Bergen: Pretty in pink, blue, green, red and yellow

Peter Moss visits a city of colourful clapboard cottages and cobbled streets

The setting is spectacular. Bergen is quintessential Norway - a handsome harbour town cocooned in an amphitheatre of seven hills and looking out towards the fjords, huge clefts of water burrowing deep into the country. Its steeply cobbled streets are surprising for their brightly painted clapboard houses; there's a café culture here to rival central Europe.

The setting is spectacular. Bergen is quintessential Norway - a handsome harbour town cocooned in an amphitheatre of seven hills and looking out towards the fjords, huge clefts of water burrowing deep into the country. Its steeply cobbled streets are surprising for their brightly painted clapboard houses; there's a café culture here to rival central Europe.

The combination of small city and bustling port, with boats pulling out at all hours for the fjords, makes Bergen an intriguing destination. Its status as a European City of Culture for 2000 is thoroughly well deserved, and its locals are among the friendliest in Europe and most of them speak perfect English.

When to go

Rain is pretty common all year round, so much so there is even a joke about it, which runs like this... A drenched tourist asks a young local if it always rains in Bergen. "I don't know," comes the reply. '"I'm only 13." I was lucky - with four days of early July sunshine and the thermometer nudging the high sixties. Friends tell me September is even better, when much of Norway enjoys something of an Indian summer, and the light has an almost iridescent glow. Bergen winters are bitterly cold, but the reward is some fine cross-country skiing in the surrounding hills.

Getting there

Braathens (tel: 0191-214 0991) flies direct from Gatwick to Bergen. Return fares cost from £117, including taxes. Scandinavian Airlines (tel: 0845 60 727 727) offers direct flights from Stansted for a very similar price. The cheapest prices necessitate staying in Bergen over a Saturday night. British Airways (tel: 0845 773 3377) offers an indirect service, changing at Oslo, where you switch to a Braathens inland flight. Return flights from Heathrow start at £75 plus taxes.

Where to stay

Bergen is a very compact city. Taking the harbour and the fish market as the main focal point, each hotel mentioned is within a few minutes walk of the centre.

The Neptun Hotel at Valkensdorfgate 8 (tel: 0047 55 30 68 00) has its own eclectic art collection, plus a good restaurant, well respected around town. Doubles from £130.

The same money will get you through the door (and into the bedroom!) of the First Hotel Marin at Rosenkrantzgarten 8 (tel: 0047 53 05 15 00). It offers all you'd want from a city-centre hotel, plus a small fitness room, sauna and solarium.

The Rosenkrantz Hotel at Rosenkrantzgarten 7 (tel: 00 47 55 31 50 00) is a comfortable, functional four-star hotel with a nice character and all mod cons. Doubles from £100.

Similarly priced is the Hordaheimen Hotel at Sundtsgate 18 (tel: 0047 55 23 23 20). It's smaller and cosier than the Rosenkrantz, but for those of you fancying a midnight drink, be warned - there is no alcohol in the bedrooms' minibars.

Bergen caters especially well for the budget traveller, nowhere more so than the city centre YMCA Family and Youth Hostel, just by the tourist office at Nedre Korskirkealm 4 (tel: 0047 55 60 60 50), where you can bed down comfortably enough for less than £10 a night, breakfast included.

What to see and do

Take a good camera, and plenty of film as Bergen is a gift for photographers - the hillside, the waterfront, the cobbled streets and colourful cottages. Shoot your first roll from the cable car which goes from the city centre to the 2,000ft summit of Mt Ulriken. The top offers great views over Bergen and beyond.

Shoot your second roll from the Floibanen Funicular which scales the heights of Mt Floyen. Floyen is not quite as high as Ulriken, but affords glorious hikes in the woodlands for those who make it to the peak. Lovers of classical music head for Floyen's summit on the long summer evenings (the daylight lasts until well past midnight) for late-night concerts.

Music aficionados should also visit Troldhaugen, a half-hour trip out of town, home to the composer Edvard Greig, and gorgeously situated on a promontory jutting out into Lake Nordas. Also, the beguiling villa of the 19th-century violinist Ole Bull, on the private island of Lysoen, is an hour from Bergen. This weather-boarded, onion-domed edifice looks like it was designed in Massachusetts and constructed in Moscow, before straying half-way across Europe and coming to rest on a rocky outcrop just by the North Sea.

Bryggen's Museum, which details 900 years of Nordic history, is interesting to visit, but if you want to spend time outdoors, take a half-day cruise through the fjords from the central harbour.

Don't spend all of your time out of Bergen as the charm of the place is found wandering its labyrinth of steep, narrow back streets and peeking into the wisteria-clad ramshackle cottages. From Bergen's point of view, town-planning is something that just happens to other people.

Food and drink

Lovers of fish and seafood will find that many of Bergen's restaurants make the best of the variety and quality of the local catch. Treat yourself to one meal at the first-class Kafe Krystall at Kong Oscars gate 16 (tel: 0047 55 32 10 84). It serves wonderful fish dishes from poached halibut to pan-fried sea bream. Main courses cost from £15 and are well worth it.

Every other night you can dine out at one of cheaper, funky smaller restaurants and bars.

Top of the list is Mr Bean at Kong Oscarsgate 12 (tel: 0047 55 56 03 12). It offers simply the best coffee in town - the latte is a minor miracle of catering - and does a mean seafood sandwich, too. Add a slab of carrot cake, and you'll still have change from £10.

Bakeries abound in Bergen - Baker Brun on the quayside is very popular - all of them making and serving the local speciality, the "shillingsboller", a delectable spiral sugar-coated bun, even better when custard-filled.

My own favourite, though, is the legendary Godt Brod, just by the YMCA on Nedre Korskirkealm, where morning coffee and a bun - watch it being baked, then eat it warm - will cost you barely 80p.

Café Opera at Engen 24 (tel: 0047 55 23 03 15) is full of character - and characters - and is one of the places to see and be seen in Bergen. Sandwiches, salads, and other snacks cost from £4, but be prepared for outrageous amounts of posing.

Best of all, eat on the streets. Head for the fish market down by the harbour. Marinated salmon bagels, huge slabs of whale meat cut delicately into pastrami-thin slices, incredibly fresh fruit, and enough confectionery to satisfy the sweetest tooth, are all on offer. This is alfresco dining at its best, enjoyed under coloured canopies, against a backdrop of herring-trawlers and ocean-going liners.

If after all this conspicuous consumption you are in need of a drink, the most popular of the downtown bars is Dickens at Kong Olavs Plass 4 (tel: 0047 55 36 31 30). The clientele is young, the joint is jumping, and the alcohol flows into the small hours.

Nightlife

The place to strut your funky stuff is just outside the town centre in a converted air-raid shelter. Hulen Stiftelsen at Olav Ryesvei 47 is home to many top live bands (well, top by Bergen standards) and oodles of sweaty atmosphere. Closer to town is Bryggen Tracteursted, a rough-and-ready bar with live bands, and Galeien, a hotel nightclub at Bradbenken 3 - great fun, especially if you happen to enjoy spectacularly cheesy 70s music.

Deals and packages

Peter Moss travelled to Bergen with Cresta Holidays (tel: 0870 161 0900), which offers three nights for the price of two in September at the Hordaheimen Hotel starting from £311 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes b&b staying in a double room and direct flights from Gatwick. For £341 per person you can stay in the same accommodation but fly from Stansted.

Further information

Bergen's tourist information office is opposite the Torget Market at Bryggen (tel: 0047 55 32 14 80). In the Britain, contact the Norwegian Tourist Board (tel: 020-7839 6255).

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