Monday, November 11, 2019

Lofoten Islands on a Brompton (Peter Forde)


Arctic Norway! A 10-day bicycle trip along the fjords, alone with the gulls and hills and sea, miles and miles between scenic fishing villages! I ached to begin. Then. Six months before setting off to cycle the Lofoten Islands, I was diagnosed with angina and atherosclerosis. My airline tickets had long ago been confirmed, the route throughly planned, the Brompton purchased and the hotels pre-booked. There was no way I was going to miss this trip. Kathy and I agreed that if I was cleared by the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL, I could go. After exhaustive testing and a consult with a wonderful Mayo doctor (and my promise to get off the bike and walk if necessary), we all agreed it would be possible. I adopted the Mayo Clinic Heart diet, lost ten pounds (I was pretty skinny to begin with), religiously took my statins, obtained an amulet for the nitroglycerin and carried on with my training regimen. I’ve been cycling since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, had ridden many national and international multi-week tours and, at age 73, knew my limitations; “as we age” was a phrase I was all too familiar with. This was the adventure to began yet another chapter in my love affair with travel and cycling.

I had chosen the Brompton for its simplicity and compactness; it would be taken on large and small planes, car ferries and small fishing boats, trains and possibly busses, in and out of hotels and walked up the steeper bridges and hills. My entire “ride” weighed only 46 pounds which included the bike, clothes for the ten days and all of my gadgets (camera, iPad, mobile phone, chargers, toiletries, medicines and my cane). Yes, my cane. A cycling accident, followed by not so perfect spinal surgery left me with nerve damage and a calf muscle that did not respond to my every wish. My six speed Brompton has been “souped-up” with a smaller, 40t vs. the standard 50t front chainring to accommodate my “as we age” cycling style and with large downhill mountain bike platform pedals that allow full foot placement over the pedal axle.

Tromsø (geo: 69.682778, 18.942778) was overcast and chilly for a Floridian when I landed. It took me only twenty minutes to unbox, unfold, and repack the Brompton for the six-mile ride to the center of town and my hotel. Tromsø was an amazing arctic city. Modern architecture along the waterfront contrasts with the traditional wooden houses of the side streets. The Norwegian government, wanting to reinvigorate the city, had founded a world-renowned university in Tromsø and stressed its importance as an international center for Arctic research.

“If you build it, they will come,” and the city is bustling and vibrant and young. The bike shop I went into for my last-minute tidbits had an amazing selection of both traditional and e-bikes. Although expensive, the e-bikes are used for everyday transportation in Tromsø. Since cars are so expensive to own and the town area quite hilly, the e-bike is seen as the perfect way to get around. During my explorations of the city, I wished my Brompton had been electrified.

Although I consider myself a solo cyclist, there is something to be said for the conviviality of small hotels and B&B’s. A few of my lodgings, although very comfortable, resembled shipping containers in size and others were spectacular. However, one evening, I had to abandon my planned (and paid for) guest house because it was so derilict, scary looking and just plain dangerous. I was saved by the Hotel Marmelkroken, in Risøyhamn, and spend a wonderful evening watching the fog roll in over the bay. The Quality Hotel Saga in Tromsø was great and served traditional afternoon waffles garnished with thin brown wafers. What was this? The Swiss woman next to me pantomimed that is was cheese made from a combination of cow and goat (or was that “baaa” a sheep?) milk with caramelized sugar. Her young daughter encouraged me to spread jam on top. I could get used to this arctic lifestyle.

The Art Studio, on Langøya Island, was the beautiful apartment of famed Norwegian artist, Britt Boutrous-Ghali www.edelmanarts.com). I had a 3-room apartment with the cyclists dream, a bathtub. Not just a bathtub, but a giant bathtub. That day I had forgotten that most shops are closed on Sunday. So after cycling around Sortland in the drizzling rain, all I had found was take-out pizza. When I reached The Art Studio, I begged a beer from Britt’s son, Paul, and had pizza and beer in the tub. Glorious!

After a very plush night, I had a nice, leisurely breakfast and left around 8:00 for the 11:10 ferry at Melbu, 25 miles away. I met Paul a mile down the road and he beckoned for me to come and see his new project. He had purchased a 1938 wooden, gaff-rigged, 50-foot boat that had unfortunately sunk over the winter. The history of the vessel was fascinating. Built in Tromsø, it had been commandeered by the Germans during the war and used to transport prisoners around the Lofoten Islands. His plan was to have it trucked to his farm and restore it to be a floating classroom for the schoolchildren of Langøya Island. We got so wrapped up in the project that I lost track of time and finally discovered that I had two hours to travel the 24 miles to the ferry. I cycle like molasses in January. For the next 120 minutes I time-trialed to Melbu and the ferry. I arrived just as the last cars were coming off and I zipped onboard. I was pooped ! I had cycled from Langøya Island to Hadseloya Island over a crazy, steep bridge (another walk, and this was during a time trial). The ferry took me to Austvågøya, where Svolvær, my next stop, was. Needless to say, I dawdled the remaining 22 miles and arrived at The Scandic Svolvær hotel quite spent.

One thing cyclists love about the Norwegian towns is that there are specific bike/walk lanes into and out of each city. The path out of Svolvær went on for 6 miles, until we cleared the “burbs”. The next 10 miles were on the E10, the Long Island Expressway of the Lofotens; one lane each way with no shoulder. I just did my little-wheel thing and the cars and RV’s and busses avoided me and we all seemed to just get along.

In contrast the 815 was one of the most beautiful 24-mile stretches of road I have ever ridden. Craggy cliffs and meadows on one side, the sea and inlets on the other side, very few cars and great tarmac. I was in Brompton heaven. I took 3 1/2 hours to traverse this road; I stopped for photos, explored roadside art installations, turned down little side dirt roads to find quaint beaches and even found a cafe for coffee and cake. As I sipped my coffee and enjoyed the homemade chocolate cake (sorry Mayo) I enjoyed watching two children frolic in the icy water.

As I entered Stamsund and was literally right around the corner from The Live Lofoten Hotel, I stopped into a little gallery. What caught my eye was the art installation piece in the front yard. ULF M ( http://ulf-m.net ) is a surrealist artist. He is one interesting fellow; has shown in a gallery in Chelsea (NYC), and his work is hanging in my hotel. We spent a good portion of the afternoon discussing Surrealism, Dali (St. Petersberg, Florida, has the largest Dali museum in the world) and his eclectic collection. He wrapped the poster I purchased in a cardboard sleeve and later, I wondered how I would get it home with my minimalist packing. That was the fitting culmination of one terrific day. Dinner was a hodgepodge of yoghurt and fruit and bread and nuts and beer from the nearby Joker Market.

My schedule was quite casual and the daily mileage ranged from 30 to 50 miles. With sunlight all day, I was able to meander along and not worry about what time I arrived at my evening’s destination. I cycled with my camera always at my side and stopped often to capture the spectacular views. My only logistical concerns were catching the numerous ferries that connect the islands within the Lofoten archipelago and finding my lodging by using Lat/Long coordinates since the houses do not always have street numbers. I was also never stressed about losing time when I had to walk up a particularly nasty stretch of road nor the very steep bridges that connected some of the islands; whistling kept me company. My daily routine, once I recovered from jet lag, was to have a leisurely hotel breakfast of homemade bread, salmon, herring, granola, yoghurt, fruit and those luscious waffles and nice flavorful, black coffee, pack up the Brompton and be on the road by 10:00 (or perhaps 11:00). My exhaustive research ( I love that little yellow gal on Google Maps) had prepared me for point-to-point rides with no services along the routes. Arriving at my destination town I would check out the local Joker or Coop, chat with the locals, and prepare for dinner. Most of my hotels did not offer any dinner, so I dined on canned sardines or kippers (note the repetition), fruit, peanut butter (when you see it, buy it!), bakery bread and a local beer. If armies march on their stomachs, cyclists pedal with their protein. Not knowing any Norwegian, I sometimes found myself eating canned something or other that I thought were sardines but actually... I still do not know. When I was lucky
enough to find a resort restaurant along the road, I engaged with culinary passion. One such experience came as I was cycling down the western side of Andøya Island. I happened upon an unexpected restaurant overlooking a beautiful lake and stopped in for lunch.

On the restaurant chalkboard - Dagens suppe: Potter med Hval

Looked good. I caught the word soup and it was a tad chilly. I ordered the suppe, bread and coffee.

Waiter: How was your soup ?
Me: Very nice. Was that potato and mushroom?
Waiter: No sir (they call me sir here) potato and whale.
Me: Excuse me?
Waiter: Potato and Minke whale. You can also have that as an entree.
Me: No thank you, I’ll just have the the check.

It did taste just like mushroom.

I had read about the numerous tunnels in Norway and was prepared with front and rear lights and orange outerwear for the dim but always lit passages and I always pushed the “sykkel” button to let the vehicles know I was in there. There was so little traffic along my route that I was never anxious about being in the tunnels, some of which were almost 2 km in length. When I did encounter a car or RV, the drivers were extremely courteous and waited patiently behind me for a safe place to pass (just as in Florida). I was able to bypass the notoriously dangerous Nappstraum Tunnel, connecting the islands of Flakstadøya and Vestvågøya, by taking advantage of an entrepreneurial fisherman who set up a ferry service during the off fishing-season. The 76-year-old cod fisherman ferried cyclists between Ballstad and Nusfjord in his traditional 34 foot, diesel-powered, fishing boat. Fishing since he was 14, he piloted his boat (during my only very rainy day) through a seemingly endless maize of reefs, fog and small rock islands. Cod fishing, which takes place during the winter, is a lucrative, but dangerous occupation. Sailing alone and setting a line of 1500 baited hooks, he goes out most days and, by law, must not spend the “night”. This, of course, is during the Arctic winter when there is nothing but “night”. We landed safely and I continued on, to the end of the tarmac in a village called Å. Taking a photograph of the Å signpost (I guess it’s like dipping your front wheel), I backtracked the few kilometers to The Lofoten Rorbuhotell in Sørvågen from where I could catch the ferry in
Moskenes to Bodø the next morning.

My original plan was to take the ferry to Bodø, which is on the mainland, where I would continue my journey by train to Oslo and meet Kathy. Plan B. There were no sleeper cabins available for the two-day trip, so remembering my promise to Kathy to take it easy, I decided to fly from Bodø to Oslo. Luckily, a Red Cross thrift shop in town had just the right chair cushions I needed to safely pack the Brompton in my Ikea “dimpa bag” for the flight. The airport was close to town, and after a 30-minute fold and pack, the bike was checked onto the plane and my journey was completed.

Relaxing in our apartment in Oslo, I collected a Brompton carton from the very nice people at Spin Bicycle Shop in Majorstua, and shipped the bike home using ShipMyBag, whom I had used on my previous trip to Scotland. Easy peasy. Kathy and I then set out to enjoy Scandinavia for the next five weeks.

Did my “condition” alter my touring style? Yes. My daily mileage was about half of what I had done in the past, I was very conscious of my diet (lots of fish, whole grains, nuts, few pastries and no red meat) and when the road became too vertical, I walked. The alternative, to stay home and mope, was not even considered. “As we age” can be a wonderful adventure.

By Peter Forde

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