A whale of a time in Bergen

irishtimes

 

On my short KLM flight from Amsterdam to the city of Bergen, Norway, I accidentally get into a rather heated conversation with a Texan oilman about America’s interesting political moment, so I am quite happy to turn my head to the window as we fly over the dramatic fjords and mountains of Norway’s southwestern coast and begin our descent into Bergen, Norway’s second biggest city.

Given that oil is Norway’s most valuable export since the 1970s when oil production began in the North Sea, oilmen are inevitable here, and the country is rich. It is just there in the air, the wealth – in the decor, the cars, the price of things and the general air of easy living.

And who says money can’t buy happiness? Norway is, according to recent surveys, the happiest place on earth with the lowest income inequality in the world. There is a sense of a country that is well run, of a people that are well looked after.

Hotel Havnekontoret, our home for a few days, is located conveniently on the waterfront, just beyond the colourful gabled wooden buildings of Bryggen that line the historic Vâgen harbour, and feature on every Bergen postcard. There, pretty Hanseatic commercial buildings are a remnant of Bergen’s time as an important merchant port in the Middle Ages when Bergen was Norway’s capital city.

The view at the top is breathtaking at this time of the day, all orange and violet light

Walking along the waterfront’s old wooden boards gives the sensation of being on a ship, easing the transition for the passengers of the many cruise ships that dock here in the summer months. Spring and autumn are calmer times to visit.

It’s nearing sunset, so we dump our bags and make our way up Fløibanen Funicular to Mount Fløyen, one of the seven mountains that surround the city. This glass-sided railcar moves up the steep forested mountain, taking eight minutes to move out of the city into another world entirely.

The view at the top is breathtaking at this time of the day, all orange and violet light, the peaked silhouettes of the hills, the glassy harbour water moving towards the fjords. The air is so pure up here it almost hurts our hardened city lungs.

Its after-work time, and while people in other countries might be having a relaxing pint, the Norwegians around us have their skis over their shoulders and are heading for a cross-country ski in the snow that still covers the top of the mountain until late spring. It’s hard not to feel a little lesser in Norway, where everyone seems to be fit and brave and a bit Vikingy. There is an annual 30km hike of the seven peaks here that most locals attempt at one time or another.

While hiking prowess is in the Norwegian blood, tourists aren’t always as proficient. For our part, we take a short cautious hike along a lamp-lit path through the Norwegian woods to the frozen Skomakerdiket Lake.

Tourists drawn here by the enchanting world of Disney’s Frozen, which features Bergen’s landscape and architecture, have been known to hike for hours in flip flops, moving unaware into snowier territories, eventually getting rescued by helicopters.

In order to avoid such misguided adventures, we get the funicular back down.

We eat that night at the quaint Enhjørningen Restaurant in the Bryggen, on the upper floor of a timber 18th-century merchant house. The menu is all fish: mussels and bacalao and cod cheeks, but also the controversial whale carpaccio. A small portion is served to the table to mixed reactions. I have a tiny nip of the smoked purple flesh and feel instantly guilty.

‘The whale speech’

Our local guide at this point makes what she calls “the whale speech”. Norway is one of only three countries that hunts whales commercially. Here, they hunt the minke whale, which is not listed as endangered and is abundant here. There is a catch quota and the hunting, apparently, contributes to a balanced ecosystem.

We move on happily to less contentious parts of the menu.

For a digestif and a bit of a laugh, we don huge padded capes, and head into the Magic Ice Bar, which is carved entirely from ice; there’s an ice statue of composer Grieg, a depiction of Munch’s Scream and a few icy nudes to fondle.

Under starry skies, we walk home down cobbled streets lined with junk shops full of good tat, all the better for a good rummage tomorrow.

It is often raining in Bergen, one of the wettest cities in Europe, but luckily time spent here is not weather dependent. In the city’s KODE Art Museum, you can visit the works of Edvard Munch, Norway’s most celebrated artist. Many of the pieces here are from his Frieze of Life project, and there’s a smaller-scale version of Scream, done in pen and ink.

The stunning scandi-chic Lysverket restaurant is nearby. The chef here is the renowned Christopher Haatuft, who is credited with inventing ‘Neo-Fjordic’ cuisine, using ingredients that are local, pure and sustainable to shift ideas of Norway’s cuisine as bland and herring-based, the food of a once-poor country. Haatuft uses wild fresh seafood from nearby cold waters, berries from the hills, and brunost, a brown whey cheese that’s an acquired taste for non-Norwegians. Today, fried cod’s head is on the menu.

Eating out in Bergen can be costly, but there are more affordable options, like Pingvinen (The Penguin), a casual cafe bar where traditional comfort food like plukkfisk (creamed potatoes with white fish and chunks of fried bacon) is served up in huge portions, and would make an excellent hangover cure.

Food and art aside, one of the main draws of Bergen is the fjord cruise to Mostraumen, a three-hour trip along the spectacular stark cliff face, narrow straits and waterfalls of the Osterfjord. We board the boat and order a little red wine at the bar to gird ourselves against the biting wind. Up on deck is where the views and photos are best, but after mere minutes, people rush inside to get feeling back into their faces.

When we come to a place that is particularly beautiful, like the little yellow schoolhouse on a snow-covered island, the boat engine is turned off and the captain plays Greig’s Peer Gynt Suite over a speaker to give the moment even more cinematic flair.

At night, there is a certain peace in Bergen, the wooden buildings reflect in the harbour, lights from the houses climb the hillside – but it is also a student town and there’s plenty of buzz and live music to be found. If you’re after something more refined, you could take in a show at the spectacular geometric glass Grieg Hall, which houses Bergen’s Opera Company.

On my last day, I take some time to wander the sloped cobbled backstreets lined with clapboard houses in a Wes Anderson palette.

Lively fish market

But all roads lead back to the busy harbour with its micro-brewery and the famous lively fish market, Fisketorget. Some Japanese cruiseshippers stand at the counter, happily spooning out the flesh of a fresh sea urchin. I ask how it measures up and one man talks me through the photo gallery on his phone of international sea urchins that he has loved before.

There is more whale meat, alongside clamshells the size of dinner plates. A troop of schoolkids rush in to knock on a vast lobster tank.

Our final meal is at the rustic Bare Vestland, where we dine on colourful ‘Norwegian tapas’. The warm hunks of sourdough bread and green lovage butter were alone worth the trip.

On our way back to Bergen airport, we stop off at Troldhaugen, (‘Hill of Trolls’) the home of the composer Edvard Grieg.

Grieg’s house, a late 19th-century wooden structure, is a gem, light-filled with views of the lake beyond, nature’s influence on the composer’s work was inevitable. Grieg’s own Steinway remains in the living room and portraits of his wife Nina adorn the walls.

A concert hall has been built on the grounds and at the back of the stage there is a window, outside which sits the tiny red lakeside hut where Grieg composed the music that embodied the folk culture and soul of the Norwegian people. It a perfect place to wrap up a serene trip of nature and culture and, well, fish. Even Grieg himself once said: “I am sure my music has a taste of codfish in it.”

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