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Tour 2001: NORWAY- Lofoten Islands

Cycling above the Arctic Circle…   Km.: 480 -days: 6- Month: Luglio

(Since I tend to use only ASCII characters in my texts, Norwegian names have been written without the  å  e ø wovels that would appear in the correct Norwegian spelling)

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The Lofoten Islands  are one of the most accessible... remote spots on earth. Just a bit more than a couple of hours away from Oslo by plane (there are three airports in the islands, although the great majority of travelers come from the mainland by ferry). The Lofoten have been inhabited permanently since prehistoric times, and at all epochs have enjoyed a level of civilization comparatively high. Agriculture is practiced all year round, one of the very few places on the planet where this is possible at so high a Latitude. All this thanks to the Gulf Stream, that gives to these islands a climate day by day more enjoyable than regions situated more than 1000 km. to the south, like the Fjordland, or Scotland, for example. Still, the Lofotens lie to the north of Iceland, a part of Greenland, and much of Siberia and Alaska! In the summertime, the sun rises at the beginning of June... and never sets again until the first half of July. So, cycling in these islands retains all the feelings of an adventure... and practically none of the disadvantages!


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In Bodo, getting on to Lofoten MAP

My Lofoten bound voyage begins when the airplane, after descending through several layers of overcast, lands  (flying blind, as the runway becomes visible only in the very last seconds) in Bodo airport. After claiming my luggage, I assemble the bicycle, then try to find a place where I can leave the cumbersome case that contained it (to carry it safely through a couple of plane changes), and obviously doesn’t fit in the airports luggage lockers. Fortunately inquiring at the Information desk I learn that there is a semi-official storage room that I can use.  I leave the airport under a cloudy sky and a persistent drizzle. In this grey, interminable arctic afternoon,  Bodo doesn’t look exactly appealing. Having already had three meals on three different flights, I take refuge in the Youth Hostel, which is situated in the same building as the train station.


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The following day, around noon, the train station, normaly the first building you notice in the harbour area, is dwarfed by the bulk of the M/S Richard With, the ship that will take me to the Lofotens. The R. With is one of the Hurtigrute (i.e., not a ferry) boats, the so called   “Coastal Steamers” sailing daily from Bergen for an 11 day cruise up to Kirkenes, on the Russian border (actually the word Hurtigrute means something like “fast route”, which indeed it was, before planes came around). Today Hurtigrute  boats are regular cruise ships, over  100 mt. in lenght and 10000 t gross tonnage. And a luxury cruise too, even if a simple passage to the next port of call is perfectly affordable. In its northbound trip from Bodo, the Hurtigrute calls twice in the Lofotens, the first time in Stamsund, at 7 p.m., and the second  in Svolvaer at 4 p.m. (full day in this time of year, but still a bit inconvenient, so I decide to get off in Stamsund ).

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Day one: Stamsund-Henningsvaer-Stamsund. Km. 120 MAP


Seen from the ship for the first time, the Lofoten appear like an uninterrupted series of jagged, teeth-like peaks, the Lofotenveggen (Lofoten Wall). The five main islands of the archipelago are in fact separated by sea channels so narrow that all of them are today crossed by bridges, and, in one case, by an underwater tunnel. Some of these channels become visible only a few hundred metres before coming on the bridge, so there’s no way to spot them from the bridge of  a ship several miles offshore. Getting off in Stamsund, which is located more or less midway along the road crossing the island from north to south, means that my itinerary will follow a bit of a back-and-forth route. This is no problem, because the distance from one tip of the islands to the other is only about 280 km. Also, passing through one place more than once will increase the chances of seeing it on a good weather day (it will work, in fact). In Stamsund I stay at the Youth Hostel, which is housed in a series of rorbu cabins (of which, more later). The main difference with rorbuer which are not hostels is that the latter normally won’t allow you to share a cabin. It rains during the night(-time) and in the morning the sky is still completely overcast. Although dark storm clouds are visible beyond the mountains to the west, only very little rain falls on the coast when I am cycling. I soon realize that the Lofoten are a textbook case of islands with a weather side (NNW), and a lee side (SSE). Lofoten’s main towns and most villages  are to be found on the latter. I had meant to do a complete loop around Vestvagoy, but I think better of it and decide to remain on the lee side of the island for the time being. I follow the road that skirts the Vestfjorden, the “inner sea” between the islands and mainland Norway. It winds along a series of inlets and headlands surmounted on the land side by towering peaks. Frome here to the Gimsoystraumen, the Y shaped channel that separates the islands of Vestvagoy from Gimsoy  and Austvagoy, there are only half a dozen small hamlets huddled around a petrol station and/or a minimarket. When I reach the first of the two bridges that cross the Gimsoystraumen, I notice that this is one of the few places where the  Lofotenveggen lowers its guard and the lets the god-awful weather coming from the west  pass through to the sheltered side of the islands.


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So I decide to give up any further attempt to find a North-West Passage, including a shorter loop around Gimsoy (only postponed though...) and decide to head toward Henningsvaer, a fishing village already visible across the strait at the foot of the impressive walls of Vagakallen. In this way I can avoid the detour tomorrow, when I will pass by this same road. The Gimsoytraumen crossing takes place under a cold rain and sudden gusts of wind that force me to shift my weight slightly to the left to keep my balance. This balancing act is complicated by the fact that I am now riding on the E10, the backbone of Lofoten  road network, and passing motor homes, coaches and lorries create a treacherous alternating of wind and calm … Most of all, I am worried about crossing the Gimsoystraumbrua, the second of the two bridges, longer, higher and most exposed. But it proves easier than what it looked. To get to Henningsvaer I turn right from the E10 on a road full of short but rather steep and ultimately tiresome  humps. I’m glad I have to go through it only this time (though in both directions). Henningsvaer is described in some guides as “the Venice of the Lofoten”. Granted, it has a canal... and, square foot by square foot, its share of tourists. But Lofotens other fishing villages, Stamsund to begin with, are all equally pretty. I stop in a Cafe’ for a plate of bacalao (our baccala’ as well as Portugal’s bacalhau), not a Norwegian recipe, as far as I know , although the Lofoten supply the main ingredient for it: stockfish..


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Day Two: Stamsund-Hov-Kabelvag. Km. 100  MAP


The first half or today route follows the same road as yesterday. The weather is cloudy but still and dry. It looks like today it will be possible to venture on the wind side of the islands. So I decide to attempt a loop around the island of Gimsoy. The obstacle this time are the road conditions, at least on the southern side. The road is unpaved and I am not willing to risk a flat tire. The other half of the loop, however, starting immediately before the  Gimsoystraumbrua, and going on along the northern coast of the island in the direction of Hov, is impeccably surfaced as it unfolds, invitingly, on the gentle undulations of the narrow coastal flats with a couple of vertiginous peaks towering above.  The opposite coast of the channel is much the same, giving this arm of Gimsoystraumen the appearance of  a majestic gorge, a bit forbidding under this overcast. But further on the road opens on the cultivated part of Gimsoy, a marshy plain covered with flowers, where there are some scattered farms, browsing cows and horses, and a couple of sandy beaches. Across the sea, to the north-west, the jagged peaks of Austvagoy, and, beyond, of Westeralen, the achipelago that links Lofoten to the mainland coast north of Narvik, stretch in a serrated band increasingly thinning, until  the point where there’s nothing but sea as far as the line of the horizon (and to the Arctic pack beyond it!). I cycle on until I get to Hov, where, (surprise) there’s a golf course! Pleasant-looking enough today, but I wonder if there was anybody playing here yesterday... More importantly, the Golf Club has also a snack bar, and certainly here they aren’t too particular about serving anybody who shows up!


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Back on the E10, and this time ignoring the Henningsvaer detour, I start to climb toward a seemingly impregnable barrier of mountains. The climb is shorter that expected, though, because after one km. or so the road enters a tunnel (in anticipation of which I had equipped   my bike with rear and front light). Emerging from the tunnel the road takes a steep plunge to the bottom of a deserted valley surrounded by steep and rugged mountains. Where, suddenly, the sun emerges from under the clouds, and the temperature starts to rise. I have to remove several layers of clothing even before reaching Kabelvag (which is in fact litterally around the corner). As suddenly as the apparition of the sun, I emerge from the wilderness into Lofoten’s main urban area... composed of Kabelvag, Svolvaer, and a series of smaller hamlets. Just before Kabelvag there’s even a cycling path flanking the E10, paved and of confortable width, although there are no signs to indicate where it begins. Kabelvag is a delightful village clustered around the harbour, and in this cloudless, still evening, an ideal place to spend an arctic midnight (although you can’t see the midnight sun from here, as the sun sets behind the mountains to the north, you can enjoy an equally impressive spectacle: that of the norwegian coast, distant more than 150 km. illuminated by the soft, rosy light of the midnight sun).


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Day three: Kabelvag-Laukvik-Kabelvag. Km. 90 MAP


The following days begins (actually it never ended...) warm and sunny. At 9 in the morning the temperature is already above 20° C (the sun has been heating the atmosphere for at least seven hours by now). I start off wearing cycling shorts that I’ll keep on until the end of the trip (when cycling, that is, and I have more than one pair...) After only five kilometers I reach Svolvaer, Lofoten’s largest urban agglomeration (about 5000 inhabitants...) Svolvaer is the main port of call for ships reaching Lofoten from the mainland, and Lofoten’s main Tourist Information Office has its premises beside the pier. But the town’s best attraction are probably, in fact, its people. Svolvaer looks and feels so much like any other Northern European small town that when you walk its streets you lose any sense of how remote and isolated it actually is. But you only have to cycle a kilometer or so further up the northbound road to be immersed again in almost completely unspoilt wilderness. As soon as I exit the short tunnel that overlooks the Hellesnet cape, I find myself at the centre of an awesome landscape of green meadows, turquoise glacial lakes and narrow fjords bordered by rugged, vertiginous peaks. In fact, Hellesnet peninsula hosts Svolvaer airport, but the only sign of its presence are a couple of road signs and the taxis that zoom by. The traffic thins as I push further on along the shores of the Austnesfjorden, a deep liquid gash that penetrates far into Ausvagoy’s rugged interior. Only a few fisherman cabins dot the shore along this side of the fjord, and none whatsoever on the opposide side, where a wall of sharp granite towers plunges straight into the sea. The part of Austvagoy opposite the fjord is a completely uninhabited mountain wilderness that can only be explored through a number of hiking paths and difficult mountain climbs. The fjords widens somehow, around Vestpollen, where a narrow peninsula sticks deeply into the calm flatness of the mountain-sheltered pool. The narrow tongue of land hosts a few cabins and a small wooden church. Both branches of the Y-shaped intersection here would take me to Fiskebol, on the shore facing the Artic sea. I take the one to the left, through which I won’t get to Fiskebol (the road is not paved until there), but I’ll cycle the only paved road that crosses Ausvagoy from sea to sea. The road winds through an alpine looking valley climbing a pass that is in fact not much more than a bump, then descending along a couple of glacial lakes to reach the shores of Vatnfjorden (looking very much like a lake in its turn, but perhaps communicating with the sea through the marshy terrain at its northern extremity.  When I reach the seashore on the opposite side of the island I cycle a couple of kilometers further to the south-west until I reach Laukvik, a small hamlet of pretty wooden cottages that appear to be mainly inhabited by tourists. From here to Svolvaer it’s 40 km., and coming here I haven’t passed more than a couple of other hamlets even smaller than this one, so I assume this place is remote enough. It will have to do, in any case, as this is also the turnaround point of my tour. From here I will cycle straight to the southernmost tip of Lofoten, a trip of about 240 km., in two and a half days (the half day being, of course, today return ride to Kabelvag).  



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Day four: Kabelvag-Ballstadt. Km. 90 MAP


Although I have already cycled three times the better part of today’s itinerary, it’s not entirely deja-vu. For the first time, the sun shines along the whole route, and under the cloudless blue sky the islands look disconcertingly mediterranean: in the shallow coves and inlets the water is bottle-green and the sand on the small beaches brilliant white. Today it’s Sunday, and I ride all the way back to the Gimsoystraumen without practically seeing a car. Then I leave the E10 and find even less traffic on the coastal road of Vestvagoy. Norwegians wake up late today, to spend the afternoon on the beach or sunbathing in their backyards, obliterating any residual arctic atmosphere. The term arctic circle sounds not only abstract but downright antithetic to anything that I am experiencing today. The coastal road looks like a mediterranean corniche. In the distance, the steeple of Stamsund bellfry reflects the midday sun with the brilliance of a lighthouse.



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It no longer indicates the way for me, though: this time I will take the opposite direction, first toward Leknes, then, after a km. or two, toward Sennesvika. The view embraces a narrow fjord and, on the opposite side, the peak of Steinstinden, whose hidden face towers above Stamsund (and the one facing the fjord  over the small fishing village of Steine). The backyards of Sennesvika brightly painted cottages are animated by norwegians attired in totally unarctic fashion. I unzip the neck of my cycling jersey to begin the steepest climb of the tour, the 100 mt. high Einangen. From the top, there’s a spectacular view  that embraces the better part of Lofoten’s east coast, with the by now familiar coves and headlands of Vestvagoy and Austvagoy behind me, and, ahead of me , seen for the first time, the peaks of Flakstadoy and Moskenesoy, crowning the cultivated coastal plains around the Busknesfjorden, with the towns of Leknes to my left and, Gravdal to the right. I descend into the plain and cycle four kilometers against a blustering head wind to Leknes, where, fortunately, I must do a U turn to reach Gravdal from the opposite side of the fjord. A large wooden church  painted bright red dominates the village. From Gravdal to Ballstad, the wind is still in my favour, but its benefit is somewhat lessened by the ondulations of the road.


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Day five: Ballstad-Reine-A Km. 70 MAP


In Ballstad I do my only rorbu camping in Lofoten. This is not strictly true, because a couple of the hostels in which I stayed are also housed in rorbuer. But Ballstad’s Kraemmervika Rorbuer is not a hostel, which means I have to rent a cabin all by myself and pay the price. It’s worth doing it if only once, though, because this type of rorbuer are incredibly cozy, in fact staying there has very little to do with camping at all… If shared with other people, and rented on a weekly basis, as it’s meant to be, it would also have been cheap for Norway, expecially considering that every cabin has its own kitchen, and people who stay there do their own shopping and cooking and rarely visit the rather expensive restaurant (people who are not as good as the resident chef will be tempted eventually, and you have to be very good indeed to beat her or him…).


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In any case, another reason to stay here is because Kraemmervika operates a “cycling boat” that links Ballstad with Nusfjord, across the Nappstraumen on the island of Flakstadoy, thus allowing to avoid the long submarine road tunnel of Napp. The bicycle ferry is, rather predictably, a fishing boat. What was less predictable is that this particular fishing boat –or rather its skipper, on the request of a couple of norwegian passengers- decides to return to its original vocation. A bit worried, I wonder how long this fishing interlude is going to take, failing to take into account both the renowned abundance (even off season)of Vestfjorden fish population, and the efficacity  of modern fishing equipment: after five minutes of sailing in circles with the sonar on, my fellow-cycling-passengers-turned-fishermen   manage to haul in a cod big enough to satisfy their fishing aspirations for the time being.


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Still, its almost 3.00 p.m. by the time our boat puts in at Nusfjord. My fears are not dispelled, because even if today’s route is not very long, the time left to cycle it is also short, and I have never cycled this road before. I still don’t know how right I am to worry… For the moment, though, Nusfjord looks like a picture perfect fishing village placed in an enchanting location, and even if the sky has become cloudy, the temperature is the warmest I have experienced so far (owing to violent downdrafts produced by 30 knots strong southwest winds, of which I am still blissfully unaware…).  I leave Nusfjord through a narrow gorge shadowed by the forbidding (even more so under the overcast sky) Stjerntinden. Flakstadpollen looks more idyllic, but here I meet the E10 again, and my troubles start in earnest. From here on, there’s practically no road but the E10, and all the road traffic, composed in almost equal proportion of cars, motor homes, touring buses and lorries, is channeled here (and left, after that, very much to its own devices…)  The only upside is that the road, for the moment, is rather wide (though full  of blind turns…) and flat. Still, when I reach Flakstad and the nearby beach, one of the widest in Lofoten, I turn sharply into the vast and almost empty parking lot to get a break from the noise, the fumes and the tension. In spite of the warm temperature, I resist the temptation to take a bath, mostly to avoid wasting time. Considering what the road ahead is like it turns out to be the right decision.



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As soon as the road turns a corner around the cliffs that shelter the northern shore of Flakstadoy, and penetrates into the deep cut of the Selfjorden, a furious southerly wind invests me right in the front. The Selfjorden, along with its southern omologue, the Skjelfjorden, form a valley  system that effectively cuts through the Lofoten Wall from sea to sea. The narrow and flat tongue of land separating these two deep water inlets is no barrier against the strong northerly (as well as  southerly) winds that ride in front of, respectively, high and low pressure systems. In fact, in this same point, soaring mountain walls on either side squeeze the wind through, sort of  like in a Venturi funnel, focusing its blast directly on the road that skirts the bare shores  of the fjord. A sysiphean effort is required to cover the three kilometres between Ramberg and the Fredvang bridges. Shortly before this point the road turns right on the aforementioned strip of land, broadside to the wind just where it blows at its strongest. Proceding very cautiously, I manage to cover these (fortunately) few hundred metres without being forced to put a foot down. After that, the road becomes more sheltered, but only because it follows a series of short but steep humps.  In short, the going doesn’t really get any easier. In fact, it’s only a matter of (masochistic) taste to determine which was tougher, the wind or the humps. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that during the whole stretch the traffic has only gotten worse … From there to A, where the road (and the suffering) ends, there won’t be any real flat bit of road, and the gradients, at times, will get pretty steep.  To resume, this last, shortest stage of the tour will also be, and by far, the hardest.


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Day six: Reine-Hamnoy. Km. 7 (walking!)


Having already had enough of the busy, humpy, and in the last bit also narrow and potholed E-10, I decide this last day to simply walk between Reine and Hamnoy, the better to savour the justly renowned views of the Kerkfjorden and its World-heritage classed villages.  Walking is in any case better than cycling when one has to stop every hundred metres or so to take a picture.  The day starts under a low overcast and a light drizzle, but the weather improves by the time I step out of the express coach. It turns into a sunny, balmy and breezy afternoon, ideal to appreciate the majestic scenery of craggy peaks, deep blue waters and postcard pretty fishing villages. Finally, allow me to say a few words about the village of A, where I spent my last couple of days in Lofoten. A hosts the Stockfish Museum, where Italian people get a place of honour as most avid consumers of Lofoten’s main export product. A also functions as an accurately preserved example of Norway XIX century fishing village, with some of the buildings that form the historic core of the village still permanently inhabited today as part of the Youth Hostel, Rorbuer and Tearoom. A would be Lofoten’s southernmost point, except that farther south there are still two small islands, Vaeroy and Rost. Vaeroy is visible from the point where the road ends, just outside A, across a sea channel where strong currents give origin to what is nothing less that the original  Maelstrom celebrated by E.A. Poe (flat as a mirror when I saw it…).


Don’t forget to browse the photo album for more pictures. 


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