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Bergen: Norway's Not-So-Second City


Approaching Bergen by Air


Bergen is a city of paradoxes. It's Norway's second-largest city, but it feels in many ways like a small town. It's the second-oldest city, but only in a few places does it seem older than 150 years or so. It's Norway's busiest port, but its rail-and-road connections to the rest of the country are thin. All of those make it an intriguing and pleasant place to visit.


 Just off Kongoscarsgaten, one of the the main streets


Some of the paradox is easy to explain; at 270,000 people, it is clustered around the waterfront, at the foot of its seven mountains; the rest of the population is out sight, in residential suburbs "around the corner" or on nearby islands. Despite the city's age, its greatest expansion occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, and its smallish stock of truly old buildings is in part a result of fires over the centuries.


The port area, seen from the funicular terminal on top of Mt. Floyen


Aside from tourism—it's a major cruise stop, and the western anchor of the "Norway in a Nutshell" fjord cruises—Bergen lives as it always has, from the sea. Bergen buys and sells fish, handles the agricultural produce of its hinterland, and is deeply involved in undersea technology and support for the North Sea oil industry.


Cruise ships in port


We visited Bergen in the summer of 2011, not so much for Bergen itself as to leave there by one of the inland packet boats (Hurtigbat) that serves the small towns and villages along the Sognefjord, and connect first with the Flamsbana mountain railroad and then with the Bergen-Oslo rail line to Oslo...our own Norway in a Nutshell. We didn't know how much we'd like Bergen!



 At Bryggen, an all-seeing symbol of the Hansa warns again cheating them

in trade or interfering with their monopolies


An unexpected highlight of our time in Bergen was gaining a much deeper understanding of the Hanseatic League. May sound like a dry subject, but to an ex-history teacher on vacation it was catnip. The Hanseatic League was an organization of mostly-German merchants, guilds and even a few city-states that dominated trade in the Baltic from the late Middle Ages into the 18th-century, with its own rules, trade missions and even armies. Independent of any king, it was, in a way, the first multi-national corporation. Its "office" or mission in Bergen established a monopoly on buying, drying, grading and selling the fish that poured into Bergen, and trading it for grain and goods from their home states.


Bryggen, above and from opposite side of harbor, below


 The iconic waterfront of Bergen, called Bryggen, which means...waterfront, was the home of the Hansa office. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite serving these days as the home of chi-chi boutiques and restaurants. However, there is also a museum of the history of the Hanseatic League in Bergen...definitely a highlight of the visit. 



At left, boutiques, at right entrance to the museum



Above, an accountant's desk in the Hanseatic compound, where only employees, who were all from from Germany, were allowed. Below, sleeping quarters. The Hansa employees were mostly young bachelors, hoping to earn enough to go home and marry.





This image represents a German employee of the Hansa, but we thought

it might be a prototype for Paul Bunyan...without Babe the Blue Ox.




Bryggen is even portrayed in Bergen's manhole covers


 Bergen's history dates to about 1070; from the 12th into the 14th century it served as Norway's capital. Through the centuries, whoever ruled could count on the fortress, Bergenhus, above the port area, at its seaward end, for defense. Its use as a military base and government center continued into the 20th century.





Within the fortress, looking out to sea, a statue of World War II-era King Haakon VII, considered a hero of Norwegian resistance to the Nazi occupation. From the sculpture, you'd have to call him one of the thinnest monarchs ever!



Aside from the King, Bergen is a good place to seek out sculpture, sometimes solemn, and sometimes with a mischievous wink..and sometimes both by accident. Some examples:


A column in one of the main squares shows a series of bronze figures
and reliefs that tell Bergen's history and trades.











A bit of comic relief: These two fellows adorn the main entrance of 
Bergen's main Public Library

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My first thought was Mark Twain, but it's actually Bergen's own: Composer Edvard Grieg. His bronze fellow native Christian Michelson, first Prime Minister of modern Norway,
is better-respected by Bergenites than by the birds.




Speaking of birds, Bergen's downtown squares are full of them, about evenly
divided between pigeons and gulls, sometimes separate and sometimes mixed.





Above, the daily seafood market at the head of the harbor;
below, more waterfront views, and one from the Mt. Floyen funicular.







After our few nights and days in Bergen, we boarded the Hurtigbat for the next phase of our trip and sailed off into the early morning sun...but that's another story, and another flood of pictures. Soon...




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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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