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Trip Report A taste of Norway: Bergen and the fjords for four day

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This past June I did a quick stop in Norway on my way to other destinations in Europe (Poland, London, and Italy).

Scandinavia is lovely, but it is very expensive, so I've found doing just a short visit combined with trips to other parts of Europe works best for me. I've done the same thing with trips to Iceland, Sweden and Denmark. While being there is expensive, there are some very economical flights to other places.

I was originally planning to also include Oslo but in researching it I just couldn't get all that excited about it to warrant the extra cost so ended up doing just four nights in Bergen with the Norway in a Nutshell trip to the fjords. I planned a second day trip to another fjord (Hardangerfjord) but there was so much to see around Bergen I didn't get to it.

As I said, one day I did the Norway in a Nutshell trip to Flam (full day, about 12 hours) but the rest of the time I spend in Bergen or sights close by. For two of those days I got the 48 hour Bergen card (260 nok/$43/€31) and it really did save a lot. I figured I used it for 554 nok worth of sites/transportation. Probably a couple of the museums I would have not done had I not had the card, but the rest were things I really wanted to see. The Hanseatic museum was not included.

My photos are at: www.pbase.com/annforcier/norway

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    Bergen B&B - Nice old building, very ‘old world’ atmosphere, on a tiny cobbled lane less than ten minutes walk from the fish market/TI (20 minutes from the train station; flybus from airport stops at the fish market). Three rooms, two on the third floor and one on the second, kitchen on the first. They share two bathrooms (2nd floor and 1st floor). Clean, modern furnishings, free wi-fi (worked great), satellite TV, mini fridge. The hosts, Christian and Kristina are extremely nice, they make waffles for breakfast every day, there is also free juice and coffee all day and you can use the kitchen. Great place in a great location for a decent (for Norway) price of 990nok/$163 night. They have a self check in system where they send you a code to open the front door and your keys are in your room. When I was slightly confused as to which door/intercom (there are two, they also have some apartments) the intercom worked fine and he talked me through it. The only drawback would be if you had mobility issues since the stairs are narrow and steep (but very atmospheric) and if you are not on the first floor you have to keep going up and down to the bathroom (think of it as a free thigh master workout). Would definitely stay there if I ever go back to Bergen. I booked it through venere.com but then Christian and Kristina emailed me directly right away and all further correspondence was directly with them.

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    Loved your photos, isabel. We were in Bergen in May but alas it was raining so no blue skies for me. However, the sun appeared for a couple of minutes. Definitely need to return and spend at least 4 - 5 days.

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    Bergen supposedly gets over 300 days of rain a year and of course for half the year it’s dark most of the time, it’s extremely expensive (figure three times the cost of things in the US), and it’s not ‘near’ anything – even the fjords (Bergen is the ‘gateway to the fjords’) are 2 hours away. That’s the negatives, but there are many positives and I really liked it. I was there at midsummer so it was light out all night – got kind of ‘dusk’ like between midnight and 3 am but the sun was still out at 11pm. And it was sunny. Four days and not a drop of rain. Temps were in the high 60s – so probably as perfect as you could get for a visit to Norway. I saw many women wearing the flower head garlands that are worn during the midsummer celebration which was just a day or two before my visit. I figure the perfect weather was the universe paying me back for the 5 days I once spent on the Costa del Sol (which supposedly gets 350 days of sunshine a year) when it rained every day.

    Bergen is first and foremost a seaport and the harbor is the center of activity (now mostly it seems, but certainly not entirely, touristic). There are small private boats, ferries heading to the fjords, some commercial boats and of course, cruise ships.

    The most famous part is Bryggen – the old wharf/harbor district, it has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. A long block of about 20 colorful wood buildings, Bryggen is a reminder of the town’s importance as part of the Hanseatic League’s trading empire from the 14th to the mid-16th century. Bergen, one of North Europe’s oldest port cities, was established as a center for trade by the 12th century.

    Bryggen stretches along one side of the harbor. At the top of the harbor is the fish market, Torget. In the past this was the busy commercial fish market where Bergen residents bought fish but now it’s 98% touristy. A small fraction of the stalls sell raw fish to take home and cook, but mostly it’s plates of prepared fish; mostly salmon and shrimp plus some white fish and whale stake. Prices range from a really small open faced half sandwich for 40nok ($6.50/5€) to large plates of fish, salad and fries for around $55! (This does not include a drink and you take it yourself to a picnic table and eat it with a plastic fork). A plate of fried fish and chips is 150 nok/$23. However, just around the corner (across the street from the TI and a block or so away from the Torget) is a fish store that the locals use, selling mostly raw seafood, but they do have fried fish and chips to take away that they cook while you wait, delicious and only 69 nok, less than half the price. You have to find a bench to eat (I took it to the B&B less than 5 minutes away, where I could use real plates and silverware).

    Bryggen and the Torget are by far the tourist centers of Bergen. Everywhere else I saw hardly any tourists at all. Most tourists come by cruise ship. My B&B hostess Kristina said on a ‘good day’ there is only one, some days there are several and the passengers stick right to the harbor area. She said she heard one say to his companion “are we in Sweden?” – so clueless he didn’t even know what country he was in. After about 6pm the ships would blow their horns, spew their brown smoke and depart and the waterfront becomes much less crowded.

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    Bergen is known as the city of wooden houses and it really is, there are numerous neighborhoods full of old wooden houses, very picturesque on narrow, steep, winding cobbled streets and lots of flowers/window boxes. Though the center by the harbor is flat, there are hills everywhere else but that adds to the charm. Kind of like walking around an Italian hill town only the houses are wood instead of stone and it’s not as hot. I found there was an overwhelming resemblance to the historic seaport towns in New England (Portsmouth, NH, Newport, RI, Portland, Maine).

    The ‘best’ neighborhoods were:
    East of Funicular/above Bryggen/ above Ovre-Gaten – Langveien, Ovre Blekeveien, H. Wergelands gate
    From funicular to Domkirken – Lille Ovregaten, Hollendergt
    Marken and around (east of Lille Lungegardsvann (fountain/lake)
    Ytre Markeveien and Klostergarasien (Knossesmauet)

    Funicular up Mount Floyen – This is where all the classic postcard shots of Bergen are taken from. Just high enough to get the whole peninsula and harbor area. 85 nok round trip, 43 one way. The Bergen card only gets you 50% off the round trip. I went around 9am and there was only about a 15 minute line, Kristina said mid day it can be two hours.

    Over two days I visited several museums, interspersed with wandering around (my arrival afternoon was spent getting oriented and hanging around the waterfront, my last morning I went troll shopping).

    Hanseatic Museum housed in a building built in 1704 (one of the nicest old buildings in Bergen, at the corner of Torget and Bryggen); also includes Schotstuene , the Hanseatic assembly rooms, (1770), at the far end of Bryggen. It includes one very large and two smaller assembly rooms where merchants gathered for meals, held court and taught apprentices. Downstairs is a kitchen/bake house. The buildings are beautiful, and very well preserved but together there are only about a dozen rooms, and not much at all in the way of descriptions of what you are seeing. Both of them together don’t take much more than half an hour but all the guidebooks feel this is the ‘best’ museum in town. 70nok and not included in the Bergen Card.

    Bryggens Museum shows life in medieval Bergen, and the (modern) museum building has been built over the remains of the first settlement at Bryggen. The oldest buildings were from the 12th century, and the various finds have been left in the ground where they were found by the archaeologists. In 1955 parts of Bryggen were ravaged by a fire, and during the subsequent excavations a huge number of objects were found that provide insight into commerce, shipping, handicrafts and everyday life in medieval times. Lots of descriptions of what you are looking at, most of it also in English. 70 nok/free with card

    Bryggen There are about 20 distinct wooden buildings fronting the wharf, the fronts of most are shops and restaurants. The buildings stretch back quite a ways and there are several wooden ‘alley ways’ to explore. Many fires, the last in 1955, have ravaged Bryggen but it has been rebuilt using traditionally followed old patterns and methods, thus leaving its main structures preserved, which is a relic of an ancient wooden urban structure once common in Northern Europe. Today, a total of about 62 buildings remain, including several out behind the ones fronting the wharf.

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    Bergenhus Festning (Bergen Castle) The castle area includes the Rosenkrantz Tower and the Hakon’s Hall and surrounding buildings. During the middle ages the area was known a Holmen and it was a cultural and administrative center. Under King Hakon Hakonsson (1217-1263) Bergen became Norway’s first capital city, and the king’s residence became the political center of Norway. Today it consists of two main buildings and a few smaller ones.
    Rosenkrantz Tower – Renaissance monument and royal residence - is considered one of the most important renaissance monuments in Norway.
    Håkon’s Hall/ Kings Banqueting Hall - 13th Century, 750 years old, and was built by King Håkon Håkonsson as a royal residence and banqueting hall.The largest damage in Norway during WWII took place in the harbor just outside the Hall when a ship full of bombs was blown up. There is a small photo exhibit of the damage from 20th of April 1944. More than one hundred Norwegians were killed, around five thousand were wounded and the damages were enormous.

    Compared to "castles" in other European countries, this was pretty unspectacular. It's really just two nice old buildings, not any larger than the nearby hotel or other buildings on the waterfront. But it did have some nice spiral stone staircases and a good view from the roof. It didn't take long to visit, was included in the Bergen card, and you got a free cup of coffee.

    Leprosy Museum/ St. George’s Hospital I visit any museum that has anything to do with old hospitals, pharmacies, etc. so visiting this museum was 'normal' for me, but apparently lots of 'regular' people also visit the Leprosy Museum. It's in a less touristy section of Bergen (near the train station) and is a beautiful old building surrounded by some nice gardens.

    Founded in the 15th century, St George’s was a hospital for lepers until the middle of the 20th century. The present day buildings date back to the 18th century. The Norwegian history of leprosy is part of the worldwide history of an illness that on account of its heavy stigma resulted in the exclusion and humiliation of millions of people. Between 1850 and 1900 Bergen was an international capital of leprosy, with three leprosy hospitals and the largest concentration of patients in Europe.The leprosy archives in Bergen are part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. 70nok/free with card

    Bergen Maritime Museum – In a modern building on the university campus, the museums has displays of ships from prehistoric through Viking to present day. Most are models and photos though there are some actual artifacts. 50nok/free with card. Although I spent an hour or so there and enjoyed it, I did have four days in Bergen. I would not consider this a highlight if you have only a day or two.

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    Interesting report. I love your pictures of Bergen. Our DD and her family are living in Bergen for a year. So far they love it, but find its terribly expensive like you've mentioned. I look forward to visiting them and your advice is helpful.

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    Thanks. When are you planning to visit?

    One afternoon I took the local city bus a few stops to Gamle Bergen / Old Bergen -To get there, you take any bus heading away from town from in front of Bryggen. It’s about 4 stops/5 minutes. Get off at Nyhavnsveien. (I think that's the name of the stop). At the bus stop turn right and walk under the highway, turn left and follow signs. About 5-10 minute walk.

    In the 19th century, Bergen was Europe’s largest city consisting of wooden houses, and its busy, steep and densely built-up streets, squares and alleyways gave it a unique character. There are also few large towns and cities that have experienced as many major fires as Bergen has. The appearance of the city has changed on many occasions, often amidst great drama. At other times old houses have been replaced by new buildings and major redevelopments. “Old Bergen” is a reconstructed town with 55 wooden houses from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries that were moved to this open air museum from their original locations in central Bergen. There are private homes from various periods, as well as a number of shops and workshops. 80 nok + 62 round trip bus ticket/ both free with card

    Another day I went to the Fantoft Stave Church - The church was originally built in Fortun in Sogn, a village near inner or eastern end of Sognefjord around the year 1150. In the 19th century the church was threatened by demolition, as were hundreds of other stave churches in Norway. The church was saved by moving it in pieces to Fantoft near Bergen in 1883. Outside the church stands a stone cross from Tjora in Sola. In June 1992, the church was destroyed by arson; the first in a string of church burnings by members of the early Norwegian black metal scene. According to Vikernes, the church was burnt as retaliation against Christianity for building a church on sacred, pagan grounds. Reconstruction of the church began soon after the fire and was completed in 1997. Boat construction and home building in the Viking times had developed the technique and tradition of combining art with wood working. This culminated in the stave churches. There are several types of stave churches but the common element to all of them is that they have corner-posts (“staves”) and a skeleton or framework of timber with wall planks standing on sills. These walls are known as stave walls, hence the name stave church. There is reason to believe that most stave churches were built upon old Norse heathen, holy places or temples, which were destroyed after Christianity was introduced in Norway around the year 1000.

    50nok + 62 nok round trip light rail ticket Both free with card.

    To get there take the light rail (about 20 minutes, tickets are 31nok/$5 each way) to Fantoft stop which is next to a large grocery store. Walk around to the opposite side, there is a sign pointing down the road. Walk about ½ mile/10 minutes to gravel path (small sign).

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    This is great! I was considering Norway (among other northern destinations) this summer but didn't make it. Next time.

    When do we get your Poland report? I am looking forward to it.

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    Thanks Leely. I'll get the Poland report done next. This is the end of the Norway portion.


    Norway in a Nutshell
    I did the Bergen to Voss to Myrdal train, Myrdal to Flam train, 3 hours in Flam, boat Flam to Gudvangen, bus Gudvangen to Voss and train back to Bergen. Total 12 and a half hours, cost 1145 nok (137€/$187).

    You also have the option of switching it up a bit and do the bus – boat- Myrdal train direction, which I think must be more popular since the train from Bergen to Voss was packed but most of the people got off in Voss and after that things were not that bad, crowd wise.

    I looked on line at train prices and it didn’t seem to me that you could do it much cheaper, certainly not unless you wanted to reserve well in advance. I wanted the option of choosing the day once I got to Norway so I could pick the best weather day. I bought the tickets at the TI in Bergen the day before. There was a choice of two schedules, one giving you 3 hours in Flam, the other departing later but only giving you 1 hour in Flam. One of the Myrdal to Flam trains was sold out so I had to do the 3 hour layover. If I had wanted to go the following day both trains were available.

    Norway in a Nutshell is just the tickets, there’s no guide or anything. There are signs at each transfer point telling you where to go but it’s pretty obvious. You can also alter the times so you could for example spend the night in Flam. But it’s a great way to see the fjords and some of the interior of Norway in one day if you are based in Bergen (you can also continue on to Oslo but that would be a really long day). Some people complain of feeling like they are being ‘herded’ around and of the crowds but I didn’t really feel like that. I mean, it’s high season and some of the trains and the boat were packed, but that’s what you expect when you go somewhere touristy (and places are touristy for a good reason). The boat ride (which is the main event) was just as crowded for the people who drove themselves to Flam and lots of trains in Europe are full in summer time.

    The train from Bergen to Voss to Myrdal is a regular, regional train – no seat reservations, scenery was ‘OK’, kind of like ‘Switzerland lite’. About 2 hours. (The portion from Myrdal to Oslo is the only part that requires seat reservations so not applicable if round tripping from Bergen, but the Myrdal train can sell out.)

    The Myrdal to Flam train, the ‘Flamsbana’ descends from the mountain town of Myrdal to the sea level town of Flam, one of the steepest trains in Europe, it has 5 separate breaking systems. Some of the windows opened and it was relatively un-crowded so people were moving about and shooting pictures out the windows. I don’t know how many cars there were on the train, at least 20, and all but one were reserved for tour groups, ‘individual’ travelers like me who just buy the NIN ticket package at the TI or train station (or on line) had to go to the first car. The train stops for ten minutes so people can get out and see one of the best waterfalls - pretty impressive but you are so close to it you can’t really see it well. The trip is about an hour.

    Flam – a little village but mostly it’s just a train/boat stop with a few hotels and a giant souvenir shop and a few restaurants. There were two mega sized cruise ships there but I think most passengers must not bother to get off as the town wasn’t that crowded. I had checked the website that tells which days there are cruise ships in port and knew that there would be two, and the following day none, but I wanted the guaranteed sunshine more and it turns out it didn’t make that much difference anyway.

    With almost three hours to kill I picked up an area walking map and choose the one along the fjord to a ‘historic farm’. It was a pleasant enough walk, although the scenery doesn’t change and it was over an hour each way, then up a very steep path to the farm. There are 27 original farm buildings, some of which you can go in. It was 60 nok and I only had about 10 minutes till I needed to head back so I skipped going into the buildings. The view from up there was pretty impressive so I guess it was worth it for that.

    Back in Flam I got a $7 cup of gelato (would have been 2€ in Italy) and waited for the boat. The two hour cruise was the highlight. Flam is at the head of the Aurlandsfjord arm of the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest. It’s certainly pretty, with numerous tall, skinny waterfalls cascading down into the water but much better was the other arm, the Naeroyfjord. Very narrow, the mountains are 1000 to 1500 meters. It’s a UNESCO site. The boat was packed but I was able to move about and got a couple of very good places to take in the view. There are several picturesque villages along the route.

    You end in Gudvangen, a really tiny town, and board a bus (actually there were 3 of them, I think NIN puts on as many buses as it needs) for the one hour trip back to Voss. It detours to the Stanheim Hotel (where several passengers got off) and then goes down an extremely steep switchback road (18% grade, one of the steepest roads in Europe according to the bus driver who acted like a tour guide and told us what we were seeing, he was great actually, I don’t think most of the drivers do that). The bus has 3 separate braking systems. There are 225 waterfalls in the area. There’s no view of the fjord from there but the view of the river valley that leads to the fjord was very impressive and reminded me a lot of ‘Tunnel View’ at Yosemite. The bus passes close to three really nice waterfalls.

    There’s a 45 minute wait in Voss for the train back to Bergen, and nothing to do there, and the train back to Bergen is obviously the same as it was in the morning.

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    Isabel, thanks for the trip report thus far. I also very much appreciate the very detailed description of each step during your Nutshell portion. That seems to be info that I've found lacking, even though it's so popular.

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    You're welcome. I also noticed a lack of information on line in terms of exactly what to expect. Norway was great but it certainly doesn't get the 'traffic' on this site (or any other) that say, Italy or France get.

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    isabel, you bring back pleasant memories of our stay in Bergen awhile back. It is one of my favorite cities...love the Bryggen, snacking at Torget, Hanseatic Museum, Mzariakerken, a concert at Korskirken, folkloric dancing in Schotstuene, etc. Luckily good weather...rain only our final day.

    One day we took a harbor cruise and then later a four hour fjord trip. And also we walked over several times to lovely Nygardensparken...did you go there or is that the Klostergarasien you mention with a fountain? Also an excursion out to fishing village of Oygarden now having a gas processing plant (guess the Norwegians have lots of off shore drilling). And then we had an excursion at Lysoen Island where the famous musician Ole Bull lived in an unusual house he built...he influenced both Grieg and Ibsen. Have you heard of him?

    I liked your description of Norway in a Nutshell...what scenery! Oh yes, did you see the troll along the Bryggen street? You didn't mention it. Now then...I'll look at your photos.

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