ONE SIGNIFICANT DETAIL I FAILED TO TAKE INTO ACCOUNT when planning a trip to Bergen was that it’s one of the – if not the – rainiest cities in Europe. And to compound matters, fall is usually the wettest. “Man, that’s Bergen for you,” a local at the fish market tells me when I comment about the weather. “But that’s what makes Bergen, Bergen.”
It’s this gloomy weather I have to contend with on our first afternoon here. A day after our Iceland expedition ended, Yanyan and I took a three-hour flight in the morning from Reykjavik to Bergen, where we would start the next leg of our trip. We landed at noon, took a train to the city center, and walked to our hostel a few minutes from the train station. The continuous drizzle frustrates my sister, who having no poncho or raincoat, decides to spend the rest of the day in the hostel. I, meanwhile, am unfazed. Dressed in a red raincoat, a jacket, and two layers of shirts, I set out to the center of the city and explore Norway’s cultural capital.
BERGEN’S ORIGIN CAN BE TRACED BACK IN 1070, when King Olaf Kyrre founded what was then the largest town in Norway. The city became a regular residence of the country’s medieval royals, even becoming an ecclesiastical center as well in the 14th century, with dozens of churches and monasteries built in it. Bergen would continue to grow and establish ties with other European cities, thanks to its thriving fishing industry. This prosperity would lead to it being a member of the Hanseatic League, an organization founded by north German towns and German merchant communities abroad to protect their trading interests.
The Hanseatic League would decline in power due to a number of factors, including the rise of Dutch and English merchants, the Black Plague, and squabbles among its members. By the late 16th century, the organization would implode, and the influence of Bergen’s Hanseatic merchants who enjoyed exclusive trading rights declined in favor of Norwegian merchants. The city would continue to develop its trade in succeeding centuries, eventually becoming the buzzing port city it is today.
This piece of history is still visible in the city’s oldest quarter, Bryggen, situated at the eastern section of Vågen, its main harbor. Here, Bergen’s oldest buildings were built, although fires have burned them down many times in the past, with the great fire of 1702 most notable. The houses were rebuilt on the foundations that were in place in the 11th century, and the place looks essentially the same as it was in the Middle Ages. It was listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1979.
Exploring the alleyways behind the Bryggen’s colorful facade facing the harbor reveals a whole another world. Potters, jewelers, and craftspeople go about their daily routines in shops by the narrow alleys. A stroll here takes me into a bygone era, showing just how much history is still alive in this part of Bergen.
BERGEN MAY BE DAMP, but it’s one of Norway’s most enjoyable cities to explore, with so much to see while just strolling around the center. The soggy weather is caused by its location in the middle of seven mountains (the mountains block the clouds being blown by the Atlantic winds), but it’s precisely this location that also makes the setting of Bergen so spectacular. The hills are full of idyllic narrow streets lined by a mix of charming houses, cafes, and shops. Many of these structures date back to the 18th century, though carefully restored in recent years. Further from Bryggen are more historical sights, such as the medieval Håkon’s Hall and St. Mary’s Church, Bergen’s oldest surviving building.
Much of the Bergen’s cultural treasures, however, are contained in a neighborhood of galleries around the Lille Lungegårdsvannet, a small octagonal lake in a picturesque setting in the center of the city. Four of these museums are collectively known as KODE, and each building houses a particular focus of art – Munch, Picasso, Astrup, and Dahl.
Another notable building is the Bergen Kunsthall, a contemporary art center that plays host to more than 200 events and 12 exhibitions per year. The structure’s art deco facade makes it stand out from its neighboring buildings’ modern designs.
THE NEXT MORNING, Yanyan and I visit the information center at the western section of Vågen to buy tickets for a fjord cruise on our way to Oslo. Bergen’s location makes it a great starting point to exploring the fjords, with dozens of companies organizing tours to some of the country’s most spectacular and most famous.
In the afternoon, after having lunch and a couple of hours’ rest, I resume exploring the town while Yanyan once again chooses to stay inside. My walk eventually leads me to the Fløibanen funicular railway, which originates just beside the Hanseatic Museum in Bryggen. The ride takes me and several passengers up to the summit of Mount Fløyen. It’s a foggy afternoon, but the clouds disperse just long enough for me to have a bird’s-eye view of Bergen and the mountains that surround it. There’s a restaurant beside the station, and a goat shed with some friendly residents a few meters away. A bit further still is a marked trail leading to the woods.
Guidebooks and tourism brochures recommend taking one of the trails for a walk, but the cold, damp weather makes me just want to stay and enjoy the view of the city for a few more minutes before going down and help Yanyan do groceries for our dinner.