Bergen’s history can be traced back over a thousand years to the early part of the last millennium, when it was founded as a trading post ideally positioned on a wide fjord sheltered from the North Sea by several islands. Viewed from the top of Blåmanen, one of the seven mountains that dramatically surround Bergen, it is an awe inspiring sight. This location made the city an important European hub for trade and commerce – in the 13th century Bergen became part of the Hanseatic League, the powerful federation of guilds and cities that dominated European commerce for 400 years.
From humble origins Bergen grew, and grew wealthy. At one time even becoming the capital of Norway until that title passed to Oslo. Even after it became Norway’s second city, Bergen continued to grow in importance and wealth. The trade in fish, particularly dried cod, was its major export, and fish from Bergen was sold all over Europe. The legacy this trading history has left behind, is best seen in the atmospheric jumble of brightly painted wooden buildings that today make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bryggen.
Blue skies and sun greeted us as we left our apartment in Bergen’s Skuteviken district. We were headed to Bryggen but took some time to wander around this historic area, which dates from the 16th century. Skuteviken is more residential than Bryggen, and offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of people away from the tourist centre of the town. In the cold morning air we walked through cobbled streets past wooden houses to the waterfront, where beautiful wooden warehouses sit on stilts above the water. A stroll through the grounds of Bergenhus Fortress brought us to Bryggen.
Bryggen is the historic old port and warehouse district of the city, and it’s little short of a miracle that it even exists. Ever since the first buildings were constructed here it has been repeatedly burnt to the ground by fires. One fire, in 1702, reduced the entire area to little more than ash. After each fire the good citizens of Bergen rebuilt the district, although no one seems to have considered using something less flammable than wood as a building material. Today, numerous buildings from different periods of history remain to be explored.
Most of them are shops, cafes and restaurants. The area is pretty commercialised, but still retains a lot of charm. We wandered through its attractive alleyways on wooden walkways getting a sense of the cramped living and working conditions of the district. It was still bitterly cold despite the sun, so we stopped for a reviving coffee at one of the many cafes before visiting the Bryggens Museum. The museum is built over the remains of the earliest 12 century settlement at Bryggen, the excavations beneath the museum are fascinating.
Afterwards, we headed to the Fløibanen, a marvellous funicular that takes you out of the city centre to a viewing platform on the mountain of Fløyen. It’s a fun way to get brilliant views over the city without having to hike one of Bergen’s many steep hills. As the funicular train chugs up the hill vast panoramas of Bergen and its surrounding hills and fjords reveal themselves. It’s fantastic. Several walking routes start at Fløyen and, since the weather was bright and sunny, we decided to hike up Blåmanen.
Climbing upwards, there was more and more snow, and the air temperature dropped considerably. At the top of the mountain it was a little like standing on top of the world; if the top of the world has been dusted by snow.. The views across the mountain ranges to the east were magnificent; westwards, the views to Bergen and across the fjords were nothing less than spectacular. As we made our way back down the mountain, the sun started to set, illuminating the fjords as red, pink and orange light streaked the sky. It was achingly beautiful.