Far from the Madding Crowd

travel stories  by Laura Onea

Lofoten

They say that the most profound and beautiful works of art come to surface from the inside of a troubled mind or a tormented soul.

The weather in Lofoten can be quite a pain in the ass during winter (yes, March is still middle of winter there). Rain is not uncommon in any of the seasons, but you can now add the stingy cold, stubborn winds, and no sign of blooming trees or green grass which could compensate for the bad weather. But I believe it is particularly this aspect that exercises your eye and imagination, it challenges you to look for the unseen, for those small worlds out there.

Work with what you have and don’t try to push away your suffering, don’t be angry with it, with you, just observe it, observe yourself, and unleash it, as it may turn into stars and butterflies.

We had been dreaming of the Norwegian archipelago since our last year’s trip to mainland Norway when we decided to exclude it from the plan to avoid being on the run and because I believed (and I still believe) Lofoten deserves special and full attention. And there we were landing on the almost ghostly airport in Evenes, where, on our way back to London, we experienced our first self check-in of the luggages. The whole process, I mean, from scanning our passports and tickets to weighing the luggage, attaching a stamp and making sure it’s good to move on the band. There was obviously no one at the drop-off counter, barely any passengers actually, which made me wonder if there was anyone at the security. :))

Back to our story. We rented a car and made our way towards Svolvær through complete darkness and an unwelcoming heavy rain. The only things we were able to see were the mountains’ silhouettes. Oh, well, and the road ahead, less when trucks were splashing all the the water into our windscreen, making it very difficult to have any visibility. As we were getting closer to the city, the silhouettes started to surround us. The towering rocks raising straight from the water, the fog that made it impossible to grasp how tall the mountains were and the infiniteness of the ocean built an almost scary image in my tired mind. But at the same time, this painting anticipated the beautiful landscape we were to witness in daylight.

And I was right. The next day began with a typical Norwegian room with a view, overlooking a string of red rorbu houses, a Norwegian type of seasonal houses used by fisherman in the past and recently converted into accommodation for tourists. The room where we had our breakfast buffet offered the same charming view, this time to the Svolvær port. We have changed 3 accommodations during our 5-day trip. They were all good at a reasonable price (you can save a lot of money if you travel as a small group and book a house with 4 to 8 beds), but the one I would highly recommend is Svinøya Rorbuer in Svolvær. The little (but very spacious) red houses are cosy, clean, quirky and well equipped. Not to mention the view and that sensation that you are living an authentic Lofotenian experience.

As we traveled into the heart of the archipelago, on our way to Reine, the landscape became overwhelmingly beautiful. The fog and clouds persisted but that didn’t keep us from gazing in awe at the surroundings and made us appreciate even more the almost divine ray of lights peaking from behind the clouds and putting on some subtle makeup on the mountain peaks. Perfect for black and white photos. 😀 Driving on the undulating bridges connecting small islands felt like riding a montagne russe. The highest point of the bridges even gave you some real adrenaline, as you could only anticipate and not actually see if there was a car coming from the opposite direction.

I don’t really know if this is a common activity or not (though I wouldn’t be surprised, given the thick skin of the Nordic people), but we were delighted to walk on a deserted beach and watch several surfers challenging the freezing water and temperatures, and trying to be one with the waves, some clumsily dancing on it.

The village of Reine, and actually the whole Moskenes area, is absolutely breathtaking. The well established fjords, the giant rocks mostly covered in snow, the red rorbu houses with their half side on the water, the vast valleys, they all make for a painting it will be difficult to forget. One of the most peculiar things on the island are the fish strings hanging all over the place. At first, the imagery may seem at least creepy, as people hang not only the fish bodies but also, separately, their heads. Oh, and the smell… you feel like it slowly but surely grows on you. But after a while you get used to it and you start realising what an interesting photographic subject the strings may turn into. It was definitely the most photographed subject on my camera. As we found out, the Norwegians use the cod tongues as a delicacy, while they give the head remains to animals. Moreover, children get less homework during winter only to be able to help with preparing the fish to be perched on the wooden pillars.

We were planning to do 2 or 3 hikes during the trip, but unfortunately the weather conditions, like heavy misleading snow coupled with unpredictable rain, didn’t allow us to be too adventurous in this respect. Nevertheless, we caught one longer window of sunny weather and did a 1.5 hours hike (each way) to the deserted Kvalvika beach, one of the few beaches in Lofoten you cannot reach by car, which makes it even more beautiful. As I said, the weather is quite unpredictable, so the hailstorm that enveloped us on our way back, was impossible to avoid.

The whole archipelago is worth seeing, but the one place that I liked the most was Nusfjord village, one of the oldest and best preserved fishing villages in Norway. Maybe the first thing that strikes is its isolated and wild location – you drive through a deserted valley at whose end you wouldn’t expect to find a colourful place surrounded by rocks. The village also has a small port in the middle and you will hear and see lots of noisy seagulls hovering above your head . It’s out of this world and it inflicts mixed feelings of solitude and freedom.

Also, don’t miss the spot where civilisation ends in Lofoten, the village Å. I can’t really say that the view is spectacular but you will get again that feeling of peacefulness, freedom and wanderlust, which is truly unique.

The only thing that some may find less tolerable, like we do, is eating there. There is rarely a supermarket and those that do exist are not very diverse in products. And the Nordics eat way too sweet, even the bread has sweet flavour, generally speaking! Same issue with restaurants or cafes. You won’t find too many available, especially if you don’t have a city close to your location, while their range of dishes is very basic. You would expect to eat a lot of fresh exquisitely cooked fish, but it is not quite the case. Most of the restaurants are either Italian or Asian and they tend to have a touristically fast foodie character, while the local ones generally serve 2 basic fish dishes plus a fish soup. But once in a while, you can bump into one that compensates for all the others, like the one from Svinøya Rorbuer in Svolvær. I am not really a desserts fan but the jasmine tea parfait was a total delight for your taste buds. The fish is also deliciously cooked there.

As one of the ladies we met during the trip told us, Lofoten is a pearl. During the winter and early ‘spring’ weather can be quite annoying, but it is also a good time to experience the quietness and peacefulness that is so typical of the archipelago. And you have strong chances (if the sky is not overwhelmed by clouds) to witness the sky dance in colours. We weren’t lucky this time, but we will surely come back. 🙂

Riga & Tallinn

The first thing that tickled our senses when we set foot in Riga was the women’s local port: fur coats and rosy cheeks. I don’t know if it’s this combination or their natural beauty, but they looked fresh and charming. If you are environmentally friendly you would probably make a wry face when you glance the first 2 or 3 ladies wearing a dead animal with such naturalness. But after a deeper breathe in and breathe out of a terribly cold air, you realise that, in a country like that, possessing a fur coat is no longer a luxury or a caprice but a necessity.

Riga during winter is like a vintage fairytale. After a springy London, an unusually grey and dry Finland, swimming through fluffy and sparkly snow in Riga was pure delight, so we slowed down our pace from the airport to the accommodation only to enjoy the childhood effect that snow had on us. It was already dark outside when we arrived, which made it possible to be welcomed by a beautiful display of festive lights. I have never seen such an abundance and diversity of winter decorations in a city before. Love at first sight. We had quite a long journey that day, changing a car, a train, a plane and a bus, but our 30-minute walk through the vibrant city splashed us with a great doze of energy.

Riga in the sunlight didn’t impress us less. It’s that attractions-free type of city where the most fulfilling thing is to wander the streets and get lost. Walking through the old city centre is like remembering a story that you never lived. Riga is considered to be the architectural Jugendstil capital of the world, while the Latvians are responsible for designing over 60% of the Art Nouveau style buildings. The undulating, flowing line and the asymmetrical form of the buildings are absolutely lovely. I am sure Hansel and Gretel would be jealous of the design! And it’s a photographer’s delight to capture all the details inlaid in the constructions (which are not few) and make up his own piece of art.

For a lover of hand crafted objects this is the place to be. It’s impossible not to bump into the cosy boutiques where you can find many nice things from traditional clothes and accessories to decorative objects. This is one of the things that, in my opinion, makes for the authenticity and character of a place. I am tired of all the kitschy touristic souvenir shops. Oh, and I think Latvians are obsessed with amber. Whether you are in a classic souvenir shop or in a fancier boutique, you will be overwhelmed by the multitude of amber jewelries. So you have plenty of choice if you are into this honey looking gemstone.

The food in the city is delicious. And cheap! There are many options available and it’s impossible not to like the international cuisine of Flying Frog (Lidojošā Varde), the medieval cates from Rozengrāls, or the treats from the Gastronome buffet. Oh, and you will find quirky tea shops and cafes everywhere. Just keep on wandering the streets. 🙂

If you go further from the centre, the scenery changes considerably. There are many old buildings begging to be renovated along with communist blocks of flats. But although there is probably room for improvement, overall, I didn’t get the feeling that the decadent vibe of this part of the city would reduce the city’s charm. On the contrary, I’ve always enjoyed this mix of displays, of history and present time. It tells stories.

Tallinn, on the other hand, is a bit more revamped, but it reflects the same beautiful medieval painting. So once you’re done with wandering the storytelling streets of Riga, but you don’t want to exit the specific state of being, head to her brother. Or sister? Never mind. ;))

Same as Riga, Tallinn is very richly decorated and lit during the holidays. I loved the hanging apples on the windows as baubles. Strolling through the old city centre of Tallinn when it gets dark is like reading several bedtime stories during the same evening. There were few people on the narrow streets that made up a magical labyrinth, and you could feel the stingy air from head to toe. But then if you peeked inside each building, the situation changed. There was laughter, and many people drinking and talking, and you could feel the warmth. Which reminded me of one beautiful but sad story by Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Little Match Girl’, only we weren’t helpless and trembling. And I felt gratitude for that.

It’s worth mentioning that both cities are much more evolved and modern than we had imagined. Not only that most of the locals speak English and that they have English translations for almost anything on the streets, but they also set WiFi spots everywhere, including in some of the car parking areas. Estonia was the first country in the world to use online political voting and was ranked highest across Europe (96%) for schools using computers and having access to internet. All these may come as no surprise if you consider that Estonia ranks second in the world when it comes to literacy rate (99.8%). Another thing that caught my attention was that people were wearing safety reflector vests or other accessories when it was dark. Animals too. And it seems that they have a law for this.

Both Riga and Tallinn made a surprisingly good impression on us and we were seriously thinking of grabbing some friends and spend a future New Year’s Eve or Christmas here. The cities are magical during winter. And what else? Well, they are definitely incomparably less crowded than any other popular holiday destinations in Europe. The food and the accommodation are very nice and very cheap. They have plenty of colourful and quirky places, from restaurants to cafes or clubs. On the other hand, we’d like to come back when green is back, in spring or summer, to enjoy what makes almost 50% of these countries, that is forests and wildlife. Oh, and did you know that Latvia has a ‘prison experience’ hotel, where you get the chance to stay and live like a prisoner? The reviews say it’s really worth it. So let’s put it on the list. 🙂

The Cotswolds

What do you want to do when you grow up? Well, older, in this case. Though, I wonder if growing up is a matter of aging or a cumulative effect of how you respond to experiences in your life. Probably both. To answer the question: I would move to rural England and own a tea shop. A small and homey tea shop luring passersby with an enchanted scent of roses and steamed milk, in the same way Jean-Baptiste Grenouille explores the emotional meaning of essences in a perfume, in Suskind’s mesmerising book “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”. (If you haven’t read it, or watched the movie, I urge you to do so. It will exalt your senses.) Don’t panic, I won’t turn into a cold blood criminal. :)) I am pretty sure I’ll be a cool but warm and friendly lady sharing stories with her guests all day long.

However, I think you need to be prepared to face the solitude and peacefulness. Yes, yes, you heard me well, to face it. Sometimes we also need to learn (or relearn) how to embrace things that theoretically should have a positive effect on ourselves. I am almost sure I am not the only one who needs to overcome that restlessness that makes us feel uncomfortable if we sit too long in either a quiet or a noisy place. But it’s ok. 🙂 So until I reach that deep feeling of comfort and peace with my own thoughts I will continue to treat myself, once in a while, with the charm and cosiness of the countryside.

What I like most about Cotswolds is that it gives you time and space to fantasize. And if you are not a big fan of the girly airy fairies, then you might as well imagine hobbits welcoming you into their tiny houses, some almost entirely covered in creeper plants. Rural England is a painting in itself.

For a diversity seeker like myself, the area is pure delight given the mixed feelings it arouses. Now I am wandering in a fairy tale, or playing hide and seek in Pan’s labyrinth, while the next moment I am an aristocrat drinking tea with the Queen during a golden age. Time travel at its best.

One of the most popular villages in Cotswolds, if the not the most popular, and if I remember well, the first one I set foot on, is Bibury. Love at first sight. The main and most visible attraction are the charming cottages always dressed in multicoloured flowers and plants. But this festive look on the outside stands in a subtle contrast with a feeling of peacefulness and warmth you could guess by peeking inside. I would feel like knocking on every door, but I master the impulse and end up taking a photo, or several. I recommend the Trout Farm in the village, by far the best cooked trout I have ever eaten.

Other two nice villages that fall in the same popularity category as Bibury are Bourton-on-the-Water and Chipping Campden, famous for the honey coloured stone architecture, romantic bridges that cross the river, local tea shops, antiques and picturesque scenes. They tend to become a bit crowded during high season but you won’t feel suffocated like when you are experiencing the crowd of a big city.

The places that have the most powerful effect of reverie on me are the smaller ones, idyllic villages like Stunton or Lower and Upper Slaughter. It’s unlikely you cross your path with more than 5 people, and it’s oh, so quiet. You wander along till you become incapable of distinguishing magic from reality and wish you could linger there for some time. Forget the diet and treat yourself in one of the local tea shops with their favourite scone and cream tea. Choose the smallest tea shops as they will give that cosy feeling that you have entered someone’s home.

We have recently bought bikes (well, actually, I have recently learnt to cycle, but don’t tell anyone!) and the Cotswolds is our favourite area to practice, enjoying beautiful views and peacefulness. And less traffic if any at all! There are plenty of routes between villages but you can also choose one of the off-road trails. Broadway Tower Country Park, for example, is home to a herd of Red Deer and includes several peaceful woodland trails. There are nice views from the top, where the tower is. Another good option is to cycle along the Kennet and Avon canal from Seend to Devizes.

If you like autumn, just head to south Cotswolds and prepare for a delightful fashion show performed by the Autumn Fairy herself. She dresses all her children, the trees, in a haute-couture richness of colourful clothes. Westonbirt Arboretum hosts a beautiful collection of rare and exotic plants and trees over an area of 2.4 km². Most of them were planted in the mid-19th century. Never in my life have I seen so many reddish trees in one place, it’s like entering a vibrant painting which stays in your mind for a long time.

Another special and enriching thing to experience in the area is to look for an accommodation through Airbnb. And if you haven’t yet, this is the perfect place to start doing it especially because people living here often resemble the characters in the stories I was telling you about. Like place, like people, so to say. Most of their homes are converted barns or very old houses, and people like collecting vintage pieces of furniture or even building furniture themselves, which lends character to the house and recreates a historical atmosphere. In case you haven’t noticed yet, we are very fond of dogs, so each time we have the occasion we choose an accommodation with dog/s included, which makes the experience even better. 🙂

I have been to the area several times so far but I never seem to get enough. There are many hidden corners and secret passages that await your imagination to make up a story about them and then picture yourself in it. See you soon!