Of all the stunning places we visited in Lofoten—and there were many—the most alluring was Nusfjord, one of Norway’s oldest and best-preserved fishing villages, its rorbuer on stilts, many painted ox-blood red, the most splendid a handsome yellow more closely resembling gold than any other colour, nestled in a tiny harbour idyllically secluded within a fjord surrounded by mountain peaks, aglow in the light of late afternoon. Breathtaking, fairy-tale beauty. With a story to match.
Once upon a time in the nineteenth century, a young man named Hans Grön Dahl fell in love with Rakel Ursin Pedersen, the widow of a property owner in Nusfjord. Actually, who knows if they were in love, but they married in 1834 and settled in the hamlet.
The King of Norway took favour upon Hans and in 1847, granted him sole ownership of Nusfjord, mostly a few rorbuer used by fishermen who had been coming to the area for the rich stock of cod since the fifth century B.C. This royal practice had been typical for centuries in Lofoten fishing villages. But lest we become judgemental of Norwegian kings, let us reflect upon our own country a century ago when captains of industry were made rulers of outports in places like Newfoundland and, in recent times, when our leaders appointed political idealogues ambassadors to China and awarded major contracts to scabrous companies. But let us continue this Lofoten tale.
Hans and Rakel and their dozen children worked hard. Well, we don’t for sure if they all did, but the family earned good money as the sole innkeeper, fish buyer/exporter, rorbu landlord and banker of Nusfjord.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Nusfjord boasted a post office, a bakery, a grocery store, a liquor factory, a refinery making golden oil (from cod livers), a hydroelectric power station and surprisingly, or not, a prison. The public buildings included a school and a meeting house, the latter paid for by fishermen in 1873. In its golden age, Nusfjord had 100 rorbuer and 1,500 residents—even more during the annual Lofotfiske when 500 boats lined the harbour and fishermen came from all along the Norwegian coast. But rarely does fortune linger, as we shall see.
Now it came to pass that large, steam-driven trawlers from afar began fishing in Lofoten’s Arctic waters. Fishermen in small boats could not possibly compete. Nusfjord began its severe decline.
The village was destined to be torn down.
It is said that a last attempt came in 1967 when the first permanent road to Nusfjord was built—before that the village was only accessible by sea. Or maybe there was a trail of bread crumbs you could follow for six kilometres down into Nusfjord from the E10 that travels through the Lofoten archipelago.
Alas, the philosophy “Build it and they will come” was unsuccessful.
But the powers of fate intervened. Or maybe someone, or many, did a lot of work behind the scene. Whatever. Though it certainly was a definitive turning point for Nusfjord, as we shall see.
UNESCO, in 1975 (the year dedicated to the protection of traditional architecture), selected Nusfjord as one of three places in Norway for a pilot project to preserve its rorbuer. Thus began the hamlet’s transformation into a living museum.
Maybe for a princely sum, we do not know the details, except that in 2005 the legendary Dahl family sold their ownership in Nusfjord.
What was once Nusfjord Cottages became the Nusfjord Arctic Resort, which opened in 2011. It is said to be the most stunning of all rorbuer complexes on Lofoten.
The yeasty fragrance of fresh bread wafts through the air from the stone-oven bakery built in 1877, though not late in the day off-season when we were there. (The baker’s name is not Gretel, insofar as we know.) The Nordnaustet Boathouse, built in the same year, transports you to Nusfjord’s golden days as a thriving fishing village. At the Landhandleriet, built in 1907, you can see the original sales counters, showcases and enamelled signs and shop for local foods and gifts, if you arrive earlier than we did, that is.
Above the the Landhandleriet is The Loft, where thirty people can gather for events, like the art show we saw. And around the corner is the Landhandleriet Café, originally the office where Hans conducted business. You can watch a great film on Nusfjord’s history, as we did, and visit the Cod Liver Refinery, a building from 1910 that can be turned into a bar and dancefloor for 140 people. There’s also a smokehouse, the Oriano Tavern in a cellar and Restaurant Karoline.
Nusfjord Arctic Resort owns most of the old buildings, rents out 21 assorted cabins that feature all the princely modern comforts your heart desires and even offers a series of experiences curated by local residents. It is said that only 12 buildings are private residencies.
But, as we know, beauty has its price.
Nusfjord is said to be among the ten most beautiful spots in Norway—the “Venice of the North.” But you know what happened to Venice don’t you?
Picturesque Nusfjord, in the year we visited, was home to only 22 permanent residents.
However—in high season, up to 50 tourist buses were unloading visitors—every day.
And annually, 90,000 people have been arriving to admire Nusfjord’s authentic beauty.
So now, just like in Venice, visitors (in summer) must pay an entry fee of 75 NOK (about Cdn $11, not exactly a king’s ransom) to see Nusfjord, the levy directed to its ongoing preservation. A limit of two coaches per day has also been imposed.
How most people feel about this we do not know, but we put our hands together to applaud common sense whenever it makes an appearance, which seems increasingly rare in this century.
Happily ever after are Spice and Magellan to have had a golden opportunity to see Nusfjord.
For our story, but hopefully not ever for this quaint village.
Nusfjord Arctic Resort has a great website.