Unspoiled Bergen serves as doorway to old Norway


Associate editor Linda Humphrey recently explored Bergen, Norway, with a few fellow journalists. Her report follows.

BERGEN, Norway -- We arrived in Bergen at 9 p.m. in sunlight, our boat closing in on the 18th century gabled, wooden houses that line the wharf.

Once on land, that first storybook view gave way to hilly, narrow streets so quaint they didn't seem real, even as residents emerged from white, wooden houses with their baby carriages.

In the distance, houses clung to the city's seven mountains.

Two things instantly struck me about the city: Though Bergen is Norway's second-largest city after Oslo, with a population of 220,000, it manages to stay clean to the point that even the public bathrooms were spotless. And except for one McDonald's, the city is free of fast-food chains and brand-name stores.

Image In the morning, rain pounded the streets as we headed to the wharf for a closer view of the red, yellow and white gabled houses. (Tourists typically get around by foot and local buses; the city encompasses approximately 280 square miles.)

We passed the fish market vendors in their orange rain slickers. The market, open Mondays to Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m., is a good place to take in the town's local color and get open-face salmon sandwiches and fresh berries in summer.

In late May, we bundled up in sweaters plus raincoats or light jackets, to weather the city's Seattle-like climate. Rain falls on about 220 days per year -- most hotels provide umbrellas -- and July and August are rainier than May and June, according to our guide, Gun Losnedal of the Bergen Guide Service.

Most days, however, are mixed with periods of rain and sun. In summer, when outdoor cafes sprout along the harbor, highs can reach into the 80s, Losnedal said. Temperatures average 55 degrees in May, 59 in June, 61 in August and 55 in September.

Rounding the corner of the fish market, we reached the row of wharf houses known as Bryggen ("the quay") or the Hanseatic Wharf. The wooden houses, a Unesco World Heritage site, actually are replicas of 14th century sea-trade structures built by Hanseatic merchants who arrived from Germany in the Middle Ages.

The oldest wharf house still standing dates from 1702; a series of fires wiped out many others. Set along a cobbled walkway, the buildings house restaurants, shops, museums and artists' studios.

One of the best-preserved wharf buildings houses the Hanseatic Museum. Once the 16th century home of a wealthy German merchant, the house offers a glimpse into life at that time. In summer, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission costs $4.50; children are admitted free.

Bergen's tourist office is found along the wharf. Beyond maps and brochures, the office books fjord cruises and other tours. Americans typically stay two nights in Bergen, with one day spent cruising the fjords, Losnedal said.

In the afternoon we set off for another popular tourist stop, the villa of Norwegian composer Edward Grieg (1867-1927). Grieg and his wife, Nina, spent 22 years at the hilltop house called Troldhaugen, or Troll Hill, beginning about 1885.

Located 10 to 15 minutes out of town by car or bus, the white clapboard house overlooks a fjord. Inside, visitors can view the composer's furniture -- including an 1892 piano -- and several original manuscripts set under glass.

A path down to the water leads to Grieg's studio, where he sometimes shut himself away for days. In summer, Troldhaugen is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., daily. Admission costs $5; children are free.

The adjacent Troldsalen (Troll Hall) concert hall, built in 1985, holds chamber music concerts for crowds of up to 200. Tickets are sold at the tourist office or at the door. The ultramodern Grieg Museum, built near Troldhaugen in 1993, features Grieg memorabilia, such as photographs of the composer, a cafe and a gift shop.

Later that day, we rode Bergen's funicular to the top of Floyen mountain. The cable car stopped at various levels to drop off local hill dwellers before reaching the lookout point, 1,050 feet above the sea. Roundtrip tickets cost $4.

The spot is a starting point for several one- to three-mile hikes (maps are available at the tourist office), but we opted for the well-stocked gift shop, which featured items such as key chains in the shape of Viking ships and ceramic trolls. The shop also serves great hot chocolate, as we discovered.

We admired the exotic cone-shaped glass lights hanging from the ceiling and asked the clerk where we could buy such lights. "Oh, you can get those at Ikea," she said, referring to the giant Scandinavian furniture warehouses that are familiar landmarks in the States, as well. It's a small world, after all.

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