August 10, 2012
BERGEN, NORWAY — “There are three ‘F’ words that describe Bergen,* our guide, Jim Paton , told us this morning at the start of our tour. It turns out he was referring to “fish, fire and fijords.” Before the day was out he told us a lot about the first two. Tomorrow we’ll get to the third.
Over the years, Bergen’s wooden buildings have been ravaged by numerous fires. As you walk around town Paton pointed out whole blocks of the original city that were destroyed by fires, replaced with buildings of different architectural periods.
No surprise about the fish. We saw a ton of them yesterday at the market and Paton emphasized that Norway is the world’s fourth largest exporter of seafood (we went back to the market today for another delicious plate of fresh shrimp and smoked salmon).
But we found still more ‘F’¨words that relate to Bergen. Ferries, for example: There’s one that has taken people and supplies back and forth across the main harbor ever since 1894 and it was running smoothly on this morning in 2012. There’s also the famous Floribanen Funicular — the most popular tourist attraction in Norway — a cable tram that takes people on a seven-minute perpendicular ride up to the top of one of the town’s seven surrounding mountains, Mt. Floven. At the top, in addition to a spectacular view of Bergen and its surrounding fjords, there is a restaurant and a series of paths through the forest. We walked down one of them, a delightful downhill trek that wound through charming little neighborhoods on the side of the mountain. By some miracle we ended up a block away from our own hotel.
A mood of economic comfort and stability runs through this country, and no wonder; Norway is the richest country in Europe per capita, according to Paton. “Everyone who wants a job has a job,” he said, “and, by the way, if you are an unemployed engineer living in some other country, Norway needs and wants you.”
Bergen used to be wealthy from its fish oil. Since the discovery in 1969 of vast resources of petroleum under the ocean near here, “We’re wealthy from another kind of oil.” More than half of all Norwegians now own a vacation home, and 40 percent own their own boat.
During the Second World War a group of young Norwegian men in the Resistance worked undercover from one of the old Hanseatic wooden buildings to secretly send information to London. The result was that the RAF was able to bomb the Nazi submarines that had come to Bergen. There is still an enormous NATO submarine base in the waters outside Bergen, but no tourists will ever visit that particular site.
Norway was a province of Denmark until 1905 and when they finally gained their independence they began to acquire a feeling of national pride, according to our guide. Adding to the Norwegian spirit was the music of Edvard Grieg, who was born in Bergen. The most famous Norwegian composer of all time, Grieg’s music takes Norwegian folk music and makes it grand and heroic. He wrote the music to Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem “Peer Gynt,” as well as piano concertos that are familiar to listeners all over the world, and statues of Grieg, Ibsen and Ole Bull, a violinist of the same period, stand proudly in parks around the city center.
From June through September lunchtime piano concerts featuring Grieg’s music are performed daily at the composer’s home in a suburb of Bergen, where the Edvard Grieg Museum is also found. Bergen is bursting with museums, including four art museums, the Norwegian Knitting Industry Museum, the Leprosy Museum, and a museum that houses the largest private collection of Chinese art outside of China, owned by the late Bergen-born Joann Munthe.
Music of all kinds is celebrated in this town, from an annual international classical music festival to a pops venue, which has recently had Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and the Rolling Stones grace its stage.
There is one more “F” word closely associated with Bergen, and finally, when we boarded the MS Nordlys this evening and left the harbor, we saw what hundreds of thousands of tourists come here to see: the world-famous Norwegian fjords.
Photos by Timothy Leland