Bergen, Norway: The Gateway to the Fjords

Story & Photos by Alan G. Luke

For some years there were umbrella vending machines installed on the streets. An ongoing story has a tourist asking a local boy if it ever stopped raining. “I don’t know,” replied the youth, “I’m only 12-years old.” Thanks to the moderating effect of the Gulf Stream, the weather in Bergen never dampened our spirits, or those of the Vikings and trolls, I suppose.

Known affectionately as the “Seattle of Europe” or “City of Rain” due to its average annual precipitation of 88 inches (2,250 mm); it is also one of Norway’s warmest cities. Norwegian King Olav Kyrre is credited with founding the City of Bergen in 1070. As the largest city it became the nation’s first capital until 1830. During the Middle Ages, Bergen was the vibrant centre of the Kingdom of Norway.

The Bryggen (Wharf) district encompasses the harbour, which was a centre of trade for the network of medieval merchants known as the Hanseatic League. By the 13th century, the German merchants’ guild (Hansas) opened one of four European offices on the Bryggen. This area is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List while Bergen itself is a World Heritage City.

We strolled along the cobblestoned street past several enchanting wooden structures housing a variety of shops. Although the Bryggen has endured several fires it continues to have one of Europe’s largest conglomerates of wooden houses. The wharf district has retained its appealing past persona in this amphitheatre-shaped harbour surrounded by the fabled “seven mountains” (de syv fjell). Upwards of 250 international cruise ships frequent “The Gateway to the Fjords”. The Hurtigruten vessels depart daily on the popular northern coastal voyage route. A preferable location to initiate a guided tour and attain an introduction and some insight into the Bryggen is at the Bryggens Museum itself. Walking south past the Viking store, troll book shop and other domestic retail outlets, we arrived at the Hanseatic Museum. The early 18th century structure itself is one of Bergen’s best preserved. “This is one of the city’s oldest buildings erected after the Great Fire of 1702, the guide told us. “Experience the life of a Hanseatic merchant,” she said directing us to the beginning of the exhibition. Sturdy dark brown timbers accent the interior that exudes an atmosphere of authenticity and austerity in this active era of trade.

Directly across the street from the historic museum sits the colourful Bergens-Expressen where an inner-city tour begins. Adjacent to the tram sits the Fish Market (Fisketorget) where fresh seafood, fruits, flowers and handicrafts can be purchased.

“Prawns are very popular and plentiful,” said a fish vendor pouring a large scoop into a bag. Another vendor obliged us by holding the mouth of a monkfish open for our photo-op. Also known as an anglerfish or lawyerfish it has a rather peculiar head, a very large mouth and is a bottom feeder (insert your own joke). We were further amused by the ‘Yield to Whales’ pictogram sign posted while we perused the sea-born bounty.

Heading southeast to the city centre we arrived at the Mount Floyen funicular (Floi Banen). This inclined railway is the only one of its kind in Scandinavia. Within seven minutes we arrived 1,050 feet (320 metres) above sea level for a panoramic view of the harbour. A children’s playground, souvenir shop, restaurant and café are all open to the public. The area is also ideal to engage in a mountain walk. We encountered a 10-foot-tall (3 metre) troll statue (at least I thought it was a statue) lurking beside the Floien Folkerestaurant before we descended to continue with the city tour.

Also, walking distance from the Fish Market is the Leprosy Museum (Lepramuséet). In the Middle Ages St. George’s (St. Jorgens) was a hospital for lepers. The buildings date back to the early 1700s. As one of the few preserved leprosy museums in northern Europe, it exhibits the Bergen Collection of the History of Medicine and a presentation of Norway’s contribution to leprosy research. Also known as Hansens’s disease, named after native Bergenser Armauer Hansen, renown for combating the leprosy virus he discovered in 1873. Archives are housed here and people may conduct searches on individuals.

Ambling up and down the inclined cobbled walkways, we admired the assortment of attractive architecture. Inside a white gabled 18th century structure appeared to be a familiar entity. Looking closer, it was indeed the “golden arches”. As with other European nations, commercial franchises are required to subtly blend in with different districts so they can retain their historic architectural integrity.

As with any traveller, I believe one should experience not only attractions but delve into the indigenous food and drink. Coincidently, we happened upon an aptly named eatery, Travellers Café. We agreed to indulge in an indigenous meal of lutefisk and aquavit. Lutefisk is cod fermented in lye while aquavit is liquor distilled from potato or grain mash and generally flavoured with cumin or caraway seeds. I recollect a statement alluding to lutefisk by a Norwegian tour guide who told us “by the second bottle of aquavit it’s actually starting to taste quite good.” We had to concur with his assessment as it is very popular with the locals. However, our preference was the roast reindeer (reindyrsteik), a tasty lean meat which we also sampled. When we departed, I had the feeling someone was following me or maybe it was due to the Scandinavian libation we consumed. Turning around abruptly I had to smile and shake my head — it was only my shadow. The sun was simply a bonus.

Practical Information:

Bergen Tourism: www.visitbergen.com

Bryggens Museum: www.visitbergen.com/bryggen

Hanseatic Museum: www.hanseatisk.museum.no

Leprosy Museum: www.lepra.no

Fish Market: www.torgetibergen.no

Bergen Express: www.bergensexpressen.no

Floyen Funicular: www.floibanen.no

Hurtigruten coastal cruises:  www.hurtigruten.com