular scenery and rare wildlife. Those in the know turn due north from Svolvaer Airport instead, towards the island of Andøya, driving either through peaty moorland on the east coast or via a wild and deserted coastal road on the west.
Their goal is Andenes, whale-watching central. From here, boats plough through waves to the edge of the continental shelf itself, to spot sperm whales, resident all year round. At other times, they are joined in their happy hunting grounds by killer whales and minke whales, magnificent creatures often only hinted at by glimpses of fins or the flip of an enormous tail lifted clear of the water. Here, too, are dolphins and porpoises, which leap clear of the Atlantic rollers with the boundless energy and delight of children with a half day holiday.
Yet the natural display of glory doesn't stop as night falls. Andenes is one of the best places in Norway to experience the Northern Lights, a magical effect as the night sky shifts and shimmers with sheets of dancing light.
Driving south again is to wonder how life here was before the car, before you could move with ease over bridges spanning craggy islands, or catch ferries across inhospitable strips of water, to a time where roads were view and the snows deep. Hence the rise of the Hurtigrute coastal ferry, an intrepid lifeline to the tiny communities dotting the coast, and a superb way to see the magnificent coastline with typical Norwegian efficiency. Perhaps the most impressive Hurtigrute route is Stokmarknes to Svolvaer, via the Raftsundet sound separating two islands.
This ferry makes a detour to what appears at first to be a crack in the shoreline, the 2km long Trollfjord. Suddenly your world closes in around you as the ferry gently maneuvers up the narrow gorge, its side smoothed by time, ice and water. As the ferry turns around (just) at the end, you breathe a sigh of relief to be out of the shadow of the rocks walls, back into the sunlight and out of the reach of the trolls...
© 2009 Kirsty Young
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