Norway’s Cultural Capital
Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
I can’t say we weren’t warned. When we told our Norwegian friends we were going to Bergen, they looked at each other and smiled as if wondering whether they should let us in on Bergen’s secret. “A beautiful place,” he said finally. “A city of culture.”
“A city of rain,” she interrupted. “Rainiest spot on the continent. Rains 250 days a year — summer, fall, winter and spring.”
In other words, it always rains. Is this a place my husband and I really want to visit?
Well, yes. For beauty and culture we can endure a few drops of rain.
On the first morning we look out our hotel room window and see sun, bright happy sun shining down on buildings that shimmer with color. We’ve won the weather lottery.
Peaked roofs covered with orange, gold, black and sometimes red tiles sit atop walls that may be light gray or ivory, but are more often vibrant gold or soft blue. Off in the distance a church topped with delicate pinnacles and spires stands guard over the haphazard streets. I later learn that this church — Johanneskirken in Norwegian, St. John’s in English — is the largest in Bergen and dates back to 1894.
Three hours later the clouds obscure the sun. Four hours later, we’re drenched. That’s when I remember that my friend told us a proverb she learned from her grandmother: There’s no such thing as bad weather in Bergen, just inappropriate clothes.
My husband and I race back to the hotel, grab parkas for our bodies, dry shoes for our feet and myriad plastic bags for his camera. Then, outfitted appropriately, we set out to imbibe some culture.
We begin in the center of town, which 1,000 years ago was home to the medieval town of Bryggen. Many of the original buildings were destroyed by fire during the 1700s and subsequently rebuilt on the old foundations, meaning that the footprints and often the function remained the same. It is because the area was so well preserved that the modern-day Bergen has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage City, one that must be protected due to its enduring cultural significance.
The rebuilt buildings are lined along the wharf, facing the water that made Bryggen an economic powerhouse — in medieval terms of course. Today the terms have changed. Bergen is still an economic powerhouse, but it deals in tourists instead of fish.
We spend the better part of a day strolling along the cobblestone streets and planked walkways of old Bryggen and exploring repurposed buildings, now crooked with age.
We see trolls in every size and shape in the souvenir shops, admire handmade knits with Nordic designs in the galleries, and eat…Oh my, we eat. First we down a sandwich laden with shrimp, crab and salmon.
Then we warm up with a sjokoladerdrikker (hot chocolate) from a Starbucks that’s housed in a building that looks like a giant wedding cake, outlined with a frosting of white. Two hundred years ago this building was the town’s meat market. A few blocks away a new McDonald’s is located in an old bakery.
Thoroughly sated, we visit the Hanseatic Museum, where we take a guided tour that helps us better understand Bergen’s history, and then wander over to the wharf to see some of the ships that take nearly half-million passengers a year on trips to the spectacular Norwegian fjords.
Some of these ships, which number more than 300 a year, are mega-ships, each carrying thousands of passengers to the larger ports along the coast. Others, like those operated by Hurtigruten, are smaller vessels that combine cargo stops to small towns with passenger amenities for cruisers who want a more unusual voyage.
We opt for a half-day fjord trip, which is so delightful that we’ve rearranged our bucket list so that a longer Norway coastal voyage is Number One.
The next day passes too quickly as we try to absorb the city’s art and music scene. It’s a large scene — one that encompasses both past and present — and in 2000 resulted in Bergen being named a European City of Culture. Music aficionados can visit the home of Norway’s most famous composer Edvard Grieg as well as the villa of violin virtuoso Ole Bull, while art enthusiasts can explore Bergen’s Art Street, an impressive row of galleries and museums that borders Lake Lungegårdsvann.
As we walk back to our hotel, we feel the soft drops of an evening rain, but this time we hardly notice.
We’ve fallen in love with Bergen.