Kalpana Sunder is bewitched by the Scandinavian city of Bergen — and how. She takes you around what was once the first real capital of Norway
Someone once said that Bergen is a city with its feet in the sea, head in the skies and its heart in the right place. I sure think he had it right. I have to add: if you go to Bergen, take a sturdy umbrella. And your raincoat: for this place has 270 days of rain in a year, and a sunny day is a novelty.
A spectacular setting of the blue ocean, towering mountains and the rugged fjords, Bergen, Norway has an intimate relationship with the sea and is a city that grew around its harbour. This harbour has welcomed ships for hundreds of years. Today it's full of ferries, yachts, freighters, cruise ships and vessels of all sizes. It was the first real capital of Norway in the 13th Century and till the 1830s, the biggest town.
The rich German merchants of the powerful Hanseatic League traded here for many centuries. There were many fires in Bergen and the largest one, in 1702, destroyed most of its wooden buildings.
Today Bryggen is the historical centre of this maritime city. The 20th Century reproductions of the medieval warehouses of the Hanseatic merchants are swish boutiques, restaurants and galleries. It's a warren of atmospheric walkways, alleys and staircases. The houses look straight out of a fairy tale in a rich palette of ochre, whites and blues. We stand in the dripping eaves of the timbered buildings and are transported to a time when Bergen was a maritime jewel. I can almost hear the fishermen's voices as they traded the day's catch of cod and herring with the merchants. Today of course the fishermen are outnumbered by the workers who work on the oil rigs and technical workers.
For a peek into Bergen's mercantile past, we visit the Hanseatic Museum, an erstwhile office of a Hanseatic trader recreated with meticulous detail. The house with creaking floorboards has dark, cramped rooms which used to be home to merchants and their apprentices. They resemble the cabins of a ship with space saving furniture and beds that are tucked away neatly behind cupboards. The authentic details that have been reproduced like bundles of dried fish, period furnishings give the viewer a back-in-time feel.
You have to take the funicular to Mount Floyen for an eagle's eye view of this city. The quaint Floibanen Funicular hauls us 1,050 ft in flat seven minutes for a spectacular view of the city — the sea and sky in a stellar combination, the tiny houses like Legoland and the harbour. The wind whips the umbrellas inside out as we stand on the viewing platform. We chat up locals who walk up every day with their pets, unmindful of the constant rain. There are colour-coded walking trails in to the woods and a café restaurant with a souvenir shop. Slowly the mist covers our view and the air grows chill.
Bergen is a centre of art and music as well. The country's first national theatre is here and this was also home to Edvard Greig, the great Norwegian composer. His home by a lake is now an atmospheric museum and hosts concerts. The large university population in Bergen gives the town a youthful vibe — we see them everywhere, especially in the parks and sea-front. We drive through the area called Klosteret with its ‘chimney houses' which posed a great fire hazard. Since there was a law passed in the 1800s that all buildings should be built using stone or brick, many people added cement and stucco facades to wooden buildings.
History echoes from every corner of Bergen. In 1349, an English ship with rats aboard landed here and was probably the source of the Black Plague which killed almost a third of the Norwegian population. There is the Nykirken, the Danish inspired church with copper spires, the tourist office housed in an ornate Hall of Frescoes and the stone fortress Rosenkrantz Tower from the 13th Century all reminding us of Bergen's rich past. Sandviken is a hillside area of steep streets with higgledy-piggeldy clapboard houses in odd angles perched precariously. Some of these pastel-coloured homes are more than two hundred years old. The city has its fair share of museums: a unique one is devoted to Leprosy and built on the grounds of a Leprosy Hospital where Armauer Hansen discovered the bacteria that caused the deadly disease.
The waterfront is home to a raucous fish market, the Torget, filled with tightly packed tents with benches and stalls with fish mongers in bright orange suits vending pearly pink slivers of marinated salmon, smoked whale meat, bright orange king crabs, even reindeer meat. It seems to be an incredibly popular place for picking up the fresh catch of the day or gorging on salmon sandwiches and salads. A sweet talking fisherman from Portugal tries to market some fish to us.
The town centre is filled with cosy cafes and cocktail bars, Irish bars, the ubiquitous Nervesans — the Norwegian convenience store and galleries selling the famous knitwear, cheeky trolls and designer kitchen ware. Most people come to Bergen as a gateway to the fjords- deep indentations with towering cliffs carved by ice aeons ago. We do that with a Norway in a Nutshell — a unique combination of transport by boat, train and bus that takes you into the gargantuan fjords and the Flam Valley. But Bergen earns a very special place in our hearts.
Published in The Hindu Metro Plus , 2011