Whilst doing some paperwork the other day, we came to the shocking realization that we have already been living in Bergen for 8 months. Equally shocking was the discovery that we have yet to take you on a tour of our most recent abode! Bergen is the second largest city in Norway, after the capital Oslo, and is home to a little more than 200,000 people (Norway has a population of about 5 million). Compared to our last home in China, Bergen is a sleepy hamlet! Appropriately, the word Norway means way or path to the North and the country’s narrow curve looks like it is pointing the way to the Arctic. The geography of Norway is very interesting: as we have mentioned in a previous post, Norway is a mountainous country with a rugged coastline, dotted with more than 45,000 islands! Bergen is situated in a valley surrounded by seven mountains, so mountain climbing is a popular pastime (especially while wearing spandex exercise pants). These mountains helped to give Bergen its name, which means meadow among the mountains. Bergen is located on the western coast and is sheltered from the North Sea by a series of islands. Its proximity to the ocean has afforded it a temperate climate, making it a bit warmer but rainier (it rains about 89 inches per year; it’s actually raining as we write) than Oslo to the east. This proximity also aided in Bergen’s establishment in the 1020s or 1030s as a trading colony, the principal export being dried cod, which is still popular today. Bergen was formally founded in 1070, was the capital until the 1300s and Norway’s largest city until the 1830s.
The University of Bergen was established in 1946, though research had been taking place at what is now the university museum since 1825. The University is Norway’s third largest educational institution, with about 16,000 students. The above picture was taken surreptitiously (no photos are allowed) of one of the swimming pools located at the university. This one is cool because of its glass sides which allow onlookers to watch the swimmers. The University is housed in a few historical buildings and some newer ones on a hill overlooking the city center, behind the famous red church (more on that later). Our next stop is Bryggen, arguably Bergen’s most iconic location.
Bryggen, which is Norwegian for ‘the wharf’, is a series of Hanseatic commercial buildings situated beside one of the many fjord harbors. Hanseatic refers to a trading alliance that existed in Northern Europe from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Bryggen is the oldest part of the city and was established as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. These old wooden buildings have unfortunately been the victims of fires at various times throughout their history, so many parts of Bryggen have been restored; as of today the oldest buildings still standing are from the 1700s and some stone cellars exist from the 15th century. Mi’s aunt Gerd is fortunate enough to have an art studio in this coveted area, which she was on a waiting list for 4 years and has created her art in for almost 20 years. Bergen is a very art-centric city so artists here are held in high esteem and about 80% of them have studios somewhere in the city.
This time of year is pretty quiet, during the summer this area is swarming with tourists, so we were lucky to be able to explore undisturbed. This photo was taken by one of our couchsurfers, Alice from Hong Kong, who stayed with us for two days in March. She was a lot of fun and we really enjoyed getting to know her and exploring Bergen together.
This is the famous Bryggen storefront, which adorns many postcards from Bergen. The harbor is just out of frame on the left.
At the far end of Bryggen, away from the city center at the mouth of the harbor, is the Bergenhus Fortress, one of the best preserved castles in Norway. This is Mi and Alice, unaware that Kelly was taking this photo. It was the off season so we were unable to go inside the castle, but the grounds were open so we were able to admire the structures from the outside. The oldest buildings date back to the 1240s and newer constructions as recent as WWII, when Norway was occupied by Germany.
We especially liked the gargoyles, most of which look like men poking their heads out through the stone walls.
This is Haaken’s Hall, which was constructed in the middle of the 13th century and is the largest secular medieval building in Norway. It was closed this time but Mi went inside during a previous visit to admire this sturdy 3-story Gothic style stone building, which is thought to have been designed by English architects because it is an unusual style for Norway at that time. This structure was built for King Håkon Håkonsson to be his feast hall, so the primary floor is a wide open great hall lined with stained glass windows, with a middle floor and cellar below. Now it is sometimes used for events like chamber music concerts and official banquets. As you can see in the upper left hand side of this photo, these days the harbor is often choked by large ships, including cruise ships, which not only obscure the landscape and seem anachronistic in a photo of medieval buildings, but also pollute what was once pristine crisp northern air, smearing the sky above the harbor with a brown haze.
Mi soon made friends with a walking stick and carried it around for the rest of our visit, pointing at various things and making observations, in typical dorky Mi fashion. Kelly and Alice found this endlessly amusing.
This is the view of the opposite side of the harbor from Bryggen. Many of the buildings in Bergen are brightly painted white or pastel colors, making them stand out in stark contrast to the rocky mountains and foliage behind.
The Bergen fish market is also a popular tourist attraction. We were distressed by this tank of fish where most of the fish had pieces chewed off of their noses and fins.
This is the iconic dried cod which can often be found hanging from the ceiling beams of the Hanseatic buildings. Mi thinks that they look ghoulish.
This is the square at the city center called Torgallmenningen, which is bordered by shops. It is one of Bergen’s most popular meeting places because it is close to the last light rail station and within walking distance to many points of interest. The statue depicts Norway’s maritime history in twelve figures and reliefs made of bronze with a water feature at their feet. It is one of the many statues in Bergen, the majority of which are of famous composers, poets, and artists. In many cities around the world, monuments are constructed to celebrate war, but Norway would rather celebrate intellectual and artistic pursuits instead. This speaks volumes about Norway’s priorities and what people value in this peaceful country.
At one end of the square is St. John’s Church, or the Big Red Church, which was built between 1891 and 1894 and is the largest church in Bergen. We went inside when Kelly’s parents visited to admire the Gothic architecture, ceiling frescoes, and the elaborate organ. It boasts one of the tallest towers in the city so it is often used as a landmark to help find your way (not that it is easy to get lost in Bergen because it is small and well organized).
In this photo, a child is playing on the Blue Stone, a sculpture that has become a popular meeting place known by most Bergen residents.
Kelly is admiring a waterless fountain (all the fountains are drained for the winter) in the park beside the city center. The park is dominated by a large lake (Lungegaard) and is surrounded by art museums.
This is a new art installation that we discovered that day. It is a lighthouse with a rotating light in the top. The mountain that you can see behind the lake is the tallest of the seven that surround Bergen, at 643 meters above sea level. It is called Ulriken and unfortunately it is crowned with an unsightly TV tower.
Street art is commonplace in Bergen. These paintings came up virtually overnight on the barricade around construction in front of one of the art museums.
Of course there is much more to see in and around Bergen that we will explore in other posts. These photos are from just one day of exploring. Stay tuned for future entries and, as always, thank you for reading!