Norway is small country of about 5,000,000 people. There are no big cities. Olso, the biggest has about 500,000 people. Bergen, with 250,000 is the second largest. Bergen is on the west coast--- well, properly, Bergen is located well inland on a fjord on the west coast-- and is the southern end of the Hurtigruten route. We took the Bergen to Bergen round trip, so we were in Bergen for our first two days and for much of the last day of our trip. We had very different impressions of Bergen on those two visits. We found Bergen a bit of let down on the first two days compared to other places we have been in Europe. All it all, it seemed a rather nondescript place, about as boring to see as Bern, Switzerland. We were much more favorably impressed on our return when our standard of comparison had became Norway instead of European. In most of Europe, architecture, both civil and ecclesiastical, is impressive. However, architecture is not Norway's strong suite, but after spending 11 days looking at Norwegian architecture that's even less inspiring than Bergen, Bergen looked impressive.
There is a reason why Norway's architecture fails to impress-- WWII. WWII started in September, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. In January, 1940, the Germans invaded Norway (with the world's first paratroop drop at the Olso airport). The Norwegians were completely surprised by the Nazi invasion as the Norwegians expected Hitler to honor Norway's declaration of neutrality as did the Kaiser in WWI-- bad bet by Norway. The Nazis quickly conquered Norway, who entire army escaped to England on one ship. For the next four years, the Germans plundered, robbed, raped, and killed the Norwegians on prodigious scale. Then the Soviet Red Army invaded Norway and quickly defeated the German troops, driving them out of Norway. However, as a last gift to the people of Norway, Hitler ordered the retreating Nazi forces to burn down Norway, which was accomplished with great success, especially along the west coast, the route of the Hurtigruten.
So, most of Norway was rebuilt in the post war decade. When it comes to architecture, this was not good news for two reasons. First, after the devastation of the war, Norway was an economic basket case, and great Architecture requires great wealth. Second, the immediate post war period was not one of Architecture's proudest periods. It was stark modernism-- square steel and glass boxes, boring boring boring to look at, and that-- boring boring boring-- is what Norway'- Architecture is, at least on the west coast. There are some exceptions-- central Alesund, a couple blocks in Tromso, and a block here and there in Trondhiem, and a fair bit of Bergen-- everything north, east , and west of the Torget within walking distance of the Torget and half a kilometer south of the Torget which is home to the fish market.
The overwhelming impression of Bergen is modestly attractive buildings and a neat and orderly place. It even has a grid street system. The original city grew up around the harbor called Vagan. The part of town along the Vagan called Bryggen was built by the Germanic Hansiadic League in the 14th Century. It is very old, and built mostly of close packed wood buildings, most of which have burned down several times over the last 600 years, but each time supposedly rebuilt in the their original style. So maybe Bryggen-- a UN Historical Sight, is an authentic medieval town and maybe its like Disneyland. In either case, it is far and away Bergen's most interesting feature for the tourist-- quaint wooden buildings-- undergoing the latest several restorations-- narrow passages, restaurants and souvenir stores.
We found the neighborhood just uphill from Bryggen was also pleasantly attractive. It looked to be from the 16th - 18th Century. Again, a residential neighborhood of wooden houses reminiscent of the old houses in New England. In fact, it so much looked like New England that we are puzzled-- how did Norwegian houses come to populate New England?
On our first full day in Bergen, we started out by taking the Floyen funicular ($8 per person) up almost to the top of the mountain, 1,000 ft above sea level, that rises steeply behind Bryggen only a few short blocks from the sea. The top terminal of the funicular provides impressive views of Bergen, the sea-- no, actually the fjord-- and the surrounding mountains.
At this point, a digression into Bergen's climate is in order--
Here's a Norwegian joke: Tourist to a local lad in Bergen, "Does it rain all the time here?"
Bergen boy, "I don't know. I'm only 13."
It rains a lot in Bergen. Our friends who took the Hurtigruten in late October, the rainy season, reported rain every day, all day. I think they were exaggerating, but when we arrived in Bergen at 1:00 pm, it was sunny. It was sunny the next morning, so we ascended the mountain By the time we got back down, it was raining-- we walked down.
We walked down, and found it was an interesting walk, mostly because of the climate. We live in a near desert. Bergen is in a temperate rain forest. The forest is on the mountain that rises behind Bergen and the sea. Only in Olympic National Park and in Eugene, Oregon, have we ever come across the vegetative manifestations of excessive moisture that could match what we saw descending the mountain from the top terminal of the Floyen funicular. There was mold and moss and ferns and lots of trees and assorted green stuff growing everywhere. For us dry landers, it was quite remarkable.
We flew into Bergen via Frankfurt, which although unplanned, turned out to be good for sightseeing. It was raining when we left Frankfurt-- not unusual for Europe-- but somewhere between Norway and the German coast, we flew into sunny weather. Our route took us right along the rugged Norwegian fjord lands, and the pilot brought the plane down to lower altitude for better sight seeing, which gave us about an hour of impressive coastal scenery seen from above. Eyeballing the map, it looks like Frankfurt is the ideal location to fly into Bergen from if the weather is good as the flight path from Frankfurt looks like it hugs the coast more than do flights from Paris or Amsterdam. So, all else being equal, fly to Bergen through Frankfurt if you can. Like us, you might get lucky.
Taxis from the airport into town are very expensive. The airport bus, service every 15 minutes is a bargain. The Airport bus makes a few stops as it winds through town, ending almost at the door of the Radison Blue Hotel and the Clarion Collection HOTEL HAVNEKONTORET.
We arrived in Bergen on Easter Friday. Banks were closed for three days, so we exchanged money at the Bergen Tourist Information office, only a short distance from our hotel along the Vagen. The exchange rate was 5 Nkr for $1. Don't know what the rate would have been at a bank, but our American Express card got us 5.6 Nkr for $1. The lesson-- charge as much as you can. Or check rates at a bank.