A July 2004 trip
to Bergen by Owen Lipsett
Quote: Nestled between seven hills and several fjords, at first glance Bergen resembles an oversized version of the beautiful fjord towns that cling to the most improbable and isolated places. This impression is only partially accurate - it also possesses an exceptional number of superb museums for a city its size.
Bergen’s compact center contains an incredible number of sights bearing witness to its medieval, maritime, and cultural history. It’s extremely enjoyable to traverse its cobblestone streets on foot and to take the Fløibanen funicular up Mount Fløyen to gaze down on it and then take a hiking trail back down.
Medieval BergenThe distinctive wooden buildings of World Heritage-listed Bryggen line the east side of Bergen's harbor and stretch up the hill. At its edge stands the beautiful Romanesque Mariakirken. The Bryggens Museum provides historical background on the district and its archaeology. Håkon's Hall, built in 1261 as a royal wedding hall, is nearby, as is Rosenkrantz Tower, a fortress built in 1560 by incorporating a 13th-century building, which offers fine views over the harbor.
Maritime BergenA visit to Bergen’s Fish Market is an excellent way to get a cheap lunch and an insight into the sea’s importance to Norway. The dried fish trade attracted the Hanseatic League to Bergen and is covered by the excellent Hanseatic Museum, located in an old merchant’s house. The Schøtstuene, a sort of Hanseatic clubhouse, is located in Bryggen. Children tend to appreciate Bergen’s Aquarium and Maritime Museum. The Fisheries Museum by the passenger port has a delightful array of nautical bric-a-brac.
Cultural BergenThe superb Bergen Art Museum houses three separate collections in adjacent buildings: the Rasmus Meyer collection contains an excellent selection of Norwegian art, Lysverket displays a strong collection of foreign art (and temporarily, the Stenersen collection), and the Stenersen building hosts temporary exhibitions. Nearby are the equally strong West Norway Museum of Decorative Art and contemporary art at the Bergen Kunsthall. The university has excellent Natural History and Cultural History collections. Outside of Bergen, native son Edvard Grieg’s home at Troldhaugen is well worth the trip if you have time.
Bergen’s superb tourist office is located across the street from the Fish Market in an historic building and has a wide variety of information about local events; be sure to pick up a free Bergen Guide booklet. It also offers a luggage service and will let you sit inside in foul weather – not trivial since it rains 275 days a year in Bergen!
At the tourist office, buy the Bergen Card that entitles you to free admission or discounted admission to all sights except the Hanseatic Museum and Schotstuene (entered on the same ticket) and free transportation in the city and to several day trip destinations including Troldhaugen.
In addition to its other attractions, Bergen is the best jumping-off point for exploring western Norway and its fjords.
Check museum hours before visiting--they tend to vary from what is printe--and are invariably closed on Mondays.
The Fish Market is open from 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and offers the best (and freshest!) cheap food in the city that is not limited to fish. If the smell puts you off, there's also a greenmarket across the street.
Bergen is connected with Oslo and a few towns en route by what railway buffs regard as the most beautiful railway line in the world. Trains run four to five times daily (including a night train) and take 6.5 hours to almost 8 hours. Seat reservations are required. Alternatively, you can take the Oslo-Bergen train as far as Myrdal, ride the scenic train from Myrdal to Flam, and take a ferry up the Sognefjord from Flam to Bergen. The journey takes approximately 12 hours, but is well worth it for the stunning scenery you encounter. A shorter version of this trip, known as "Norway in a Nutshell," allows you to take the ferry and Flam railway as far as Myrdal and then return by rail to Bergen the same day.
Getting Around Bergen:
Bergen is best seen on foot, as all sights are within a 20-minute walk of the center.
Attraction | "Bergen Art Museum (Bergen Kunstmuseum)"
Stenersen Collection, Rasmus Meyers allé 3: The collection donated by the Norwegian businessman and art collector Rolf Stenersen (1899-1978) now actually resides in Lysverket (see below), with the functionalist building designed to house it given over to temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists as well as the museum’s café. Stenersen collected art throughout his life and in 1944 wrote the definitive biography of his friend Edvard Munch, several of whose paintings are on display. His disappointing experience attempting to place the book with publishers led him to conclude that as much as they neglected contemporary literature, museums were ignoring contemporary artists. He therefore became a major advocate for modernists within Denmark, collecting their works alongside those by such European masters as Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso (to whom an entire room is devoted), Wassily Kandinsky, and his favorite, Paul Klee. The collection as a whole provides a strong overview of post-war European art.
Rasmus Meyer Collection, Rasmus Meyers allé 7: While Stenersen sought to advocate contemporary artists, his fellow businessman Meyer (1858-1916) aimed "to establish a gallery . . . showing the development of Norwegian art history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." Meyer took as his model the collection Heinrich Hirschsprung assembled of Danish painters and consequently assembled works by great names in Norwegian art. Of particular note are works by J.C. Dahl, regarded as Norway’s first great fine artist for his renderings of its countryside and his followers, and the naturalist Christian Krogh, whose depictions of social injustice and use of color prefigured Munch (to whom an entire room is devoted.) Extensive explanatory notes on the artists and their techniques further enhance the collection and its achievement of Meyer’s vision.
Lysverket, Rasmus Meyers allé 9: The architecturally stunning Lysverket originally served as the administrative headquarters of Bergen’s electrical power company and was only opened in its present form in 2003. The Tower Room, which holds temporary exhibitions, has pride of place in this regard. In addition to the Stenersen collection, Lysverket houses the museum’s general collection of everything from medieval icons to the paintings of Yoko Ono. It also contains works by Dahl and Munch, and it’s particularly interesting to see them exhibited among their European contemporaries.
Together, the three collections and the numerous contemporary exhibitions constitute a thoroughly engrossing whole. While photography is not allowed inside, thumbnails of works and further information may be found on the museum’s excellent webpage.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 12, 2004
Rasmus Meyers allé 3,7 & 9
For all this history, however, the best reason to visit the market is to get an inexpensive lunch (or breakfast or early dinner). Take your time and compare the offerings since prices vary. In general, a salmon, shrimp, or langoustine sandwich should cost you about NOK 20, but some stands charge significantly more or only serve the fish on half a roll. Many of the stands place free samples alongside the daily catch, and some others will allow you to take a small taste of their more exotic selections without charge – just ask. My experience was that the sellers were invariably quite friendly.
Nearly all stands offer basic fish sandwiches, fish filets for sale, and cooked prawns (shrimp) that you can shell and eat sitting at the dock. Others, however, offer such delicacies as cooked crabs, oysters, caviar (which is apparently less expensive in shops), and whale meat (which is dark, tough, and tasteless). Nor are selections limited to sea creatures: one stand grills up elk burgers (more interesting for the novelty value than the taste) while several sell both elk and reindeer sausage. Across the street, a smaller market has stalls selling flowers, vegetables, homemade ice cream - and Norwegian ostrich! Quite a few stands on both sides of the street sell sweaters, postcards, and assorted knick-knacks – several other travelers advised me that these tend to be rather overpriced and shoddy in quality.
As may be evident from this description, I ate lunch at the market all 3 days I stayed in Bergen. The best way to complete your repast is with a cinnamon roll from the nearby Baker Brun, which claims to have invented (and certainly has perfected) this traditional Bergen treat.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 13, 2004
Bergen Fish Market
Attraction | "Fjord Cruise From Flåm to Bergen"
The approach to Flåm, a tiny village at the edge of Aurlandsfjorden, is exceptional in its own right – many people consider the rail journey from Oslo to Bergen the most beautiful in the world. The portion between Oslo and Myrdal, which passes across the tundra-like Hardangervidda plateau as well as innumerable picturesque alpine villages, is enough to confirm this notion on its own. From Myrdal, the Flåm Railway, one of the world’s steepest at narrow gauge, twists down past still more picturesque scenery to the village of Flåm, stopping only at Kjofossen Waterfall.
The first thing that strikes you as the boat moves out into the center of the fjord is how tiny Flåm appears against the mountains and how they appear small against the sky. While Flåm’s population of 400 is miniscule even for a Norwegian fjord town, I found this leitmotif repeated throughout the journey, as villages seemed to cling to every bit of remotely even terrain by the shoreline on the edge of the fjords that dwarfed them.
Aurlandsfjorden intersects with Sognefjorden, the longest and deepest in Norway.
Even in summer, the air coming across the fjord is quite cool and surprisingly dry in its inland portions, however, because it intersects with the Gulf Stream, its main arm never freezes over, making it a key artery for western Norway. The boat stops in Vangsnes, a small farming community with a gigantic statute of Fridtjof, a hero of the Norwegian sagas, Vik (home to one of Norway’s few preserved stave churches), and Balestrand, where Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany once regularly vacationed.
All these towns are tiny; I was particularly struck that when the boat stopped, only a few people would get on and off, and there seemed to be more people working at the dock than actually waiting for the boats. Having been introduced to Norway in Oslo, I felt this somewhat touristy journey gave me a truer sense of the country’s tenacious people, its seafaring history, and its beautiful, yet inhospitable geography. After reaching the end of the fjord, the boat swept around the more verdant coast toward Bergen and the towns became much larger, eventually giving way to Bergen’s suburbs and then the city itself.
Exhausted (the entire journey from Oslo took 12.5 hours) and exhilarated, I saw that Bergen in many ways resembled one of the fjord towns, but grown larger and more beautiful. It’s easy to see why many visitors take a 1-day roundtrip journey to Flåm .
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 14, 2004
Håkon's Hall was erected on the orders of King Håkon Håkonsson between 1247 and 1261. Its ceremonial "Stone Hall" was first used for the wedding and coronation of Håkon’s son, Magnus Lagabøte (the Lawmender), a powerful ruler who, as his name suggests, developed Norway’s first legal code. Unlike most medieval monarchs, whose courts consisted of groups of courtiers who moved between castles throughout their realms, Magnus largely held court at and around the Hall. Even more unusual, much of the business of the court, both written and oral, was conducted in vernacular Norwegian rather than Latin.
The Hall slipped into disuse with the translation of political power to Oslo, which fell into disrepair in the 17th century, although it was later refitted to serve as Bergen’s storehouse. It was restored during the Norwegian national revival of the late 19th century and used for ceremonial purposes in the early 20th century, as it is today. It had to be restored yet again; however, a German munitions boat exploded in the harbor in 1944, sparing Bryggen but blowing off the Hall’s roof and destroying the similar houses on the other side of the harbor.
Rosenkrantz Tower was erected in 1520 on the orders of Erik Rosenkrantz, the governor of nearby Bergen Castle, around a preexisting medieval structure that included a dungeon, which can still be visited. It consequently commands the finest view over Bergen’s harbor of any building on the waterfront. Its interior plays host to temporary exhibitions and contains several restored rooms. Håkon's Hall and Rosenkrantz Tower run hourly in the summer, provided there is interest – I was fortunate to have one all to myself!
Bryggen, a UNESCO-listed site, is Bergen’s historic wharf, though its famous, three-centuries-old wooden buildings belie the full extent of its history. Excavations have indicated that there were commercial buildings in this area as early as the late 11th century, some of which are visible inside the Bryggens Museum, which also offers displays on the medieval history of the area, making it an excellent introduction to an historical tour of Bergen. The nearby Mariakirke dates from the first half of the 12th century and is considered one of the finest Romanesque churches in Norway although the equally renowned baroque interior decorations were executed in the 17th century.
Bryggen and the waterfront originally stood approximately 140 meters further inland than they do today – successive expansions have pushed the harbor ever forward. The distinctive parallel rows of storehouses, known as tenements, first developed in the 13th century, though they contain 61 wooden buildings constructed after a fire that ravaged Bergen in 1702. The tenements contained both commercial and living quarters for the city’s merchants and are extremely enjoyable to walk around, although their interiors are today given over to tourist restaurants and souvenir shops.
Byrggen owes its present self-contained form to the Hanseatic League, which established a (trading office) on the site in 1360. The League, an association of German merchant cities that was more economic than political, sought to capitalize on the trade between Northern Norway, which supplied the European continent with stockfish (dried fish) and received grain (and later various luxuries) in return. Since fish (but not meat) could be consumed on Fridays and during periods of fasting in Catholic Europe, the trade was particularly lucrative for the League, a self-governing group of German merchants that had branches throughout Northern Europe. Bergen was the last of its offices to disband, in 1754, and today is the only preserved kontor to be found anywhere.
The excellent Hanseatic Museum, located in an old tenement at the edge of Bryggen, is best seen on one of the hourly English-language guided tours, though you’ll probably want to take time afterwards to examine its exhibitions in more depth. Its three floors include exhibitions detailing the history of the League, the stockfish trade (including an explanation of how the fish were packed), and everyday life within the kontor. Reconstructed apprentices’ and masters’ rooms illustrate the relatively austere life that the merchants – all of whom were German and unmarried – lived. They lived as a society apart and were strictly forbidden from fraternizing with locals, particularly women. The Schøtstuene, at the opposite corner of Bryggen, is a preserved social hall where members of an individual trading house would take their meals and meet, and can be entered with the same ticket as the Hanseatic Museum.
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