History of Bergen
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.