Everybody has heard of the tales from Northern countries, like Norway the land of the Vikings who fear no one, the land of mysterious trolls and other giants fantastic creatures like dragons. Well Norway is all this and more. The culture in this country rest in a nest of preserved nature, untouched and people have learnt how to deal with it, how to live with all the modern standards with no harm for the environment. Through this journey we will go on the West Coast of Norway in Bergen and around to have look at the inner seas that fjords are.
Bergen an open door on the Hanseatic history
Bergen though small with 260 000 inhabitants is still the second largest city of Norway. You reach the train station after a long ride in high plateaux from Oslo and from there the city center is five minutes walkings. You are surrounded by mountains covered with pine woods, one good idea is to take the lift up to Mount Ulriken to enjoy the view on the bay. Because Bergen is so deeply rooted with the sea that one smart tourist cannot miss it.
Sea has chapped most of the course of the city’s history, from the late Middle Age until now. Founded in 1070 AD four years after the Viking age, the city has early make its position on the coast a strategic advantage to commerce with the rest of Northern Europe. Indeed it was not Oslo the main hub of exchange but Bergen. During the 14th century, the Hanseatic League started and Bergen soon settled as a corner stone of the organization. The marchands from Lübeck (Northern Germany) had the exclusivity over the harbour and lived in their own district of the city which flourishing activities made the first urban center of Scandinavia through the 15 and the 16th centuries. Few things remain from that golden age of trade due to repetitive fires. In Scandinavia most construction are made of wood and Bergen has been turned into ashes several times in history. Beyond this plague of wooden buildings, Bergen has played a dark role in Norway as a English crew set foot in 1349 bringing the Black Death that took away the quarter of the European population. Today Bergen is an important harbour for ships heading up North. The main cruise company of Norway Hurtingruten uses Bergen as the starting point of the Express Coast Boat that cruise up to Kirkenes on the Russian border. Well to put it in a nutshell, the city is very interesting from a historical point of view as it highlights many aspect of the development of Norway, and in larger frame, of Scandinavia.
What to do in Bergen?
The city is lovely but don’t expect it to be sparkling and cosmopolite. I repeat it: Bergen is a small town, cultural activities are not the asset of the city apart from the historical approach mentioned in the latter paragraph. The whole center is concentrated around the harbour. One can see a few old houses that have survived the fire plague, they are illuminating the landscape when the sun comes with their nice and bright colours. Behind these houses the district sprawling on the hill is what I have liked the most. The hill is steep, and houses are displayed all around. The visitor gets lost in small streets dressed warmly with the wooden walls of the buildings. When breath taken by such a sportive stroll one can just turn around to enjoy the view over the harbour with the archipelago fading in the cold deep blue waters of the North Sea. They look like small dots set up in a huge decorum of cliffs and rocks.
One other thing to do in Bergen is outdoor activities. In general, travels in Scandinavia are best when you go out and enjoy the amazingly mind blowing wilderness of the country. In Bergen if it does not rain, go at Mount Ulriken and take hike up there in the middle of small lakes and woods. Laze in the sun while fishing behind a roc cutting the wind blowing from the sea. Many families take their children out in the nature and a tourist would not have a good idea about life in Norway if he misses this dimension.
A sea inside the land: the Fjords
Outdoor in Bergen is great but go and visit the fjords, this is even greater outdoor. From Bergen it is very easy to take a boat the cruises the coast, some are only for tourists and some other are used by locals to commute, use these if you want a genuine experience. Fjörds were formed million of years ago by glaciers during the last ice age, at the bottom of some of them you still can find a glacier. Next to Bergen is the longest fjords of Norway,the Sognefjorden which totalizes around 250 kilometers of length cutting the country by more than the two third of its width!
At the beginning it looks like a big river surrounded by mountains but when you see the path narrowing you get a clearer picture of the gigantism of the place. The ship is nailed between two big walls of roc, that go straight from the sea-level up to 1000 meters. It is brutal and mineral, contrasting with the warmth of the pinewood forest around Bergen. Vegetation is scarce, the wind blows down from the top of the cliffs a freezing breeze. When I was there it was in May but spring had not yet defrost the upper part of the mountains and water falls were still ice, locked after the steep walls. The water has a colour never seen before of deep emerald green sometime disturbed by the red and white reflection of summer house hanged after the mountains’ foot.
At the end of the World: Flåm & Myrdal
The ship makes a stop at the village of Flåm, literally the bottom of the Fjord. It is basically made of one hotel, one pear for touristic cruises to dock, a tourist office and… a train station. Indeed apart from very nice hikes to water falls, the only attraction of this very touristic place is its train the Flåmsbana. Connecting Flåm to an heaven more remote place at the heart of the mountains called Myrdal, where one can take a connection back to Bergen or Oslo.
The train is worth the visit since it has been ranked amongst the 25 most beautiful trains in the World, and it is a gorgeous ride in a narrow valley on a master piece of engineering. The train climbs 825 meters of denivelation with curves carved in the mountains. It is the perfect end to a trip in Fjord land, always surrounded by the great wilderness offering stunning views and a feeling of attraction and repulsion characterized in the Sublime artistic movement by the term: “awe”.