Our first visit to Norway ended up being part city break in Bergen, part winter sports holiday in the mountain resort of Geilo.
Bergen lies on the west coast, little more than an hour away from London. We’d climbed out of Heathrow on a clear February evening, the sun setting in the west, but landed in drizzle. The BA plane was half empty, with just a handful of us in Club Europe, but thanks to the generous service I arrived enveloped in the warm glow of alcohol.
It was cold but the snow was absent as we drove in the darkness into the heart of the city, to the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in the historic Bryggen district. Even in the dark we could see the hills and promontories, the cliffs, harbours and inlets that are such a feature of Norway’s coast.
Bryggen’s historic wooden buildings looked picture-perfect in the half-light but we’d have to wait until the morning to see them in all their glory. We dumped our gear at the hotel and walked a few minutes down the road to UNA, a bar on the harbour front. It was warm, modern, welcoming and had a friendly crowd. It also had beers for around £8. A shocker, but at least we had expected that to be the way of things in Norway.
We slept well in our 70s hotel hidden behind Bryggen’s waterfront treasures and we ate well at breakfast as the rain fell. It was a day that would also give us sunshine, sleet and bitter cold. Up on the hills, snow fell.
Nothing could conceal the beauty of Bergen’s historic centre, wrapped around the harbour. Bryggen’s wooden buildings, rising several stories and deeply gabled, were charming, colourful and beautifully preserved. These days they’re home to boutiques and cafes but they were once the HQ of Hanseatic League traders, who used them as stores, living quarters and offices but living as a colony fenced off from the locals.
There was a lot of work going on in the area and we discovered that it was to try to restore vital ground water levels, partly by better managing the city’s rainfall. One result of building our hotel back in the 70s was a drying out of the district, causing worrying subsidence around the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We walked up into the hilly residential streets and alleys behind Bryggen and discovered a glorious district of characterful wooden homes, some perching on rocky outcrops, but all with fine views across the harbour. This didn’t feel like a city, more like a quaint village lost in time. The cobbles were slippery and potentially lethal but they didn’t deter the Saturday morning joggers, who passed families packing roof racks with all the clobber necessary for a weekend in the mountains.
We spent the morning exploring, dodging the showers, discovering another atmospheric district of wooden-clad buildings in Nordnes on the other side of the harbour. And we toured the Hanseatic League Museum, housed in a harbour-front timber building from 1704. A mix of offices, living space and stores, it showed how the league’s workers and managers lived – the latter in much more luxury than the former. But they were gloomy places with wonky floors and the lower orders had clearly been crammed in, with the bedrooms being particularly snug.
Sadly, the museum had rather less info about the league itself, which dominated trade in and around the North and Baltic Seas for centuries.
We lunched on expensive seafood and lager at the Fish Market, which was a bit touristy and as cold as the rest of the city. By then, the rain and sleet had really set in and we trudged around, taking refuge in homewares shops packed with exquisite Scandinavian products.
We appreciated the modernist design of the Sundt department store and turned our noses up at the drab state of the Ole Bulls Plass civic square. It was probably state of the art when it was built but in the winter gloom it looked like a granite wasteland.
So, cold and wet, we went back to our room for vodkas – bought duty free on the flight over to avoid Norway’s bonkers prices.
In the evening, we ate out at Pingvinen, a warm and hospitable local restaurant with hearty food. I stuffed my face with meat balls and veg, while Graham went for the fish pie. We downed some (surprisingly) reasonably priced beers before heading back to UNA for more – closer to the hotel and more handy for my dodgy insides. Something had clearly disagreed with me!