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.
Finding budget accommodation in Bergen can be a bit of a problem at the height of the season, but is almost always straightforward during the rest of the year. There are three hostels, a choice of guesthouses, and some of the central hotels are surprisingly good value. Also among the better deals are the rooms in private houses – or private rooms – that can be reserved through the tourist office. The vast majority provide self-catering facilities and some are fairly central, though most are stuck out in the suburbs; prices are in the region of 500–700kr per double per night. They are popular, so in summer you’ll need to arrive at the tourist office early to secure one for the night.
Bergen takes justifiable pride in its performing arts, especially during the Festspillene i Bergen (Bergen International Festival; t55 21 06 30, wfib.no), held over two weeks at the end of May and the beginning of June, and presenting an extensive programme of music, ballet, folklore and theatre. The principal venue for the festival is the Grieghallen, on Edvard Griegs plass, where you can pick up programmes, tickets and information; these are also available from the tourist office. The city’s contemporary arts centre, the USF Verftet Kulturhuset, down on the Nordnes peninsula (t55 30 74 10, wusf.no), contributes to the festival by hosting Nattjazz (t55 30 72 50, wnattjazz.no), a prestigious and long-established international jazz festival held over the same period.
As a general rule, Bergen’s café-bars– and indeed some of its restaurants – provide the city’s more appealing drinking destinations, but there is a scattering of late-night bars and clubs too, the best of which attract an arty/boho crew.
Bergen has a first-rate supply of restaurants, the pick of which focus on seafood – the city’s main gastronomic asset. The pricier tourist haunts are concentrated on the Bryggen, but these should not be dismissed out of hand – several are very good indeed. Other, marginally less expensive, restaurants dot the side streets behind the Bryggen and there’s another cluster on and around Engen. Many locals, however, tend to eat more economically and informally at the city’s many café-bars that are dotted all over the city centre – as are the city’s coffee houses.
The composer of some of the most popular works in the standard orchestral repertoire, Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) was born in Bergen, the son of a saltfish merchant. It was, considering the region’s historical dependence on the product, an appropriate background for a man whose romantic compositions have come to epitomize western Norway, or at least an idealized version of it: certainly, Grieg was quite happy to accept the connection, and as late as 1903 he commented that “I am sure my music has the taste of codfish in it.” In part this was sincere, but the composer had an overt political agenda too. Norway had not been independent since 1380, and, after centuries of Danish and Swedish rule, its population lacked political and cultural self-confidence – a situation which the Norwegian nationalists of the day, including Ibsen and Grieg, were determined to change. Such was their success that they played a key preparatory role in the build-up to the dissolution of the union with Sweden, and the creation of an independent Norway in 1905.
Musically, it was Grieg’s mother, a one-time professional pianist, who egged him on, and at the tender age of 15 he was packed off to the Leipzig Conservatory to study music, much to the delight of his mentor, Ole Bull. In 1863, Grieg was on the move again, transferring to Copenhagen for another three-year study stint and ultimately returning to Norway an accomplished performer and composer in 1866. The following year he married the Norwegian soprano Nina Hagerup (1845–1935), helped to found a musical academy in Oslo and produced the first of ten collections of folk-based Lyric Pieces for piano. In 1868, Grieg completed his best-known work, the Piano Concerto in A minor, and, in 1869, his 25 Norwegian Folk Songs and Dances. Thereafter, the composer’s output remained mainly songs and solo piano pieces with a strong folkloric influence, even incorporating snatches of traditional songs.
During the 1870s Grieg collaborated with a number of Norwegian writers, including Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Henrik Ibsen, one of the results being his much acclaimed Peer Gynt suites, and, in 1884, he composed the Holberg Suite, written to commemorate the Dano-Norwegian philosopher and playwright, Ludvig Holberg. It is these orchestral suites, along with the piano concerto, for which he is best remembered today. In 1885, now well-heeled and well known, Grieg and his family moved into Troldhaugen, the house they had built for them near Bergen. By that time, Grieg had established a pattern of composing during the spring and summer, and undertaking extended performance tours around Europe with his wife during the autumn and winter. This gruelling schedule continued until – and contributed to – his death in Bergen in 1907.
Many of the twentieth-century paintings in the Bergen Kunstmuseum collection were bequeathed to the city by Rolf Stenersen (1899–1978), one of Norway’s most prominent men of letters. Stenersen donated his first art collection to his hometown of Oslo in 1936 (see Stenersenmuseet) and was in a similar giving mood 35 years later, the beneficiary being his adopted town of Bergen. He was something of a Renaissance man – one-time Olympic athlete, financier and chum of Munch – who seems to have had a successful stab at almost everything, even writing some highly acclaimed short stories in the 1930s.
Guided tours of Bergen and its surroundings are big business and the tourist office has a flood of details. In the city itself, the most popular choice is City Sightseeing Bergen’s On&Off Sightseeing Bus, which takes in all the central sights, including the aquarium and Torget (every 30min; 150kr; t97 78 18 88, wcity-sightseeing.com). Troldhaugen and Fantoft stave church are also on many guided tours, including those offered by Norled (May–Sept 1 daily; 350kr; t55 23 88 87, wnorled.no).
There are lots of fjord sightseeing trips too, with Fjord Tours (wfjord-tours.com), one of the leading companies, offering a wide range of tours including “Norway in a Nutshell” and the whirlwind “Hardanger in a Nutshell” (May–Oct 1 daily; 10hr; 820kr). A further, rather more economical option is Rødne Fjord Cruise’s Hurtigbåt passenger express boat excursion from Bergen to Rosendal and its manor house (May–Sept 1–2 daily; 7.5hr; 500kr; t51 89 52 70, wrodne.no). All tours can be booked either direct with the company concerned or at Bergen tourist office.
Troldhaugen offers a top-ranking programme of Grieg concerts, held in the Troldsalen, throughout the summer both at lunchtimes (early June to Sept 1 daily; 30min; 100kr) and in the evening (mid-June to mid-Aug 2 weekly; 1hr; 220kr). For evening performances free buses leave from near the tourist office one hour before the concert begins. Tickets can be bought online (wkunstmuseene.no) or from the tourist office, but are snapped up quickly.
The Bergen Card is a 24-hour (200kr; children 3–15 years 75kr) or 48-hour (260kr; children 3–15 years 100kr) pass that provides free use of all the city’s public transport (except for the airport bus) and free or substantially discounted admission to most of the city’s sights, plus reductions on many sightseeing trips. Discount details are given in the official Bergen Guide booklet. Obviously, the more diligent a sightseer you are, the better value the card becomes – doubly so if you’re staying a bus ride from the centre. The card is sold online and at a wide range of outlets, including the tourist office and major hotels.
Dating back to the 1910s, the distinctly Ruritanian lower terminus of the Fløibanen funicular railway on Vetrlidsallmenningen is a delightful introduction to one of the city’s major attractions, whose trains shuttle passengers up to the top of Mount Fløyen – “The Vane” – at 320m above sea level. When the weather is fine, you get a bird’s-eye view of Bergen and its surroundings from the plateau-summit, and here also is a large and popular café-restaurant. Afterwards, you can walk back down to the city in about 45 minutes, or push on into the woods along several well-marked, colour-coded footpaths (pick up free trail maps of the summit at the lower terminal). The shortest and perhaps the most enjoyable is the 1.6km-loop trail to Skomakerdiket lake and back.
Troldhaugen (Hill of the Trolls), about 8km south of the city centre off Highway 580, was the lakeside home of Edvard Grieg for the last 22 years of his life – though “home” is something of an exaggeration, as he spent several months every year touring the concert halls of Europe. Norway’s only composer of world renown, Grieg has a good share of commemorative monuments in Bergen – a statue in the city park and the Grieghallen concert hall to name but two – but it’s here that you get a sense of the man, an immensely likeable and much-loved figure of leftish opinions and disarming modesty: “I make no pretensions of being in the class with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven,” he once wrote, “Their works are eternal, while I wrote for my day and generation.”
A visit begins at the museum, where Grieg’s life and times are exhaustively chronicled, and a short film provides yet further insights. From here, it’s a brief walk to the house, a pleasant and unassuming villa built in 1885, and still pretty much as Grieg left it, with a jumble of photos, manuscripts and period furniture. Grieg didn’t, in fact, compose much in the house, but preferred to walk round to a tiny hut he had built just along the shore. The hut has survived, but today it stands beside a modern concert hall, the Troldsalen, where there are recitals of Grieg’s works in the summer (see Edvard Grieg). The bodies of Grieg and his wife – the singer Nina Hagerup – are inside a curious tomb blasted into a rock face overlooking the lake, and sealed with twin memorial stones; it’s only a couple of minutes’ walk off from the main footpath, but few people venture out to this beautiful, melancholic spot.
Providing panoramic views over Bergen and its surroundings, the Ulriksbanen cable car (daily: May–Sept 9am–9pm; Oct–April 9am–5pm – weather/wind permitting; 145kr return; t53 64 36 43, wulriken643.no) whisks passengers up to the top of Mount Ulriken, where there are walks and a café. The cable car’s lower terminal is behind the Haukeland Sykehus (hospital) about 6km east of the centre; to get there by public transport, take city bus #2 or #3 (Mon–Fri every 10–20min, Sat & Sun every 20–30min) from Småstrandgaten.
In 1590, Anne Pedersdatter was burnt as a witch here in Bergen and, remarkably enough, the court proceedings have survived. They reveal a strong-willed and sharp-tongued woman, who antagonized many of her neighbours, whose chosen course of revenge was to accuse her of being a witch. As far as the judge was concerned, the crucial bit of evidence came from Anne’s maid, who said she had been used as a horse to transport her mistress to a Sabbat (Witches’ Sabbath). Clearly, Anne’s maid either had a grudge or was suborned, but no matter – and despite the objections of Bergen’s bishop – she went to the flames. Anne was not alone: 300 “witches” were executed in Norway in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – 250 of them women – in a cruel mix of misogyny and superstition that had spread across most of Europe.