It’s not often I blog about a book I’m reading. It has to be exceptional or part of a writing or a photography challenge, but in this case it is because I have just discovered a paperback by someone who writes travel articles that really appeal to me, the sort I used to enjoy in the Sunday papers before they turned themselves over to the advertising world.
I found it through Beachy Books, an Isle of Wight publisher whose listings have often included quirky and interesting books. It turns out that Julie Watson is also an Isle of Wight writer, someone I don’t know but someone whom I’d like to meet one day. So, as well as being happy to introduce a travel writer to those here who write on travel, I’m also excited because she’s from my area, a local writer!
Julie’s book is a collection of travel memoirs from her first independent trip to the French Alps to work as a waitress, to later trips to more exotic places like India, Russia, Egypt, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Borneo, to name but a few. And each tale is an anecdote, a story about her trip, not a list of restaurants and hotels, but about the chance meetings that occur on holiday when we open ourselves to new experiences, serendipitous moments that are evoked in exhilarating detail. And all this brought to us in a very personal, authentic prose. I finished the book feeling I’d learned something new about the places and the people.
Above is one of the Contents pages, from which you’ll see that the articles are short, bite-sized, and as the cliché has it “small but beautifully formed”, ideal for dipping into when you have a spare few minutes.
It’s hard to choose a favourite from so many great pieces but I think I’ll opt for Birdsong, an exquisitely crafted piece written in lockdown, a simple tale, yet one that when read, left me with the feeling that I had known that place, and I had known that moment. And I was strangely moved.
Available from all good bookshops and from Amazon, of course.
This week’s theme from Debbie for One Word Sunday is BLUE and it has been a more difficult challenge. Although I have lots of blue skies and blue waters, I was hard put to find pictures that showed a blue theme. I managed in the end and it was good for me to re-visit photos I haven’t looked at for some time, even if I did spend too long in a nostalgic wander through the past!
I loved the statue but I committed one of the biggest sins in photography by not managing to cut out the post on the right which makes it look as though my cyclist is holding it up. My photoshop skills aren’t up to removing it either!
I thought I’d better try and post something before the year ends and then up popped Cathy at 746 books with her meme My Year in Books. I can never resist a quiz or a challenge, so I looked through some of the books I’d read this year and answered her prompts. Here is the result.
In high school I was Lost for Words (Deric Longden).
People might be surprised by Siracusa (Delia Ephron).
I will never be The Whistleblower (Robert Preston).
My life post-lockdown was Act of Oblivion (Robert Harris)
My fantasy job is The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Hilary Mantel)
At the end of a long day, I need The Rosie Effect (Graeme Simsion)
I hate being A Keeper (Graham Norton)
I wish I had A Song for Dark Times (Ian Rankin)
My family reunions are Play All (Clive James)
At a party you’d find me with The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguen)
I’ve never been to The Salt Path (Raynor Winn)
A happy day includes House of Fun (Simon Hoggart)
Motto I live by: Kick Ass (Carl Hiassen)
On my bucket list is Hunting Season (Andrea Camilleri)
In my next life, I want to have Nada (Carmen Laforet)
If you feel like joining in, just do your own list from the prompts and let Cathy know.
The bells were ringing when I took this photo in Stresa in Italy, a few years ago, so it was a Sunday. In the garden it was silent but outside it was a typical Italian Sunday, the animated passeggiata, the queues at the gelateria, and the family groups, grandparents to babes in arms, all out to enjoy Sunday.
I didn’t know what to expect of this Norwegian town that saw so much horror during the Second World War, a horror made worse I suspect, by it being inflicted on a neutral country. I found that the war had left a deep scar on Narvik, at its most evident in the Museum devoted to the conflict and in the many statues dotted around the town.
Lying just 137 miles inside the Arctic Circle, and like Andalsnes encircled by mountains, Narvik is one of the world’s most northerly towns, but warm North Atlantic Currents and the mountains that shelter the town ensure relatively stable and high water temperatures even in winter. Unlike the Arctic Sea, the Norwegian Sea is ice-free throughout the year which means that Narvik’s naturally large port is always negotiable; this allows boats of virtually any size to anchor.
Although known to be inhabited since the bronze age little was known about the inhabitants of Narvik until the port was developed to receive the ore from Sweden’s Kiruna and Gallivare iron mines in 1883.
Today this town, grown rich on its iron-ore industry, is a quiet place, but it was the iron-ore plus the advantages of its deep sea port that were the cause of its being invaded and subjected to a blitzkrieg that flattened the city in 1940.
A brief history of Narvik’s role in the war.
Poorly armed, neutral Norway became the first victim of the war in western Europe in April 1940. Neither the Allies nor Germany respected Norwegian neutrality and both sides wanted to get their hands on the iron ore mined in northern Sweden and transported to Narvik. Both Britain and Germany were a also aware of the importance of the town’s deep port and both had been pressuring Norway’s strict neutrality since early 1940 when they realized how important this ore was to the war effort. By April, both sides were hastily preparing forces to land in Norway (Britain had earlier sought to interrupt the flow of iron ore by mining the sea lanes) but Germany got there first.
A full scale invasion was launched on 9 April 1940 and in a series of attacks, the Germans seized Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik. Despite initial gains and losses on both sides, the poorly equipped Norwegian and Allied troops were outnumbered and outgunned and by 2nd May most had been withdrawn. Fighting continued at Narvik until Germany invaded France and Belgium, after which the remaining 24,000 Allied troops were evacuated for use elsewhere. Before they left, the troops destroyed the port and the railway and blanket bombing by Germany followed. The town was re-built after the war, which accounts for its somewhat bland appearance today, notwithstanding one or two outstanding buildings.
The above image is Narvik’s National Freedom Monument, a mirrored triangle by Espen Gangvik, a gift from the Norwegian government to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation in 1945. The inscription reads “For peace and freedom. Thanks to our allies 1940-45. Thanks to those who fought.” Made of high polished steel it is 59 feet tall and is located in the town center near the War Museum. Two more views of the Monument are below.
Narvik would appear not to have a lot of English-speaking tourists – although all the people in the town with whom I had contact, spoke the language perfectly – because there was little information in English about the statues and monuments, and the inscriptions on the statues were only in Norwegian. In fact, the tourist office assistant apologised charmingly about this fact, saying with a smile, “We have a long way to go yet, but we are trying”!
I bought an guide book in English from the Tourist Office, and as it was raining outside I put it straight into my bag. Not until much later did I find that it wasn’t in English, but in Norwegian! So, I got most of my information by stopping young people in the street and asking them: they were fine with the translations but not so good with the history!
This is Lille Petter by Jozef Marek. I couldn’t find any information about this sculpture, but his face is haunting and I’d love to know the story.
And here are a couple of very modern pieces, make of them what you will. The white one really has me puzzled.
I wouldn’t like you to think that Narvik is only about past war history, there is a lot more to do there if one has time. The great disadvantage of a cruise is the lack of time allowed to explore the places one stops in, en route. Narvik is teeming with things to do and places to go – apart from the War Museum where you can spend half a day at least.
Bandstand in centre of town
What To Do in Narvik
There are City Bike Rides on electric bikes with a guide, city walks with or without a guide, climbing and trekking in the mountains which surround the town, and of course, the world’s most northernmost animal park, the famous Polar Park, opened in 1994. Home to Norway’s large predators such as bears, wolves, and lynx, as well as deer, moose, reindeer and muskox, all in their natural surroundings, you can easily spend a whole day there seeing and interacting with the animals in their near-natural habitat. Add to this, dog-sledding, husky wagonning, snowmobiling in the winter light and you can see that Narvik offers the visitor a tremendous amount of things to do.
The very brave may fancy some ice-fishing, and best of all perhaps, the fantastic cable-car ride to the Narvikfjellet Restaurant at 656 m, which is the perfect starting point for hiking, skiing, northern lights hunting, snowshoeing and tobogganing. From the upper cable car station you get a panoramic view of the deep fjords, the historic iron ore harbour and Narvik city, which makes the cable car ride an experience in itself, much like the one I did in Andalsnes.
But I didn’t get to do any of these! I spent too long in the fascinating Museum of the War and then got so engrossed in chasing up the names of the artists who did the carvings that I missed my chance to visit the Polar Park. The weather turned nasty, it began to rain so the cable-car was out as the mountain top was covered in black clouds, so there was nothing for it but to adjourn to a warm coffee house and find some inner sustenance in the form of venison sausage and mash served with a local beer.
So, I’ll go back to Narvik one day, maybe in summer time, to do that cable-car ride, to get up close and friendly with a wolf, cuddle a husky and come face to face with a growling brown bear. And to get some better photographs on a day on which the sky won’t be black!
All photographs by Mari apart from the header one with the white deer, which is courtesy of Narvik Tourism.
I should have blogged ages ago about my June trip to Portugal but eye problems meant that computer work was frustrating. Then a couple of weeks ago I went on a Fjord cruise with a friend, despite not being a lover of cruising, mainly because it left from my local port of Southampton. The cruise was similar to a summer one I’d done a few years ago, but this autumn/winter one promised different views of Norway’s fjords.
To mark my return to blogging, I thought I’d start, not with Portugal, but with Norway, and not with the cruise, but with my time on land and one of the delightful towns we visited.
First up was the beautiful Romsdalsfjord and the town of Åndalsnes, located beneath towering snow-topped mountains at the mouth of the Rauma River. Its privileged position has made this Norway’s mountaineering capital, a centre for hiking, trekking and all season climbing in the impressive mountains that surround it, Romsdalshornet, Trolltinden and Vengetindan.
Entering the town in the early morning I was struck by its small size, it looked more like a village than a town, neat little white houses clustered around a small harbour (but a deep one that can accommodate large cruise ships which bring tourists all year round) hemmed in by snow-capped mountains.
Looming up from the middle of the town was a building of such modernity that one immediately knew that this was no ordinary town: anywhere that had such an outstanding piece of architecture just had to have a lot going for it.
As the sky gradually lightened, I became aware of movement above the town and noticed gondolas travelling to a nearby mountain from a dark garage-like building beside the modern one. Things were looking better and better.
The very modern building turned out to be the Museum and Mountaineering Centre, something of which the town is very proud, understandably so, as not only is it a design of total modernity but it has Norway’s tallest indoor climbing wall, it offers various activities, and the full mountaineering history of the region is on display . If you want to get fit, or just to ensure you are adequately prepared for the hike ahead, you could try the 210-metre challenge, or any one of a number of the challenging climbs that are available there. People come from all over Scandinavia come here just to use this climbing wall.
But if you’re not into climbing, or like me, not into that type of physical activity, there’s the Romsdalen Gondola right next door which will take you all the way up to the top of Nesaksla’s summit where you can walk around the top and look with delight at the magnificent scenery all around you: or climb further up to gaze on even more fantastic views of rivers, lakes, snowy mountains and tiny figures climbing up the mountain below. On the summit, the Eggon restaurant awaits with great coffee and freshly cooked Norwegian food sourced locally.
I choose the latter and spent a wonderful day just pottering on top of the mountain and watching the hikers struggle up and down the rocky face of the ridge opposite. Below were lakes, rivers and the town of Andalsnes itself, and what seemed little pockets of cultivated ground. The weather changed hourly it seemed, and went from dark and stormy to incredibly bright and sunny – but it was always cold.
That’s where the wonderful mountaintop restaurant came into its own with nourishing food, great coffee and a selection of cakes to die for. I’m talking saucer-sized pancakes with hot sour cherries topped with whipped cream and chocolaty things that I just had to refuse or I wouldn’t have made it down the mountain again.
I could have headed for the Romsdakstraooa steps and climbed all the way to the top of Mount Nesaksla, 708 metres above Romsdalsfjord, for the same scenic views but although I love snowy mountain tops and awesome views, I gave this one a miss as I’m well past my mountain-climbing days!
Andalsnes is buzzing both summer and winter. It’s a perfect base camp for anything from mountain hiking to summit hikes, long treks with stunning vistas of the Romsdalsfjlla mountain ridge, or leisurely car, coach or train journeys through some of the most wonderful scenery you will ever see.
The town is a transport hub, being the final stop on the Rauma Railway which offers a scenic two-hour journey considered to be one of Europe’s most beautiful train journeys (Lonely Planet, 2022). It follows the course of the Rauma River as it descends into Lake Lesjaskog along which it forms many magnificent waterfalls, travels through lush valleys and mountains and crossing over the famous, natural stone Kylling Bridge with a dramatic view of the foaming river below.
That’s enough to tempt me back: that and the sour cherries on pancakes with cream!
All photographs used in this blog are mine, apart from the two which I have credited to the respective photographers, and Visit Norway which gave me permission to use these images.
Next stop NARVIK, occupied by the Germans during WWll where there is a Museum devoted entirely to its place in that war.