On the final days of my recent trip to Lofoten, I turned north to explore the lesser-known Vesterålen. As the largest town in the region and for its central location, Sortland was my choice of stop for the night.
Much like many towns on Lofoten and Vesterålen, Sortland is an ordinary small city that provides accommodation and services in an area of outstanding natural beauty. There’s not a great deal else on offer. Except the people of Sortland, and one man in particular, who tried to put their city on the map for, well, something.
Local artist Bjørn Elvenes came up with the idea of turning his home town into a three dimensional artwork using a blue colour palette. Elvenes studied Fine Art in Krakow, Poland, which at the time was a grey city with little optimism, yet it provided the inspiration for the idea.
In the summer of 1998, the Mayor of Sortland presented the idea of painting the town blue to a pessimistic pool of local journalists. Questions were asked about cost and practicalities, but the idea captured the imagination of the town’s people. Love it or hate it, everyone had an opinion.
The local newspaper played the role of mediator in the discussion and debate among local residents, with comments such as:
“Of course you could say that painting the town blue is madness. But I think it’s a delightful madness, and a great idea!”
“The municipality can’t afford to waste money on nonsense. It’s the mountains and the bay that make Sortland special. That’s how people remember their hometown when they’ve moved away, and that’s how people who live here want it to be.”
Turning a city blue is not so easy
The blue city project was adopted as a millennium project by the city. However, this was one the beginning of the problems! While the artist wanted the freedom to create his vision of a three-dimensional painting that you could enter and interact with, the architects preferred using colour to emphasise the features of individual buildings, while the local bureaucrats insisted on a managed process.
The artist fell out with the council and started to cooperate with selected building owners directly, while others implemented the council’s plans. The result is a wish-mash of styles and colours that keeps a stroll around Sortland’s city centre an interesting one.
The city is by no means completely blue, but enough buildings are blue to raise a curious eyebrow from visitors.
Going forward, Sortland is likely to become even bluer, as colour is now an important aspect of all planning decisions taken in the central area. Blåby (meaning blue city) also finds its way into many public buildings, events, advertising, and so on. The town’s new indoor sports arena is officially known as Blåbyhallen.
As of 2011, Elvenes and the city council have reconciled their differences, so this is a story that may have a happy ending after all.
How to get to Sortland
Sortland lies at the heart of the Vesterålen archipelago, to the north-east of Lofoten. The closest major airport is Evenes (Harstad/Narvik), while smaller airports nearby include Stokmarknes, Andenes and Svolvær. The Hurtigruten calls at Sortland and the nearby town of Stokmarknes, which is also home to the Hurtigruten museum.
Where to stay
The historic Sortland Hotel has provided accommodation to the people of Sortland and their guests since 1908. All 50 guest rooms and suites were refurbished in 2010.
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