Bergen was Norway’s capital during the 12th and 13th centuries, sitting snuggly surrounded by seven hills amidst seven fjords. Today the buildings along the old harbour make up the Unesco World Heritage-listed Bryggen and the hundreds of old wooden houses rising up the sides of the hills make the city picture-postcard perfect.
When the city-states of Germany allied themselves into trading blocks, one of the most powerful was the Hanseatic League with its centre at Lübeck. The League eventually grew to encompass 150 cities. In 1360 they established their first office at Bryggen and eventually it came to be one of the top four overseas headquarters. Traders arrived in droves, attracted by the huge supply of salted fish in the region. They imported grain to exchange for the stock fish.
The Germans were confined to the Bryggen district, eventually numbering 2,000 workers and overseers. For the next 400 years, the tight-knit community of men laboured, forbidden to mix with the local Norwegian population. Intermarriage would have meant that the Norwegian family would have a right to share in the profits of the business, something the German business owners were loathe to accept.
By the 15th century, the power of the Hanseatic League began to wane, due to competition from the English and Dutch shipping companies and the impact of the Black Death that wiped out 70% of Bergen’s population. However, Bergen remained an important trading port for Scandinavia and by the 17th century it was Norway’s largest city once again.
The Hanseatic League finally closed its office in Bergen in 1899, after many of its traders chose to take Norwegian citizenship and integrate with the local population. There are still German family names found in Bergen today.
The current buildings of Bryggen date from after 1702, when the entire area was leveled by fire. The reconstruction followed the building patterns that date back to the 12th century. There are 58 surviving structures, approximately 25% of the original number. The narrow fronts of the buildings belie the full size of the three-storey combination warehouses, offices and sleeping quarters of the German inhabitants.
Several different companies usually shared the long narrow buildings stretching back from the wharf. Because of the high risk of fire, lamps and hearths were forbidden in the buildings and the workers had to toil in the dark and the cold. Separate stone buildings were constructed well behind the warehouses where the men met to eat, socialize and warm themselves in the evenings.
An excellent Hanseatic Museum was established by one of the traders when the Hanseatic League dissolved. Guided tours in English offer a window into life in Bryggen during the period.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We slept poorly, not from jet lag this time, but because of the live band playing in the bar next door to our hotel. As if the music wasn’t bad enough, the smokers stood outside talking loudly in order to hear each other over the noise. We slept late, knowing that we didn’t have to get up for a breakfast supplied by the hotel. It rained overnight, but the sun was beginning to break through the clouds by early afternoon, and we set off to explore the old town well past 2:00pm.
We've had amazing weather considering it rains a lot in this part of the world. Bergen gets 275 days of rain per year, and the forecast was for scattered showers on Sunday, our first day and very heavy rain on our second and last day. We were more than a little surprised to find the day getting progressively brighter and warmer as the hours passed. Most of the shops and businesses were closed in the city centre, and we passed dozens of parents out with their children as we headed towards Bryggen.
We arrived at the Vågen Harbour where the beauty of the old buildings of Bryggen took our breath away. A large outdoor market had been set up between the fronts of the buildings and the wharf, and at first, I was disappointed thinking it would be hard to take good photos with all the people and stalls in the way.
It did take a little creativity to capture the charm of the wood-clad buildings, many of them leaning on their stacked-stone foundations. However, the market focused on locally-produced organic products and snack foods, and we were treated to displays both charming and mouth-watering.
After taking dozens of photos, we carried further along the quay towards a massive tall-ship anchored along the wharf. It was something to see a three-masted ship up close and personal. Soaring high above the ship was the Rosenkrantz Tower, built in the 1560s by Bergen’s governor Erik Rosenkrantz as a defence post and a residence.
To our surprise a medieval carnival was taking place in the grounds of the Tower and admission was free. Tents were erected and costumed volunteers were acting the parts of local residents from days gone by. It was late in the day by this time, so some of the stalls were beginning to wind things down, but the children were still enthralled with the wooden swords, crossbows, daggers and mock helmets for sale.
After leaving the fair, I managed to convince Anil that we should forego a ride on the funicular railway and climb the winding staircases and twisting streets up the hillside to get a bird’s-eye view of Bryggen and the port. In order to fortify ourselves, we stopped at an ice cream cart in the open-air market. Anil searched for vanilla, but settled on strawberry when he couldn’t see his favourite flavour.
When I mentioned to the woman who owned the cart that it was his birthday, and that he loved simple vanilla ice cream, she managed to dig some out from under the other trays, and plopped a scoop on top of the cone as a birthday bonus! What a lovely gesture.
The stairs and the paved paths were very steep, but we took our time and sat on benches here and there as we made our way past dozens of wood-clad buildings on up to one of the highest viewpoints. We had already walked much of the core of Bergen, so it was interesting to trace our route as if looking at a map stretched out below us.
On our second day, a quiet Monday, we walked back to the harbour and then plunged into the neighbourhood that stretches out towards the train station. We had learned that the Hanseatic Museum had an English tour at 3:30pm and we had a couple of hours to kill before it was due to start. We set off to see if the Leprosy Museum was still open, having read that it usually closes at the end of August.
I was fascinated to learn that a Doctor G. H. A. Hansen had discovered the bacillus that causes leprosy while working and living in Bergen in 1873. It was the first bacterium to be identified as causing disease in humans. I’ve visited a couple of leprosy hospitals in Africa and India and I was keen to know more about this amazing discovery. Unfortunately, the museum, located in the old St. Jørgens Hospital was indeed closed for the season.
As we turned back towards the city center, the skies suddenly opened up and we had to take cover in an old gatehouse that now sits on a virtual island in the middle of a busy city street. We’d thought to bring our umbrellas along, but wanted to wait out the worst of the downpour. When the showers slowed, I went ahead to a nearby cemetery to have a look around and Anil waited until the rain had completely stopped before joining me. He’s never quite recovered from years of trying to keep his school uniform clean and dry during the prolonged Indian monsoon season.
There was still another hour to kill before the museum tour started so we ducked into a cozy café for a hot, soothing latté. It was just the thing to do on a damp afternoon on the west coast of Norway, just as it would have been the thing to do on a damp afternoon in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.
The tour of the Hanseatic Museum was fantastic, the young German guide really brought the age alive for our group. We were so happy that we hadn’t attempted to view the exhibits on our own, we got so much more out of the experience listening to the tales of hardship and deprivation endured by the German traders for years on end, so far from home.
We ended our stay by having dinner at the Pingvinen (Penguin) Restaurant, a Lonely Planet Norway ‘Top Pick’. Much of their typical Norwegian menu featured fish and seafood of course (no penguin thank goodness), but we chose to try the ‘Norwegian Meatballs with Mushy Peas and Wild-Norwegian-Berry Jam’. It was delicious, the kind of meal that remind locals of the food their grandmothers used to prepare.