The Darker and Wetter Side of Bergen, Norway
Story and photos by David Nikel

Despite the colorful façade of Norway's Bergen, the city's shadowy corners hide many dark stories. So when the clouds roll over Scandinavia's rainiest city, what better theme to explore?

Bergen, Norway

Get into a discussion about Bergen with any Norwegian and within minutes you'll have learned two things about Norway's second city: They speak funny, and it rains a lot.

Having lived in Norway for six years now, I've crossed paths with many Bergensk speakers and never understood a single one of them. But in all my previous visits to Norway's second city, I'd never experienced more than the odd shower. I should've known it would only be a matter of time.

Accompanying me on my latest trip were my parents and my partner. Having just written a guidebook, I was looked to as their guide for the weekend. I'd planned out a scenic trip wandering the cobblestone streets, riding the funicular railway, and enjoying some fresh shrimp from the outdoor Fish Market. Perhaps we would even fit in some hiking in the hills if my aging parents' knees could handle it.

As soon as we stepped off the smart new light rail link from the airport, however, the heavens opened. My plan lay in soggy tatters.

The Rain Capital of Scandinavia

Bergen receives rainfall on an average of 220 days per year, more than the Pacific Northwest in North America. Yet the city remains a magnet for tourists thanks to its proximity to the fjords. The famous 12-day Hurtigruten coastal cruise starts here, the Oslo to Bergen railway terminates here, and mammoth cruise ships stop by every day throughout the summer.

Outside Hanseatic Museum

As such, we weren't the only ones to be caught out in the downpour. Two young Norwegians decked out in full Helly Hansen rain gear passed by us and a group of Korean tourists, giggled and started repeating a melodic Norwegian saying which you soon learn around these parts: "Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær" (it rolls off the tongue in Norwegian, I promise you!)

Translated as "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes", the phrase is taught to schoolchildren so they remember to put on their coat and boots, and presumably so they can taunt unprepared tourists for the rest of their lives.

When It Rains in Norway...

We soon discovered that there is plenty for the hoards to do when the rainclouds darken the skies. In keeping with the scene above our heads, Bergen offered lots of dark corners to explore.

We started with the obvious, Bryggen, Bergen's UNESCO World Heritage listed site at the very heart of the city. Rain or shine, travelers make a beeline for the set of wooden Hanseatic-era warehouses, some never venturing beyond before returning to the comfort of their cruise ship.

View from Bryggen

As tourists zipped up and down the main drag battling to find an angle for umbrella-free photos, the rain became worse. We ducked into the Hanseatic museum under the pretense of wanting to find out more, but really wanting to stay dry.

As it was a choice between buying a novelty troll mug for 150 kroner or seeing the museum for half that, we chose to enter the museum that's housed within the former office of the Hanseatic League. Turns out, it was a great way to spend an hour and set some much-needed context for the rest of our day.

A Fishy Trading Hotspot

In the Middle Ages, Bergen was the main port of export for dried fish and fish oil from northern Norway. German merchants began to join the trade, offering grains in return. In the mid-14th-Century, the German Hanseatic League established an office in Bergen and acquired the rights to purchase goods from northern Norway. In return for the dried fish and fish oil, they gave grain, flour, malt, ale, clothing and fabrics, all difficult to come by in Scandinavia at the time.

The merchants bought up all the houses in the area, which soon became a society effectively sealed off from the rest of the city. It is believed there were up to 2,000 Germans living in this part of Bergen at the height of their activity.

Beds of Hansiatic Museum

As we stepped around the creaky floorboards, ducked under low-lying doorways and took in the faint smell of stockfish, I could absolutely feel what it might be like to have lived and worked here. So much for the romanticism conjured up by the colorful exterior; this was a cold, dark, and cramped place to live.

Inside the Hansiatic Museum

That feeling was further heightened when we discovered that no flames were allowed due to the risk of fire. No flames of course meant no candles, no light, and perhaps more importantly in a time when Bergen was quite a lot colder than it is today, no heating.

On that note, the nearby Bryggen museum taught us more about the area's numerous battles with fire. The most recent in 1955 spurred extensive renovations that in turn led to many key archaeological discoveries, which eventually saved much of the area. There's a silver lining to be found on even the darkest days.

Behind the Buildings of Bryggen

Before we left the museum, my dear mother asked the receptionist for a café recommendation. She gleefully pointed us towards a place owned by her sister in one of the alleyways behind Bryggen. And so began our exploration of the dark alleys dotted with cafes, eateries, and galleries.

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