His­tory of Ber­gen

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SUNDAY TRAVEL - By SINDY CHAN

Nor­way’s coastal city Ber­gen, beau­ti­fully named as the city of seven moun­tains, was Nor­way’s busiest trad­ing port be­tween 1100 and 1600.

We spent some qual­ity time in Ber­gen. A fu­nic­u­lar ride of 320 me­ters took us from the top of Mount Floyen down to mem­ory lane of the 14th to 19th cen­turies. It was a time when Ber­gen sus­tained a flour­ish­ing econ­omy through the trad­ing of dried cod­fish, cod liver oil and tim­ber, and lived a spir­i­tu­ally ful­fill­ing life with Ole Bul and Ed­vard Grieg’s mu­sic and Hen­rik Ib­sen’s drama. It was also a new era of na­tional unity when the dis­so­lu­tion of the Nor­way and Swe­den Union in 1905 was cat­alyzed by Ber­gen-born states­man Chris­tian Michelsen (1857-1925).

Over a thou­sand years, Ber­gen city’s his­tory was marked by nu­mer­ous fires al­most at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals of 10 to 30 years.

“Ber­gen Har­bor is small but was much wider in the old days. Fire burned down houses along the bank, de­bris filled in and the har­bor be­came nar­rower,” our city guide Jim Pa­ton says.

Some of the fires were re­ally dam­ag­ing — 231 city blocks and 218 boathouses de­stroyed in 1686; 90 per­cent of the city was burned to ashes in 1702; 1,500 build­ings at Strand­si­den de­stroyed by fire in 1756; and parts of Bryggen burned down in 1955. Pa­ton shared some of the fig­ures with us.

Fire was haz­ardous. But it was the plague, brought by an English ship ar­riv­ing in Ber­gen in 1349, that dev­as­tated the city. The epi­demic was be­lieved to have been started by in­fected black rats and rat fleas, spread­ing rapidly along the coast and over land to east­ern Nor­way, caus­ing half of the pop­u­la­tion to die within six months.

Ber­gen may have seemed like a ghost town when the “Hansas” came in 1360, of­fer­ing to set up one of their “Kon­tors”, or trad­ing of­fices.

Ber­gen Hanseatic Mu­seum is a low-pro­file rough-tim­ber house orig­i­nally built in 1704. Un­like the elab­o­rate, gold dom­i­nance of the Hanseatic mer­chant houses in Gdansk, the Bryggen house had sunken wooden floors, dor­mi­tory beds shared by jour­ney­men and ap­pren­tices, thick wooden fur­ni­ture and cab­i­nets of ex­pres­sive land­scape paint­ings and flo­ral art­work, all sit­ting in a gloomy in­te­rior due to the for­bid­dance of heat­ing and light­ing to pre­vent fire in the old days.

The house speaks of the hum­ble ex­is­tence of a Hanseatic League mer­chant and his en­tourage dur­ing Bryggen’s golden age of trad­ing.

Hansas is a guild of north­ern Ger­man mer­chants. They were granted ex­clu­sive rights to trade with the north­ern fish­er­men who sailed to Ber­gen each sum­mer, on con­di­tion that Hansas mer­chants lived in their own sep­a­rate quar­ter of town. For cen­turies, Bryggen, the Ger­man quar­ter in Ber­gen, re­mained a men’s com­mu­nity. Hansas were un­mar­ried and had to live in celibacy as long as they lived in the area.

I was fas­ci­nated by Ber­gen’s rich his­tory and could have done more cul­tural ex­plo­ration about the friend­ship be­tween great vi­olin­ist Ole Bul (1810-1880), the world­fa­mous Ed­vard Grieg (1843-1907) for his Pi­ano Con­certo in A Mi­nor and my fa­vorite play­wright Hen­rik Ib­sen (1828-1906), who shook the world with A Doll’s House — how they met, ad­mir­ing one another and work­ing to­gether.

The Hur­tigruten story is some­what a con­tin­u­a­tion of Ber­gen’s his­tory as a trad­ing port.

In the late 19th cen­tury, the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment com­mis­sioned Richard With to es­tab­lish a safe trade route to link the south­ern and north­ern re­gions of Nor­way.

In 1893, With and his friend An­ders Holthe suc­cess­fully launched the reg­u­lar ser­vice of steamer DS Vester­aalen, first de­part­ing Trond­heim to Ham­mer­fest and later from Ber­gen to Kirkenes in only seven days. With called this new con­nec­tion “Hur­tigruten”, mean­ing the fast route.

Con­tin­u­ing a long tra­di­tion, Hur­tigruten ships still carry freight, mail and pas­sen­gers from port to port.

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