Munch, Grieg And Beyond

Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Travel Writer

The eerie spectacle of round-the-clock sunshine has given way to shadowy nights in the Norwegian city of Bergen, but August days are still long and golden.

In midsummer, the quaint harbor area, Bryggen, can feel like an open-air party. Crowds throng the outdoor cafés and fill the quaint medieval alleys; fishmongers haul in their slippery wares as tourists snap pictures of Europe’s most colorful fish market. Against a backdrop of green mountains, the vivid reds and yellows of Bergen’s wood-frame houses are reflected in the North Sea.

Once a bit off the radar, Norway’s most charming and cultured city has recently taken off as a destination. Travelers are increasingly looking past Oslo to the region that gave the world Ibsen and Grieg, and where fjords and glaciers are part of everyday life.

Most people reach Bergen via Oslo, a route that affords spectacular views as well as a pleasing urban contrast. Oslo is elegant and modern; Bergen feels palpably connected to its Viking past, with 18th-century wood-frame buildings and medieval towers. It has the coziness of a university town, which it is, and a cultural depth unusual for a city of just a quarter-million.

There are myriad ways to get to Bergen, but I’d recommend either car or Norway’s excellent railway. The Oslo-Bergen route takes you through some of Scandinavia’s most lavish landscapes: snowy mountains and plunging gorges, postcard villages in wide green valleys, and finally the breathtaking fjords around Bergen.

Along Norway’s craggy seacoast, an ambitious new highway with the world’s longest road tunnel provides an option to the once-obligatory ferry. The Laerdal Tunnel, a high-tech, 15-mile wonder of Nordic engineering, takes 20 minutes to drive through and is equipped with illuminated cave rest stops for the claustrophobic.

Bergen itself is perched along seven hills (like Lisbon), but most of its charming center is flat and compact, with cobblestoned streets and vintage shops. Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the old wharf where visitors prowl amid towers and fortresses. Grab the funicular to the top of the hills for a jaw-dropping view over the city, the sea and a belt of islands that gives the harbor its strategic protection.

This favored location has made Bergen a shipping powerhouse since ancient times. The city was a seat of both medieval Norwegian kings and the Hanseatic League, the merchant alliance that dominated Northern Europe in mid-millennium.

It was in the late 1400s that the first Jews reportedly settled these shores, after being driven out of Spain by the Inquisition. The fortunes of Jewish merchants waxed and waned over the centuries that followed, and never recovered from the Holocaust. A few Jewish families remain in Bergen, but most Jews come here on vacation from Oslo and Trondheim.

Bergen’s multi-layered past comes alive in the Bryggens Museum, built on the excavations of the city’s first settlement. With 12th-century buildings and rooms showcasing life in medieval Norway, the museum is a nice introduction to the area. Guided tours lead from the museum through the historic district and end at the Hanseatic Museum.

Bergen’s standout art collection (and one of the finest in Scandinavia) can be found smack in the city center, perched scenically on Lake Lille Lungegard. In addition to works by Picasso, Kandinsky and Dutch and Flemish masters, it provides a unique opportunity to see regional art rarely on view elsewhere. There’s a spectacular gallery of Edvard Munch, with English-language tours, as well as Russian Orthodox icons from the late Middle Ages.

With fjords and islands part of the landscape, Bergen invites travelers to explore beyond city limits. One popular excursion is Troldhaugen, the forest estate where “Peer Gynt” composer Edvard Grieg lived and composed his later works.

Visitors can tour the Edvard Grieg Museum, see the composer’s Steinway and his villa overlooking Lake Nordas, and stay for a lunchtime piano concert (or in early September, the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition).

Ole Bull is less famous outside Norway, but the 19th-century violinist is a hero in Bergen — and his island home, now the Lysoen Museum, makes for a memorable side trip.

The cruise across Bergen Bay to Lysoen Island is a pleasure. Once on Lysoen, you enter a 165-acre fairyland of gazebos, forested walking paths, and shimmering water views. Bull’s lacey gingerbread villa is a throwback to 18th-century gentility; it hosts concerts and guided hikes around the property.

Lysoen is only open in summer and on September Sundays. Autumn seems a short season until the evening chill sets in and you realize the long, dark, snowy winter is never far away here. By October, Bryggen will be quiet.
 

In Bergen, crowds throng the outdoor cafés before the onset of long winter days. Bergen Tourist Board/Per Elde

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