The perfect trip: Norway
Bergen: Best for history
Late afternoon sunlight slants across the face of Bryggen, Bergen’s ancient trading wharf, giving a golden glow to the steeple-roofed warehouses painted in bright shades of orange and dusky pink. They lean at angles, jostling for space with their neighbours. Once, the wooden buildings were crammed with barrels of unsalted codfish. Today, art galleries, craft shops and restaurants have taken up residence. Groups crowd around small tables at an outdoor bar clutching bottles of beer, while others wander the shadowy alleys between the buildings, walking on creaking wooden planks laid out like the deck of a ship.
For some 400 years, until the mid-18th century, this wharf was an important centre of trade for the mighty German merchant outfit, the Hanseatic League, which traded fish and lamp oil to cities across Europe. It’s now a World Heritage site comprising 61 buildings. This quaint cluster of aged timber stretches along the northern side of Bergen’s harbour, a world apart from the shiny modern office buildings across the water.
‘It has always been that way, the separation between this wharf and the rest of the town,’ Torleif Skage says as he expertly negotiates Bryggen’s warren of walkways. A teacher, youth worker and occasional guide, Torleif has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and is easily followed, even as dusk approaches, thanks to his fluorescent green trousers.
During the time of the Hanseatic League, Bryggen had its own customs and laws. ‘It was an almost exclusively male settlement,’ he says, ‘and none of the Germans were allowed to have any contact with Bergen women. Of course, it did happen from time to time and the man was punished. And the woman was thrown into the fjord.’ He grins. ‘But it was quite shallow, so she would just swim home.’
Torleif points out a wooden building known as a schøtstue, or ‘assembly room’, where apprentice merchants would gather to drink beer and stage violent games and initiations. ‘One was known as the smoking game,’ he says. ‘A boy would be suspended over a boiling pot of mixture used by tanners [containing lime, urine and faeces], and would breathe in the fumes until green in the face. They would also keelhaul each other [dragging beneath a boat] in the fjord, then there would be whipping and nakedness. There was always a lot of that for some reason.’
At the rear of the complex, signs of reconstruction are evident and wooden foundations exposed. The marshy ground has led to several buildings sinking, causing structural destabilisation, along with a picturesque leaning. Original building methods and hand tools are being utilised, and craftsmen from all over the world are coming to learn how to restore wooden buildings, continuing the proud Bryggen tradition of training apprentices.
Back at the wharf’s colourful façade, Torleif gestures upward. ‘These buildings have been the entrance to Bergen for the last 600 years, so it’s a big part of our city’s identity,’ he says.
Solund Archipelago: Best for island-hopping
The faraway hum of an engine can be heard on the breeze and Anne Marie Gåsvær emerges from her cottage, wandering down to a small wooden jetty to wait. The island she calls home is Gåsvær, named after her husband’s family, who have lived for hundreds of years on this small grassy rock. From a hill above the harbour, the view is clear to the horizon, the ocean surface scattered with countless small granite lumps and the craggy mountains of distant islands. Several of the closer, green-fringed outcrops are topped with Anne Marie’s hardy sheep, which occasionally swim from one rock to another in search of more tough island grass, salted with spray.