Bergen, Norway

I arrived into Bergen late on Friday evening, just before midnight. The first thing that struck me as soon as I got outside the airport? The fact that it was 12pm and still fairly light out! It was bonkers.

I managed to get a taxi relatively easily. My driver was a super nice guy called Ronny who was only too happy to point out some landmarks during the half an hour drive to the city centre, and give me some recommendations of good bars etc.

We soon arrived at my hotel; the City Apartment Hotel where, on arriving at the front door, I noted that the reception was closed and that I would have to check in at the bar below. The rock bar. Hmm.

I entered the bar, looking completely out of my place with my little roller suitcase; I mean thank god I was wearing a leather jacket hey …!

Having picked up the key and having made by way up the 5 flights of stairs (!) I got into my room. Safe to say, this was a pretty basic place (!) As much as they marketed themselves as a hotel, I have definitely had nicer private rooms in hostels. You had to pay extra for room cleaning and fresh towels, and the weirdest for me, when you checked out you had to take all your rubbish with you. Just a bit strange for a ‘hotel’. Saying that, Scandinavia is crazily expensive for accommodation and for the price I paid, a bed for the night was really all I needed. If you do decide to stay here, perhaps just don’t set your expectations too high…

The next morning I woke up fairly early and decided to head into the city center for an explore. One positive thing I will say about the hostel, sorry, I mean hotel, it that it is ideally located on the main street of Christies Gate which is literally a 5 minute walk straight into the thick of Bergen.

Wandering down, I stopped off at a lovely looking park; Byparken, which houses beautiful little water features and the most incredible 5 acre lake at its center; Lille Lungegårdsvannet. I had a little wander through the grounds before crossing off through the town and making my way down to the historical quarter ‘Bryggen’ (after watching a man try and resuscitate a dead pigeon… as you do.)

As I walked towards the water’s edge I instantly spotted the iconic colourful wooden houses of Bryggen in the distance, all nestled together, housing little shops, bakeries, restaurants, museums and artisan craft stores.

There was a real buzz around the area on this beautiful summer’s morning and it turned out that I had lucked out and happened to be in Bergen on the exact day of the 40th anniversary of the annual ‘Market Day’.

This event features old-style market traders and a varied program of entertainment including games and exhibitions. This is the celebration of the city’s coastal culture; the harbour fills up with beautiful old boats and the piers are full of people enjoying both old and new artistic expressions and impressions. And of course, all the food and drink…!

Historically, the town market has always been the meeting point between peasants, fishermen and the citizens of Bergen, busy trading goods, food and exchanging news and maybe some gossip. I literally wandered around for ages, soaking up the atmosphere, the smells,  the sounds and the sites. It was brilliant and I felt so lucky that I had managed to be in Bergen on the exact day of this super vibrant event!

I wandered through one of Bergen’s most well-known historical sites; the famous Fish Market, which – although I’m no seafood lover, I certainly found super interesting.

The Fish Market has existed since the 1200s and has since then been one of the most important places for trade between fishermen, farmers and the inhabitants of the city. In addition to the merchants on land there were also historically sales from boats along the quay. Fishermen who lived outside the city used to row in to the Fish Market to sell their catch of the day before rowing back home the same day.

In 2012 the indoor Fish Market, Mathallen, opened. Here the merchants have permanent shops and restaurants indoors and are open all year which are super interesting to have a wander around. They have a cool selection in here of fish stalls (I couldn’t get over the size of the crabs!) and little restaurants where you can stop off for some lunch. It’s super nice, and definitely worth a wander!

Having spent some time walking around and enjoying the atmosphere of the markets, I decided it was probably time to stop off for a quick bite to eat and a good coffee.

I continued wandering around until I found myself in an area of the city which I can only describe as the ‘hipster’ spot in town. There were some super lovely coffee shops and bars, vintage cloth stores, boutiques and amazing street art.

I stopped off at a nice place called Litteraturhuset. It houses a fab book store with an annexed bar/café where I had a croissant and coffee. I noticed some people were having incredible looking open sandwiches so I would definitely recommend this as a place to stop off if you are in this area of the city.

The rest of the day I would be boarding a train and making the trip across the country to visit Norway’s famous Fjords; these certainly deserve their own post so I will write about these separately!

The next morning, bright and early I headed back into the centre of Bergen. Having got my bearings yesterday morning, I wanted to spend today learning more about the city’s fascinating history and for this there really is not better place to start than Bryggen.

The city of Bergen was founded in 1070 AD by Olav Kyrre, king of Norway. Bergen, originally, called Bjorgvin, started as a small settlement at the east of south of the shores of Vaagen. Bergen is the geographical center of western Norway. It has an excellent ice-free harbor sheltered from the North Sea by a chain of islands. It is surrounded by mountains and is called ‘the city between the seven mountains’.

In the thirteenth century, King Haakon Haakonsson made Bergen the capital of Norway and its dependencies, Iceland, Greenland and many of the Scottish islands, in 1217. It replaced Trondheim, the first capital, and was itself replaced by Oslo in 1299. Towards the end of that century Bergen became the city of the northernmost bureau of the Hanseatic League.

Bryggen, the old wharf of Bergen, with it’s iconic row of colored wooden houses lined up against the harbor edge, almost leaning upon each other; gable to gable, was the original dwelling point for the city’s inhabitant Hanseatic League, and walking around these incredible buildings today simply makes you feel like you have stepped back in time. Bryggen was once the main hub for trade between Norway and the continent and its history stems back almost 1000 years.

Wandering through the narrow wooden alleys between these beautiful structures is an absolute must. Here you will find artisan craft makers, bakeries, café, restaurants and clothing shops. It really is incredible. The beams are crooked, the steps steep and the footpaths slight, however the atmosphere and the history seeping deep into the wood is palpable – I was in awe.

Just up from Bryggen stands the impressive St Mary’s Church.  The construction of the church is believed to have started in the 1130s or 1140s and completed in around 1180, making this church the oldest remaining building in the whole city of Bergen.  Even more interestingly, the church has been in continuous use since the medieval times. It was a Sunday when I visited the church which meant, luckily for me there was a service taking place, which certainly added to the atmosphere. I (very quietly) wandered in and admired the beautiful architecture both inside the church and outside in its grounds.

Exiting the church graveyard at the rear, I stumbled across the entrance to the Schotstuene; the Hanseatic Assembly room museum which I had read about online. Schotstuene belonged to the joint properties of the tenements of Bryggen. Each tenement had an assembly room and a downstairs cook house. Schotstue was an assembly place for the local employees (managers, for men and apprentices) in the wintertime, because it was the only heated room with the blocks; additionally it was the only place warm meals were served.

An assembly room had several functions. In the winter it was used as a classroom for the apprentices, daily services and funeral were conducted here and once a year the annual meetings and court sessions took place within these walls. Employees were often punished and humiliated in these rooms (lashes from the bull wip etc); these naughty employees were given warning however – there was an almost ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy whereby their names were written on a blackboard so many times before they were put in front of the ‘court’ and reprimanded.

The administration of these rooms was headed by the master of the tenement (Bauherr). He was accompanied by the beer purchaser (Bierkaufer) and the wood purchaser (Holzkaufer). You can still see the hierarchy of their positions, evident by appreciating their elaborate thrones placed centrally on the edge of the room. In the middle of the room stands the imposing stately table (the Kannestuhl) in which drinking vessels and hymn books were stored.

The society was very much a ‘boys club’ and new comers were made to undergo strenuous ‘initiation ceremonies’ to become party of the group…!

I marveled at these incredible rooms as I wandered around. I’m completely fascinated by history and particularly I love places such as these which really give you a glimpse into what life would have been like in these times.

Once had made my way around the rooms, I headed downstairs where I entered the cook room; the kitchens used to prepare hot meals for the society members. To cook, pots were placed above the stone area in the middle of the room where the fire burned. The pots were hung on trammel hooks and when the fire was too hot they could simply raise the pots to avoid burning the food. When the food was ready, the burning coals were quickly raked together and put beneath a copper lid called ‘fyrdeksel’. In order not to spread the burning coal remnants through into the assembly rooms the apprentices had to wear special shoes only allowed to be worn within the cookhouse – it was super interesting to see examples of these still out on the floor.

Having admired the cookhouse, I wandered into the next building which houses something particularly special – archeological ruins of the houses that were here pre the fire in 1702; stone walls dating back to 1208! Mind blown! The museum has a pretty interesting exhibit detailing how the scientists and archaeologists dated the ruins using radiocarbon dating of the coal fragments found in the lime mortar. Super cool stuff. The room also housed original wall painting dating back to 1660 which were absolutely incredible. These floral wall decorations, or ‘rankemaling’ in Norwegian were paintings on timber walls that were used both indoors and outdoors in Bergen. Beautiful!

Even more fascinating – if you look closely at the walls within the rooms you can still see original graffiti carved into the wood from the society members that used to reside here.

Having spent some time admiring the assembly rooms, I wandered back up the rear of Bryggen, down one particular street which houses a plethora of antique shops selling the weird and the wonderful.

The afternoon was soon drawing in and, even though the clouds hadn’t cleared as much as I had hoped, I decided it was time to hop on the Fløibanen funicular and take a trip up the mountain to enjoy the views from Fløyen. The journey up Mount Fløyen (320m above sea level) takes around 8 minutes and is completely, COMPLETELY, worth it. Just look at those views!!

Up on top of the mountain there are endless opportunities available; walking trails, bars, restaurants, a café and a big children’s park. You literally could spend hours up there!

When I made it up to the top, I enjoyed the view and treated myself to a little glass of wine to have out in the sun – perfect! If you visit Bergen do not miss this little trip..! One note however, it’s erm, pricey. That’s right – an open sandwich = K165 – that’s almost £17!!

Having made by way back down to earth I wandered back through the fish market and across to a little spot which offers fantastic views out across the Harbour to Bryggen before deciding I still had time enough to visit another cultural spot within the city.

Having got my taste of the Hanseatic traders from visiting the assembly rooms I thought I should learn a little more about who these people were. Where did they come from? What did they do? And where better to find out then the Hanseatic Museum.

The Hanseatic museum shows how, from 1350 to 1750 the German merchants lived and worked and how they traded stockfish and grains from their office in Bergen.

Stockfish (dried fish) was the most important preservation method in medieval Norway – in those times stockfish was just as valuable as Norway’s oil is today! Stockfish is normally made from cod, but also from haddock, tusk, saithe and ling. The fish are were hung up on large timber frames to dry out in the sun and the wind without being salted. Dried  fish was an expensive food, but it was easy to transport, highly nutritious and kept really well  – dried fish, in fact, can be kept for 15 years and still be edible!

On entering the museum, the first room you come to is the ‘sjoøbod’; the wharfside warehouse for goods that were to be exported but had to be processed first. The sorting was important work that required people who really knew their fish and the different qualities. They also had to know the markets to which the fish were to be exported.

Having learnt more about the product, and the Hanseatic trade, I ventured upstairs to learn more about the everyday life of the actual tradesmen.

Walking around on the upper floors you can visit the working quarters, the elaborate offices of the high up society members, the dining quarters where, of course, only cold food was served, and – most fascinating for me the living quarters where men would sleep two to a bed. Something that I learnt which fascinated me, the beds were noticeably shorter than our beds today. Now whilst it is true that the men at this time were shorter on average than we are nowadays; the beds were ridiculously short – like child sized. Apparently at this time people were extremely superstitious so they slept in a sitting position as sleeping lying down was believed to be inviting death!

Wandering around the rooms you could get a real sense of what life would have been like for these traders – right down to the decorations which were still visible on the walls – even down to the brush strokes.

I was so interested to learn how Bryggen was gradually all purchased by the Hanseatic offices; they literally formed their own society which was firmly segregated form the rest of the city. They were enclosed by fences and gates and had their own rules and regulations in addition to their own jurisdiction. At the most there could have been up to 2000 men in the office; mainly hailing from the middle class in Germany. The office staff were required to be unmarried; having been promoted through the ranks and making their money in Bergen they later moved back to Germany to trade and raise families.

It honestly was so interesting learning about these people, their trade and history. The Hanseatic league is such an important part of Bergen’s history that one really should make an effort to pop in and visit the Hanseatic museum and the assembly rooms if you’re every in the city. Super, super fascinating stuff.

Having spent a little while in the museum I was down to my last hour or so in the city before I would have to hop on a bus into the airport. The only thing to do? One final meal in the city for a bit of a chill out and to soak up the final few moments of Bergen. There’s a super nice restaurant called Olivia, right next to the wharf and just a spitting distance from the Fish market. I sat out here on one of their cosy fur lined chairs and had the most delicious meal of burrata and asparagus risotto. Yessssss!

Having finished my meal I wandered back through the city, via a cute little shopping area with a little flea market going on, before saying farewell to Norway and making my way back to London.

Bergen was literally the most beautiful of cities – I couldn’t recommend it more. With such an interesting history and it’s proximity to the Fjords this makes it the perfect destination for a little break. The city also isn’t huge so I never felt overwhelmed or lost – it was perfect just for strolling around and taking it all in.

One thing I will say  – it’s not cheap here. Beer is maybe about £11 a pint and wine is roughly £14 for a small glass. I wouldn’t recommend coming here if you want to get away on the cheap but obviously there are always ways to save the pennies (in Bergen’s case – maybe stick to the orange juice…!)

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