Tagline: Nature, food (or the lack thereof…), more nature, and the error of wanting to stay close to airports when you have connection flights… (among a ton of other stories).
So early this September I found myself heading for northern Norway, to the beautiful archipelago of the Lofoten islands, where a crypto workshop1 was to be held in the city of Svolvær2. Unluckily for me (but luckily for you, because it gives a much better story), the mishaps started long before I set foot anywhere near my destination…
In fact, they began when deciding how to send me there. Svolvær turns out to be so remote a place, that the most direct route (that still required a train ride to Lisbon, and 2 flights thereon3), also required an overnight stay in Oslo! Which brings me to my first mistake: I decided to stay at the Best Western Oslo Airport Hotel4, a nice 4 star hotel conveniently situated a 5 minute bus ride from Oslo’s main airport (Garnermoen, OSL). So far so good, right? Wrong!
While the hotel is indeed close to the airport, that 5 minute bus ride, costs 70NOK (~8€) per journey5, which is pretty effing expensive! For comparison, to go from the airport to the centre of Oslo (roughly 35km), the fare is 90NOK per journey! This meant that to visit Oslo, I would have to go to the hotel to leave the luggage, and then get back to the airport (where the railway terminal is also located), so that’s 70+70, go to Oslo and return to terminal and then to the hotel (90+90+70). Adding to this returning to the airport the next day, that’s roughly 500NOK in transport fares. At this point I still wondered whether to shell out that cash and go visit Oslo anyway. But alas, when I arrived at the hotel, the receptionist—a nice Peruvian lady6—told me that my room would be ready by three o’clock, which meant I had to wait there for another two hours… (unless I were to go sightseeing with my suitcase tagging along…). So I guess I’ll have to return to Oslo in some other time… and find myself some nice lodgings in the city centre!
By the way, going a bit off-topic, there was one bit of cultural difference that I noticed barely after touching down in Oslo. After exiting the airport, when trying to find what was the shuttle to Best Western, I decided to go ask the driver of a bus that was stopped nearby. He was answering a question from another tourist, and so, as I had a quick question, I instinctively did what seven-plus years living in Lisbon teach you to do: I blatantly interrupted him and posed my question. He didn’t even look at me: he just lifted his hand, palm and fingers spread, a la stop sign, instructing me to wait for my turn. This was to happen yet again, before I interiorised that it was on the list of “do nots”.
Going back to ranting about staying at hotels “near” the airport, another disadvantage is that there is essentially nothing around you (except other also supposedly “nearby” hotels). More to the point, that meant I was also stuck with the prices of the hotel’s restaurant, which—as is the case for every other restaurant in Norway—are ludicrously expensive. I ended up skipping lunch, but I did eat a burger for dinner, which was the cheapest thing on the menu that wasn’t a salad. Which brings us to the topic of food…
The Nordic food conundrums
The Nordic food conundrum, isn’t so much that restaurants are very expensive (although they are); it’s that the price of food in groceries and supermarkets cost a whole lot less! By their living standards, it probably even qualifies as “cheap”. I fail to see any reason for this. Indeed as I was leaving Svolvær and headed for the airport, I got to talk with the cab driver, and he acknowledged that in fact, there seems to be no reason for it, and moreover, he admitted to never going to restaurants in Norway! Put another way, restaurant eating is something at least this Norwegian only does when travelling abroad—which for any Southern European, is quite anathema indeed!7
But anyway, I did end up having a couple of meals in restaurants (some where included in the workshop). Plus, breakfast was included in hotel package (see below)! :-D
The first thing I tried was the soup fish, in restaurant Bacalao. I was told this is typical Norwegian, but, not being overly fond of fish, I was a bit sceptical… In the end I decided to try it anyway, and guess what… it was actually delicious!
And speaking of typical things, the breakfast was anything but! Here are a couple of samples:
That brown slice in the left hand side was cheese which flavour bares a somewhat vague resemblance to peanut butter… Several people told me it is a delicacy; while it is nice, I am unsure it it reaches the bar for that qualification9.
The workshop included lunch, and on the very first day, it was—can you guess?—salmon!
Note that this was the entirety of the lunch. It was fish on most days, but, much to my surprise, we actually got pork once10:
To drink there was always water, and this something peculiar in Norway: apparently, whenever you go to a restaurant, they always put a bottle of water on the table (uncharged). It is only if you want other drinks that you have to ask—and for those they really do charge you! Case in point: for the below depicted meal, the beer went for a whopping 10€!!
Now don’t get me wrong, it was a nice, locally crafted beer (not that that mattered much, all prices were similarly high). But was it worth the cost?
Also included in the workshop was the banquet. Although in Norway I am certain that word has a very peculiar meaning, that hardly carries over to more Southbound lands. Why do I say this? Because that ostensible banquet was supposed to have three courses: the first was the soup, served in a huge plate and with an inversely proportional portion of actual soup. But the winner is definitely the second “course”:
They did serve us white and red wine, along with a more generous third course, so it wasn’t all bad.
Now that I have vented my food-related complaints, I want to end with the one meal that was really, really good. On my last day on the island, having strolled around quite a bit, I discovered a restaurant called Vestfjord 11. Being the last day, I decided to spend the (physical) money I still had, and so I treated myself to some
of those parts: a (hot) soup made of orange berries (indigenous to the Northern parts of Norway, it would appear), with a ball of icecream on the middle. The fish was really awesome—and coming from me, this means something!—and the dessert had a strange sour (from the berries) and sweet flavour; it was also nice, but it seemed to be more of an acquired taste. I shan’t bother you with how much that meal cost…
But enough with the food talk already—after all, only a fool goes to Norway for culinary reasons…
Situated at a latitude of 68.23 degrees North12, this small town in the Lofoten archipelago has no runways for jet engine aircraft. Instead one travels in propeller-powered planes—which is exactly what I did:
It flies at lower altitudes than the regular jet engine ones (24000 feet (roughly 8km) was the top altitude, if memory serves correctly). And the insulation of the cabin walls is definitely worse: I got a chill whenever I rested on them. But for these views, I could not care less! :-D
Having left a sunny and warm Portugal, I arrived at my destination only to find chilly wind and rain. But I was lucky enough to find that some people from the workshop’s organisation had also taken my flight, and they were kind enough to give me a lift. We were staying at different hotels, but being a small city, we of course bumped into each other afterwords and all went to have lunch.
The workshop started the next day, and although this (post in particular) is hardly the place in which to starting blabbering about math and/or crypto, I did get some nice ideas (even if some of them were critical). I also got to meet very nice people—including fellow PhD students—and to top it all of, hiking and a full day boat ride were included in the program! I’ll talk about these further below.
Although it was rainy when I arrived, for the next week we got sun and (mostly) clear skies—which we were told, is most unusual! That also meant everyone was on the lookout for aurora Borealis, more commonly known as Northern lights! I was lucky enough to get to see them, two days in a row! But alas, I was not a good enough photographer to be able to properly capture so magnificent an event. And I do mean magnificent: on the second of those days, by 22:00 half of the sky was covered in green and purple-ish streaks! But some of my fellow attendees did manage to take good pictures, which I will link here as soon as they are available. I was also lucky enough to see an aurora that had a thin cloud in front (relative to me): from my perspective, it was as if the cloud just became backlit! Another image I won’t forget anytime soon :-)
I stayed for a couple more days after the workshop had finished, but by then, the weather had begun to deteriorate. So whenever it was not raining, I went strolling around. I could not get enough of the landscape, and indeed now I somewhat miss it. Here’s a quick glance:
And speaking of the venue, the one thing I had a ton of trouble finding, was drinking water. The reason? Why, because the wretched thing looked like this!
And speaking of hotels, this was mine. My room was in the first (left) red block.
When I showed these photographs to a couple of friends, they complained that a lot of them contained something “spoiling” the image. I thought they were talking rubbish, but then I looked at this photograph…
There are a few other photographs where this also happens; probably it means it need to improve my skills as a photographer, because when I was there actually looking at those scenarios, those buildings/factories did not bother me at all…
They also complained about this one, but here I think they are mad; this one is just beautiful!
I also got to see a lot of structures like this one, which is where they dry the fish (this is done from March to June, if I recall correctly).
One of the last things I did was to visit the Lofoten’s Krigsminnemuseum (a.k.a. the War Museum), which is absolutely insane! The following pictures—while being worth more than 1000 words for sure—still scarcely do it any justice:
Please do take a look at the full gallery!
And do go visit, should you ever happen to find yourself in those Northern parts of the world. It’s the best spent 100NOK you will ever shell out!
But before any of this, there was a boat trip, and two hikes. Read on :-)
Midweek, the day started with all of us gathering outside the conference venue for the boat trip. And my day started with clicking a photography of a baby(?) seagull(?)—can you spot what is peculiar about this one (species)?
It was a beautiful morning, which I spent facing the cold wind on either side of the boat, so as to enjoy the landscapes as much as I could.
And speaking of worse things, there a lot of worse ways to spend your mornings than speaking about crypto—and with one the authors of AES, no less!—amidst ever changing (but always staggering) wilderness.
The afternoon began with more bird-seeing (we had done a little bit in the morning); this is one of my favourites:
And these ones from Trollfjorden, because the eagle looks totally Photoshopped in!! (in reality they have had no editing whatsoever)
The last visit before heading back to Svolvær was to Henningsvær, home to what is arguably the world’s remotest football
We were also treated to what I can only describe as some peculiarities of the Norwegian sense of humour!
But of course, the day could not end without me again being close to misfortune. Take a look at the following photographs:
Both were taken when I was sitting down on a chair—so you can imagine how much the boat was bouncing from one side to the other. It bounced so much in fact, that at one point in time I fell down from my chair, and was thrust against the rails, ending up with head and chest leaning overboard!!
Desperately trying to get a grip on myself—in more ways than one—I finally managed to sit down again, feet firmly pressed against the deck, and did not get up until the boat had docked. And I don’t think I uttered a single word during that time, either. What I did do was to count my blessings. And avoid overthinking things—all’s well that ends well, I suppose…
On the trail I hiked the day after Tjeldbergtind (see below), you actually get a broad view (of Tjeldbergtind):
You can see it actually has two peaks: one on the left hand side, and another, slightly higher, at the right hand side. You can visit both, and in each there is a hardcover notebook and a pen for you to sign your name. Which is a nice touch—adds to the motivation, one can say. Here’s me on the lower peak:
Of course, in hikes I cannot photograph as much as would in (say) a boat trip, because one tends to be busy, you know, doing the actual hiking. Here are some shots from when I got to the top ridge (which connects the two peaks):
But it is not just upon reaching the summit that one gets to appreciate the landscape; to the contrary, here are two photographs of places our hiking crossed:
As I mentioned above—and these pictures should make clear—we were really fortunate to have been able to enjoy really good weather. However, the forecasts indicated that the next day would also be sunny, but that was it—rain was to fall for the rest of my stay in Svolvær. Now this was the last day of the workshop, and thus, understandably, on the next day I wanted to rest. But that meant effectively wasting the last day of Sun, which was a big no-no. So I went for an even crazier hike instead.
As the last paragraph above hints, this one was more eventful (euphemism). To begin with, it is much steeper (and higher) than Tjeldbergtind. The first part you hike amidst dense and high trees, almost literally hopping between their branches to help you.
When hiking up this part, you are fairly protected against the wind. That completely changes when you reach the next one:
Also, despite the very fair weather, on that part with no trees, the hike is very muddy, forcing detours from the marked path, and even then, you still will get your feet wet (or your shoes, at any rate). But at least the path is very well marked—even if at times the marks show up placed like this:
Of course, the path is well marked—on the way up. Getting down is another story (which I shall get to shortly). Before that, however, I managed to get lost on the way up. That was because I reached a point where, for the life of me, I could not find the next mark.
But the trail was clearly not done, and the most promising(!) way up looked somewhat like this:
As carefully as I could, up I went. After a little while, it became pretty obvious that that could not be the way of the trail. Not only were the rocks rather loose, but most of them were covered by a rather generous layer of moss—which has that peculiar characteristic of being rather slippery! Specially in damper climates! Having been climbing for a bit, however, and now looking down, I realised that descending back to the point where I first got lost would not be any easier than going up.
So I decided to stop, lay back, enjoy the—spectacular—view, and take some more photos (including some shown above).
Anyway, eventually it was time to go back down. Again, with as much care as I could muster, fighting moss, gravity and loose rocks, down I went. It took more time than going up, but I did got back to the place of the last mark—and right then I saw the next one!!!.
What had happened, you see, is that the marks are always on the rocks, cf. the picture above. But that particular mark I had missed earlier, was on a damn stick! I missed it because when I first got to this particular point in the trail, the Sun’s relative position was roughly “up and behind” that stick, in such a manner as to leave the mark on the shadowy part. And as, furthermore, I was not expecting for it to be on a damn stick, I did not give it a second look—deciding instead (after looking to all the rocks and failing to find any marks) to go up the mossy path.
When I finally came down (the mossy path), the Sun had shifted, and just glancing at that damn stick immediately revealed the next mark… But alas, by then too much time had passed (and I had run out of water), and hence I had decided to go back to the city. I was so mad when I realised the mistake I had made, that I just turned back and continued down… (which is also the reason why there are no photos of that f’cking damned stick!!)
Which brings us to the next story. So down the trail I was going, and—just as when going up—I kept looking the next mark to point the way. Having just gone through that vexing story of the damn stick, I was extra careful when looking. But to no avail: I could not find any marks. If I looked back in the upward direction, the marks were very easy to spot, but there simply seemed to be none in the downward direction. Resigned to my luck, I continued down, always turning back to check upward marks were still there (meaning of course, I was on the right path).
Until I wasn’t: I looked back, and the upwards marks were not there. Oops. But there was clearly a path, cut amidst the vegetation. Now I had a dilemma: I could go back until a found a trail mark, but in addition to water, I had by now also ran out of food (and was getting hungry, as it was well past noon…). And besides, I was also growing tired, and going back meant going back up. Or I could continue… and in a sense, the unmarked path I found myself in was going on the “right” direction: it was going down.
Of course, that was no guarantee: the path could end in (say) a cliff, which would force me to double back and go around it. I decided to keep going, even with that very distinct possibility hanging—ever more heavily—over my head. But after all the mishaps, luck finally came through on my side: I found a couple who got lost on the way up, and ended in the path I was in instead. Asking them how long was the rest of the way down, “oh it’s just 20 minutes”. HOORAY!, I thought to myself :-)
So I continued, down and with a (much) lighter head, until I re-encountered the effing trail marks again!
In the picture above, the marks lead you to the left, but the path I was returning from was on the right. It is basically a (quite lessy muddy) shortcut to the alternative that takes you through the plains shown here.
But I couldn’t really give a toss—I just rushed back to the hotel, got under the shower, and let the water wash away my problems… (no such luck with my cuts and scrapes, though!)
The journey back
As I mentioned earlier, after hiking and boating and whatnot, I strolled around Svolvær… until it was time to leave.
Alas, after far too short a journey spent amidst lit skies by night and beautiful natural sceneries by day, it was finally time to go back. As I mention in a previous footnote, it took 3 flights to reach Lisbon. It started at the airstrip in the Northern part of the island and—depressingly predictably—on account of my
terrorist Indian complexion15, I was again “randomly selected” (this was the actual phrase I was told) for having even my tooth paste and my shoes checked (this last one was a first…). It actually felt weirder than normal, because the airstrip is so small that I was selected at “random”… in a room that was practically empty!! I wonder if I can use this on the next paper I write about randomness…
From there it was a short flight16 to Bodø, which to the best of my recollection, is the first airport where I have seen military and civilian aircrafts operate side by side. In fact, while my plane was taxiing on the runway, I saw fighter jets take off! Sadly I have no pictures, because as it was raining, the window was covered with droplets, and my cellphone camera annoyingly kept focusing on those… (leaving only a very blurred background).
The last stop, before finally heading for Portuguese skies, was Oslo, where I had a few hours to kill—only to discover afterwords that my flight was over an hour delayed! The reason? French air traffic controllers were on strike. So what else is new, right? The French are always on strike…
So I waited another hour, and then finally I was headed home :-)
Savouring a nice Douro red wine followed shortly after, courtesy of TAP17! :-D
The complete albuns
Journey from Oslo to Svolvær (including aerial photos): link
Boat trip: link
Hike to Tjeldbergtind: link
Hike up Fløyfjellet: link
War Museum: link
http://people.uib.no/chunlei.li/workshops/lofoten/index.html. Some extra photographs of the event can be seen here: http://people.uib.no/chunlei.li/workshops/lofoten/photo-gallery/index.html↩
Pronounced with a strong (tonic) “a” sound, like “Svolvár”.↩
On the return journey to Portugal, there was no overnight stay, but on the downside, it took 3 flights to get to Lisbon.↩
At the time I write this, one Norwegian kroner (1NOK) is about 0.11€. So a good rule of thumb to go from NOK to EUR is to slash a zero then add a “little bit”.↩
Speaking of nationalities, there seemed to be a sizeable number of Filipino employees.↩
Moreover, in the flight back, I was actually sat next to a Norwegian girl, who turns out had worked in a couple of restaurants (in Norway). And even she thought that 1) the menus totally lack diversity; and 2) it’s way overpriced (specially when you factor for that lack of diversity…)↩
The Portuguese word for cod is “bacalhau”, which makes “bacalao” look like a (weird kind of) misspelling.↩
It totally doesn’t!↩
But that, it seems, is no impediment for people to surf over there! Well, no impediment for them—there is no way in hell I’m going to get caught surfing in those cold waters any time soon…↩
It goes without saying that that’s not my facebook account! (I have no such thing).↩
Speaking of TAP, one of the ways you know you fly way too much on (always packed to the rafters) low cost airlines, is when you have a regular (i.e. non low cost) flight at indecently early hours, and (after boarding is completed) you spend a long stretch of time figuring out how is it that so many people managed to lose the flight… (due to there being quite a few empty seats on the plane).↩