We flew into Bergen Norway from Munich in September 2022 with the plan to join a Hurtigruten ship that delivered mail and supplies to Norway’s coastal ports as well as taking paying passengers along for the ride. Over four days we would sail as far as Tromso, Norway’s Artic capital and largest city north of the Artic Circle. We were then booked to fly from Tromso, down to Trondheim, hire a car and drive for the next four days back to Bergen and drop our car off before training to Oslo. This was the adventurous plan ahead of us but we had two days before boarding our ship to see the sights of Bergen.
Bergin is Norway’s second largest city on a fjord on its west coast. It is surrounded by seven mountains and so was an excellent choice for traders who settled there in the early 11th century. It was the capital of Norway in the 13th century and became the centre of the Hanseatic League, a wealthy medieval confederation of traders centred around the Baltic Sea and their territory stretched from the Netherlands to Russia. It has been a wealthy trading city for over a millennium and is now a modern city proud of its heritage.
Over the approximately two full days we had to see Bergen, we spent a lot of time walking the cobble-stone streets of this city, trying to take in as many of its interesting and historical buildings as possible; a couple of the church buildings dated as far back as the 12th century. In these blogs devoted to Bergen, I will illustrate our walking routes by maps such as the one below. Our hotel was called Clarion Admiral and sat on the south side of the central harbour of downtown Bergen and was a great place for our stay. It was only a short walk to the end of the harbour from our hotel where the outdoor seafood market plied its trade.
Our hotel is marked by the orange star on the map above and it illustrates the first two trails we took. The longer trail is the one we walked after we had settled into our hotel on our first afternoon after arrival. Our destination was the seafood market and we spent some slow time checking out both the fresh produce and what might be available for our dinner later on in terms of cooked seafood. The photo below was taken later on in our stay when we went up the funicular to the top of Mount Floyen where we could overlook the city. It shows the red roofs of the market tents from above as well as the structures that sit around the pier at the end of the harbour. The right side of the image shows an area of water between an extended pier and the Bryggen Wharf where private boats could be moored for a few hours on Saturday night.
Later on as the sun was setting over Bergen, this area became party central as boat owners invited friends to join them and drink to the good life in Bergen while blasting out competing versions of their favourite tunes. For some reason, the area was also the haunt of the ageing bikies of the city who all got dressed up in their leathers and gathered on the footpath to drink and share their news of the week.
The most important area of the city centre of Bergen is to be found on the other side of the central harbour and is called Bryggen and its distinctive buildings can be also seen to the right in the above image. This is where the Hanseatic League mentioned earlier set up their wharves and buildings which were operational from around 1360 to1754. In 1979, the Bryggen Hanseatic wharf area was added to the UNESCO’s World heritage List. The reason behind the listing is that “Bryggen bears witness to a social organisation, and that the historical buildings remain a part of the urban landscape, preserving the history of one of the oldest trading posts in Northern Europe.” (Source: local Information board).
Like all wooden buildings in Northern Europe, these historical buildings have been subject to fires over the centuries and have been repaired and rebuilt many times but always to reflect the original design. The image to the right is an attempt to convey what the Bryggen may have looked like in the 18th century after about 500 years of trading. A Hanseatic Museum was built in the late 19th century in this area but today its buildings are closed due to a large-scale renovation of their facilities.
As can be seen from the map of our walk earlier in this blog, the next site we visited along the north bank of the Harbour was the Bergenhus Fortress. The photo below was taken from the other side of the harbour and shows that there are a series of stone buildings here, some dating from the 1240s. The tower on the right is called Rosenkrantz Tower, the large stone hall on the left is called Hakon’s Hall, named after the King who ruled here in the 13th century, Hakon Hakonsson (1217–1263).
These ancient buildings today are situated in a large park and gardens area and present a very peaceful scene for modern visitors. However these buildings were involved in violent affairs back in the 17th century during the Battle of Vagen (1665). This was when a Dutch fleet was forced to shelter in Bergen Harbour, trapped here by a British Fleet intent on plunder. (See appendix 1 for more details.)
We decided to return to the Bergenhus the next day for a visit to inspect the insides of Rosenkrantz Tower. It was a very enjoyable visit.
On our first late afternoon inspection of ‘Bergenhus Festning’ there was only time for a quick look around the area before we decided to head back along the harbour and take a left hand turn up the hill to have a look at the oldest church in Bergen, St Mary’s Church. It was built around the 1130s and took around 50 years to complete. It is also the oldest ‘remaining’ building in the entire city. Despite its age, St Mary’s church has suffered a lot of attempts at ending its lengthy career, particularly from devastating fires in the early Middle Ages. It has been restored and renovated over the centuries, the last time in 2013.
Day 2…Early Morning Walk
I decided I would get up early on our second day in Bergen and go for a walk in the opposite direction from what we had taken the previous afternoon. Just along from our hotel there was a large piazza next to the start of the Harbour wharves where I was struck by the presence of a curious white building that seemed to have possession of this open space. Its name was Buekorps Museum and was dedicated to the traditional neighbourhood youth marching organisation, Buekorps. It was originally a private residence built in the 16th century. The building was subject to a series of fires in the 16/17th centuries but it still stands today, commanding this large space in the centre of Bergen.
I turned right at this small museum and headed up the steep street that would take me up onto the ridge that would give me a great view over the main harbour as well as in the other direction over the Fjord and suburbs that stretched south from Bergen’s centre. The image on the left is the view south from the ridge, looking towards the spire of St John’s Church in the distance. I turned right on Klostergarten and had a pleasant walk along this street that followed the ridge, treated to some lovely small parks and great views in both directions.
Dominating my view in the westerly direction was the spire of Nykirken, a church whose name translates as ‘New Church’, surprising given it was consecrated in 1622. It stands down the hill from the ridge I was walking along and it became my destination as I descended back to the edge of the harbour. The reason that it was given the curious title of the New Church was because when it was built, there were already three other major churches in town that were already a few hundred years older than Nykirken. Of course, like all other wooden buildings in town, this church suffered from major fires and was rebuilt a number of times, particularly in 1764. Sadly for this impressive building, it lost its parish status in 2002 and although in regular use, the parish puts special emphasis on its use as ‘children’s church.
APPENDIX 1: The Battle of Vagen
One of the most significant sea-battles of the 17th century occurred in and around the harbour of Bergen in 1665. It was between the dominant maritime power of the age, the Netherlands and its rising opponent, England. The Dutch had a powerful navy, the world’s largest merchant fleet and an extensive colonial empire. However their main opponent for control of the sea trade routes at the time was England. Both countries went to war between 1665 and 1667 which eventually resulted in England gaining control of the English Channel through to the North sea.
The cause of the major Battle that eventually took place in Bergen’s Harbour was brought about by the King of Holland requiring large amounts of cash flow and this resulted in a treasure fleet from the East Indies being organised to ship some of this wealth back home. The fleet avoided the English Channel, sailed around the north of Scotland but the weather forced them to shelter along Norway’s coast, particularly in Bergen Harbour.
The English fleet was commanded by the famous Lord Sandwich. The English had been negotiating with the Norwegian King for a deal to allow them to attack the Dutch fleet and share the spoils. Support finally came for this plan to be implemented but the message didn’t get to the commander of the Bergenhus Fortress that he was meant to support the English. The English fleet arrived on August 2, 1665 and settled down 300 metres from the Dutch fleet with their canons aimed at the Dutch and the Bergenhus Fortress. The English opened fire at 6am with the white flag of neutrality raised above the local fortress. However, this changed when British canons fired on the fortress and defenders were killed. The commander than immediately ordered that the fortress’s canons fire on the English ships and the day turned to disaster for the English, eventually forcing them to surrender.
The Battle of Vagen was a curious affair where duplicity amongst the leaders of the three countries involved ensured a day of carnage where the soldiers and sailors involved were the main casualties in all ways.