Nordland

Snow-capped mountains and salmon cages. How could I travel from Bergen to Bodø? For a moment I considered driving—twenty-three hours, Google told me. So that was out.

You’re never far away from snow in Norway, and as the Bombardier turboprop labored into the sky the rains of the old Hanseatic city were replaced by white peaks poking through the clouds.

The Norwegian war is hardly spoken of, but during the German invasion the long and jagged coastline was a key theater. What made Norway so appealing to Hitler? It had nothing then, a poor country that survived on fisheries and little else, so the Nazis weren’t after natural resources.

Germany thrives on trauma, and this particular devil was the losses suffered by the Kriegsmarine, the ‘war navy’, during World War I. The allies attacked Kaiser Wilhelm’s ships in the Skagerrak, the narrow isthmus that separates Denmark from Norway and Sweden—it was the only major naval engagement of the Great War. Germany’s only port with access to the North Sea was Kiel, and a blockade of the Kattegat and Skagerrak would decimate the German navy—like shooting fish in a barrel.

As a result, Hitler invaded Norway, thirsting for the shelter provided by the fjords. South of Bodø we tied up to a feed hopper, next to a cage that contained one hundred thousand fish—not too big by Norwegian standards—the stock is usually double.

Below us, three hundred fathoms of dark water. On either side, cliffs rose abruptly toward the lead skies. The German frigates and U-Boats must have loved hiding out in such waters, as the Lancaster bombers droned vainly overhead.

I put out a line for cod, thinking of the Portuguese fishermen, generations fishing for torsk. We slowly pulled off the bottom, but it wasn’t our day—we hooked two small cod, both came up damaged, and as I tossed them back a lone seagull took off from the escarpment, hungry for our meagre catch.

The boat accelerated, the snow and sleet coming at me horizontally now. We huddled aft, turning our faces from the biting wind. The Helly Hansen jump suits, Soviet-style hats, and rain gear kept us warm—we looked like Chinese preserved eggs, ellipses of black challenging the elements.

Don’t get me wrong, the weather isn’t always like this. It gets into the mid-fifties (12ºC) in Bodø on a warm summer day—by then the kids are swimming and seaside picnics become a daily treat.

Of course it also gets considerably colder. There are signs in the airport car park that read ‘Kiss and  goodbye. No kisses above three minutes!’ I reckon any longer lips freeze together and couples are forever welded.

There may be snow up on the mountain, but there's salmon down below. Feeding the world from the wilds of Nordland.

There may be snow up on the mountain, but there’s salmon down below. Feeding the world from the wilds of Nordland.

The city has about forty thousand people, and sits above the Arctic Circle at sixty-seven degrees north. But Norway serpentines much further up to Hammerfest, a town I first read about in Bill Bryson’s first book. Bryson had gone there to view the northern lights, something I too hoped to see.

At this latitude, late April still has about five hours of darkness, but it wasn’t meant to be—no lights, no cod.

Norwegian food is not politically correct—whale meat, reindeer, and seal are de rigeur. Our designated driver was a native of Hammerfest—Norwegians don’t drink at all if they drive. The place where I stayed was so small the only policeman had been retired, but the social stigma of drinking and driving means that the seven-hundred strong community police themselves.

The man from Hammerfest cheerfully drank water as the others imbibed. He had grown up in an area where ammunition was plentiful, courtesy of both the Russians and the Nazis. When the Germans were finally chased away, they escaped south through the mountains, running for their lives. Behind them they left HK pistols, Mauser rifles, field artillery pieces with barrels that could fit the body of a man, and a wide range of ordnance.

When our driver was a youngster, armament from World War II was thick on the ground and the local boys delighted in playing with live grenades. Our man explained with a guffaw that his father had found a number of them hidden under his bed and ordered the ten year old to throw them in the sea.

Years later, when the oil industry arrived, large dredgers came to deepen the port, and the locals watched with apprehension as they waited for the grenades to explode—they never did.

It’s a fight against the elements in this part of the world, and the Norwegians cope admirably. Needless to say, alcohol is a significant part of daily life, and I met a couple of master brewers—if you like beer, you could do far worse than Nordland.

On the other hand, the Vinmonopolet is the only place to buy wine and spirits—as soon as I landed, we headed straight there—my host was on a mission from god. At one point the house we rented contained nine bottles of red wine, two of port, and about sixteen craft beers, including a Belgian magnum.

Oh, of course there was the obligatory vodka and some rather sinister bottles of aquavit. Lurking in a sealed plastic bag was a tin of Surströmming, the Swedish rotten herring favored by mildly insane revelers on Midsummer Day. My friend delighted in frightening his guests with the prospect of opening the evil-looking container, stressing joyfully that it was three years out of date, and therefore particularly fragrant.

As we wandered through the Bodø state wine cathedral, searching the shelves for the best tinto we could afford, a Cornish atendant approached and we got talking—he took us into the hallowed ground where a bottle of Unico, from the house of Vega Sicilia in Castille, will cost you five thousand kroner, a mere six hundred dollars.

As our basket filled with the red wines of Southern Europe, tempered by a Pinotage from Paarl, the English clerk looked the two of us over with a knowing eye.

I see you’re having a party—a Norwegian party.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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