Cracking the Norse code on island trip

The Lofoten Islands. Picture: PA Photo/Renato Granieri.

The Lofoten Islands. Picture: PA Photo/Renato Granieri.

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Glinting brightly in the sharp morning light, thousands of glassy eyes are looking down at me. Yet not one of the vacant stares reveals the slightest hint of life.

It’s an unnerving feeling to be standing beneath a canopy festooned with dead bodies, but at this time of year in Norway’s remote Lofoten Islands, it’s almost unavoidable.

It’s late February, and one of the world’s most important cod fisheries is in full swing.

During winter months, thousands of Arctic cod migrate south from the Barents Sea to spawn and fishermen from all over Norway come here to join the marine gold rush.

What I’m standing under is a hjell, a large wooden triangular rack where fish are dried by sun and wind for 12 weeks.

There’s no doubt these fish have always been a lifeline for residents on the Lofoten Islands. Some of the earliest fishermen were the Vikings, and cod formed an important part of their diet.

It’s tales of these Norse warriors that have brought me to the wild archipelago in the Arctic Circle, which was once one of the most important Viking sites.

In 1983, archaeologists on the island of Vestvagoya uncovered ruins of what is believed to be the largest Viking longhouse ever found.

A reconstruction of the 83m building, established around 500AD, now exists as the Lofotr Visitor Centre in small village Borg, where costumed actors serve mead in a grand banqueting hall.

A replica also forms the centrepiece of the British Museum’s new blockbuster exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend, which runs in London until June 22.

Made up of seven major islands and thousands of smaller islets, the Lofoten Islands lie just off the coast of northern Norway.

Mountains rise, sabre-like, from the rough Norwegian Sea, higher peaks swathed in heavy mist.

Human settlement here dates back 11,000 years, but as I step off the small propeller plane, it feels as if I’m one of the first people to arrive.

My base for the next few days is Svolvaer, the archipelago’s capital, where I book into one of the waterfront red timber cabins at Svinoya Rorbuer.

Draped with frayed fishing nets and weathered buoys, the cosy self-catering properties have been designed in the style of fishermen’s houses.

There is a plate of cod fish waiting for me in the Borsen Spiseri restaurant.

A meaty white loin is served with a milk jug of cod liver oil and a dense, salty sack of roe, dissected into slices.

I’m told refills are available, and it becomes clear there’s no shortage of cod fish at this time of year.

Northern Norway is also home to the world’s densest population of sea eagles, and a sea safari with Lofoten Charter Boat takes me to the Trollfjord and along an area of coastline where the birds regularly come to fish.

Within minutes they begin to circle, their 2.7m wingspan casting shadows on the mountains.

In the sunlight, patches of water shimmer a Caribbean turquoise green, but I’ve come to realise these are castaway islands of a very different sort.

Rugged, wild, fearsome and marvellous; the Vikings couldn’t have chosen a more apt place to call home.

Sarah Marshall was a guest of Visit Norway. Rooms at Svinoya Rorbuer (svinoya.no) start from £150 per night, per cabin.

SAS (flysas.co.uk) flies from London/Manchester/Edinburgh via Oslo for Svolvaer, the Lofoten Islands. Return flights from the UK to Norway start at £140.

Northern Lights trip with Lofoten Aktiv (lofoten-aktiv.no) costs £55 per person. Nature safari with Lofoten Charter Boat (lofotencharterbat.no) costs £150 per person. Go to visitnorway.co.uk and northernnorway.com.

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