Friday, July 10, 2015
Scandinavia Travels 2015: Beginning in Bergen
After spending more of 2013 and early 2014 out of the United States than at home, it felt a little weird that this recent 10-day trip to Norway and Sweden was my first time out of the country since I went to Korea. Gone are the days when I had three-month summer vacations and month-long winter breaks. I guess this is working adult life, eh? My parents and I visited Northern Europe, a region I was interested in going to someday but truth be told, we chose it because I saw the airplane tickets from New York to Bergen, Norway were reasonably priced. Thus, we spent our first four days exploring the second largest city in Norway.
Although Bergen is the second most populated city in Norway and has been a major trading port throughout the centuries, it is still a rather small city by global standards and has a quaint feel to it. Above is one of the views from Mount Fløyen, one of the seven mountains that surround the city. You can easily get up to the viewing area via a funicular (which we opted for) or you can take a 45 minute hike for free. We were struggling with jet lag and airplane-induced jelly legs so we took the funicular. The views of the city were great and there are several hiking trails in this area as well. I didn't get a chance to roam the hiking trails (which I now regret) but I would encourage those of you who like nature to definitely explore on foot.
If you've ever read or heard anything about Norway, you probably know that it's a pretty darn expensive place to visit. Coming from New York, I'm not often shocked by prices but Norway is definitely the most expensive place I have visited thus far. If you want to eat a decent meal at a restaurant, be prepared to spend upwards of $30 to $40 for a main course. This is normal for a rather nice restaurant in Manhattan but Bergen is a much smaller city with very few affordable eateries (unless you want to eat fast food). Our first evening we ate a restaurant near the Radisson Blu Norge and the food was decent but not too memorable. I had mussels in garlic broth so perhaps I didn't choose the most exciting dish.
On our first full day we woke up early to catch the train for our Norway in a Nutshell day-long trip. Norway in a Nutshell is a program set up for visitors who want to conveniently see the natural wonders of Norway and you can customize your trips from the number of days you plan on traveling to the kinds of transportation you want to use. We booked a day trip which started off on train from Bergen to Myrdal.
Myrdal is little more than a small train station but it is where you transfer to another train which takes you to Flåm, a charming little town nestled between the mountains and along a river that spills into the fjords. The train ride was stunning and is a great way to see the scenic views of Norway without having to worry about driving. One minute you'll be looking at lakes lined with forest and in half an hour you'd be in a higher elevation where a thick layer of snow covers everything in sight.
While the natural beauty of Flåm is something special, I can't shake the fact that I was disappointed to see the small town overrun with tour groups. We didn't join a tour group and booked our little day trip by ourself but there were dozens of large buses and hoards of tourists everywhere. It made the experience less peaceful and less authentic. If I were to visit Norway again, I would probably rent a car and explore the country to avoid being around so many people.
From Flåm we embarked on a five hour boat ride through the Sognefjord, the longest fjord in Norway. A fjord is basically a long, deep strip of sea water surrounded by mountains and Norway has more than a thousand of them. I took the photo above near the end of the boat ride when the view opened up and we were in narrow waterways anymore.
It was also about 8 p.m. when I took the above picture. During the summer, the sun sets close to 11 p.m. and we were there for Midsummer, known in the U.S as the summer solstice. Midsummer is actually an important holiday in this region of the world which I was not aware of prior to this trip. Even at midnight the sky was not quite dark and the sun rose at 4 a.m. Conversely, the sun is out for very few hours in the winter time so I suppose it must be rather depressing during the cold months.
Hot dogs seemed to be available on every corner in Bergen and I ate a hot dog a day for three days in a row. They are a relatively inexpensive snack and can be found at Narvesen, the Norwegian convenience store that's pretty much the same as 7-Eleven. The hotdogs are oftentimes wrapped in bacon and some have a cheese filling as well. I think these were about $4 or $5 which was pretty expensive for a hot dog but cheap compared to other foods.
Håkon's Hall is a 750 year old building that was used as a banquet and meeting hall for King Håkon Håkonson back in the day. It's located amongst a few other historic buildings which are now museums. You have to pay about $10 to enter these buildings but if you enter one, you get the rest half off. I went into Håkon's Hall and the Rosenkrantz Tower which are situated next to each other. As a big fan of Game of Thrones, I thought it would be pretty cool to walk around inside real medieval structures that resemble those in the show. Rosenkrantz Tower has multiple floors and many rooms to explore with a few museum exhibits inside so it's rather educational. Håkon's Hall is essentially a large room so I'm not sure I would advise paying the $10 to go inside.
Close by you can find Bryggen, the historic trading wharfs that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These iconic wooden buildings have burnt down in fires multiple times throughout the centuries so you can only see the reconstructed versions now. I made sure to get a picture without the tour buses in sight but in real life, there are heaps of tourists in this area and all the shops along the waterfront sell souvenirs and touristy wares. The fish market is a popular attraction of Bergen but I personally think it's a huge tourist trap with overpriced seafood.
Throughout our trip we were fortunate to have incredible weather to the point where I didn't pack enough warm weather clothes. I checked the forecast before I left New York and it had said it would be around 60°. In actuality it felt like it was 80° most of the time and my forehead is now three shades darker than the rest of my face. The mountains surrounding Bergen were lush and the sky was the most immaculate baby blue with puffy white clouds. Bergen is a really beautiful little city and I can imagine it would be a pretty sweet place to retire....
I'll end this post with a short review of Naboen, the one memorable meal we had in Bergen. This trip wasn't centered around food (partially because it's so darn expensive to eat out here!) but I made sure to do some research so that we could eat at least one decent dinner whilst here. I had a white fish with veggies and the sauce it came with was very tasty yet light. The little wonton dumpling looking thing in back was actually potatoes. My dad had the lamb sausage and my mom had another kind of fish (I need to work on my fish identification skills) and they both raved about their dishes. My parents are hard to please when it comes to food so I was glad they enjoyed this meal.
Our waiter was patient and helpful and the lady who brought us our check chatted with us and was very pleasant. Everyone speaks impeccable English in Norway and super friendly and willing to help us find directions or figure out what values of the Krone coins. In a country where I cannot for the life of me figure out the alphabet (the little symbols above the vowels are a mystery to me), I am so thankful for polite English speakers.
This wraps up my short summary of Bergen! It's a rather small city and great for if you like hiking and nature. If you're looking for interesting things to do in a city, you might want to find a larger European city because there wasn't too much going on in Bergen. We were here for almost four full days and were pretty bored by the last day because there wasn't too much that appealed to us. I had the feeling that the visitors outnumbered the locals which I wasn't prepared for. At this point I think I'm sounding a bit snobbish but I do think Bergen is still a lovely place and a good place to start your journey if you want to explore Norway through the Norway in a Nutshell program.
Next up I'll show you around some of Oslo but don't get too excited because I was only there for a day and a half. Let me know if you've been to Norway in the comments section and if so, what was your favorite thing about it!