(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)
I’m a big believer in serendipitous travel. When we were researching our 2010 trip to Norway, we thought it would be nice to see the Atlantic coast of Norway. At the same time, it seemed like a waste of time to travel out to the coast from Oslo…and then back again to Oslo for the flight home. It turned out that Icelandair served a number of Norwegian cities from Reykjavik…so we were able to book a flight into Bergen and then out of Oslo at no extra cost. We didn’t know much about Bergen but figured that there must be something worth seeing.
As it turns out, there was plenty to see. We quickly learned that Bergen was one of the major Hanseatic League cities: a Germanic trading organization that linked the Baltic States, Scandinavia, Germany and Poland. Of course, there was no united “Germany” yet, but German was definitely the language of commerce.
The historic Bryggen district, dominating Bergen’s waterfront, contains a large number of brightly coloured wooden buildings from the Hanseatic days. We spent the better part of a day exploring the various museums embedded into the Bryggen buildings. Everybody takes pictures of the exteriors but the dark interiors are equally fascinating. And there is a lot of dried fish, too.
On our first evening in town, we took a gondola lift up to a park located high above Bergen’s harbour. In just a few minutes we were hiking around a verdant wilderness, wondering whether there might be bears, and completely forgetting that we were in Norway’s second largest city.
Bergen is also a modern city and we spent some time shopping and visiting markets. This was the summer right after the Vancouver Winter Olympics: Norway’s men’s curling team had made a real splash at the Olympics with their outrageously colourful curling pants. By the summer, however, the novelty had begun to wear off. and we saw a lot of plaid curling pants for sale. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any that fit me.
While I was unsuccessful in the curling pants department, I did find a Helly Hansen rugby shirt (Helly Hansen being a famous Norwegian brand of sports & outdoor clothing) that was almost as striking. To this day, it attracts cries of “Where’s Waldo?” whenever I wear it. The shirt has turned out to be a nice souvenir that I’ll forever associate with Bergen.
As Bergen was the first city we’ve ever visited in Norway, we will also forever associate it with huge and unique breakfasts. As the price of food in Norway was quite outrageous, we learned to take extreme advantage of the hotel’s smorgasbordesque breakfast and not eat again until dinner.
I suppose the amount of fish at breakfast was to be expected; this is, after all, a country with a huge fishing heritage. Yet it was the cheese, of all things, that was most surprising. For the first time, we ate brunost…or “brown cheese”. Here’s a link to a Guardian article about it: from its orange-brown colour to its fudge-like texture to its surprising sweet and salty flavour, it is something else that I will never forget. Just like some of my favourite Dutch treats, brunost does not seem to have caught on much outside its home country.
Bergen is a beautifully situated city and a great springboard for exploring the fjords. If we make it to Norway again, we will focus on the Atlantic Coast…and it would be great to start with a return visit to this very livable place.