Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Norway - the romantic appeal of places where people really shouldn't live

Last week, it struck me for the first time that my favourite habitable places on Earth - those which awaken inchoate romantic longings - are all ones which, to differing degrees, shouldn't really be habitable at all...

...I'm thinking of most of Norway, parts of the North Cornish coast, the whole of Venice (built on a malarial swamp, back into which it is sinking), and the Italian Alps - you know, land which had to be wrestled from Nature's unwilling grasp, where people had to struggle desperately to secure an unlikely, fragile handhold, but have somehow managed to cling on ever since, eking out an existence for centuries, despite inaccessibility, hardship and danger. More than that, they're places which the inhabitants have made pleasant, civilised - weirdly homely, in some instances. I have no interest in deserts (as the comedian Sam Kinison once said, "We have deserts in America, we just don't LIVE in them, assholes!"), and - from what I've seen of them on the box - I don't much fancy the look of those ugly, utilitarian Arctic towns which only exist in order to house itinerant workers whose job is to extract oil and minerals  or whatever from the permafrost (I'm grateful to them for doing it - but I have no wish to visit).

Not sure I'm making sense, so I'll cut to the photographs of the Norwegian mainland and the Lofoten Islands which set me thinking about this in the first place. I'll start with one of Undredal, on the Aurlandsfjorden, which we visited twenty years ago. It's famous for producing genuine brown goat's cheese, which has a gamier, darker, less sweet taste than the country's ubiquitous brown cheese, made with cow's milk, which I grew up on. The village was only accessible by boat until a road was built in 1988 - but it was still cut off for four months of the year when we visited. It's a charming place. We were shown around the local stave church (the smallest in the country) by a girl of about 11, who spoke English with a distinctly American accent. When I asked her if she'd spent time in the States, she explained the reason she sounded American was that there wasn't much to do in the winter, except watch television - and all of her favourite programmes were American:
Enough commentary:
Test your brakes - this is the Troll Road (Trollstigen):
And this seems like a perfect spot for a football pitch (I really must visit the Lofoten islands some day):
Let's face it, to survive in some of these landscapes, you're going to need all the help you can get - where better to seek it than in chilly Tromsø's dramatic Arctic Cathedral, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle:


  1. 12 March 2018 found me and the wife in the Art Institute of Chicago.

    Lot of Monet.

    Monet in Norway, where he had takem himself partly in search of rugged sites "sites beyond the realm of his house and garden at Giverny".

    Like Sandvika.

    He knocked up 29 paintings in his two-month Norwegian trip, gradually overcoming the unfamiliar problems of painting snow.

    1. I'm an absolute sucker for Monet, so I might be blind to his faults - but I think he actually produced a number of very accomplished snow paintings before setting foot in the frozen North, including The Magpie and A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur (both painted in the second half of the1860s). Still, if he felt the need to hone his snow-painting technique, Norway's as good a place as any.

  2. Two other places where people really shouldn't live are Hong Kong, and Singapore. One once a barren rock and the other a malarial swamp.
    Those nasty Brit's had something to do with it.

  3. Wonderful photos by the way.

  4. Some of your posts provide nostalgic experiences for some of your more decrepit readers. Hugely appreciated, but there are certain dangers in releasing atavistic feelings.Viz Vikingry.

    Southern Man. I am very sorry to disagree with you, but I have lived in both HK and Singapore for about a year each apart from numerous prior visits. The respective climates are quite ghastly and both towns are stuffed with second rate Australians [ yes, they can be second rate] and condescending English creeps with red hair-dos who never pay for anything. It's all Joseph Conrad.] I haven't even started on the Chinese.

  5. SDG. I would love to here your views on HK and SGP one day.
    Interestingly Paul Theroux changed his tune regarding the latter.

  6. I have to admit to really liking Hong Kong. I spent about 10 days there after a three-week stay doing radio programmes in Beijing, and HK was a dream of efficiency and colour and plenty after all that communist greyness and incompetence and being stared at like a freak all the time (this was 1986). I was staying with friends in HK and was accompanied by my girlfriend, which helped of course. Not all of the expat community were horrible and insensitive - but one Sunday afternoon spent lounging by a private swimming pool with a bunch of suburban finance industry types, all getting pinker and sweatier as they whined about their "servants" and wanked on about "luxury" shopping opportunities and desperately tried to convince themselves that they were SO much happier in HK than they would have been back home (when they quite evidently weren't) was distinctly lowering. Not for nothing had the locals christened Jardine House "The House of a Thousand Arseholes". Still, the rest of the visit was great - not sure what I'd have thought after a year there.

  7. After one year there Mr.Gronmark you might have become a 'gweilo' equivalent of Sir Li Ka-shing. HK does funny things to people.
    Some of those condescending creeps SDG mentions came from the ranks of the small army of FILTH - Failed In London Try Hong Kong who continually berated the more established ex pats for their privilege whilst leeching of their generous expense accounts for all they were worth.