Sunday, Aug. 31, 2013
We are sitting in Dan’s brother’s boat, somewhere off the coast of Kristiansund, a city of about 15,000 roughly half-way up the Norwegian coast in the district of Møre og Romsdal. We are not far from town – in a bay just outside the oil industrial park. Dan and Ove are fishing, pulling in mackerel so fast, they can hardly get their lines back in the water. We were hoping for Sei, my favourite, but there aren’t any here. They would be below the mackerel, I’m told. Sei is known as bluefish or Boston bluefish in North America but the North Atlantic stuff doesn’t get exported there. At least, I’ve never seen it; and I’ve been looking for it for 35 years.
We’ve only been here 30 minutes or so and have about 2 dozen mackerel, not big, about 1 to 2 pounds. They are good smoked or used for fish balls; except tomorrow we are going halibut fishing, so the mackerel will be used for bait. The sea is fairly calm here and the weather is warm though cloudy. We’ll likely stay out here for a few hours. Karin (Ove’s wife) stayed home to make baccalao which is the traditional dish of Kristiansund, made from dried cod. The city was once cliff-fish capital of Norway – so named for the method used to dry the fish. Cod (which has always been abundant in these waters) is coated in salt and dried, then after so many days, the salt is rinsed off and the fish placed in the sun to dry. Kristiansund’s rocky shorelines were the perfect venue to lay out miles and miles of cod. And in the old days, workers laid out and turned the fish as it dried on the rocks. It must have been back-breaking work – hence was a woman’s job. Today, the product is made in a factory. Baccalao, no doubt a recipe brought north from Spain or Portugal where the fish was being shipped, is still the most popular fare on Kristiansund tables. It’s a stewed combination of potatoes, onions, tomatoes and dried cod with as many variations to the recipe as there are ways to cook potatoes.
When I first came to Kristiansund in 1980, we found a town that completely emerged anew after the Second World War. That’s because the Germans bombed the crap out of the place, not leaving much standing, except the opera house on the left and a the old church across the harbour at Nordlandet. Hence, the entire town was rebuilt after the war, and 35 years later, seemed to be stuck there.
Cookie-cutter houses cling to the hillsides and cliffs of three islands that hug a safe quiet inner harbour. On those first visits after a day-long drive from Oslo or Bergen, we had to take numerous ferries to get to the city. But in the 1990s, a major construction, called Krifast, connected Kristiansund to the mainland with extensive under-sea tunnels and massive bridgeworks. So today, you can get to Kristiansund without taking a ferry; however, if heading north to Trondheim, it is still quicker to take the ferry from Kanestraumen. And that too will soon be replaced with a bridge (2013).
The dock area and wharf boarders the city centre. It had been falling into disrepair for years, so the city finally got around to building an entirely new dock which stretches all along the waterfront. Ships and boats of every size, from rowboats to luxurious cruise ships – all vie for space and attention along the busy pier. A statue of a “cod lady” greets visitors.
A modern-looking Rica hotel dwarfs one end of the harbour. A new shopping centre with dozens of shops on two levels is next to it but the main street of shops is still Kaibakken which flows from the pier all the way up the hillside. A quaint market patio is situated outside the Rådhuset (city hall). The market is a great place to pick up some home-made lefse and sample various kinds of sausages made from reindeer, mink or elk; buy some flowers or fresh strawberries; or just sit on the edge of the fountain and watch the world go by.
From Kaibakken, it is just a quick walk up to the “new” church. No need for directions, you can see the top of this weird-looking building from anywhere in town. The church looks like it belongs in a futuristic Spielberg movie rather than an old Norwegian town which has strict building codes and where every house, storefront, restaurant, or shed has the exact same design – wooden painted exterior with neat perfectly square windows. Newer buildings are indistinguishable from old ones. And apparently, apart from white, black and brown, there are only five colours of paint in Norway: barn red, sky blue, moss green, baby-poop yellow and khaki. All houses are painted with a combination of any two of those colours. Norwegians do try to be different from their neighbours, so you’ll see a sky blue house with white trim, or a white house with barn red trim or my favourite: brown with barn red. Hence, Kristiansund could pass for a Lego theme park. Paint isn’t sold by the gallon, but by the barrel, as wooden siding needs constant touch up. And Norwegians are meticulous about keeping their properties looking nice. (It’s the law anyway.
Getting back to the church – it was built in the 1960s. The outer walls are not perpendicular, but rise up at an awkward angle, holding up a concave roof with vertical stained glass panels at one end. The effect inside the sanctuary is even more striking as the sun hits the coloured panels providing an eerie affect.
Not to be missed in Kristiansund is fish and chips. It’s available at three gatekjokkens – one at each end of the harbour and one down at the parking lot at the bus station (at one end of the pier.) Apparently, an English woman came to Kristiansund – must have been in the 1960s – and brought with her English-style fish and chips. I discovered this on my first visit and have subsequently made the gatekjokkens my first stop every trip since. But in recent years, there’s been a new twist to the old-time favourite. (Oh, and forget mushy peas.) These fish and chips come with stappe – creamy mashed potatoes. You can have fish with stappe or fish with chips (home-made, hand cut, of course) or a combination of both. All this must be smothered in Norwegian mayonnaise. (Don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it.) On my most recent visit in 2013, I found the gatekjokken at the bus depot to have the best stappe. All have great fresh fish and chips.
God, how I love being out here along this coast! Norway is dotted with about a billion rocky islands and shoals. They have a saying here: God made Norway out of clay, and when he was finished, he shook his hands.
The rocks are pretty barren – the only vegetation is a spongy moss with the odd bush. And on a gray day like today, it can look pretty foreboding. But all those rocks keep the sea calm – until there is a storm, of course.
In the old days, people lived out here on these rocks. It would have been a tough existence, since the only fresh water would be rain water. Each house had its own cairn for collecting rainwater. The only inhabitants today are summer vacationers and birds – mainly big ocean eagles that nest wherever they want. An old story relates to a bird, such as these, grabbing a small baby and flying off to its nest. The baby was rescued. Another story is of a woman who lived in an old house out here. She went crazy and murdered her own children. Not sure if either of these stories are true, but I’m thinking truth is often stranger than fiction, hence events even worse than these have happened along the coast. Halvarøy is one such island (or group of islands). It is where Dan and Ove were born. The handful of houses and a sea house are still owned by relatives who use the place for summer vacations and fishing adventures.
While you can’t get to Halvarøy unless you have a friend with a boat, you can get to Grip (pronounced ‘greep.’) There are tour boats daily in the summertime from the pier – just look at the signs near the cod lady. The tours to Grip run several times per day from June until August – an absolute must-see if visiting Kristiansund.
I guess the most spectacular thing about Grip is how it looks on approach. A neat block of closely-knit square houses seems to pop up out of the sea. There are no roads on the island, just paved walkways between the houses, which are surrounding by the rolling ocean. There really is no place like it. There you are in what seems to be a small town surrounded by the raging Atlantic. You cannot get to the lighthouse from Grip; not without a boat. And even then, it is rare to be able to go ashore as the waves seldom settle enough to allow adventurers to walk on the rocks surrounding the lighthouse.
As I said, the coastline has a myriad of islands. Most are small rocks and shoals, uninhabited, some are island groupings with a few houses; others are bigger islands with large communities, like Smøla where an array of windmills have popped up in recent years.
Just south of Kristiansund is the Atlantic Highway – an amazing piece of roadwork that stretches across the base of a fjord. I’ve also written about it for Viking so will place a connection here.
We’ll be going back there next week as a friend traveling with us wishes to do some diving. And the Atlantic Highway is Norway’s optimum place to do that.
So that’s it. We’re now off to Helgeland in the district of Nord-Norge.