The fishing and ferry port of ÅLESUND, on the coast at the end of the E136, about 120km west of Åndalsnes, is immediately – and distinctively – different from any other Norwegian town. Neither old clapboard houses nor functional concrete and glass is much in evidence in the old centre, but instead there’s a proud conglomeration of stone and brick, three-storey buildings, whose pastel-painted facades are lavishly decorated and topped off by a forest of towers and turrets. There are dragons and human faces, Neoclassical and mock-Gothic facades, decorative flowers and even a pharaoh or two, the whole ensemble ambling round the town’s several harbours. Ålesund’s architectural eccentricities sprang from disaster: in 1904, a dreadful fire left ten thousand people homeless and the town centre destroyed, but within three years a hectic reconstruction programme saw almost the entire area rebuilt in an idiosyncratic Art Nouveau style, which borrowed heavily from the German Jugendstil movement. Many of the Norwegian architects who undertook the work had been trained in Germany, so the Jugendstil influence is hardly surprising, but this was no simple act of plagiarism: the Norwegians added all sorts of whimsical, often folkloric flourishes to the Ålesund stew. The result was – and remains – an especially engaging stylistic hybrid, and Kaiser Wilhelm II, who footed the bill, was mightily pleased.
Ålesund is a lovely place to spend a couple of days, especially as there are several first-rate hotels, and it bolsters its charms with a couple of other mild attractions – principally the nautical comings and goings of its main harbour and the open-air Sunnmøre Museum. The town also makes a good base from which to day-trip to the bird cliffs of the island of Runde.