Demarcating the transition from the rural south to the blustery north is the 900-kilometre-long stretch of Norway that extends from Trondheim to the island-studded coast near Narvik. Easily the biggest town hereabouts is Trondheim, Norway’s third city, a charming place of character and vitality, and a definitive cultural hub for the midriff of the country. The city is readily accessible by train, plane and bus from Oslo, but push on north and you begin to feel far removed from the capital and the more intimate, forested south. Distances between settlements grow ever greater, travelling becomes more of a slog, and as Trøndelag gives way to the province of Nordland the scenery becomes ever wilder and more forbidding – “Arthurian”, thought Evelyn Waugh.
North from the modest little industrial town of Mosjøen and nearby Mo-i-Rana, is the Arctic Circle – one of the principal targets for many travellers – at a point where the cruel and barren scenery seems strikingly appropriate. Beyond the Arctic Circle, the mountains of the interior lead down to a fretted, craggy coastline, and even the towns, the largest of which is the port of Bodø, have a feral quality about them. The iron-ore port of Narvik, in the far north of Nordland, has perhaps the wildest setting of them all, and was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between the Allied and Axis forces in World War II. To the west lies the offshore archipelago that makes up the Vesterålen and Lofoten islands. In the north of the Vesterålen, between Harstad and Andenes, the coastline of this island chain is mauled by massive fjords, whereas to the south, the Lofoten islands are backboned by a mighty and ravishingly beautiful mountain wall – a highlight of any itinerary. Among a handful of idyllic fishing villages in the Lofoten the pick is the tersely named Å, though Henningsvær and Stamsund come a very close second.
As for accommodation, the region has a smattering of strategically located hostels, and all the major towns have at least a couple of hotels, though advance reservations are strongly recommended in the height of the season. In addition, the Lofoten islands offer inexpensive lodgings in scores of atmospheric rorbuer, small huts/cabins once used by fishermen during the fishing season.
Some 65km west of Fauske along the E80, the town of BODØ was founded in 1816. However, it wasn’t until the herring boom of the 1860s that it really began to thrive, with the town’s harbourfront crowded with the net-menders, coopers, oilskin-makers and canneries that kept the fleet at sea. Later, it accrued several industrial plants and became an important regional centre, but was heavily bombed during World War II, and there’s precious little left today of the proud, nineteenth-century buildings that once flanked the waterfront. Nonetheless, Bodø manages a cheerful moder nity, a bright and breezy place whose harbour looks out onto a batch of rugged, treeless hills. The small settlement rambles over a low-lying peninsula that pokes out into the Saltfjord, its long and narrow centre concentrated along two parallel streets, Sjøgata and Storgata.
Bodø has long been a regular stop for the Hurtigruten coastal boat route, and is also within comfortable striking distance of the old trading post of Kjerringøy, one of Nordland’s most delightful spots. Perhaps most important of all, however, it’s much the best place from which to hop over to the choicest parts of the Lofoten islands.
A relatively modern town, NARVIK was established just a century ago as an ice-free port to handle the iron ore brought here by train from the mines in northern Sweden. The town’s first modern settlers were the navvies who built the railway line, the Ofotbanen, to the mines in Kiruna, over the border in Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century – a herculean task now commemorated every March by a week of singing, dancing and drinking, when the locals dress up in period costume. The town grew steadily up until World War II, when it was demolished during ferocious fighting for control of the harbour and its iron-ore supply. Today, the place makes no bones about what is still its main function: the iron-ore docks are immediately conspicuous, slap-bang in the centre of town, the rust-coloured machinery overwhelming much of the waterfront. Yet, for all the mess, the industrial complex is strangely impressive, its cat’s cradle of walkways, conveyor belts, cranes and funnels oddly beguiling and giving the town a frontier, very Arctic, feel. Perhaps inevitably, the rebuilt town centre rather lacks appeal – it’s the sort of place where the main street (Kongens gate) doubles as the highway (E6) – with modern concrete buildings replacing the prewar wooden houses, but it still musters a certain breezy northern charm. Of late, Narvik has had a fair old stab at reinventing itself as an adventure sports centre, becoming a popular destination for skiers, paraglidlers and scuba-divers – and developing a good range of guesthouses to match.
One of the real treats of a visit to Narvik is the train ride into the mountains that rear up behind the town and spread east across the Swedish border. Completed in 1903, this railway line – the Ofotbanen – was, by any standard, a remarkable achievement and the hundreds of navvies that made up the workforce endured astounding hardships during its construction. The line passes through some visually stunning scenery, slipping in between hostile peaks before reaching the rocky, barren and loch-studded mountain plateaux beyond. The Swedish national rail service (SJ; wsj.se) now operates the Ofotbanen and trains arrive at and depart from Narvik train station two or three times daily, shuttling to and from Kiruna, three hours away in northern Sweden. The timings of the trains mean that a short day-trip into the mountains behind Narvik is easy enough, and the obvious target is RIKSGRÄNSEN, a pleasant hiking and skiing centre just over the border in Sweden – so take your passport. The journey from Narvik to Riksgränsen takes fifty minutes and costs 39kr each way. Most train travellers nose around Riksgränsen for a few hours before returning to Narvik, but the more adventurous can hike at least a part of the way back on the Rallarveien, the old and refurbished trail originally built for the railway workers. This extends west for 15km from Riksgränsen to the Rombaksbotn, a deep and narrow inlet where the navvies once started their strenuous haul up into the mountains; the trail also heads east deeper into Sweden, to Abisko and Kiruna. A favourite option is to walk from Riksgränsen back towards the coast, picking up the return train at one of the several Norwegian stations on the way.
The area around the Ofotbanen isn’t nearly as remote now that the E10 crosses the mountains to the north of the railway, but the terrain is difficult and weather unpredictable, so hikers will need to be well equipped. For details of other trails hereabouts, as well as cabins, contact Narvik tourist office and/or the DNT affiliate Narvik og Omegn Turistforening (
wnarvikfjell.no). Hiking maps are also available from the tourist office.
Born in 995, Olav Haraldsson followed the traditional life of a Viking chieftain from the tender age of 12, “rousing the steel-storm” as the saga writers put it, from Finland to Ireland. He also served as a mercenary to both the duke of Normandy and King Ethelred of England, and it was during this time that he was converted to Christianity. In 1015, he invaded Norway, defeated his enemies and became king, his military success built upon the support of the more prosperous farmers of the Trøndelag, an emergent class of yeomen who were less capricious than the coastal chieftains of Viking fame. However, Olav’s zealous imposition of Christianity – he ordered the desecration of pagan sites and the execution of those who refused baptism – alienated many of his followers and the bribes of Olav’s rival Knut (Canute), king of England and Denmark, did the rest: Olav’s retainers deserted him, and he was forced into exile in 1028. Two years later, he was back in the Trøndelag, but the army he had raised was far too weak to defeat his enemies, and Olav was killed near Trondheim at the Battle of Stiklestad.
Olav might have lost his kingdom, but the nationwide Church he founded had no intention of losing ground. Needing a local saint to consolidate its position, the Church carefully nurtured the myth of Olav, a process of sanctification assisted by the oppressive rule of Olav’s successor, the “foreigner” Knut. After the Battle of Stiklestad, Olav’s body had been spirited away and buried on the banks of the River Nid at what is today Trondheim. There were rumours of miracles in the vicinity of the grave, and when the bishop arrived to investigate these strange goings-on, he exhumed the body and found it, lo and behold, perfectly uncorrupted. Olav was declared a saint, his body placed in a silver casket and when, in 1066, Olav Kyrre, son of Olav’s half-brother Harald the Fair-Haired, became king of Norway, he ordered work to begin on a grand church to house the remains in appropriate style. Over the years the church was altered and enlarged to accommodate the growing bands of medieval pilgrims; it achieved cathedral status in 1152, when Trondheim became the seat of an archbishopric whose authority extended as far as Orkney and the Isle of Man.