Trail of the Unexpected: Alesund, the Nouveau city that rose from the ashes

Fire devastated Alesund; now it is a Norwegian architectural icon, says Siobhan Mulholland

The Norwegians love their sayings. Many, understandably, involve the climate ("There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing"). Another incorporates local wildlife for a Nordic take on counting chickens and hatching: "Don't sell the fur before you've shot the bear". And some are influenced by significant events in the nation's history, notably: "I haven't seen anything like it since Alesund burned down."

Alesund is a port on a peninsula, way up on the north-west coast of Norway. Today, thanks to North Sea oil earnings, it is accessible through an elegant network of bridges and tunnels. But one cold January night in 1904, it was devoured by fire, with the loss of 850 houses. Phoenix-like, the town rose from the ashes in just three years, built in the Jugendstil style (the German take on Art Nouveau).

Every other town along the coast comprises wooden clapboard houses in terracotta, mustard and white. But at Alesund, you find pastel-painted fronts, turrets, spires and gargoyles. Everything is in stone to withstand future fires, and all is in moderation – nothing too extravagant in this nation of Lutheran conformity. The history of this fascinating recreation is captured in the Jugendstilsenteret, a former pharmacy which is now the town's Art Nouveau Centre.

This is a part of the world so fabulously people-free that, when I first wandered through the town on a summer afternoon, it was empty. It was as if the major visitor attractions had opened their doors just for me: the big and impressive Aquarium on the edge of the town; the Art Museum KUBE; and Aalesunds Museum in the centre of town with its collection of Second World War artefacts.

The sense of solitude continued in the evenings, sitting at the harbourside bar of the Radisson Blu Hotel where I was staying, eking out £7 glasses of wine. (For most of Norway, assume UK prices to be doubled – but on the north-west coast, from Bergen upwards, triple everything to avert any surprises.)

The water was eerily still, the light spookily bright at 10pm and the quietness chilling. A small congregation of people sat out on the deck, their hushed voices awed by Norway's great outdoors: an archipelago of islands stretching out to the Norwegian Sea, the Sunnmore mountains behind them and the never-ending sky above.

For a high-definition view of this climb, take the 418 steps from the town to the top of Mount Aksla. On a clear day it will give you an idea of the scale and scope of this stunning peninsula.

All the cruise ships heading to the fjords of western Norway stop at Alesund before turning towards these natural wonders. But to reach Geirangerfjord I took the local bus, or at least the coastal ferry. This is the Hurtigruten ("coastal express"), which began life 120 years ago taking passengers, goods and mail to communities along the extensive Norwegian coast. They have now evolved into something approaching cruise ships, with swimming pools, luxury suites and a choice of restaurants.

The day I sailed through the fjords, the sun shone and the deck was packed with sightseers trying to capture the detail of a three-dimensional geological marvel in two dimensions. Depending which side of the ship the geological wonder appeared on, my fellow passengers would run to port or starboard, clicking away. It was musical chairs – except in this game people sat down only when sated by the view.

You have to sail below those mountains to appreciate the power of ice to carve through rock, and look down into the water to contemplate the dark and very cold depths.

The conclusion of this mysterious and magical tour is the town of Geiranger. Surrounded by an arc of mountains, it has the impressive Norwegian Fjord Centre that tells tales of people and communities on one of the world's rawest edges. It gives life to the picturesque abandoned farms that still cling to the mountainsides – and offers glimpses into what life was like, with children being tethered to posts and rocks to prevent them from falling into the water below.

When I returned to Alesund, it was (inevitably) still light, but the mist had come in. The vibrant colours of earlier were muted – everything looked grey. Needless to say, the Norwegians have a saying for this: "All weather is passing". Yet in a country, and especially a region, of such elemental beauty, it's easy to forgive the weather and the prices; you're too distracted by the ocean, the mountains – and, in Alesund, the architecture – to notice for long.

Getting there

* The author travelled with Inghams (020-8780 4454;, which offers three nights at the Radisson Blu in Alesund for £539, including flights from Heathrow on SAS (0871 521 2772; via Oslo, transfers and breakfast.

* Inghams also offers a range of pre-bookable excursions such as trips to the Ona Fishing Hamlet for £59.

Visiting there

* 62 Degrees North (00 47 70 11 44 30; organises the "Fjord Experience". The trip from Alesund to Geirangerfjord costs 890 kroner (£90). *Hotel Union, Geiranger: 00 47 70 26 83 00;

More information

Innovation Norway:

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little