With short breaks becoming popular, Brian Spencer takes a two-day trip to Bergen, Norway’s Hansiatic sea-port link with an early version of the E.U.
Gateway to the Fjords of Norway’s west coast, Bergen is classed as not only a European City of Culture, but a World Heritage City and UNESCO City of Gastronomy, as well as serving the needs of North Sea oil and gas installations.
Despite being a vibrantly busy city, both commercially as well as historically, Bergen offers something for everyone, be it sight-seeing, cruising along the nearby fjords, or enjoying the readily accessible seven hills surrounding this fascinating city. An ‘on/off’ bus service runs round the city, giving an ideal way to get to know the place before actually starting to explore the place in detail.
We began our visit by exploring the vibrant quays of a harbour that reaches right into the city centre. Being careful with our kroner because, let’s face it, Norway is expensive, but we found there are ways of keeping expenses in check, so we armed ourselves with Two-Day Bergen Cards that gave us free access or reduced prices to a wide range of places and activities. We bought these at Bergen Information Office down on the old fish market. Nowadays fresh fish is no longer sold from outdoor stalls, but from a modern indoor affair where everything that swims or crawls beneath the waves is on offer.
Another cost-saving deal, at least for the over sixties, gives much reduced prices on public transport as well as cable cars and some buses. Simply asking for an ‘honor rabatt’, makes fares quite cheap. No need for an expensive rail card or bus pass, simply saying the magic words has the desired effect; I was once politely told off for not asking for my reduced fare.
Following the quayside leads into to the oldest part of Bergen. Known as the Bryggen, the gabled frontage of steeply gabled timber old warehouses were once owned by merchant members of the German Hanseatic League. Wandering darkly into a warren of storage dens and box-like bedrooms, the place must have been hardly the pleasantest place to live and work, for the main trade was in dried cod. Still a popular ‘delicacy’ in some parts of Equatorial Africa, in days gone by dried fish was traded with Baltic countries in exchange for corn and timber. This organisation covered almost the whole of north-eastern Europe, extending even as far as East Anglia.
A World Heritage Site, the very first buildings in Bergen were situated around the Bryggen, and soon became the most vibrant part of the city. Being mainly timber built the district was ravaged by fire many times, especially in 1702 when the whole area was reduced to ashes. Rebuilt on the old foundations, the Bryggen is virtually unchanged despite the passing of centuries, but where dried cod was once stored this has now become a popular museum, shopping and restaurant district. A stroll through Bryggen’s dark and narrow alleyways with their overhanging galleries is to step back in time to a bygone era.
Continuing along the old wharf, past the mooring of the sailing ship ‘Statsraad Lehmkuhl’ which has visited Britain more than once as part of the Tall Ships Race, you will soon reach the fortress and its sixteenth-century Rozenkrantz Tower that once guarded the entrance to Bergen’s harbour. In 1665 during the Anglo-Dutch War, the Bergen Festning (Bergen Fortress), was inadvertently involved in a skirmish with ships of King Charles II. On 1st August 1665, the British fleet chased a Dutch convoy laden with gold and spices into Bergen Fjord. Thinking they were going to capture the Dutch fleet without any further problems, the English admiral was dismayed to find his fleet being fired at by the Norwegian fortress. Apparently King Frederick III of Denmark (Norway was then part of Denmark), had broken his treaty with Holland and given the English permission to attack the Dutch. Unfortunately his message never reached Bergen in time and so the Norwegians went to the aid of their Dutch allies. It was only after an emergency conference was held between the English admiral and the fort’s commander that the only war between Britain and Norway came to an end.
Rather than walk back round the old quayside, a small ferry plies its way to and fro from beneath the castle walls over to the southern quays. Old streets of colourful timber-clad houses lead to one of the finest aquariums in Europe. Every marine situation is there from the underwater harbour-side scene, to a penguin pool where you can watch the underwater sporting antics of these active birds through reinforced glass.
Composer Edvard Grieg’s home Troldhaugen stands on a southern headland away from the aquarium. Now a public museum to this great composer, concerts are held there and at Troldsalen in the city centre throughout the summer. The house is at Hop overlooking a beautiful forest glade, the perfect setting for his work. Grieg is probably the most well-known of a trio of composers who did much to put Bergen on the cultural map. Ole Bull and Harald Sæverud although not so well known internationally, became famous in their own way.
Continuing round the aquarium headland, a side inlet with a series of sheltered anchorages is where the ferries to Denmark rest before returning south. Nearby is the quayside where Hurtigruten ferries turn every day before journeying back to Kirkenes on the Russian border in the far north. Carrying out a service which has run for well over a hundred years, the Hurtigruten (it means ‘fast route’), acts as a lifeline for the scores of places, large and small, that dot the frequently inaccessible length of Norway’s coast.
We stayed at the Clarion Admiral Hotel on the southern side of the main harbour, directly opposite Bryggen and it couldn’t have been handier. Small local ferries plied from a stone’s throw from the hotel door. Had we the time we could have opted for one of the little boats making its way daily into the furthest reaches of the long, narrow, deep-watered arms of the sea. Each cuts its way into central Norway’s mountain fastness, from the Sognafjord in the north, to the Hardanger to the south; some of the ferry routes have road and rail links back to Bergen. Flåm at the end of its narrow fjord off the Sognafjord, is linked to the main Oslo/Bergen main line, by a side line that climbs steeply from the sea to join the main line at Myrdal. Here the contrast between mountain and coast couldn’t be more pronounced; sunshine and fruit trees line the valley bottom around Flåm, while up at Myrdal, winter lingers well into what passes for summertime elsewhere.
Bergen being built around seven hills has unlimited resources for hiking and more leisured outdoor activities. Two are linked to the city, in the case of Mt Ulriken, by a cable car, or Fløyen with its funicular railway almost from the quayside in the Bryggen. From its top station, there is almost an unlimited range of activities available, from strolling along the forest paths, to mountain biking, to canoeing, or for the ultra-brave, a zip wire park. For those wanting something less energetic there is a café overlooking the panoramic view of Bergen, its harbour and the outlying islands. Taking in the view on one of our trips to Norway, we realised that we were being chatted to by someone with a marked Geordie accent. Homing in on who it was, I asked if he could be Jimmy Nail, the actor who appeared in Auf Wiedersehen Pet. ‘Could be’ was the answer – apparently he had just finished filming back home and was spending a few days in Bergen. He told us he liked the place, and like many Tynesiders, came over from time to time, but he found the beer not only rather expensive, but a bit weak compared with Newcastle Brown. Amazing who you bump into on a short trip to foreign parts.