August 9, 2012
There’s one way to avoid Boston’s oppressive summer heat: Fly to Norway.
We left Boston in sweltering, humid 90-degree weather and flew to Bergen. Five hours after taking off from Logan Airport, we de-planed on a beautiful dry 65-degree day and and found ourselves in a historic town in the center of what they call Fjordland. Bergen, on the southwestern side of the country, is known as the Gateway to the Fjords.
At the tourist center, looking out at the harbor, we asked naively: “Is that a fjord? Where are they?”
“This is just a bay,” he smiled. “It isn’t a fjord, but they are all around us. If you’re going on the Hurtigruten trip, you’ll see plenty of them.”
That comes tomorrow. Our ship, the MS Nordlys, is waiting in the next harbor over. Today we’ll explore Bergen, founded in 1070. Its cluster of attractive 12th Century wooden buildings along the wharf are now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Until the 1830’s Bergen was the biggest town in Norway and was a major European trading and seafaring port and one of the German Hanseatic Merchants’ four most important trading centers. The oldest part of town, called Bryggen, was ravaged by a number of fires, but the original buildings have been constructed to look exactly as they did in the Middle Ages when the Hanseatic League set up offices here.
We strolled through the narrow alleyways of Bryggen that feature overhanging balconies decorated with flower boxes where many tourist shops and restaurants are located. Afterwards we enjoyed a fine meal of fresh red snapper and apple pie in Restaurant Bryggen Tracteursted, one of the ancient structures in this area. It is decorated with a wooden replica of a salted cod, representing one of Bergen’s most important food industries. The Norwegians eat fish and more fish during the week, with a little meat on weekends, perhaps lamb.
Around the corner from the Bryggen area is the city’s famous fish market, where seafood purveyors display their fresh crab, cod, shrimp, and Norway caviar, among many other foodstuffs, including cloudberry marmalade made from the sweet cherry-like native fruit. Crowds of tourists — and locals out with their toddlers — were selecting plates full of fish for picnics along the harbor, where a cellist played “Ave Maria.”
Food is expensive here, along with everything else, and Norwegians make note of this in all their tourist brochures, not exactly apologizing but warning that the cost of living is the highest in Europe. A plate of shrimp and crab is $30 at the fish market and a bottle of water, $5.50. But the Norwegians have a rejoinder: The cost of living may be high but so is the standard of living. Their economy, helped by recent discoveries of vast oil reserves, is one of the best in Europe. The Norwegian unemployment rate is impressive, just a little over one percent.
Here’s another fact of measurement: The Norwegians’ unemployment is low, but their stature is high. From the moment we landed at the airport we were struck by how tall Norwegians seem. One of them explained it this way: “We stretch to get the sun when it’s here.”
Photos by Timothy Leland