As it has been raining ever since she arrived in the city, a tourist stops a young boy and asks if it always rains here. “I don’t know,” he replies, “I’m only thirteen.” The joke isn’t brilliant, but it does contain a grain of truth. Of all the things to contend with in BERGEN, the weather is the most predictable: it rains on average 260 days a year, often relentlessly even in summer, and its forested surroundings are often shrouded in mist. Yet, despite its dampness, Bergen is one of Norway’s most enjoyable cities, boasting – amid seven hills and sheltered to the north, south and west by a series of straggling islands – a spectacular setting. There’s plenty to see in town too, from sturdy old stone buildings and terraces of tiny wooden houses to a veritable raft of museums, while just outside the city limits are Edvard Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen, as well as the charming open-air Gamle Bergen (Old Bergen) museum.
More than anything else, though, it’s the general flavour of the place that appeals. Although Bergen has become a major port and something of an industrial centre in recent years, it remains a laidback, easy-going town with a firmly nautical air. Fish and fishing may no longer be Bergen’s economic lynchpins, but the bustling main harbour, Vågen, is still very much the focus of attention. If you stay more than a day or two – perhaps using Bergen as a base for viewing the nearer fjords – you’ll soon discover that the city also has the region’s best choice of restaurants, some impressive art galleries and a decent nightlife.
Founded in 1070 by King Olav Kyrre (“the Peaceful”), a Norwegian survivor from the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, Bergen was the largest and most important town in medieval Norway and a regular residence of the country’s kings and queens. In the fourteenth century the town also became an ecclesiastical centre, supporting no fewer than thirty churches and monasteries, and a member of the Hanseatic League, as by this time the town had become a prosperous port linked to other European cities by a vigorous trading life, with fish being the main commodity. The League was, however, controlled by German merchants and, after Hansa and local interests started to diverge, the Germans came to dominate the region’s economy, reducing the locals to a state of dependency. Neither could the people of Bergen expect help from their kings and queens: rather, in return for easily collected taxes from the Hansa merchants, Norway’s medieval monarchs compelled west-coast fishermen to sell their catch to the merchants – and at prices the merchants set themselves. As a result, the German trading station that flourished on the Bryggen, Bergen’s main wharf, became wealthy and hated in equal measure, a self-regulating colony with its own laws and an administration that was profoundly indifferent to local sentiment.
In the 1550s, with Hansa power finally evaporating, a local lord – one Kristoffer Valkendorf – reasserted Norwegian control, but not out of the goodness of his heart. Valkendorf and his cronies simply took over the monopolies that had enriched their German predecessors, and continued to operate this iniquitous system, which so pauperized the region’s fishermen, right up to the late nineteenth century. Bergen’s merchants benefited from Norway’s neutrality in World War I, developing their trade and expanding their fleets, but it was only after World War II that the town got into its stride, transforming itself from a fish-dependent backwater to the lively city of today.