April 2, 2010

Indomitable Bergen


The city burned to the ground not once but eight times. But where most would have given up, the folks of Bergen refused to be beaten, writes SEAN AUGUSTIN

N a book on Norway, given to me prior to my trip, there is a picture of a smiling young girl in a yellow poncho holding a bright red umbrella in the rain. The caption reads: “Bergen is blessed with plenty of rain...”

Take a brisk walk through the streets of Bergen and you sense that it is not just showers that soak the roads and cobble-stoned lanes. History too is drenched in her paths and saturated in its walls, either wooden or stone.

Facades reek of both tragedy and triumph, enveloping the air with a redolent of nostalgia like a damp cloth in a small room. Tragic because the city, once the capital of Norway, had to endure a baptism of fire, literally. Bergen was the first capital of Norway before being replaced by Oslo in 1299.

The city burned to the ground eight times and while the causes remain unknown, the flames that once licked the edifices could not destroy the spirit of the inhabitants which, for the lack of a better cliché, rose from the ashes.

And this is why the buildings are built so far apart, one of the very first things I notice about Bergen as we head for Bryggen, our first stop.

Where The Triumph Begins

Bryggen is where the very first buildings were constructed and it slowly became the heartbeat of the city. In 1360, the German Hanseatic merchants set up offices here and dominated trade for the next four centuries. Their influence can still be seen in the names of streets and alleys as well as crests that decorate some buildings where I imagine firemen once scrambled in futility to douse the wicked fiery tongues. Remnants of the Hanseatic merchants can also be found in the many German names of Bergen families.

Now, tourists sit basking in the rare sunlight, sipping red wine and facing either the fleet of cruise ships and vessels, or admiring the rows of shops which have dates of when they were restored.

It is the face of these shops that draws you, like an elusive mermaid draws a sceptical sailor, to wander in.

Here, as you walk on creaking floorboards with the scent of wood wafting in the air, the city’s history seems to develop a soul. The narrow alleys, borne of shops packed cheek by jowl, means they sanction very little light to sneak in, which at times baths you in an air of reverence for all things old, including the termite-holed pillars that prevail the worst parts of history, be it the two world wars or the worldwide economic slump.

Maybe one of the horsemen of the apocalypse had a soft spot for Bergen, though the cacophonous mix of men and machines tell you that it’s the people of Bergen who yearn for the past to remain present.

As we meander through the shops, parts of the buildings are being lifted to lay new foundation. But neither that nor the souvenir shops snuggled in the alleys do little to erode that sepia-toned sentiment. (It made it to the Unesco World Heritage honour list in 1979).

Omniscient View

The clear sky that day means we are not to be short-changed of a bird’s eye view of the city, courtesy of Mount Fløyen, one of the seven mountains surrounding Bergen.

The less than 10-minute funicular train ride means we are not short of breath when we reach the top of the mountain which is 399m above sea level.

And here is what I appreciate about Bergen apart for the earlier trip down memory lane. The fact that you can turn your back on the hustle and bustle of the city, walk or in this case hike away, for some solitude minus the hassle of packing for an expedition.

Where at the top, despite the babbling tourists admiring the view in a language of their own while clicking away furiously, you can still find serenity on the steps leading out to the cliff.

Where at the peak you’d get an omniscient view of the city, casting her in a different light as you realise the fjord looks like a rugged guardian angel faithfully watching over his stoic yet vulnerable being.

From up here, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that she once was scarred by a calamitous past. From up here, the city parades her beauty marks.

So there I sit, surrounded yet alone, as I picture what it would be like to take part in the Seven-Mountain hike, which takes place annually.

Would I have the stamina? Or would the arresting views of the city and the docked ships from different angles seize my ambitions to complete such a race and have me acquiesce to savouring the scenery instead. Even if I came in last, I reckon I would not have lost.

Film Buff & Three Playwrights

As I walk back to my hotel, I take a second look at Rick’s Nightclub — which belongs to the Merchant’s Association of Bergen. Decades ago, the Germans made this the Gestapo headquarters, where many Norwegians were tortured by men in black uniforms. The Gestapo were the secret police under Nazi rule.

The irony would, of course, not be lost to a film buff familiar with Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca, though it is a memorial for those who lost their lives that reminds you of the war instead of the timeless tune played by Sam.

Less than 100 paces later I run into three playwrights — Henry Ibsen, Euripides and William Shakespeare — or their marble casts, at least, nuzzled in a little enclave of the Den Nationale Scene or the National Theatre.

Although founded in 1850, the theatre was opened in 1909 and became Norway’s first theatre. It was wholly financed by Ole Bull, a renowned international violinist.

And if behind every successful man is a woman, then these bearded storytellers have a divine right to literary sainthood for Talia, the Greek Goddess and protector of the arts lords over them.

Her hands outstretched, clutching the two masks synonymous with drama as if to ward off threats, both fires and jejune ideas from the cinema nearby, to the arts. A sacred ritual of which she may have performed well.

Shakespeare after all is a legend while Ibsen’s often referred to as the godfather of modern drama and is one of the founders of Modernism in the theatre.Euripides was the last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens.

The trio are now mute though their quixotic dialogues still reverberate through staged plays and their marble casts gaze on picnicking couples in the throes of love or students buried in their books on a comfortable green lawn.

Beauty To The Ears

I call it a day, promising myself to explore the city the next morning but Bergen has a funny way to make me feel like one of hers. And her humour isn’t dry.

I keep thinking of the smiling girl in the red umbrella as I struggle on Bergen’s sodden streets with my luggage, anxious not to miss the bus to the airport. A stroll in the rain would have been a novel way to complete my visit here — after all I am already bathed in her past and cloaked in her beauty. Though beauty, I am also reminded, is not just in the eyes of the beholder.

Sometimes, it is also in the ears, a revelation of which only occurred to me on my last night in Norway as I sit in the Arctic Cathedral or the Tromsdalen Church in Tromsø, north of Oslo.

The chilly night eggs me to get into the church as soon as possible, like a repenting soul, though it is warmth and not forgiveness that I am seeking.

Once inside, the first thing I notice is how plain the cathedral is, with only the Skittles-coloured symbolic stain glass a Dan Brown enthusiast would appreciate, providing for something vivid.

Created by well-known sculptor Victor Sparre in 1972, the cathedral nevertheless has an outstanding feature — the mosaic is one of Europe’s largest stained mosaics. It rouses my tired eyes as I scrutinise the art — a welcomed move for a restless man who spends the whole day on foot, not to mention it is already past midnight.

Then I hear it. And as much as I hate repeating a hackneyed phrase, it is heavenly as it emanates from a man who sings without a microphone, reverberating notes that are familiar yet foreign.

This is the Midnight concert that locals boast about, where the performance humbles you with the simplicity of a three-man band.

I was a born-again listener, inspired to sing along but it would have been blasphemous to make a sound or any sound for that matter as a haughty tourist ticks off my photographer with condescending glances for clicking his camera. The songs, be they folk or hymns, get me thinking about “what ifs”.

What if the band sang as I am on board MS Richard With, the cruise ship that sails to Tromsø from (Svolvaer) on a clear and chilly night? Especially as she eases cautiously between the forks of the fjords, with a spotlight to show the rocky cliffs that are part of a larger silhouette just up ahead.

It seems menacing, no thanks to Hollywood-influenced morbidity, but it’s hard not to stay rooted or even irritated that you can’t capture the moment without having the flash waning the romanticism of jet black mountain under a starry sky.

So I stand there, braving the chill that manages to negate the act of wearing three layers of clothing, desperately trying to remember what I can of this 11,025 tonne cruise ship as it navigates its way out of the fjord with the grace of a ballerina.

The music would have done me some good here as I lay on the deck, watching the sky, wishing hard for a streak of aurora to make a cameo. Unfortunately, this can only be seen in winter.

What if the songs were the soundtrack to the story, as told by my guide Knut Hansvold, of Roald Amundsen, the first guy to reach the South Pole in 1911 after a three-year expedition? But that wouldn’t be what I would reserve the powerful tenor for.

The ballad is meant for Amundsen’s dramatic yet ill-fated bid, which holds an Orson Welles sway over an international audience, to rescue a team of Italians who had crashed en route to the South Pole.

Amundsen and company crashed and perished near Tromsø, some think near Bear Island. Sadly, their remains were never recovered. The news splashed in papers both local and international as a group of journos had camped in here to cover the planned rescue. Knut calls it Tromsø’s “15 minutes of fame”, but a bronze statue honouring Amundsen, though not related to this tragic end, overlooking the port vouchsafed that particular heroic quarter, is a tireless re-run among tourists .

What if the songs were the ballad for three female bearded seals who moved graciously and performed tricks all in the name of fish for their eager audience, in the tank of Polaria, a zoo-like centre on all things arctic?

Seductress Storsteinen

Your own sweet time is what is needed in a centre like Polaria which is something I don’t have, much to my chagrin. Nevertheless, the city makes it up with a trip 421m above sea level to Storsteinen.

Unlike the ascend up to Fløyen, where foliage veils the bird’s-eye view of the city like a bride on her big day, Storsteinen has no such tease. She is laid bare for all to see, the seductress she really is, claimed and accused of being.

(Tromsø is often regarded as the Paris of the north, thanks to her nightlife which enjoys national fame. A day before I arrive, Tromsø hosted rapper Snoop Dogg.)

From the top, Tromsø tantalises with her clear azure blue sky, with still white clouds that seem to strike a pose for a picture. From up here, she seems lifeless, with the only pulse I get coming from a ship cruising by and the sound of a plane purring in the distance.

Like Bergen, the view here too is breathtaking though you’d wish for once, vertigo or a fence isn’t a tourist’s worst enemy as it would have been even better to enjoy Tromsø, sitting at the edge of a cliff.

From the peak, you’re tempted to think that you know all about her with just a glance. But the truth is, she still retains a little enigma and quirky bits of history which make her a little more mysterious then her self-proclaimed haughty counterpart Bergen.

Take for example the street signs in Sami, an ethnic minority group in the country whose language was once forbidden in some areas until the 1950s. (The language , which is “related” to Hungarian and Finnish, is spoken by the Sami).

Or the tale of a man named Eidis Hansen, who some years ago rows into Tromsø. He then walked into the nearest bar for a drink but was deemed unfit to enter because of the few he’d had on the way.

Annoyed, he went back to the beach where he found a 371kg stone and carried it to the doorstep of the bar, for he declaimed that if he couldn’t come in, then nobody else should. The bar is long gone but the legendary stone is still there.

Back at the cathedral, the audience claps appreciatively for the trio, inducing an encore. He obliges with an Amazing Grace.

It is my last night in Norway. It is chilly and I am tired. But it is the prefect way to end my trip.

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