Steaming up the Norwegian coast: breathtaking vistas, native charm
We had docked at the isolated Norwegian coastal village of Berlevag, several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle and just around the corner from the Soviet border. There, a familiar ritual was being played out. Some 25 teen-agers were standing on the pier in a state of great excitement. The ship's crane dipped down into the cargo hold and brought forth a bright fire-engine-red Honda motorcycle one of the group had bought. Before we set sail again, its new owner was doing figure eights in the parking lot to the delight of his friends -- and of the tourists gazing down from the deck. This was not an ordinary sea cruise. It was an 11-day, 1,500-mile round-trip journey from Bergen to Kirkenes on a 2,000-ton ship, one of 11 that leaves Bergen daily to take mail and cargo to thousands of isolated coastal residents.Skip to next paragraph
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Each coastal steamer is in fact a kind of hybrid, a cross between a tourist cruise ship and a cargo-carrying freighter. Tourist passengers can observe coverall-clad crew members loading crates of frozen fish and lumber one minute and be eating with sterling silver on china in the elegant dining room the next.
And although most of the tourists on board are English, German, and American, passengers are not isolated from the natives. Several dozen day-passengers are usually on board, most of them Norwegians using the ship to ``bus'' from one coastal county or town to the next.
This provides for many delightful encounters. On the fourth day of our journey, a Norwegian ornithologist came on board. He was studying the declining gannet and puffin populations above the Arctic Circle and spent most of his time with his binoculars and note pad. But he was always willing to talk about coastal customs and traditions.
One of the most persistent of these traditions involves a method of preserving cod, tons of which are caught in Norwegian coastal waters each year, especially between January and April. Beginning near the Lofoten Islands, some of the richest fishing grounds in the North Sea, a familiar sight greeted us on the jetties of the ports we called on: huge wooden A-frame structures, like tents that had lost their fabric. When we used our binoculars, we could see that hundreds of filleted fish were literally hanging out to dry on these racks.
This was, of course, an essential method of preservation in the days before refrigeration, and in fact many shippers made their fortunes by shipping what came to be called ``clip-fish'' to the Mediterranean -- there to be consumed in Roman Catholic countries on fast days. A tradition born of necessity has become a cultural preference in Norway, where fish sellers do a brisk business in fish that have hung for months in the spring and summer air and must be soaked for days before they are edible.
The coastal steamers play an important role in this continuing commerce in fish, transporting a great deal of the processed cod, halibut, and salmon caught in the northern waters to Bergen, where it is loaded on planes for destinations all over the world. We docked at Risoyhamn, in the Lofoten Island chain, for nearly two hours one morning and watched while 75 palettes (each containing about 20 cases of frozen cod fillets) were stowed in the ship's cargo hold.
Fortunately, not all of the fish is stored. One of the great attractions of the voyage is the opportunity it affords to sample the rich North Sea harvest of fresh cod, halibut, and salmon -- not to mention a varied array of prepared fish, Scandinavian-style. In addition to eggs, porridge, bread, and preserves, the breakfast board was always loaded with several kinds of pickled herring, caviar in toothpaste-style tubes, and anchovies. Lunch spreads usually included shrimp, fish balls, and salt cod or herring.
Fresh fish was often featured at dinners as well. On the evening of National Day, May 17, when Norwegians celebrate their independence from Danish and Swedish rule, we were treated to a native feast: cauliflower soup, poached salmon with sour cream sauce, and new potatoes and carrots, followed by strawberries with cream and a bountiful array of flatbreads and cheeses.