CITY OF ISLANDS
It was shortly after 2am, on the night of January 23, 1904, that the postcard-pretty Norwegian city of Alesund burned to the ground, reportedly after a cow sheltering in a decrepit, wooden stable from the freezing winter winds kicked over a torch. So strong were the wind gusts that night that would-be firefighters were blown off their feet and the flames rapidly took hold. Remarkably, only one life was lost, that of a 76-year-old woman. But by dawn about 850 wooden buildings had burned to the ground and some 10,000 residents were homeless. Only one, more substantial building was left standing.
More than a century later, this so-called “mirakelhuset” – “the miracle, last house standing”, which wouldn’t burn – has become just one of many visitor attractions in the selfstyled Adventure Capital of the Fjords – in their case, the Geirangerfjord.
Today, Alesund is an elegant, prosperous, “avant-garde”, art nouveau city of more than 50,000 liberal-minded people, who paint the homes, offices, churches, stadiums and other buildings predominantly in white and shades of yellow, blue and red. It’s a pretty picture.
Little wonder, then, that much like its bigger Norwegian neighbours such as Bergen and capital Oslo, Alesund, a city of many islands, has become a must-see attraction for visitors. These days, they are coming in ever bigger numbers, by road, in car and in coach, and increasingly by sea in cruise ships. This year’s seaborne “invasion” is expected to number more than several million short-stay visitors.
It’s not difficult, even on a one-day visit, to see why. Or to understand why most visitors return to their ship wishing more time could be spent in the city. But that’s part of the charm of cruising, especially “luxury” cruising.
There’s always so much to see, and so little time, both on shore and on the ship – as my wife and I discovered on a memorable 14-day cruise on the elegant Koningsdam.
Starting and finishing in the free-thinking, bike-riding, van Gogh-worshipping Dutch city of Amsterdam, the cruise also visited Edinburgh in Scotland; Reykjavik and other stops on Iceland’s windswept coast, as well as the equally spectacular, mountainous Bergen.
As my wife and I demonstrated, after a few days of training in the good ship Koningsdam’s hi-tech gym, the even higher spots of both cities are accessible on foot: Alesund by a steep, zigzag climb of some 420 steps, Bergen by a much longer, though gentler hike.
Or you can take a ride. Bergen’s famous Mount Floyen funicular is, well, lots of fun, and offers stunning views. But it’s pricey, about $20 return, and often packed out, though tickets can, and probably should, be bought in advance.
Alesund, of course, also has its own transport up the mountain to the Fjellstua vantage point … and here it comes now, a chunky, bright blue and white road-train, chugging, “toot-toot”, out of the morning traffic like something from the pages of Thomas the Tank Engine.
The ride through the city streets and up the mountain is not very comfortable, not very informative and not really very photo-friendly, but, hey, it’s a lot of fun, and the driver does point out “city attractions” well worth revisiting later on foot.
They are an eclectic mix. Here the imposing Volsdalen Church; over there the new Color Line football stadium, home of Aalesunds FK. Here Klipra, where the great fire of 1904 was halted; down there the Fjelltun Rd remains of an apartment building which collapsed as recently as 2008.
And the literal “high-lights”, perhaps, of the 70-minute ride, are the magnificent views of the outlying islands of Alesund, and the far-off glistening fjords. Magic! But you’ve just got to love a city that has heated park benches. Alesund does.
All too soon, it is time to return to the Koningsdam … to reflect on the day, enjoy the ship’s comfortable state rooms, its top-class cuisine, its top-class entertainment and lectures. And, of course, to prepare for tomorrow’s new adventures; to pine, like Monty Python, for the fjords.
Buildings in the pretty Norwegian city are predominantly white, yellow, blue and red.