The Gateway to the Norwegian Fjords is a beautiful blend of the medieval and modern
By Lana Rodle
First published in the May/June 1993 issue of Cruise Travel magazine; photos in the original article were supplied by Jan Strømme. Photos here were taken by Lana Rodlie in summer 2010.
One of the reasons we North Americans love to travel to Europe is not just to experience the differences in culture and architecture, but to also experience, firsthand, a way of life from the past. With nearly a thousand years of history, Bergen, Norway, is a perfect city to take a walk through time.
Called the Fjord Capital, Bergen is one of the largest cruise ports in Scandinavia with more than 150 cruise visits per year.
Bergen also plays host to the numerous cruise ferries from Denmark, Great Britain, Holland, Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, as well as Norway’s own Coastal Steamers.
The magical history tour begins right at the dock, where you’ll be facing a city whose red-cobbled rooftops stretch up the slopes of seven surrounding mountains.
A walk along the wharf of old Bryggen harbor takes about 20 minute, but bridges hundreds of years. From 12th century fortresses and tall-ships of yesteryear to the steep-gabled houses and narrow alleyways of the Middle Ages, you’ll be enthralled by the hustle and bustle of a modern city wealthy from its North Sea oil.
Right where all the cruise ships dock (video) is the oldest section of Bergen. An easy walk from the ship is through the old fortress grounds including Bergenhus Castle, King Hakon’s Hall and Rosenkrantz Tower. Kin Hakon’s Hall was the largest building o the royal residency built in 1261 for the wedding and coronation of King Magnus. Rosendrantz Tower, built in the 1560s by the governor of Bergen Castle, was a residence and fortified tower. Walking around in these immense stone buildings, you wonder how anyone kept warm in centuries past.
The Danish king who ruled Norway in the 1400s sold trading rights along the Norwegian coast to the Hanseatic League – a chain of European and Baltic cities that traded as far away as the Mediterranean.
For 400 years, these German merchants monopolized all trade.
Finally, the Norwegians tired of this arrangement and aimed the fortress guns at the houses and shops occupied by the Hansa League. The Germans got the picture and left. But the Hansa houses – the wooden buildings with pointed gables – remain and are now on UNESCO’S World Heritage List.
The Bryggen Museum is right in the center of the dock area. While digging the foundation of a bank, some 20 feet down, workers discovered the gray remains of a city buried beneath thecity. Bryggen Museum is the result of what became an archeolocial excavation between 1955 and 1972.
Actual runic inscriptions from the 12th century are seen among the ceramics, handicrafts, antiques, and exhibits of daily life. I was particularly impressed with the remains of a shoe store which displayed boots that were for sale nearly 1,000 years ago. It’s a unique experience to walk down the same narrow, cobbled stairway that was used by people centuries ago.
It is well worth taking the 90-minute tour that starts at the Bryggen Museum and includes the Hanseatic Museum and Schostestuene –old assembly rooms that characterize the social life of Hanseatic merchants. There are only two tours per day, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and the cost is 40 krone (about $6). (The cost is a bit more today – 70 krone for adults, 35 for students. Kids are free.)
There are a number of displays showing what life would have been like for earlier residents of Bergen.
The Hanseatic Wharf is still alive with shops and restaurants, workshops and crafts stores, where artists today emulate the lives of their counterparts from long ago.
(At the museum, a display shows how a Viking ship was made, using actual timbers for the hull.)
An interesting shop to browse through is Rivelsrud, a decorated stone structure that doesn’t look much like a store, at the end of the Hanseatic buildings. It specializes in all sorts of rare Norwegian delicacies such as cuts of reindeer, mink and elk sausage, all sorts of smoke things from the sea, cloud berries, scrumptious chocolate and specialty cheeses. (My husband, who grew up in Bergen, still likes to stop there to pick up some snacks to take on the funicular up to Fløien.)
Just around the corner and up the hill (about 150 meters from the fish market) is the Funicular Railroad station, marked by its overgrowth of ivy. (I don’t think the ivy is there anymore.) This is a must-see in Bergen. Buy your ticket (26 krone, about $4, for the roundtrip) (current fares in 2013 are 35 krone for adults, one way; 18 for children under 16; under 4 years are free) and walk inside a mountain to catch the train up Mt. Fløien. It runs every 30 minutes, year-round and takes only five or six minutes. If taking videos, make sure you stand at the very back of the car for the best view. Allow about half-an-hour on top to enjoy the spectacular view of the city from 1,040 feet above it. If you don’t have time to enjoy the restaurant, treat yourself to a soft ice-cream cone. (Norwegian ice cream is out of this world!)
The main feature of Bergen harbor is the fish market (video). This beehive of activity hasn’t changed in more than 200 years. You’ll wish you could take home some of the ever-fresh catch from one of the huge live fish tanks. The open-air market mingles the salty air with scents of flowers and fruit.
Hawkers of every description sell their home-grown vegetables and homemade handicrafts as well as everything you can imagine from the sea (and some things you can’t). Be sure to sample some of the smoked fish before you buy. We like to purchase a bag of peel ‘n’ eat shrimp and sit on the queay-side for a fresh taste of the sea while watching the sights of the harbor.
If you’re tired of walking at this point, you can catch the Bergen Express for a one-hour trolley tour. Tickets are available at the tourist office right in the center of the square that is a block up from the fish market. You can join other tours from here as well. This is where some of the main department stores, major hotels restaurants and bars are located. You can also catch a taxi back to the ship here. But it is an easy walk of 1100 meters if you are docked at Skoltegrunnskaien, 1200 if you are docked at Dokkeskjæskaien.
If you are interested in seeing the noted Bergen Aquarium, which is across the harbor from where you’ll be docked, you can get to it quite easily. There is a ferry about a block down from Rosencrantz Tower on Slottsgate. It runs only on weekdays until 4:15 p.m. and arrives just below Nykirken (an 18th century church) on the other side of Vagen harbor. The cost is 7 krone, about a dollar. You can actually begin a tour of the city from this side as the walk from the ferry landing to the fish market is only about 10 minutes. Just follow Strandgaten towards the city center.
You’ll pass a little-known museum, a one-of –a-kind, called the Buekorps Museum. The Buekorps was a boys brigade exclusive to Bergen for over 135 years. Best known for their drills with crossbows, the museum houses an interesting collection of pictures and memorabilia about the brigade.
You should carry a sweater or light raingear as the weather on the coast of Norway changes frequently without notice. If you forget your umbrella, don’t worry, most shops carry them. But the Gulfstream warms the coast, and sunny summer days are quite pleasant, and prevalent, with temperatures averaging near 60 degrees.
Bergen is the gateway to Norway’s fjord districts and all srts of adventures, from several hours to full day tours, can be arranged from the quay. Most major cruise lines sailing in Scandinavia feature itineraries that call on Bergen, including: Crystal, Cunard, Fantasy, Ocean, Paquet, Princess, Renaissance, Royal, Royal Caribbean, Royal Viking and Seabourn.
This ancient city with its feet firmly planted in the future which its hear still lingers in the past will make you ache for more. So few places allow you to experience different moments in time while bathing you in its colorful modern culture. Although the entire country of Norway takes pride in its ancestry, Bergen displays this heritage best.
For more information: www.visitnorway.com/en/Where-to-go/Fjord-Norway/Bergen/