The first mistake tourists make when they visit this seaside city in western Norway is to confuse Bergen with Bryggen.
Bergen is the name of the town. Bryggen is the name of its major tourist attraction.Bryggen is a maze of wooden buildings along the wharf that date back to the Middle Ages. The area has seen more history than Methuselah. When you set foot in its dark alleys and duck into its diminutive doorways, you have stepped back in time. It doesn't take long to conclude that people who lived hundreds of years ago were shorter than you are.
UNESCO enhanced the area's international stature by naming it a World Heritage Site.
Bryggen is one of the most photographed places in Norway. It is to Bergen what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, what Buckingham Palace is to London.
Until the 18th century, the buildings were used by seafaring merchants who engaged in international commerce, a bustling enterprise even back then. Now they house the workshops and retail stores of artisans and craftsmen, including jewelers, leather workers and weavers.
The structures have grown old gracefully. Still, telltale details disclose their age. Stairways and floors provide solid footing, but some of the walls are no longer plumb.
The Hanseatic Museum is in one of Bryggen's buildings. It commemorates the Hanseatic League, a group of European cities that promoted trade among themselves.
Bryggen's souvenir shops sell a variety of items, including some made of sterling silver, a Scandinavian specialty that dates back hundreds of years. (Oneida, the silverware company, is a case in point. It has Scandinavian roots.) Porcelain or crystal salt cellars with small silver spoons are popular and affordable mementos.
If Bryggen is the crown jewel of Bergen, then Bergen is the crown jewel of Norway. The city's dramatic setting adds to its allure. It salutes the mountains with one hand while reaching out to the sea with the other.
Bergen is pedestrian-friendly. It's easy to spend half the day strolling the cobblestone sidewalks and canvassing the museums and the churches. St. Mary's Church is the city's oldest building, dating from the 12th century. It has been in continuous use ever since.
The significant sites are pretty much confined to the flatlands near the harbor. If you want to go farther afield, you'll have to walk uphill through quiet residential neighborhoods. The bird's-eye view is worth the effort. Rooftops descend like stepping stones toward the harbor, which is abuzz with the sounds of ships coming and going.
The harbor is the gateway to Norway's fjords, slender arms of ocean that reach deep into the country's interior. High mountains rise abruptly from sea level. They are some of Mother Nature's finest work.
If you visit Bergen without sailing into a fjord, you've missed the boat. Numerous tour operators offer fjord excursions.
Don't miss the train, either. The trip between Oslo and Bergen follows along rivers and lakes and cuts through forests on the way to the rocky summit of the Hardanger Plain. The route is one of the most scenic train rides in the world. A beautiful introduction to a beautiful city.
Things to do
Bryggen/Bryggens Museum: Wooden buildings that front the harbor date back to the Middle Ages, when the Hanseatic League was a major player in international commerce. Its buildings are distinctive because of their steep, pointed gables. Bryggens Museum displays the findings from archaeological excavations that unearthed foundations of the oldest buildings in the city. They date back to the 12th century. Ceramics, inscriptions and other artifacts from the Middle Ages are also displayed. The Hanseatic Museum is in one of wharf's best preserved wooden buildings. The structure is the highlight, but furnishings in the style of the 1700s add to the ambiance.
Fish Market: You don't need directions. Your nose will tell you where it is. Otherwise, you're certain to find it because it's on the wharf, dead center in the middle of town.
Floibanen Funicular: An 8-minute ride gets you to the top of Mount Floyen. The summit has stunning views of the city, the harbor and the six other mountains that surround Bergen. Locals use the funicular to reach their homes high on the hillside or to get a head start on hiking trails. A trail leading to all seven mountains is only one of a network of trails. It takes most people 10 hours to complete. Ride the funicular back down or follow one of several easy trails that descend through heavily wooded forests and give you a bird's eye view of the rooftops below. You must find your way out of a labyrinth of residential neighborhoods before setting foot on level ground near the harbor.
Hakon's Hall: This stately stone structure was built at the request of King Hakon Hakonsson between 1247 and 1261. The restored building is open to the public as a museum and is also a venue for concerts.
Bergen Museum: Cultural and historical displays include archaeological artifacts, tools, utensils, furniture and folk art from rural and urban areas.
Shopping: Sweaters featuring traditional Norwegian patterns are probably the number one souvenir. Alternatives that take a fraction of the luggage space are sterling silver spoons paired with crystal or porcelain salt cellars. Scandinavia has long been a producer of quality sterling silver. Miniature hand-carved trolls are also big with visitors.
If you can hum a melody from Edward Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite," you should visit his home, called Troldhaugen, on the outskirts of town. Sightseeing tours include it on their itineraries. Or you can get there on your own using the public bus system. Like his music, the bucolic setting overlooking Lake Nordas casts a spell of tranquility over visitors. The hut where Grieg composed has a small upright piano, a writing desk, a wood-burning stove and a picture window that faces the lake. You can almost hear strains of his music wafting through the air. The house where he and his wife, Nina, lived, has mementos of the composer's life. The interior is furnished the same way it was in 1907, as Grieg knew it.
Damsgard Manor is an 18th-century manor west of town. Built in 1770, it has been restored and is open to the public. Gardens were recreated as they were 200 years ago.
Fjords: Bergen is nicknamed "gateway to the fjords" for good reason. Sightseeing boats leave from its harbor bound for such scenic places as Sognefjord, Osterfjorden and Hardangerfjord. Their names aren't easy to pronounce for English-speaking tongues. But the scenery of western Norway is a universal language. Tour boats are a melting pot where people of many nationalities unite in praise of the landscape. "Oo" and "ah" translate in any language.
In any word association test, Norway and north - make that far north - go together. Despite a latitude that's nearly off the charts, the weather is milder than you think, thanks to the Gulf Stream that channels warm air from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic to northern Europe. Wise travelers dress in layers and carry a rain coat or an umbrella, whether they're bound for Norway or Nova Scotia.
Norwegian is not, repeat not, an international language. That's why Norwegians speak English. You'll be able to converse with the person you sit next to on the bus on your way to Troldhaugen, or learn about the odd assortment of fish from the fishmonger on the wharf in Bergen. Because there is no language barrier, you'll find out just how friendly the city's residents are and how much they welcome tourists.
Contact the Norwegian Tourist Board, P.O. Box 4649, New York, NY 10163-4649; phone: 212-885-9700; fax: 212-885-9710; Web site: (http://www.norway.org).
Watching your wallet your wallet
Norway is an expensive destination, but there are ways you can save money. The Bergen Card, which you can buy at the tourist information office, at the railroad station and at the bus station, is good for entrance into museums, street parking, bus travel, a ride up the funicular and discounts on sightseeing tours. The price for adults is approximately $17 for a 24-hour card, and $26 for a 48-hour card.
Rack rates for hotel rooms, double occupancy, begin at $100 a night. Save money by booking a room at a hotel that participates in Bergen Packages, a hotel discount program. For details, contact Scanam, the U.S. representative for Bergen Packages. The phone number is 800-545-2204.