OUR pretty waitress cleared away our plates in the hotel restaurant overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful fjord and asked where we’d travelled from.
We said Bergen.
“Was it raining?”
That’s what they always ask in Norway.
Bergen shares a similar reputation for sogginess as Manchester and as a matter of fact it had. But it had turned out nice.
Bergen, population 260,000, is Norway’s second biggest city and almost a thousand years old, making the capital Oslo look like the upstart newcomer it is.
It was founded in 1070AD by King Olav Kyrre, said by his contemporaries to have been a bit of a looker and on the shy side – shy but talkative when he’d had a few.
The city’s setting is as handsome as its founder, built around a harbour with a backdrop of seven mountains.
It styles itself the Gateway to the Fjords.
You can catch expressboats and cruises to nearby Sognefjord, the longest in Norway, and Hardangerfjord, but first you really should spend a day or two seeing what the city has to offer.
Your first stop will almost certainly be down by the waterfront in the oldest area of the city, Bryggen, where you can see the medieval merchants’ much-restored wooden warehouses, with their distinctive gable ends.
Bergen was one of the more important Hanseatic trading ports and while the warehouses have several times been ravaged by fire (the last time in 1955 which left 10 remaining) they have been restored. Where once they held furs, wood and amber, today they sell trolls, Viking helmets and knitwear and house cafes and restaurants.
Think of Norway and you think of water, fjords, fish, mountains, snow, fish, midnight sun and more fish.
This is a nation which hangs cod out to dry down by the shore on wooden racks, produces wonderful salmon – you can’t go far along the coast without encountering yet another fish farm – and has discovered at least a dozen interesting ways to pickle herring.
And no sooner have you thought of all this then you’ll find your wanderings have taken you into Bergen’s fish market. Only feet from the docks, it comes in two sections, open and covered, and you’ll easily find a wide selection of salmon, herring, shellfish and whale meat, either to take home, in sandwiches and lefses (a sort of Norwegian wrap), or to sit down and eat at a table.
You might have greater difficulty finding a Norwegian to serve you. Almost all the young workers on the market were Italian, like the chap who tried to tempt me with a piece of salmon.
“We all come in the summer to find work,” he said.
Norway, like Britain, is full of guest workers. One of our hotels had Lithuanian waiters. The cooks were from Austria. They say that up in the mountains Nepalese tend the sheep, goats and cattle.
By now your few hours in Bergen will have told you that Norway is horrendously expensive: a coffee is £4, small glass of beer £8, and a humble sandwich a tenner. The second cheapest bottle of wine in one restaurant was £37. VAT is 25 per cent.
“I don’t know how people afford it but they do,” one bar worker, on the equivalent of £17 an hour, told me.
We were determined to do the sights of this World Heritage City and European City of Culture (2000) without spending too many krona (NOK), roughly ten to the pound.
The best way is buy a Bergen Card which gives discounts or free access to attractions for 24 hours. (First stop was the Floibanen funicular railway (NOK 80, half price with a card) which whisks you up to the top of Mount Floyen in six minutes flat.
Built in 1918, its cars make over a million trips a year and it is easily the most popular attraction in Bergen.
From the top, the view is wonderful and the city below you is laid out like a map. Naturally there is a café where you can buy a Diploma-Is (ice cream) to lick while you gaze out over the city with several hundred others.
We wandered back down the mountain though woods and bosky glades straight out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale (OK he was Danish but still Scandinavian) and back through the narrow streets of the old city.
Norwegians have a sense of humour. One sign pointed “Den Viein” (this way) in one direction and “Hin Viein” (that way) in the other. Shortly afterwards a young man rolled by on a skateboard pulled by a husky.
Another way to see Bergen is rattlingly good, on the Tschu-Tschu road train from the harbour which gives you a 50-minute tour of the city every hour.
If you want culture there are plenty of museums. We dipped out of the Museum of Knitting but our Bergen Card gave us access to the 16th Century Rosenkrantz Tower where girls in costume give you a guided tour from the creepy dungeon up through the floors, leaving you to climb to the battlements for yet another view of the city.
Short of cash, we planned supper in the fish market but it was closing by 8pm.
Luckily we found Klar Ferdig’s waterfront chippie and ate a portion each of “fisk og chips”(but no mushy peas) for the equivalent of £30.
They tasted wonderful.