Bergen, Norway: Gateway to the Fjords

Bergen, Norway was the most important trading center in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.
  • Bergen, Norway was the most important trading center in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.

Bergen is located on Norway’s western coast. The journey there from Oslo takes you through a wonderfully scenic part of the country, including some of the longest and most spectacular fjords in Norway. You can travel by train or take a combination train/bus/boat journey, often referred to as “Norway in a Nutshell.” Once you’ve experienced the most compelling reason to visit Norway, the magnificent fjords, it’s time to relax and enjoy the gentle rhythm of Bergen. If you have not yet visited the fjords, the town provides a gateway to several of them.

Once I arrived in Bergen, I thought I had journeyed to a relatively remote part of Europe. This perception was dispelled when my taxi driver spoke excitedly about his trip to Las Vegas the previous year (“I love Vegas! I can’t wait to go back”). Bergen is more connected than one might think. It’s been an international city since the Middle Ages, when it was a member of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of trading cities in Northern Europe. Bergen’s proximity to the sea made it the most important trading city in Scandinavia.

Despite a population of 253,000, Bergen retains a village atmosphere, and it’s a very walkable town. I got up early on a misty morning to poke around the fish market and walk around the harbor, Vagen. I then explored the cobblestone streets along the historic waterfront, Bryggen, and took a funicular railway up to the top of Mount Floyen. Initially, the fog did not allow much of a view, but the sun soon burned it away, revealing a spectacular vista of the town and the sea. Don’t just take the funicular back down after you’ve enjoyed the view. There are some great hikes on well-marked trails into the Norwegian woods from here.

After returning to the waterfront, I headed back to the fish market for lunch. It was a difficult decision — everything looked inviting and fresh. I was curious about the whale and eel, and the broiled shrimp looked good, too. I finally decided on a tasty smoked salmon plate. The cloudberries were heavenly.

Bergen has an intimate relationship with the sea, and its main industries are fishing and shipbuilding. It boasts the largest port on the west coast of Norway and a merchant fleet. With its fish market, magnificent views, proximity to the sea and frequent rain, Bergen is most reminiscent of Seattle among U.S. cities.

A walking tour enabled us to explore Bergen’s proud heritage. Bergen has an arguably richer and more interesting history than Oslo. Not many know it was, up until the 1830s, the largest city in Norway. There have been many fires in Bergen’s history, the worst in 1702, when 90% of the city was destroyed. After each fire, the buildings were rebuilt in accordance with the original plan. The old wooden buildings used by the Hanseatic League are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

We entered the interior of the Hanseatic Museum. The cramped quarters housing the apprentices and merchants have been preserved and furnished to appear as they did in the 1700s. This would not have been a pleasant place to reside for the claustrophobic!

Bergen is a center of the arts as well. It boasts the country’s first national theater and one of the oldest symphony orchestras. Troldhaugen, the home of Edward Grieg, the great Norwegian composer, is a worthwhile visit. Overlooking Lake Nordaas, the building has been turned into a museum and hosts concerts in the summer and autumn months.

Classical music aficionados will enjoy visiting Grieg’s home. The sublime environment of his native land, clearly a source of inspiration, seems interwoven with the compositions he created.

Now I can select one of Grieg’s compositions on my iPod, close my eyes, and I’m transported back among the fjords, forests and majestic natural sights of Bergen and western Norway.

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Author's note: I did not mean to suggest in the article that I was considering ordering whale(although I was curious about it). Whaling is an inhumane practice which continues to occur in Norway despite diplomatic pressure. It has a deep history in that country. According to the WWF, commercial whalers in Norway and Japan are provided government subsidies. It is not even considered a profitable practice (without taxpayer support).

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