Where Nature, Commerce, and Culture Collide
Founded in 1070 and the capital of the Kingdom of Norway during the Middle Ages, Bergen was an outpost of the powerful Hanseatic League of Baltic merchant communities organized in the 12th century. At that time the wharfside district of Bryggen (the Quay) was its bustling trading center.
It is still a remarkable collection of timbered warehouses and hostelries that today are home to artisan workshops, cafés, and the interesting Hanseatic Museum. Although most were destroyed by a series of devastating fires over the centuries (the museum building is one of the few that survived), many of the structures were painstakingly (and repeatedly) re-created until the league was phased out in the 18th century.
The beautiful Romanesque St. Mary’s Church (Mariakirken) is an original 12th-century gem, which served as the spiritual hub of the Hanseatic merchants for three centuries. Bryggen is the only surviving neighborhood of these gabled wooden buildings. Their distinctive red-brick and ocher color scheme appeared all over northern Europe during the era of Hanseatic influence, and they are much of the reason behind Bergen’s tourist moniker – the Wooden City.
Just south of Bergen is Troldhaugen (Troll’s Hill), the 19th-century summer villa of musician and composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), born in Bergen and buried at Troldhaugen with his wife. Try to catch a concert here in the summer or fall – visit in early summer for the acclaimed Bergen International Festival, which features a wide variety of music and performing arts but is always dominated by the work of the native maestro performed by Bergen’s Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bergen is surrounded by seven mountains (the funicular to Floyen climbs 1,000 feet to the steepest of them for gorgeous views), making it not only a naturally picturesque base but also the most practical gateway to Norway’s unique fjord lands.
A day trip from Bergen encapsulates the best of this breathtakingly beautiful corner of the country. Start with a bus trip through steep switchback roads to Stalheim for a view of the valley below. At Gudvangen, you board a boat to sail through the Naerøyfjord (the narrowest in Norway) and the Aurlands Fjord, some of the loveliest branches of the dramatic Sognefjord.
After that astounding panorama of natural beauty comes the train ride from the town of Flam 2,850 feet up and over the side of a gorge to Mydral. For 12 miles and forty-five harrowing minutes, your train darts in and out of twenty tunnels maneuvering twenty-one hairpin turns past countless waterfalls. The conductor’s reassurance that the train is fitted with five sets of standby brake systems – plus a shot (or two) of aquavit back at a Bergen café after the twelve-hour round trip – should calm any jangled nerves.