Bergen with plenty of relish

Simon Calder strolls through an icy world of misty mountains and persistent trolls on a weekend break in Arctic Norway
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The Independent Travel
Low noon: spring has yet to reach the 60-degree line of latitude, so the shadows cast at midday are revealingly long and deliciously sharp. Bergen is not your average European city.

Arriving by ship in the largest city on Norway's west coast confers an immediate advantage: you are thrust into the heart of one of the world's great natural harbours. None of the other places you can reach by ferry from Britain (Calais, Flushing, Rosslare ...) falls into this category, but the natural amphitheatre that envelops Bergen would look stunning even if the city's architecture was trash. Seven mountains form a near- complete ring around the harbour, with a slim section removed by some Norwegian god or other to allow your vessel in.

The best thing once you get off the boat is to take another boat ride. One of the world's shortest, most intensively entertaining and expensive harbour voyages costs you 90p and as many seconds to reach Nordnes, the finger of city that juts out into Bergen's modest fjord. The layer of ice that once suffocated Norway carved this channel as it retreated, and bestowed on Bergen a harbour from which to explore and exploit the world.

All your preconceptions about Norway are satisfied within the first hour of exploration. Crisply clean it is, with daintily manicured timber cottages woven around tidily cobbled streets, though be warned that only one day in four eludes some form of precipitation.

To put you geographically in perspective, you are as far north as the mainland of Shetland, therefore closer to the North Pole than almost anywhere else (including the state capital of Alaska). Yet Bergen is classed as southern Norway, and functions as the terminus of the mailboats that serve the Arctic as far as the Russian border. This is the north for softies.

Despite the relatively moderate climate, Bergen still turns up its civic collar against the cold. The railway station - a vast, gaunt, spare structure - is the closest the city gets to triumphant architecture, followed by a scattering of sturdy churches whose stony spires pierce the skyline.

A more promising sightseeing seam is exposed at Bryggen - a shambles of sharply raked wooden warehouses. These occupy the site of the original trading centre, from the days when Bergen was one of the leading Hanseatic ports. These days, the trade is mostly in trolls.

You might think there are certain stereotypes that Norwegians would like to shrug off; for example, the slogan "Norway: nul points" from Eurovision Song Contests past, and trolls. But the windows of the waterfront souvenir stores go into a troll-fuelled frenzy of pseudo-legendary kitsch reproduction.

Bergen has lots of places in which to eat and drink, most of them expensive. So you may as well head straight for Banco Rotto, which manages to be both the strangest sight in Bergen and the hub of the city's nightlife. An extravagantly sturdy 19th-century bank has been converted into a restaurant and dance hall. A counter has been turned into a mahogany bar, waitresses serve diners where cashiers once served customers, and the banking hall reverberates to an enthusiastic version of "Money". That the Beatles-imitating house band is the most inept this side of the North Sea seems unimportant compared with the fact that for "Biff & Dans" (steak and dance) you pay only pounds 10, making it the best culinary combo in Bergen.

Swap Bergen's modest indoors for the great outdoors. Given that the sun struggles to peep over the horizon at ground level, climbing the surrounding mountains is a sound idea.

Luckily, it only takes 10 minutes to reach the tundra. A funicular railway rattles towards the Arctic and uphill towards Floyen, base camp for mountain adventures. An 8ft concrete troll cuddles visitors for the benefit of their camera-happy friends. Relinquish his grasp and follow the signs to Rundemanen.

Soon you notice the icicles dangling elegantly from rocky outcrops and hardy shrubs. Icy shards with the delicacy of glass, yet a clarity greater than crystal, dazzle and dissolve slowly in the rays of the sun. Even the ice formed into micro-glaciers is clear enough to see drops of water running down the rocks beneath. A patch of picnic tables, each draped in frost, looks to be merging into the icy ground. This is a day trip to Narnia.

There's a taste of Tolkein, too: misty mountains march hazily off into the east. At 1,800ft you reach blank moorland where the precise terrain is defined by the sound the ground makes beneath your feet. A whisper means you are trudging over the shrunken vegetation that clings to the mountainside; a gravelly crunch signifies the naked, ancient rock; and a creak followed by a shiver is the sound of icy marshland bowing under your weight. Crowning the frozen north, a roofless cottage is planted morosely on the summit, merging into the frozen stone just five miles from your boat home. You can't experience this in Calais.

six city essentials: Bergen

Sail from Newcastle to Bergen with Color Line (0191-296 1313), any Tuesday or Saturday. The Tuesday sailing allows a four-day mini-cruise, with a full day in the city, for pounds 78 per person until 23 March, pounds 98 thereafter.

Fly from Heathrow on British Midland for pounds 160 including tax, available through discount specialists such as Major Travel (0171-485 7017), or Newcastle on Braathens (0800 526938) for pounds 183 return.

Take your own duty-free drinks (up to one litre of spirits and one litre of wine) and cigarettes, if you prefer not to subsidise the Norwegian exchequer by paying taxes of 300 per cent.

Consider the rail pass sold by NSR Travel (0171-930 6666) for seven (pounds 104) or 14 days (pounds 141), allowing unlimited travel all over Norway.

Ask the Norwegian Tourist Board, Charles House, 5-11 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (0171-839 6255) for information and free maps.

Beware the Eurovision Song Contest, being held in the Norwegian capital for the first time ever on 18 May.

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