History of the International Book Towns
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Or maybe not. Perhaps it was a “dark and stormy night” or even “once upon a time.” Whatever the inspiration, Richard Booth in Hay-on-Wey, Wales, founded the first book town in the late 1960s by turning abandoned buildings in his home town into second-hand bookstores. His success inspired other small towns around the world to emulate the concept. Fjaerland is one of those book towns, the first in Norway in 1995 and the eighth in the world at the time. This picturesque town is situated on the “iconic” Sognefjord, Norway’s largest fjord.
Travel to Fjaerland and Fjordstove Hotel and Restaurant
Fjaerland, an enchantingly lovely farming town of about 300 residents, is not easy to reach. We took a 1 hour and 45 minute boat trip from Balestrand to get there, but the journey is as rewarding as the destination. The fjord reflects the mountains, clouds, and land resulting in mirror images that intensify the beauty. Our final destination was the Fjaerland Fjordstove Hotel, a haven of hospitality and gourmet dining perched along the shore.
When we opened the door to our modest, but comfortable, accommodations, I felt I had won the jackpot: the book room. An English teacher surrounded by books? Quick. Pinch me. Is this a dream?
An Introduction to Bård Huseby
Concerning dreams, meet our handsome innkeeper, Bård Huseby. Norwegian born and college educated in the U.S., Bård gives nightly welcoming talks before dinner. Guests learn about the area’s history, the farm-to-table dining options, and recreational activities–hiking in the area, exploring the nearby Jostedalsbreen glacier, and discovering the varied book stores. The books hide in abandoned buildings, hang on the sides of buildings, and loiter along the fjord.
Fjordstove Hotel owner, Bård Huseby, celebrates Norwegian Independence Day, May 17.
Explore the Book Outlets
Come stroll with me as I seek the perfect souvenir to take home. This building held oodles of charm, but not a book I wanted.
The cute factor here didn’t increase my chances here either.
I also didn’t find success in more modest outlets.
A freestanding book shelf didn’t yield a result, but it did reinforce the honor system for paying. You choose a book and either leave the money in a drop box or go to the grocery store or visitor’s center to pay.
The money-box in this outlet also didn’t get my krones; I am still bookless.
I thought surely I could find what I was looking for in this shabby chic location, but surely (and sadly) I didn’t.
Welcome to my favorite book outlet. The turquoise bench called to me: “Connie, sit down and laze the afternoon away reading.” Big problem: There were no books in English. In fact, there were only a handful of English books in the town. Defeated again, on I went.
The stroll continued past abandoned buildings now repurposed as book outlets. Some of these structures hold more than just books.
Is this an abandoned dog house or playhouse? I don’t have a clue.
I give this outlet an A+ for the creative use of an obsolete phone booth.
Here’s my last chance, but this former office didn’t produce the perfect book either.
Explore the Humor
Feeling rather hopeless, I walked back towards the town center and noticed that Fjaerland has a sense of humor. Need a pit stop? There are restroom facilities next to the boat landing, so you don’t have to “stop, press, and squeeze.”
On down the road, I laughed out loud when I noticed a cow with spectacles staring at me from the top of a building.
Then I chuckled when I saw a quirky mannequin in mountain climbing gear scaling a house being renovated.
Finally, this book outlet deserves accolades because of its humor combined with efficiency. You can search the bag of books, find one, put the money in the box, then sit on the shady bench and read to the affable man sculpted out of a log.
Explore the Locavore Movement
At this time, I was still bookless, but I was no longer despondent. It is impossible to be sad in such a cheerful, beautiful place. Walking past the peaceful farms, I wondered if the produce I saw would end up on my plate for dinner.
The cows and lambs may eventually find their way to Bård’s kitchen, too, because he showcases the locavore movement at his Fjaerstove Restaurant.
The proof of Bård’s commitment is this lovely meat dish bathing in a red wine and beet sauce garnished with berries. The meat, vegetables, and fruit are locally sourced. Only the wine is outsourced–from France, of course. Only the best will do.
Perfection in Fjaerland
Are you feeling sorry for me about not finding a book on this outing? Don’t be. The next day, I checked out the bins and shelves of second-hand books in the visitors’ center. Ja! I found the perfect book to put into our guest room at home: Mon Lille Sommer Sangbok (My Little Summer Songbook.) I don’t speak Norwegian, but even I could figure out this title. Since this is a children’s book with simple vocabulary, I thought our guests might think it fun to try to guess the words.
I was confident that we could decipher a few words from familiar songs like “Row, Row Your Boat” below. Wrong song! Google Translate showed me my error: This song is about catching fish for the family, not about rowing a boat down a gentle, dreamy stream. Even though the book doesn’t translate easily, it still is the perfect souvenir from Norway’s premier book town. Like Fjaerland, this book sings the praises of the simple life with joy and humor.
Back at the hotel, lounging on the deck surrounded by dignified mountains stately rising from the shimmering fjord, I salute the 300 residents of Fjaerland. Bountiful books. Luscious cuisine. Spectacular scenery. You may be the luckiest people on Earth.