Some weeks ago we were invited to celebrate the birthday of a friend at a rented house three hours outside of Oslo. The invite was extended by a pair of people so delightful that I would have probably agreed to tag along if they told me Billy Corgan would be there performing only songs from Zwan, but I lucked out and learned that the place I was going to was a celebrated retreat for Norwegians who like to get away from it all. We can address what Norwegians like to get away from some other time. I suspect it’s mostly just other Norwegians.
I, along with partner and offspring, made our way to Jomfruland, a small island just outside of Kragerø. Though we weren’t sure what to expect (Norwegians are alarmingly relaxed about plumbing and amenities when it comes to recreation time), we were assured that we would be supplied with good food and a flushing toilet (check and check!).
The name Jomfruland literally means virgin land, which is a lie because the place itself was so teeming with procreating life that it must be meant ironically. When trees aren’t trying to pollinate you, deer are hopping about and canoodling, and the nature there in general seems to practice wild sexual exhibitionism in all its cawing and lowing and rustling all over. There were baby cows everywhere too, which must have come from parent cows, and so with all this mating going on, I assume the name to have been taken from The Good Book, referring to that famous virgin, the mother herself, though I can’t quite see the resemblance. The name first appeared in the 16th century, and before that went by many names, including Aur in Old Norse, which is far more appropriate because the island is covered top to bottom in shingles and that’s the sound you make whenever you step on one. Aur, coincidentally, is the name for shingle in Old Norse. Those clever old Norwegians.
We took the bus from Oslo S, as the train takes the same amount of time, doesn’t go directly there, and also costs more. A word of warning, however: leaving on a Friday afternoon will turn your 3 hour bus journey from Oslo into five hours, so be prepared to Entertain Your Child if you have brought one with you. If you do take the train, I would like to know (drop me an e-mail) if it really does deposit you in a place called Neslandsvatn, or if that is just a typo on the NSB website or my brain experiencing a stroke.
And here is clever trick we learned. Don’t wait for the bus to drop you off at any stop called Kragerø, because you will end up in Arendal, like some others in our party did. Arendal, it seems, is a real place that doesn’t have an ice-queen running it as far as I know, and Kragerø locals must find it amusing sending all their tourists there instead. Get off at Tangen, and then take the local bus from the same stop to Kragerø harbour.
I regret not having the time to see the town itself, because the thin rivulets of shop-lined streets were so different to Oslo and really embodied the mood of a coastal village. It was all church steeples and clapboard houses and pretty shops stacked on top of one another. But by 8pm, the harbour where we waited for the ferry to Jomfruland had all but cleared out, the wind picked up and the moon started to bulge in parts as it got bigger than I’m used to seeing it. I kept expecting somebody to lope over to us from the shadows to invite us to some kind of Lovecraftian festival where rude things happen and we’d have to be awkward and politely decline.
Here is the site to check the ferry’s times and routes. If you’d like to find out which of the piers to take it from, do not ask a jolly man in a kilt walking by the little harbour for advice. He is a local and he will send you to the wrong place. In his, and all Kragerø residents’ defense, he was drunk and may have been pointing at the correct one in his head. If you do miss the ferry, a taxi boat can be quite affordable if you share the fare between friends. Or enemies, I suppose.
What to do
If you are a normal tourist, you will swim, kayak, birdwatch, bike, hike, visit the lighthouses (it has two) and eat at the island cafe. If you are me, you will enjoy watching all of the other people do these things while you sing songs to yourself in the oak glen, thinking about how religion has poisoned your mind. But this island is quite the antidote, and after a while your noisy mind will quiet, the oaks will creak wisely, and you will float back to the beautiful, creepy farmhouse hungry and tired and happy. You will hear the sheep sassing each other in the field, the laughter of good folk by one of the piers, and your little toddler will come back with peaches picked (with consent) from a neighbouring property and you will think: “What the fuck, Norway, am I dead now? Is this heaven?”, but that just winds the mind back to religion again, and so you eat the peaches (then spit them out because they’re not ripe, they’re never ripe), cuddle the toddler and have a nap.
While I napped, our friends rented bicycles from “SykkelKnut” and went to the beach. He also repairs bikes, apparently, and during the summer months this happy fellow advises that you pre-order your bike to ensure you get one. I can think of only one thing worse than cycling, and that is the anticipation of cycling (followed up of course by actual cycling), and so I shall not be pre-ordering a bike and will just walk on the feet the deities gave me (ah, we are back to religion). But the presence of SykkelKnut’s bike-infested workshop told me that, despite the apparent isolation, the island was really a place for people. The large café/restaurant at the pier too indicated that Jomfruland happily received many visitors and was not, in fact, a good place to come to get away from folk, but rather a place to enjoy people in a significantly more beautiful setting than the crap city one has just come from.
Nature and magic
In 2016 Jomfruland was declared a National Park, which means that the teeming life I mentioned is actually protected, and I’m certain that there is an underlying magic they must have included in this protection because you can feel it all over the little island. From the Oak and Hazel woodlands and the little animal and insect lives within them to the wide span of ocean around the island, the place is so steeped in silvery magic that Kittelsen fell in love with it and thought it worth putting to paper.
Jomfruland is also supposed to be an excellent spot to observe birds from, and offers a couple of towers from which to do so, but I saw nothing – NOTHING – while on the island. I was compensated for this offense by seeing a surprising number of birds from our taxi-boat back to Kragerø, including a Havørn (White-tailed eagle), which I just read are recent returnees to the region after 160 years. Hmm, that doesn’t seem right. I couldn’t get that lucky. Perhaps I saw some other eagle then. Either way, my child and I were delighted when we saw it and it was he who shouted ” Havørn! Mamma, Havørn!”, the little bird enthusiast that he is.
For the religiously inclined, ignore all the ranting about religion earlier, and consider spending time in the peaceful open-air church that is about as pagan as a church is allowed to be. It’s named the Ankerplassen friluftskirken and is a setup of roughly-hewn log benches facing a stone altar made of the shingles that litter the land, and it feels so much like a worship of nature that I decided I might not have been so angry at religion if church had been this nice growing up. It’s hidden among the trees waiting to surprise you just past the main farmhouse, and although there aren’t actually any regular services there, it might be a nice place to come and think and pray and dance about or whatever one likes to do when one is being spiritual. We found a watch there, but we left it in case it was one of those tests you always hear deities are setting up to trick you. It was quite a nice watch.
In all, we spent our short time there just breathing it all in. The nature, the great company, the superb food (one of our party was a professional chef and despite near-fatal hangovers, rose early to cook up big breakfasts each day and had enough energy to make impressive spreads for us at night). We went wherever our moods took us during the day, essentially tossing the toddler out, seeing where he rolled and then going to wherever that ended up being. He, in turn, got complete freedom, sheep who called out to him, and the sighting of his first ever eagle.
The best word to describe the place, visited in late August, and so after the summer tourist influx, is tranquil. I’ve heard of tranquil before, and almost found it once on a camping trip in Namibia, but to really embody the spirit of tranquility, I think one needs some green in one’s eyeline, some water rippling, and perhaps the sound of a bird or two calling out in the distance. For my next trip there I intend to remain a few days longer, write by hand, perhaps paint a little, and shout abuse at the cyclists from my cabin window.
There are no stores on the island, so bring the essentials (we ran out of toilet paper on our final day). One might be able to order supplies somehow, but the taxi boat is your most likely resource when in a bind, and it can be pricey if not sharing.
There is running water there and has been since the seventies. So the outhouse situation is minimal. Excellent news for people like me.
The ferry doesn’t run all the time, so do check the timetable.
Cell reception is great there, but I wouldn’t count on WiFi.
Someone actually killed a white-tailed eagle a few years ago, just after it had been reintroduced to the region (warning: weird picture of dead eagle on page). I have no words.
Be certain that the blueberries you pick are not juniper berries that taste blegh.
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