The pale sky threw its muted light on the smattering of timber-fronted shops in Bryggen, painted in shades of bright pink, orange and pale yellow. Back in the day, barrels of unsalted stockfish were crammed into these very wooden buildings. Today, several niche art galleries, antique shops and bistros have filled up the space. Further down the road from Bryggen, with mics pressed to their lips, two Nordic pop musicians gathered up a crowd with their impromptu beatboxing as passersby dropped loose change into their guitar case. No sooner did they pack up and leave than the space came alive with the rhythm of syncopated Latin dance music.
Things were on an upswing in this city, despite the gloomy weather. According to the weather report, the entire next week was predicted to be sunny. But you can never be too sure in Bergen, which is notorious for its fickle weather. Here, it rains at least 270 days a year, uninterrupted.
Regardless, things were quite euphoric at the city centre, an open area flanked by low-slung mountains with an artificial lake embedded in the middle. It was awash with overexcited, selfie-taking tourists as conceited seagulls made a killing from food left unattended by them. The locals didn’t seem too perturbed by the climate as they went milling about their business, some ran in sportswear, others took their dogs and babies out for a stroll in the woods. “Because it rains for the better part of the year, people of Bergen make the most if it irrespective of weather conditions,” said an attendant with a beaming smile at the visitor centre.
It won’t be entirely correct to call Bergen a ‘quaint town’, though it does carry a very relaxed, unedgy vibe. With oil rigs doing duty in the country’s north, Norway’s economy is nicely lubricated. Reason why it makes the likelihood of its membership to the European Union (EU) very remote.
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Ringed by seven mountains and fjords, Bergen is a big city with a small town charm. Historical preservation, nature and rain are three common threads that stitch together the fabric of this city.
Founded by King Olav Kyrre in 1070 AD, it used to be Norway’s first real capital during the 13th century. It’s a historically significant place as it was a major European trading and seafaring port and one of the Hanseatic Merchants’ four most important trading centres. Seafaring and trade still play a crucial role in Bergen’s economy which thrives on trade and tourism, oil and gas and fisheries.
Just across the wharf, colourful timber-fronted houses line up the alongside the harbour with a small number of anchored sailboats and yachts that conjure up sepia-tinted images of a flourishing trading town back in the day. That’s Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its surreal wooden buildings and cobbled streets with stone steps. These buildings were one of the very first ones to come up in Bergen and have been a vibrant part of the city for centuries. They are also a big part of the city’s cultural identity.
But behind the veil of beauty, lies a tumultuous history.
Bryggen was reduced to ashes by multiple fires, especially the great fire of 1702. The city was rebuilt on the very foundations that had been there since the 12th century, which essentially means Bryggen is unchanged through the course of time. This explains why it was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city also carries an air of youthful vibe that adds ample freshness to this wind-swept trading town. Around 10 per cent of Bergen’s population are students, which reflects in the jovial attitude of people in general. Interactions with people will quickly reveal they are not only passionately patriotic but also very proud of their multi-layered city and its cultural traditions that delicately balances vivaciousness with maturity.
“People in Bergen are easy-going, who are not afraid to tell you their opinion and they do so with a laugh. They love their mountains and very patriotic as well,” confirms 30-year-old Feliz, a resident of Oslo who manages the front desk at a museum here. With abbreviated legs, she stood on her toes to fetch a booklet from a rack on Bergen’s history. “They also talk about separation from rest of Norway. But it’s an old joke now,” she says, laughing it off.
Feliz’s implicit reference on Bergen’s ‘separation’ from Norway has some basis as people here have a strong sense of local ‘nationalism’ for their city. But this might be indistinguishable to travellers. What I gathered from encounters with a few locals from Oslo and Bergen is that both of them believe they are irreconcilably different with strange accents. Then again, these notions are perhaps well-established stereotypes that slip their way into public discourse.
Bergen is a feeling, it constantly reminds you to slow down.Advertisement
“I am from Oslo, but have spent 13 years in Bergen. Here, you can chat away with everybody and no one is afraid to talk to strangers. This city is a bit closer to nature. They also try hard to preserve the old stuff rather than tearing them apart,” says 26-year-old Anna, who runs a cafe inside Bryggen.
Few shopkeepers in Bryggen, some of whom are also from Oslo, spoke about exactly how this city makes them feel. “Comfortable,” explains 27-year-old Line Sverinsen who runs a small clothing accessories shop inside Bryggen. “Oslo feels more like a big city. The vibe in Bergen is a little relaxed, friendly. History is well preserved, they carry it quite well and the wilderness is so accessible here. From Bergen, I learnt to relax, I am still learning,” she adds.
If you’ve skipped Oslo for Bergen on your first trip to Norway, you will struggle to draw parallels between the two cities.
But the most obvious difference between them is the pace of life: Bergen is easy-going, Oslo is one of the fastest-growing European cities in the world, much like neighbouring Stockholm.
Bergen is also closer to nature and fitness. Just how important health and fitness is to Norwegians becomes immediately evident once you scan the streets. You’ll spot runners, cyclists, trekkers with backpacks tracing the length and breadth of the city and its mountains. This is very common in Norway and it gives you some serious fitness goals. A case in point: While hiking up a cobble-stoned alley in Bergen, I noticed a woman in sportswear haul two huge bags of vegetables. But that’s not it. She was, in fact, performing lunges and walking uphill to her house! She’d rest for a few seconds, and start again. Clearly, Norwegians know their priorities, and fitness is right up there on their list.
What to do in Bergen
Explore Fjellveien on foot
Exploring Fjellveien on foot is possibly the best way to get a taste of nature and experience the area where locals come for their Sunday stroll. It’s mostly a flat path that’s easy to hike around. From here, you can enjoy a splendid view of the Bergen city centre and areas around Bergen on clear days. The highlight of this hike are the neatly done up wooden houses that line up alongside tall trees. Fjellveien is easily accessible from Bergen City centre. You can either choose to walk up from the city centre or take the Floybanen Furnicular till Fjellveien station. From here, you could also trek up till Sandviken, one of the seven mountains of Bergen situated at an altitude of 392m above sea level.
Hike from Ulriken to Vidden (4-6 hours – 13km)
Being an adventure enthusiast helps leaps and bounds in Bergen. The mountains are simply too tempting not to hike through. In that case, take the scenic Vidden trail that stretches from Mount Ulriken to Mount Floyen. Along the trail, you will discover small log cabins, dramatic scenery of endless rocky terrain interspersed with beautiful alpine lakes and mountains in the distance. There are several ways to hike up the train depending on time, physical preferences and budget. I took the harder route from Montana Hostel (where I was staying) till Mount Ulriken, which is quite a steep hike but not too tough either. However, those looking for lesser elevation gain could take the Floibayen Furnicular to the top of Mount Floyen. This would cut at least 30 minutes of hiking time. The trail has ample signs for trekkers to follow the well-travelled path. The trek was the the highlight of my trip.
Fjord cruise from Norheimsund to Hardangerfjord
I planned on seeing at least one fjord on my trip. But it turned out to be quite costly at NOK 795 or Rs 6,400 approximately. I booked the ‘Norway in a nutshell’ tour package that took me from Norheimsund to Hardangerfjord on a cruise. A blast of cold, relentless wind aboard the cruise notwithstanding, I saw some breathtaking vistas: quaint cottages and villages sitting in relative seclusion along the banks of the serene lake, encircled by majestic mountains with snow-covered peaks. After you arrive at Eidfjord, you have precisely three hours to explore on your own, or you can join the Eidfjord Sightseeing excursion to the Hardangervidda Nature Center and the majestic Vøringsfossen. We however, rented a car in advance by speaking with the cruise operators who were only happy to organise. This gave us a lot of freedom to do what we wanted. You could skip a trip to the Hardangervidda Nature Center and proceed directly to Vorringfossen and enroute stop at national park.
Stay at Montana Hostel
Scenic, clean, reasonably cheap and friendly is how I would describe my stay at Montana Hostel, one of Bergen’s best youth hostels. I stayed in a 18-bed dormitory along with fellow travellers from across the world. I paid NOK 505 (Rs 4,000 approx) for four nights, which is cheap as per Norwegian standards.