Bergen had sounded to us, more or less, like the kind of place we were trying to avoid on our travels through Norway — a big port city and “Gateway to the Fjords” for the daily throngs of cruise and coach passengers heaved onto its shores to wander around buying troll keyrings and plastic Viking helmets until being rounded up by their umbrella-hoisting tour guides and shuffled back onto their buses and ships. To our delight, we found that we were only half-right.
Yes, this largely describes Bergen, to be sure, but somehow — and cruise port cities of the world take heed — somehow, Bergen remains eminently photographable, unmistakably Norwegian, and well worth a visit in its own right. The downtown area is divided into four parts. (It isn’t really — I’m making this up, but it’s how I came to terms with Bergen, and a useful way to structure a visit if you only have one day there. You’re welcome, future tour guides of the city.)
Part One is the world-famous outdoor fish market, at the innermost end of the harbour, where the smells and sounds hit you with a wallop, and if you close your eyes for a moment and breathe in, you can travel back in time, to when this kind of selling was commonplace. To exit history, simply open your eyes and look at the price tags — you’re right back in 21st Century Norway.
After this brief experiment with time travel, it’s time to look behind the fish market, through the cobbled streets of old Bergen and up the hill of mansions overlooking the harbour. Find the cable car, and trace it with your eye to the top of Mt. Ulriken, the largest of the seven mountains that loom above Bergen and give the city its name (berg = mountain). This is Part Two. On these streets you’ll find a refreshingly diverse mix of people and cuisines, a couple of old churches, some cobbled lanes, and a trio of very old Norwegian men sitting on a bench cat-calling your wife.
Part Three, on a bank adjacent to the fish market, is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient part of the city, the colourful and charming row of buildings with a distinctly Wild West feel to it, the timelessly picturesque Bryggen.
Once you’ve taken an unnecessarily ridiculous number of pictures of the same thing from slightly different angles, step through one of the alleyways between buildings, and, for the second time today, go back in time as you walk through the wooden passageways and shadowed courtyards of this old part of town. Look above you — the buildings seem to be leaning in towards each other over the street, held apart by a few beams and some ancient nails, hovering somewhere between between “that’s interesting” and “doesn’t gravity exist in Bryggen?”. The whole place is made of wood and has a peculiar there-I-fixed-it feel to it, which is to say it’s spellbinding: a place you could spend far, far more time in than at first seems warranted, especially if you like these sorts of oddities and don’t have a wife whose appetite demands immediate and rapt attention every three hours.
Across the water from Bryggen, on the other adjacent bank to the fish market, is Part Four, a dock with a No Docking sign on it whose sole function, as far as I can ascertain, is to offer a platform from which to photograph Bryggen (repeatedly, from slightly different positions) in all its wide-angle splendour.
With all four parts checked off the list, it was time to get whatever small amount of rest was available to us before the long, long day ahead.