Travel '98: June Bergen

The midsummer madness of northern Norway isn't so much due to the punishingly priced lager as to the fact that the sun never sets.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sometimes, the smartest airline gets it wrong. A year ago, British Midland launched one of those cut-price travel promotions designed to stimulate travel. Fifty pounds return, it promised, from Heathrow to all the usual suspects: Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam...

Yet, somehow, Bergen snuck on to the list - even though, 600 miles from London, it is as far as Milan, and therefore way out of the pounds 50 price range by any sensible calculation. And, amazingly, the deal was valid for Midsummer's Night. A dream: a trip to the midnight sun for less than the return rail fare to Birmingham.

Six months later, on 21 June, it came true.

The biggest, brightest Belisha beacon you have ever seen has spent the last few hours teasing, swooping exquisitely slowly from south-west to north-west. At about 8pm, the steely water that sloshed in a lazy, midsummer- ish way around Bergen's fine harbour appeared to catch fire. With each new angle, the sun seemed to set ablaze one of the neat cottages that huddle around the shoreline. Though every one was painted a bold primary, the sun distorted the colour spectrum so thoroughly that they all mimicked the electric amber of the city's traffic lights.

Said signals were not enjoying a particularly placid evening, not least because a vast quantity of people was sprawling all over the quayside. On a normal day - ie not this absurdly extended one - the patch of paving would be industrious with fishermen unloading catches. Tonight, the earnings from a good spring are being strewn around the harbour bars in the same extravagant manner as the sun splashing waves of light. Prices are intoxicatingly high; assuming a mean consumption of four litres, the average drinker had spent as much on beer as I had on my flight.

Whenever the manic jollity gets too much, just turn your head. Now, the collective energy is ebbing at the same rate as the sun, which presently seems content to set off the occasional flare on one of the crooked, slender fingers of rock that dig into the water. You can tell that Bergen must often look as hard as nails but tonight all the rough edges are being smoothed by the soft-focus sun, now showing signs of weariness on its long march to the horizon, stroking the slopes of the seven hills which form a loose scrum around Bergen.

The end, when it comes, is roundly ignored by the midsummer audience. But perhaps their casual attitude to the star of the north is fuelled not so much by lager as by the knowledge that sunrise will occur in an hour or so, and that - thanks to a lively subsidiary blaze illuminating the northern sky - the celebrations can continue in perpetuity.

Midnight sun is not quite the same quantity as perpetual daylight. Bergen pops up precisely two-thirds of the way along the protracted journey from the Equator to the North Pole. At 60 degrees north, the city is six degrees south of the Arctic Circle - defined as the line where, on Midsummer's Day, the sun remains above the horizon right through the "night". But the cost of traversing each of those extra degrees would be approximately pounds 50. So content yourself with the vicinity of a city that was showing every sign of being celestial.

The citizens, happily, are on the same planet as me when it comes to hitch-hiking. But first: find the right road. Norway is a peculiar shape. Shorn of its Scandinavian neighbours, it resembles a tadpole whose tail is flicking in the general direction of Russia. This is not a convenient shape for cartography.

I armed myself with the most confusing map ever devised and aimed for the port of Flam, about 50 miles east and the same again north. That's what the map seemed to suggest. But in a region where you are rarely more than a longboat's length from sheer rock or icy sea or both, the roads veer recklessly as they find the path of least resistance.

About 10 miles out of Flam, the roadbuilders finally got fed up with all the twisting and turning and blew a hole straight through the mountains. Compared with the staggering scenery that precedes the tunnel, it is a bore in both senses. But, suddenly, it releases you at the head of a magnificent fjord, where the water battles with the sheer cliffs for the honour of looking most brooding and foreboding.

You could get a boat back from here to Bergen, slicing through coastal scenery that looks crushed by the hand of God. Or you could take one of those odd little train rides that you suspect exists only to inject some joy into the Thomas Cook European Timetable.

A train that looks as if it has recently retired from suburban service around Oslo is now called upon to perform astonishing feats of locomotion, clawing its way up the side of a wayward valley. From time to time it pauses for breath, allowing breathtaking views of the chasm carved by a glacier.

Finally, you reach the high-altitude station of Myrdal, accessible only by train, in good time for a midsummer snowball fight before the express from Oslo to Bergen arrives. All of the sensations - sun, sea and snow - all of the day, and all of the night.

How to get there

British Midland (0345 554554) has, unfortunately, ended its pounds 50 promotion. Its lowest fare for travel from Heathrow next midsummer (departing 20 June, returning the next day) is pounds 233 return including tax.

There are also links from Aberdeen on Air UK (0990 074074) and from Gatwick and Newcastle on Braathens (0800 526938). For a winter trip to Bergen, Color Line (0191 296 1313) sells mini-cruises for pounds 54 return, including three nights of on-board bed and breakfast.

Other solar viewpoints at 60 degrees north

Shetland - Britain's northernmost islands; you can watch the sun not setting from the desolation of Unst or the comfort of Scalloway; St Petersburg - the "white nights" of June show a shimmeringly beautiful city; Helsinki - not as beautiful as St Petersburg, but with less of a record for murdering foreign visitors; Anchorage - where suburbia slams into wilderness and survives.