The best hostel in the world – part one

Norway map

Click onto map for Lofoten Islands enlargement

BEFORE WE START, the one hostel, B&B, pension, whatever you want to call it, in the world, definitely worth avoiding at all costs, is at windswept Ezurum in the far northeast corner of Anatolia. Or used to be. Once you were there, it wasn’t hard to locate. You just asked your helpful bus driver where to find a cheap room, and he pointed you towards a dimly-lit street nearby.

Well, that’s how I found it on arriving in the most miserable part of the town late one October night a few decades ago. Straining my eyes, I could only detect two rooming slums, advertising their presence, by the low watt lightbulbs protruding above their signs.

If I didn’t like the look of the first place, the old man at reception certainly didn’t like the look of me. Straightaway, he indicated I should try the pension next door. Thank God, for that, I thought, I wouldn’t want to stay in his place if he paid me twice over. In direct contrast, his neighbour, a second old man, looked as thankful for seeing me, as I was for seeing his welcoming face. It was then I made the fatal mistake of paying before I saw the room. Travelling can be so exhausting at the worst of times.

Though shrouded in darkness, as the light didn’t work, I could make out the silhouettes of at least two beds from the meagre overspill of the illumination above the sign. Or it might’ve been the one working street lamp further down the road. Thankfully, the beds seemed unoccupied. Locating my torch in my rucksack, its fading light revealed each bed to have several, worn-out, dusty, flat, old mattresses piled on top of one another, to ensure a comfortable night for passing travellers in need of rest. It was a hard choice, in more than one sense of the words. The mattresses on the bottom looked like genuine antiques. They were probably brand new when Nobel Prize winning author, Knut Hamsun, travelled through the area on his epic journey from Russia to the Caucusus and on to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1899. Not that I believe he stayed at this particular pension.

Hamsun recorded his travels in In Wonderland. Subtitled Experienced and Dreamt in the Caucasus, and published in 1903 it was translated into English a century later by Sverre Lyngstad in 2003. Though I’ve read almost all of Hamsun’s novels, that’s a work I have yet to read. But back to my own travels in the vicinity.

One skimpy, old blanket, with a few holes for ventilation, was provided for each bed. Appearing to serve as much for the purpose of concealing filthy sheets as to impart any warmth, neither had been changed in months. The pillowcases were stained with the cheap, reddish dye some Turkish men use to disguise their greying locks. I had the bright idea of turning the pillowcase on my chosen bed inside out. Only to discover it was even worse on the inner side. Someone had had the same bright idea before me. Probably lots of people. Too tired to argue, or look for another hostel, the only thing to do was to get drunk enough to face hitting the sack.

One thing about arriving tired in a strange and foreign place too late to think, after a refreshing night’s sleep, things seem so much brighter, seen by morning light. But not always. Waking with a head still reeling from too much rakι, my surroundings seemed even more nightmarish due to the colony of bugs that had spent the night partying on my fortified blood. I took some comfort from the belief several may have expired due to alcohol poisoning.

After years of practice, following my disembarkation from the Hurtigruten from Hammerfest, it didn’t take me long to find the worse room in Svolvær. Even without the help of a bus driver. Years of travelling, and you develop a knack. It’s above a little pizzeria not far from the docks, or was last time I was there. Nevertheless, by the standard of the room in Ezurum it was five star luxury. And by Ezurum standards, cost as much too.

Knut Hamsun Svolvaer

The young Hamsun

Coincidentally, as a young man, Knut Hamsun once lived in Svolvær. Born into a povery-stricken family from Hamarøy in 1849, just across the water on mainland Norway, it is said he worked in a local store for a while.

In order to save the family money, at the age of nine, Knut was sent by his parents to live with and work for his uncle, Hans Olsen, in the post office he ran. The terrible abuse he suffered at his uncle’s hands almost certainly played a great influence on Hamsun’s writing.

About the literary pioneer, Ernest Hemingway said: “Hamsun taught me to write”, whereas Charles Bukowski called him the greatest writer to have ever lived.

To deserve the title of capital of the Lofotens islands, as Svolvaer is sometimes described, it’s rather on the small side, as far as capitals go. Something it makes up for in other ways. Fringed by snowcapped mountains, even in summer at times, the setting is dramatic, which makes it a popular destination for lots of tourists. And that was enough to put me off staying for much more than a day or so.

The permanent population of just over 9,000 doubles in winter, when the cod fishing season begins. I arrived in early July. Even though within the Arctic Circle, seeing dandelion heads turned to feathery balls made it feel a bit like summer in England. There was that same familiar, slight chill in the evening air, that same sense of rain just round the corner.

For a tourist town, the Thursday evening I was there seemed quieter than an abandoned Welsh railway station on a wet Sunday night. But quiet wasn’t the only thing I needed in order to write Pedersen’s Last Dream. I needed somewhere cheaper, and possibly more isolated.

In my experience, cheaper hotels in the north of Norway aren’t of a very high standard, nor are they actually cheap. They’re not particularly clean, and neither are they very comfortable. The furniture is usually shabby and drab, and devoid of character. The one at Svolvaer possessed all these qualities. Often used as dumping ground for the homeless, refugees and disadvantaged youth hostels can be even worse.

Having read of a vandrerhjem, or youth hostel, which seemed much cheaper than anywhere else on the Lofotens, next morning I caught the bus to Leknes, which is the hub of the island of Vestvågøya. From there I changed to catch the bus to Stamsund, where the best hostel in the world was rumoured to lie.

Just as I was boarding, strange as it may seem, a voice called my name.

“I thought you were supposed to be in Hammerfest?” Jörg, the German marathon runner I’d met in Tromsø the previous week had also been on the move since we last saw each other. There wasn’t much time to talk. I asked him whether he’d won the marathon. “Everybody won,” he said. I could see he really meant it. He just had enough time to tell me the hostel in Stamsund was very good, and he was returning to Germany via Finland and Sweden before it was time for goodbyes.

Described by a journalist for The Times as the best youth hostel in the world in 2002, Stamsund Hostel used to quarter fishermen during the winter cod-fishing season. Part of the Norske Vandrerhjem group of hostels the standard is much higher than most I visited.

Nowadays, the pair of large old wooden buildings situated on a quay have become a big draw for backpackers and other travellers in search of something a little bit different.

As soon as I arrived the sight of a motely collection of bodies lounging about in the sun on the quay filled me with positivity. Nevertheless, to be on the careful side, this time I opted for a top bunk in one of the dormitories, sight seen, price confirmed. Though not exactly shipshape, it had the sort of untidiness I find easy to cope with. My sort. Nevertheless, I would see how things went before committing myself too far ahead. The tariffs seemed about right. A couple of nights in a bunk and I might think about taking on a room, where I could write in peace.

Among the faces lazing about on the quay was one I recognised. He’d been a passenger I’d seen on the Hurtigruten. A Scot who’d cycled north to do some climbing and relaxing, Fraser worked as a plumber in his hometown of Glasgow. Adopted as a child, he told me he’d had the best parents anyone could wish for. He was the sort of friendly type of person, who can tell their entire life story in a couple of hours, and make it sound incredibly wonderful. By the time he’d finished I began to wish I’d been adopted along with him.

Moored at the hostel’s quay were several rowing boats for the use of the patrons. Fraser and I took a one a little way out to sea. Though I hadn’t rowed in a long time, I took the oars. There’s something very soothing in the motion of rowing.

Fraser told me Glasgow’s social services had got in contact with him some years previously to ask if he wanted to meet one of his real brothers. Ah, here comes the catch, I thought. But no, they met, and got on really well, finding their interests to be virtually identical. He was thinking about taking the next step of meeting his real parents. But considerate as ever, he thought it might be rather hard on them. They might need some time to come to terms with the idea.

One of those people I love listening to, unfortunately it was one of Fraser’s last afternoons in Norway. Next day he was take the Hurtigruten bound south to catch a ferry to Scotland. Back to all those leaky pipes, broken cisterns, and missing winter cladding. Yet another fond goodbye in a journey being filled with more and more fond goodbyes.

Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming

Click onto: The best hostel in the world – part two

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2 thoughts on “The best hostel in the world – part one

  1. Paying before you saw the room? I would have done that! Thank you for your travel lesson.

    Oh bugs partying on your fortified blood! Your images are just wonderful.

    That bit about Hamsun – well, now I’m ashamed I haven’t read him. I’ve just done a peak at Amazon & there’s a few books. Do you particularly recommend any, Bryan? Really great kudos from Bukowski & Hemingway. But really, I haven’t read much – to my shame, to my shame.

    Ah this was a great tale, again, by you Bryan. Wonderful work.

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    • Hunger, is the book by Knut Hamsun I’d recommend without hesitation. Though published in 1890, it could’ve been written yesterday. I don’t think I can do much better than wikipedia here:

      “The novel has been hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century and an outstanding example of modern, psychology-driven literature. Hunger portrays the irrationality of the human mind in an intriguing and sometimes humorous manner.

      Written after Hamsun’s return from an ill-fated tour of America, Hunger is loosely based on the author’s own impoverished life before his breakthrough in 1890. Set in late 19th century Kristiania, the novel recounts the adventures of a starving young man whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusionary existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis. While he vainly tries to maintain an outer shell of respectability, his mental and physical decay are recounted in detail. His ordeal, enhanced by his inability or unwillingness to pursue a professional career, which he deems unfit for someone of his abilities, is pictured in a series of encounters which Hamsun himself described as ‘a series of analyses.’ In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun’s main influences. The influence of naturalist authors such as Émile Zola is apparent in the novel, as is his rejection of the realist tradition.”

      Taken from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunger_(Hamsun_novel)

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