For many, the mere mention of “Bergen” evokes imagery of the several-storey wooden houses which populate the city centre. These houses are often starkly painted and are characteristic of urban wooden structures which were once found throughout Northern Europe. While many sites have been now replaced by more modern buildings to cater for contemporary needs, many traditional houses, often irregularly placed and slightly tilted, still dot the city centre.
The best-preserved example of the wooden houses in Bergen is Bryggen, the iconic mishmash of colourful wooden houses along Bergen’s waterfront. Bergen’s best-known constructions are quite symbolic of the country’s history as a trading port, much of which is documented at the waterfront Hanseatic Museum (and Schøstuene Assembly rooms) and Bryggens Museum.
Bryggen was a hub of activity throughout the 14th to 16th century, during the heyday of the Hanseatic League’s trade empire. The Hanseatic League was a federation of merchant guilds and harbourfront cities originating in northern Germany and growing to encompass many cities in northern Europe. While the League plied their trade initially in salt and fish, they soon expanded to trading fabrics, metal ores, and timber. At their zenith, the Hanseatic League was so powerful that their properties operated as effective enclaves, legally insulated from the cities in which they resided. Bergen was the principal port of Norway, and mainly traded stockfish and dried cod from the Lofoten Islands and other areas of the northern Norwegian coast. The trade monopoly of Bergen lasted until the 1780s, after which the importance of Bergen as a trade hub slowly declined.
Although the wharfs of Bryggen have been subject to many fires and decay through the years, most recently in 1955, they have been extensively restored. With the decline of the Hanseatic League, control of the houses was eventually transferred to Norwegian citizens; today, Bryggen houses specialty shops, restaurants, and hotels. The wood-laden innards of Bergen can be explored by turning off the wharf itself, and into one of Bryggen’s many alleyways.
Turning into one of Bryggen’s alleys is akin to discovering a tranquil oasis amid Bergen’s city centre bustle. The commuters and tourists disappear a few steps into the alleyway. Droplets of rainwater fall from the wooden overhangs onto planks which line the ground. Held within the pastel houses are boutique shops with reindeer fur hung on the walls or prints propped up against easels. Criss-crossing the alleyways are ever narrower passages, making the innards of Bryggen a fractal of wood and one of the better places for quiet contemplation.
Architecturally speaking, Bergen is also home to even older structures. The beautiful Fantoft Stave Church, 15 minutes away from Bergen city centre, is a classic example of medieval Nordic architecture. The church was originally built in a village known as Fortun, but was threatened by demolition in the 19th century. It was eventually bought and moved, piece by piece, to Fantoft near Bergen in the 19th century. In 1992, the church was burnt down by arson, but was reconstructed as it was by 1997.
The wooden stave churches of Norway represented some of the most advanced wooden constructions of its time. The interior and exterior of the churches are often adorned with runic carvings and figures, symbolising pagan elements, often mixed with the preeminent Christian ideologies to enable the spread of Christianity across the Nordic countries. The stave church was, during medieval times, widespread among northern Europe, but most fell into disrepair or were burnt down through the years. Fantoft Stave Church is built a few minutes removed from the Fantoft residential area, in a small clearing amid mossy hills and naked trees. Another place for quiet contemplation, perhaps.