We weren’t surprised to discover it was raining in Bergen. A good year here only has 60 days of sunshine, according to the travel guides.
But no one reads them.
Or reads them just one day before, as in our case.
And so – just like the millions of misguided tourists every year – we splash landed on the puddled shores of Bergen, clad in more layers than an onion AND waterproof boots because it was too late to cancel.
The other unfortunate travelers were easy to spot, shivering in their flimsy windbreakers and extra soggy sneakers like Lindsay Lohan in rehab.
I still think of them when I’m having a bad day.
Take its famously shitty weather out of the equation however, and you’ve got a small but good-looking city, crammed with colorful, narrow wooden buildings that lean against each other like drunk sailors.
Bergen’s rich maritime heritage can be traced back to the 13th century, when it was the capital of Norway. The city’s rise to wealth and power can be attributed to its membership in the Hanseatic League, a medieval trading club of merchant cities that made a crapload of money trading timber, furs or – in Bergen’s case – cod.
Yes, cod. As in cod liver oil, the stanky stuff our mom’s use to shove down our throats every evening because it was supposed to turn you into Einstein. (I still failed at calculus though).
The big drawcard here is Bryggen, the UNESCO-heritage Hanseatic quarter where the merchants once resided.
Tourists skulk through warren of atmospheric lanes slick with rain, poking their noses into former homes that still creak and groan with history, but are now converted into expensive art galleries and shops selling everything a tourist needs, from fox fur, with their head and little furry paws still intact…
…to moose leather.
The Hanseatic Museum gives you a glimpse of life in those glory days and, as we walked around a house furnished in the height of 18th century fashion, we were struck by how immaculately neat it all was, like it belonged to a person suffering from OCD. It was a little yawnsome until we came upon several ancient cupboard beds, which were the only means of privacy in these homes at the time and not at all conducive to baby-making.
And yet, these people still popped out dozens of children.
Modeled after the tenements of Bryggen, The Hanseatic Hotel did have a faultless facade, with a crackling fireplace in its sexy lobby and claw foot tub in its spacious suite.
However, I’m pretty sure some of the hotel’s delightful bonus features did not exist back in the 13th century: springy sofa bed, loud garbage truck that comes around at 6am every morning and cheap caviar-in-a-tube (!) at breakfast.
We spotted more gourmet snafus at Bergen’s outdoor Fish Market. Since the 1500s, and even in wet weather, visitors have huddled under canopied stalls, feasting on all manner of seafood and crustaceans, smoked and boiled.
And even cured.
Like that nasty bag of dried cod snack they were peddling because it obviously never occurred to them to cook such a beautiful fish by simmering it with some soy sauce and ginger marinade like the Asians do. Obviously we had to pretend to be impressed when all we were doing was gagging inside.
We heard brilliant reviews of Enhjorningen Restaurant however. This was supposed to be the place that locals go for fish, so after cashing out our entire life’s savings for a meal at this restaurant (kidding, but it sure felt that way), we put on our best, rainproof clothes (the same one we had on earlier) and strode hand-in-hand into a cute, old-timey restaurant on the harbor, intent on savoring some real cod this time.
For some reason, I ended up ordering their Bacalao, because it’s Portuguese for cod and it also sounds a lot more exotic and exciting then their Oven Baked Fillet of Cod. What I didn’t know is that bacalao is essentially a stew made from salted, dried codfish – which is the same shit we saw at the market, except that it was now ten times more expensive!
I felt a deep ache in my heart (and pockets) as I scarfed down my food.
The kids, meanwhile, had the same look on their faces that can best be described as indifference. Odin and the Food Gods would be so offended by what their pagan followers were churning out.
Salted cod in Valhalla.
The rain dissipated enough for us to hop on the Floibanen Funicular and zip all the way to the top of Mount Floyen.
We were delighted to discover several playgrounds, where wooden trolls stood like elderly peadophiles in wait, and felt a little sorry for the mountain goats that were moved there to smarten the scenery up for photo-hungry tourists. The electro-shock collars they have on prevents them from escaping, so they are forever at the mercy of any peace-sign-loving Asian with a selfie stick.
The only weapons they have are their poop, and these are sprinkled liberally all over the gravel path, ready to wage guerrilla warfare with the next unsuspecting tourist.
There were also several peaceful walks that cut across the woods, and we took the easiest one, skipping our way down to the city.
We were looking forward to Kulturnatt, an annual shindig of dance and decadence as all the city’s museums, galleries and concert venues throw open their doors for free from 6pm onwards.
It was a great time for exploring the Bergenhus Fortress, a mighty medieval garrison made up of a tower and hall.
The Rosenkratz Tower, with its spiral staircase and many austere rooms, was used in the 16th century by the Danish-Norwegian King, who trained its cannons on Bryggen to remind its merchants the importance of paying their taxes.
The rooms, which would normally be empty on regular days, was abuzz with testosterone-filled members of the Historical European Martial Arts Society.
Yes, these people exist.
And they were dueling the way their 11th century brothers did, with these long metal swords and heavy-as-fuck shields, raining perspiration in their chain mail armor, making the already badly ventilated rooms smell worse than a jock’s sweaty nut sack.
Still, my boys’ ultimate fantasies came true that day. They even got to don the various accouterments, and had to be helped lest they collapse under the weight of that metal.
The largest secular building in Norway, Hakon’s Hall was once a banqueting hall, but is now venue du jour for tonight’s guitar solo. The music sounds sublime in this hallowed space – not that any of us could really enjoy it because the boys love listening to the sound of their own footsteps reverberating through the stone-and-wood interior.
Feeling highly ashamed of our parenting abilities, we left after a minute and went to the harbor, where the various boats were docked and accessible just for one night. Several boats had a swing band playing on its decks, and also a place where you can get a drink and a bite, as you watch the sun set over this picturesque town and its gloomy visitors.
It was dinnertime. And while I was still craving for cod – steamed and sauced the Cantonese way, mind you – we were a lot smarter this time.
We had Thai instead.
The Hanseatic Hotel Atmospheric hotel designed to look just like Bergen’s famous UNESCO-heritage quarter, but rooms are a hit-and-miss and breakfast, while generous (smoked salmon is available), can be a little rushed. Great location for walking everywhere, although it might be a little tricky to navigate to with a car (plus the nearest carpark is a five minutes’ walk away). $$
- Bergen’s main attractions – apart from Bryggen – are underwhelming and takes up less than half a day of sightseeing in total. Taking a walking tour will make your visit a lot more enjoyable. What’s more, the price includes entry tickets.
- Kids will particularly enjoy the Floibanen funicular. You can easily spend half a day there, and there are several cafes for you to grab a bite in case you don’t feel like having a picnic.
- For a cheap and quick meal, you can visit the Fish Market. Otherwise, several restaurants around the city other lunchtime specials.
- Come readily equipped with a waterproof jacket and – if your hotel doesn’t provide it – an umbrella!
- Bergen is a good place to start or end your trip in Norway. Several cruises like Hurtigruten and tours like Norway in a Nutshell start / end here.