Surrounded by spectacular mountains, fjords, and one of Europe’s largest glaciers, Norway’s second city comes alive each summer with music, youthful energy, and light that shines all night long
“Take an umbrella” was what most people who knew anything about Norway told me when I mentioned I was going to Bergen. “It’s boring” was another response—granted, that was mostly from Oslo natives, who tend to look on their country’s second city as little more than a provincial North Sea backwater. Such a forecast was unnerving, but I was still intrigued. Bergen was home to two of Norway’s greatest sons: composer Edvard Grieg and playwright Henrik Ibsen. A great fan of the latter since my college days (I wrote my senior thesis on Ibsen and played Løvberg in a student production of Hedda Gabler), I had always wanted to visit the city where the master dramatist began his theatrical career.
Ultimately, my friend Wolf Viegard, a Norwegian filmmaker and DJ, convinced me to pay his hometown a visit. “It’s one of the most underrated cities in Europe,” he said. “It has a great culture, especially music.” He cited not only Bergen’s famous symphony orchestra and frequent festivals but its upbeat pop scene, typified by groups like Röyksopp and the up-and-coming Sondre Lerche, a local singer-songwriter who’s big on the international charts.
“Living there is brilliant,” Wolf said. “Maybe because we’ve got the ocean, the mountains, the fjords—they inspire people. Bergen is also a welcoming city, much friendlier than Oslo. It just rains a lot.”
Once again, we’re back to the weather. But when I arrive in Bergen in July, having hopped over from London in a mere two hours, I am met by sunshine—and it’s 9pm Boring? Hardly, if the Saturday-night summer scene around downtown Bergen’s U-shaped waterfront is anything to go by. The place is packed. There are bars and cafés everywhere—Euro-trashy watering holes like the steel-and-glass bar at Aroma, funky hangouts such as the garden of Dr. Livingstone. There are Irish pubs, jazz clubs, discos. There’s even a carnival that has taken up residence in an otherwise elegant city park. Indeed, the whole town seems to be one big street party; suspended in a twilight that never dissolves into night, the revelry continues well into the small hours.
“The whole town seems to be one big street party; suspended in a twilight that never dissolves into night”
After an hour of happy wandering, I wind up at a dive called Madam Felle, on the ground floor of one of the skinny, brightly painted saltboxes that were originally the warehouses and offices of the Hanseatic League, the council that controlled Bergen’s port from the 14th to the 18th century. Here I listen to a local folksinger and indulge in an $8 beer. (Alcohol is heavily taxed in Norway—supposedly to discourage the Scandinavian penchant for heavy drinking—but with all the toasts and additional rounds, it seems that the scheme isn’t working in Bergen).
I cap off the evening with a stroll out to the dramatically lit Rosenkrantz Tower and Håkon’s Hall, a hulking stone fortress and massive reception hall that have guarded the port since the 13th century, when King Håkon and his son Magnus ruled. I finally get to sleep in my waterfront room at the Clarion Hotel Admiral around two—only to be awakened an hour or so later by the rising sun. All this talk about rain, I think, as I draw the blackout curtains…why didn’t anyone warn me about the sun?
A few hours later, I am awakened again, but this time by the sound of boats. Pulling back the curtains, I witness, right outside the window, a flotilla of ferries of every shape and size—from fat little tubs to sleek high-speed catamarans—all setting out for the spectacular mountain-backed waterways that lie just beyond Bergen. Indeed, the reason most travelers come here at all is to partake in that most Scandinavian of travel rituals: the fjord cruise.
Every morning at breakfast, I find a new batch of fjord-ers, most of them in town just long enough for a quick city tour before taking to the sea. There are Germans, French, Japanese—but the majority seem to be Norwegian-Americans (mostly from the Midwest, judging by their accents) returning to their Viking roots. With all that Lake Wobegon “after-you-no-after-you” politesse, it is often slow going at the coffee station and the herring stops along the buffet trail. Indeed, some mornings I feel like an extra in a surreal sequel to Fargo.
Unlike most of those queued up for breakfast, I have chosen to spend my week in Bergen on land. That way I can avoid tour buses and explore the city at my own pace on foot. Even though Bergen has a population of 230,000, it is delightfully compact—a walker’s dream. And now that I’m seeing it in the full light of the morning sun, I can also appreciate its beauty. Forget Fargo! With its big bay, seven mountains, and steep streets of peaked-roof clapboard houses, Bergen instead seems like a Scandinavian San Francisco.
After breakfast, I retrace many of my steps from the night before. I now find that a fish market has taken over the central waterfront square. Here tented stalls offer perhaps the city’s best (and least expensive) fast food: cocktails of fat shrimp, exquisite little smoked salmon sandwiches. Over behind the Hanseatic warehouses, in an area known as Bryggen, I discover a warren of wooden walkways, tunnels, and back alleys that harbor a secret inner city of shops, galleries, and restaurants. It’s a bit pre-fab—many of these “old” wooden buildings are twentieth century remakes of the fire-prone originals—but still well worth seeing.
Nearby is the Hanseatic Museum, housed in the restored eighteenth century office and home of a Hansa importer-exporter. Minuscule rooms resemble the cabins of a ship, complete with compact, space-saving desks and beds. A few blocks down the waterfront, the Bryggens Museum provides another look at early Bergen. The museum is built atop an archaeological excavation that took place between 1955 and 1969 and unearthed Bergen-circa-1150. An installation-like jumble of rotted beams and ancient stone slabs, this ruin has a strange beauty—especially with the twin towers of the magnificent Romanesque-Gothic St. Mary’s Church looming through the museum’s movie-screen-sized rear windows.
The real charm of Bergen lies less in its well-trodden waterfront area than in the numerous and distinctive little neighborhoods that most visitors never enter. Just behind St. Mary’s Church is Sandviken, a hillside enclave of cobbled streets and odd-angled clapboard cottages in various stages of gentrification. In this mini-Haight-Ashbury, designers’ and architects’ studios share streets with everything from vintage clothing and jewelry boutiques to curry cafés, from various New Age healers to a shop specializing in white and black magic.
A ten minute walk across town, students, artists, and actors lay claim to the area between the city’s Art Nouveau theater and its university. The newest hangout here is Café Mago, a health-food joint, where the menu provides footnotes detailing the nutritional statistics of every entrée. Another hot spot is Café Opera, which combines a sixties coffeehouse with an art gallery, a restaurant (reindeer stew is a specialty), and a dance club (after 10pm on weekends). This area also contains some of Bergen’s most fashionable restaurants—big with the après-opera crowd—from the calm, well-lighted dining room of Naboen to the white-tiled salons of Soho Kitchen & Lounge.
Somewhat off the beaten track, Klosteret is another happening neighborhood. Edging the city’s modern port, which is usually crowded with freighters as well as with mega cruise ships that might otherwise mar the beauty of Bergen’s downtown harbor, part of Klosteret has a gritty, industrial feel, with former factories now providing space for filmmakers, photographers, and performance groups. The other side of Klosteret is a fairy-tale village of gardens and wooden cottages that is now home to quirky galleries and shops such as Retro, a café specializing in Mid-Century Modern furniture, where you can sit on the merchandise while sipping a cappuccino.
Of course, there’s more to Bergen than cool cafés and trendy neighborhoods. Heading the list of the city’s serious cultural attractions is the Bergen Art Museum (KODE), with three major collections in three adjoining buildings. My favorite is the Rasmus Meyer Collection, which shows off the most important Norwegian artists from the eighteenth century to 1915. The star is, naturally, Edvard Munch; he’s represented by 105 prints and thirty two paintings, many of which reveal the lighter, brighter side of the famously tormented artist. Also unexpected are the powerful landscapes of Gerhard Munthe and Nikolai Astrup, the romantic portraits by Christian Krohg, and the crisp interiors of Harriet Backer, which foreshadow the Scandinavian Moderne look that eventually conquered the decorating world. More treasures hang in the museum’s Stenersen Collection, which features all the major names in modern art, including a whole room filled with Picassos, another devoted to Paul Klee, and yet more Munch.
Bergen’s main claim to fame on the cultural front is not art, however, but music. Perhaps no other city on earth has so many music festivals: rock in January, blues in April, chorales in May, jazz in May and October, tango in June, plus summer concerts at Troldhaugen, Grieg’s enchanting lakeside home, as well as in the futuristic hall in town that bears the composer’s name. In addition, there’s the world-famous Bergen International Festival, which brings stars in music, dance, and theater to the city every year in late May and early June.
In Bergen, you never know when or where you’ll find music. One evening a few days into my stay I decide to go to the top of Mount Fløyen, Bergen’s striking downtown mountain, which shoots up a thousand feet, just two blocks from the waterfront. The sun is shining—again—so I forgo the funicular for a walking trail. The first few switchbacks are easy enough—offering great views of Bergen’s peaked roofs and green mountains. But then the path grows steeper and I spend much of the next hour in a dark forest of tall trees, wishing I’d taken the tram after all. When I reach the top, I’m sweating and breathing hard, but my reward is a café with a huge terrace bathed in the golden light of a sunset that will last for hours. After an alfresco beer, I venture inside to peek at the formal restaurant, only to be stopped by the sounds of Mozart. A chamber music concert has just begun in Mount Fløyen’s small theatre. An usher invites me to enter, telling me not to worry about my shorts or baseball cap. A hike, a sunset, a beer, and now a little night music—can it get any better?
“A hike, a sunset, a beer, and now a little night music- can it get any better?”
Except that it does. The next morning, it is finally time to take on the fjords. There are many ways to see them: bus tours, train trips, mini-cruises, even short hops via helicopter. And there are many fjords: some just a few miles beyond the harbor, others, like the stunning Hardangerfjord and Sognefjord, farther afield. For my initiation I’ve booked a twelve hour odyssey called ‘The Glacier Trip to Fjaerland’. In addition to traveling a good chunk of the Sognefjord—the longest (127 miles) and deepest (4,265 feet at some points) fjord in the world—I will be able to glimpse an arm of the spectacular Jostedal Glacier, the largest on the European continent.
My journey begins at 8am aboard a rather glamorous double-decker ferry with airplane-style business-class seats. Leaving the harbor, we glide under a series of suspension bridges that resemble small Golden Gates. Soon, we are in an area of lumpy islets and tidy farms. It’s all rather flat at first, but an hour or so into the voyage, monolithic mountains start to layer the horizon, although the view is somewhat compromised by the largest oil refinery in Finland.
We make occasional stops to pick up and discharge passengers at lonely little ports. Eventually, the mountains are snow-capped and sheer, plunging into icy water that is now the clear blue-green of the Caribbean. At noon, we dock at a town called Balestrand and many of us leave the boat for a smaller, older, and slower vessel for the journey up a narrow cul-de-sac. The mountains are even more precipitous now, enclosing us in a gigantic wedge of green slashed with white. I soon spot the glacier in the distance: it’s a ski bowl of grayish slush, smudging the otherwise pristine scene.
Another forty minutes and the fjord opens into what looks like a large lake, edged by the loveliest village of the entire sail. This is Mundal, farmland on one side, high mountains on the other. The most distinctive structure in the village is the Hotel Mundal, a turreted, pale-yellow Victorian mansion. We dock here, but before I have time to check out the town and the hotel, we are herded onto a bus that takes us to a glacier museum and then supposedly to the Jostedal Glacier itself. The museum has all sorts of interactive displays and esoteric facts about the phenomenon of slow-moving ice that we call a glacier—but our “close-up” view of Jostedal is more of a medium shot and decidedly underwhelming.
Back in Mundal, I hope to have time to explore the village and perhaps have tea. But the boat is departing in five minutes. Quite simply, I don’t want to leave this beautiful village. Something clicks inside me and I must now make one of those snap decisions that can affect the outcome of a journey in a major way. It turns out that my return ferry ticket will be good tomorrow, and there’s room at the inn. So with no luggage other than a camera bag, I check into the Hotel Mundal.
The interior of the place is just as winning as its façade—frescoed parlors feature oiled ceilings, huge leather chairs, an ancient piano, even a few gramophones. My tiny room looks out on fields of grazing cows. Since I have nothing to unpack, I immediately head back downstairs and discover a small café on the premises that also specializes in used mystery novels. The whole town, it turns out—population 300—is known for its fifteen secondhand bookshops in cafés, garages and roadside shacks. One is nothing more than a freestanding bin with a collection box where customers deposit the equivalent of $2 to buy a paperback.
Evidently, in the late nineteenth century, Fjaerland—as the area encompassing Mundal is called—was a major destination resort for Scandinavian and, later, British travellers. They came by ship (the only way to get here until 1986, when a road finally linked the area to the rest of Norway) and stayed for several weeks.
“In the old days, the farmers took visitors to see the glacier in horse-drawn carriages,” says Marit Orhein Mauritzen, the hotel’s owner-manager, whose grandparents opened the place in 1891. “So they helped my family finance the hotel because it was good for their business too. Everything at the hotel is pretty much the same as it was a hundred years ago. Even the meals, which are mostly my grandmother’s recipes.”
Breakfast here is the pièce de résistance. It’s one of the most amazing spreads I’ve ever seen (Grandma would definitely be proud): salmon, herring, shrimp, fish mousses and pâtés, six varieties of cheese, ham, salami, compotes, cereals, yogurts, beets, tomatoes, eggs sprinkled with caviar. Where to start? Worse, when to stop?
Over a huge platter of food, I wind up chatting with a Norwegian couple, Børge and Karen. I mention that I was slightly disappointed by my peek at the glacier. “Where the bus takes you is not so good,” Børge tells me. “There are much better places to see it from, but you have to walk a little.” As it happens, they are headed to one of these spots in their car after breakfast and they offer to take me along.
The little walk, however, turns out to be a major trek, making my ascent of Mount Fløyen look like child’s play. Fit Norwegian family that they are—they go hiking every weekend—my new friends are bounding up the steep slopes effortlessly. I manage to keep up, but just barely, as the fjord and Mundal get smaller and smaller below us. Ultimately, it takes more than two hours to reach the top, where we come upon a hut selling soft drinks on the honor system. We also meet a group of adventurous backpackers, all wearing crampons for an actual walk on the glacier ahead.
Børge leads our party out along a narrow path atop the mountain’s spine. At the end of this trail, there’s just enough room for one person to stand, so we take turns ogling the view. This time, no disappointment—only awe—as I stand alone on the edge of the precipice, looking down on a blue garden of shimmering crystals. I take a deep breath and indulge in a Titanic moment, flinging my arms wide. Now this is a glacier!
Back in Bergen the next day, I’m so stiff from my climb at Jostedal that I can barely walk. But never mind. For one memorable moment, there I was, King of the Fjord, on top of a magnificent mountain in the middle of Norway. No umbrella required.
Richard Alleman is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure