48 Hours In: Bergen
Norway's second city offers a winning combination of natural beauty and historical intrigue. And if you visit in summer, you'll have deliciously long days to enjoy the ensemble, as Simon Calder reveals
Saturday 11 July 2009
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Why go now?
Norway's second city perches prettily precisely two-thirds of the way from the Equator to the North Pole – which is why the light lasts so deliciously long in summer. Bergen is one of the world's great harbour cities, full of history, natural beauty and friendly people. It is the gateway for western Norway's spectacular fjords. And all within two hours' flying time of the UK.
Bergen's small and efficient airport is 12 miles south-west of the city. It is served from Gatwick by both Norwegian (020-8099 7254; norwegian.no ) and SAS (08715 212 772, flysas.co.uk ). SAS and its partners also fly from Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com ) flies from Kirkwall in Orkney and Sumburgh in Shetland.
Even if you are not an habitué of duty-free stores, you may change your tune before a trip to Norway, because of the high duty; you can buy up to one litre of spirits and one litre of wine at the airport upon arrival.
The airport bus departs every 15 minutes and takes 40-45 minutes into the city, costing Nkr85 (£8.50) one way, Nkr150 (£15) return. It pauses at the bus station close to the railway station (1) before heading for the Radisson SAS Hotel Norge (2) on Ole Bulls Plass and the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel (3) on the edge of the old quarter of Bryggen.
Get your bearings
Bryggen, the compact area just north of the harbour, was where the original city grew up. It has long since expanded eastwards; the railway station marks the end of the city centre and southwards to occupy the fingers of land that point out into Bergen Fjord.
Make a point of visiting the beautiful tourist office (4), which for the next few months at least occupies the remarkable Fresco Hall at Vagsallmenningen (00 47 55 55 20 00; visitbergen.com ), a historic building decorated by murals telling the story of Bergen, Norway and the wider world. It opens 8.30am-10pm daily until the end of August (shorter opening hours for the rest of the year). You can pick up the Bergen Card, which costs Nkr190 (£19) for 24 hours or Nkr250 (£25) for 48 hours, granting unlimited use of public transport (except to/from the airport) and free or reduced entry to museums and attractions.
If you are an assiduous planner, the Norwegian Tourist Board, Charles House, 5-11 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (020-7839 6255) can provide information and free maps in advance.
The Grand Terminus Hotel (5), just north of the station at Zander Kaaes gate 6 (00 47 55 21 25 00; ght.no ), is a great 20th-century railway hotel that has been splendidly revived for the 21st century. The bedrooms in this stoutly handsome building retain their ambitious dimensions and unfussy decor, but the public areas have touches such as free Wi-Fi. Under the current summer promotion, a double room typically costs Nkr1,050 (£105) including breakfast.
If you have never slept in a Unesco world heritage site, try the Hanseatiske Hotel (6) at Finnegarden A– the only hotel in the Bryggen area (00 47 55 30 48 00; dethanseatiskehotell.no ). It comprises a pair of cleverly connected 18th-century merchants' houses. Each room is unique and imaginatively furnished, with elaborate bathrooms a speciality. Romantic doubles start at Nkr1,200 (£120), including breakfast;
Take a view
To put Bergen in its proper perspective, take the "Floibanen funicular" – a mountain railway that hoists you 1,050 feet above the city in seven minutes flat. From the base station (7), a return ticket costs NKr70 (£7), or you can pay half as much and walk down. It takes you to Floyen, one of the seven mountains that surround Bergen. From the top, you can appreciate the deep blues of the sea, the greens of the land and the pastel colours of the houses – and, if you wish, explore trails on the mountain.
Take a hike...
...through Bryggen, a picturesque Unesco-listed area of reconstructed medieval homes, warehouses and gables. It was the Hanseatic hub of trade for all of Scandinavia for more than 400 years, with German merchants buying dried fish and selling grain. Start your hike where Bergen began at St Mary's Church (8) on Dreggen, a Romanesque church with attractive twin towers, and the oldest building in the city still in use. It opens 9-11.30am and 1-4pm from Monday to Friday – unhelpful for weekend visitors, but the exterior and churchyard are worth seeing at any time. From here, wander through the cobbled streets, calling in at the Schotstuene (9) – which was a kind of social club; the merchants' houses were not allowed any heating for fear of fire so they clubbed together to build an assembly hall where they could eat, drink and be modestly merry. It opens 10am-5pm daily during the summer; the ticket (Nkr50/£5) also covers admission to the Hanseatic Museum (10), on the corner of Bryggen and Torget (open 10am-5pm daily during the summer). It was the location where the trade was organised – and, like the fish the merchants bought, beautifully preserved.
Finish your walk at the Torget fish market (11) where fishmongers ply their wares alongside stalls selling flowers, handicrafts and souvenirs (daily in summer from 7am to 4pm).
Lunch on the run
Grab a table at the fish market (11) and order a plate of seafood by weight: Nkr49 (£4.60) buys 100 grams of salmon and shellfish. Expensive, but – like everything else in Bergen – high quality.
Norway offers plenty of ways to splash your cash, notably at the main city-centre mall: Galeriet (12), where you can shop to the top, with six floors of stores. Close by, explore Moods of Norway (13) at Torgallmenningen 12, Bergen's trendiest designer store. Before you decide the prices are too high, bear in mind that most shops offer visitors a near-instant tax refund of at least 12 per cent; you just take the receipt to the tourist office.
Norway's foremost whisky bar occupies a large and beautiful room on the ground floor of the Grand Terminus Hotel (5). Between 5pm and midnight daily except Sunday, you can try one of dozens of whiskies – or settle for Norway's signature tipple, Aquavit – distilled from potatoes, and sometimes aged by being sent around the world by ship.
Dining with the locals
Bryggeloftet & Stuene (14) is easier to find than it is to pronounce: in prime position, overlooking the harbour, at Bryggen 11 (00 47 55 30 20 70; bryggeloftet.no ). Choose the upper floor for the best view. The local speciality is Klippfisk: North Atlantic cod dried on cliffs for three months, with an intense and salty flavour.
For fun and informality, aim for Pingvinen (15) ("Penguin"), at Vaskerelven 14 (00 47 55 60 46 46) – a corner café that feels like someone's front room, yet where you can expect simply prepared dishes accompanied by reasonably priced beer and convivial conversation.
Sunday morning: a walk in the park
Stroll through the attractively restored streets of Skottegaten and Nedre Stangehagen, full of timber houses, to Nordnesparken (16) – at the end of one of the arms of land that extends from the centre of Bergen. Besides fine views over the bay, look for the flagstones inscribed with poetry (in Norwegian – the locals will translate).
Out to brunch
So much for nourishing the soul – how about the body? From noon on Sundays – or 11 on other days – the United Sardine Factory (17) at Georgernes Verft 12 is the place to be. It has been converted to an arts centre and includes the cheerful Kafe Kippers (00 47 55 31 00 60), with excellent coffee and good food.
Go to church
Bergen's handsome cathedral (18) (00 47 55 31 58 75) is worth a visit even if you don't go inside, which is just as well, because its opening hours are limited: 11am-12.30pm on most days.
It's set in beautiful grounds, and has proved a great survivor, almost unscathed after a couple of city fires and the unwelcome attention of a British warship on the western façade.
Take a ride
Cruise for an hour aboard White Lady, a small boat offering harbour tours from Torget pier (5) daily at 2.30pm for Nkr130 (£12). The trip circles the huge bay offering classic photo opportunities of Bryggen and the mountains and also reveals other points of interest such as an old German submarine base.
The whole city is a work of art, but the formal art galleries are strung out in a row on the south side of Lille Lungegardsvann – the octagonal lake at the heart of "new" Bergen. Prime among the trilogy is the Bergen Kunstmuseum Rasmus Meyer Collection (19); open 11am-5pm daily, admission Nkr50 (£5). It has an excellent collection of Edvard Munch paintings.
The icing on the cake
Halfway from the city centre to the airport a real treat awaits: Troldhaugen, the former home of the city's favourite son, and Norway's greatest composer, Edvard Grieg – best known for the Peer Gynt suite and the Piano Concerto in A minor (00 47 55 92 29 92; troldhaugen.com ). It is in the suburb of Paradis (get there on bus 20-26 inclusive to Hopsbroen) and opens 9am-6pm daily, admission 60kr (£6).
The house stands on a bluff overlooking an inlet, with fine views over the water. Grieg spent every summer in this beautiful villa, and it has been preserved exactly as it was when he died in 1907.
A path leads down to the hut where Grieg did most of his work. You can also see the Steinway grand that was a gift to him and his wife, Nina, on their silver wedding anniversary, presented by his fellow musicians, and still used today for recitals and recordings. The ashes of Grieg and his wife are interred in a tomb built into the rock face close to the water.
To see Simon Calder's free-to-view film on 48 Hours in Bergen (which also features the 'Norway in a Nutshell' expedition ) visit independent.co.uk/bergen
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