Well known for its wooden wharf-side buildings that lean on one another for support, the World heritage site of Bryggen annually attracts thousands of sightseers and artists who clog the narrow alleyways in search of artisans, easels and esoteric clutter that belies its old trading and seafaring heritage.
The nearly sixty buildings that date from after the fire of the early 1700’s were rebuilt in the 12th century style and look as if they’re original – given the degree of twisting and movement that the roughly hewn planked sides have endured. Today, this only adds to the charm of these old three-storey trading firm warehouses that would originally have been strictly business with their lifting cranes, storage spaces and staff meeting rooms.
The wharf side and adjacent alleyways are often as much as a visitor will see of Bergen, believing the Bryggen waterfront to be all that the city has to offer. Its true, that if you just want a snapshot to say you’ve been there then its instantly recognisable as Bergen’s trademark image but, as with many cities (and people for that matter), Bergen reveals more character the deeper you delve.
For starters, once you’ve extracted yourself from the cramped and packed sidesteets of Bryggen its worth heading around Vågen harbour front and venturing into the covered fish market, or ‘Fisketorget’ .
It’s both a tourist attraction and a daily market for the locals, albeit prices can be high both for fresh fish and the surrounding restaurants. There’s something refreshing, however, in eating where the catch has landed that imparts a feeling of wholesome and healthy participation in local trade, whilst enjoying the bustle of a market that is awash with fish and crustaceans of all shapes and sizes.
We don’t linger long here as we’re intent on discovering more of the city.
City seems a misnomer, in that far from the sprawling metropolis one normally associates with such a term, Bergen boasts a population of less than 300,000. This seems to shrink further as the city is cloaked with a low overhang of brooding mist for which its notorious, blanketing much of the higher slopes from view.
That said, it’s the second largest town in Norway but still retains a village feel and a vitality generated by its student contingent that represents ten percent of overall numbers.
It’s this life and vigour that gradually infuses us with the spirit of Bergen to the extent that although the ramshackle and picturesque buildings that we discover on the steep cobbled streets and heights above Vågen harbour are what give Bergen its old world charm and chocolate box Hansel and Gretel quaintness (a quite authentic set of wooden homes clinging precariously to the hillsides and un-tarted for tourists), it’s the city centre itself that imparts a true feeling of fun and vibrancy that brings Bergen back into this century as a living entity worthy of note.
The smart modern tramway that criss-crosses the city, weaving its way through the time warp of cobbled boulevards and sharp, shiny office buildings, threading together ancient and modern in a way that seems a perfectly natural blend of style, grace and function.
There’s plenty of evidence of Bergen’s historical past – from the Bergenhus Fortress (which became ultimately decorative rather than effective but nevertheless worth an idle amble around) to the Hanseatic Museum which is more interesting architecturally than internally unless you’re a devotee of the Hanseatic League. Nevertheless, all of Bergen’s attractions are within an easy walk – so a few hours strolling the streets will expose you to much that is good about the city and leave you with a feeling of well-being not often found in major urban sprawls.
If you wish to venture further afield then a bus ride south of Bergen to Nordåsvatnet lake will take you to Edward Grieg’s little Swiss-style house set amidst pretty gardens, together with a lakeside ‘composer’s hut’ close by to a concert hall and exhibition centre.
Back in Bergen however, we’re just in time to return to the Vågen harbour wharf side so that visiting King Harald V and his wife Queen Sonja with their Royal Highnesses The Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Norway get a chance to see us on their state visit to the city – which explains why there’s so much bunting and numerous classic ships around; as well as the more sinister ‘Steil’, Skjold Class Missile Fast support corvette for the royal’s ship.
We exchange waves before they repair to their own beautiful classic gentlemen’s cruiser ‘Norge’ and we depart on our more pedestrian transport.
All in all Bergen is well worthy of a visit, if a tour of Norway is in your sights; indeed many of the guides tend to concentrate on you leaving the city as soon as possible to explore the country.
However, don’t be in too much of a rush to leave and spend at least a full day discovering the true spirit of the city and you won’t regret it.