It’s day two of my visit to Bergen, I’m sampling the wares at its historic fish market, and Dame Vera Lynn would be in her element – whale meat, again…
It’s the second time I’ve tried a few slivers of the controversial local delicacy since I arrived in the city and I’ll never be able to watch Free Willy again without a pang of conscience. Oh well, when in Norway and all that.
Bergen, in the southwest of the country, is known as the gateway to the fjords. To get here, I’ve flown with KLM via Amsterdam on Edinburgh airport’s first service of the day, departing at 5.40am. As we come in to land at Bergen airport at 1.45pm, the views over lush mountain forests and pristine blue waters surrounding hundreds of tiny snow-flecked islands, dotted with quaint wooden houses, more than make up for the early rise.
I’m on a whistlestop press trip so we just swing by the harbourside Hotel Havnekontoret to drop off our bags before heading to the KODE Art Gallery for an informative guided tour taking in some of Edvard Munch’s greatest and most haunting paintings, as well as works by major Norwegian artists in the Rasmus Meyers Collection.
Barely pausing for breath, we scurry to the Fløibanen Funicular, a must-do excursion which hauls us to the top of Mount Fløyen, one of (inevitably) seven hills that are said to surround Bergen, depending on which arbitrary peaks you count, of course. Anyway, our haste is not in vain and we make it in time to catch the gloaming as it highlights a breathtaking panorama of city, sea and countryside. Fløyen is a popular place for typically active Norwegian families to enjoy the great outdoors year-round, walking, cycling or skiing up and down its undulating woodland paths, but our pasty-faced party of hacks are less sure of foot on the snowy conditions and get the funicular back down to town instead.
We dine at the atmospheric Enhjorningen Restaurant, which serves up some of the finest seafood in the city from a prime location among the old wooden wharf buildings of Bryggen, a world heritage site largely unchanged since the days when Bergen was one of the Hanseatic League’s important trading centres from the 14th century to the 18th century. Like many a merchant of yore, we feast on mussel soup, salted cod, smoked salmon and smoked carpaccio of whale from the Lofoten archipelago.
Refreshed and revived, we rashly head to the Magic Ice, a pub made completely out of several tons of frozen water, including ice tables, ice chairs and ice statues. It is closing when we arrive at 10.30pm, but instead of a chilly reception, the welcome could not be warmer as we don thermal ponchos and gloves and enjoy a fun hour of below-zero boozing.
Next morning we clear our heads with a tour round Bergen’s easily walkable historic highlights, before joining irrepressible food fanatic Cheyanne Smart, who guides us round the most creative culinary hotspots of this Unesco City of Gastronomy, including Sweet Rain Konditori (inventor of the Norwegian favourite brown cheese cheesecake), Fjellskål Fisk & Skalldyr fishmonger and restaurant (where genial proprietor Stian Fjellskål advises on a glorious array of amazing seafood) and Pingvinen restaurant, which serves astoundingly tasty traditional home cooking (such as plukkfisk – salted cod mashed with potatoes, onion, butter, nutmeg, milk, flour, salt and sprinkled with bacon) just like Norwegian grandmothers of yesteryear used to make.
Having wolfed down that little lot, we waddle back to the harbour for a three-hour cruise through the majestic fjords to Mostraumen that takes in mountainous landscapes, melt-water falls and isolated hamlets. The accompanying soundtrack by Edvard Grieg, Norway’s favourite classical composer, only adds to the magical atmosphere.
On our return we dash off for an early dinner at Michelin-recommended Lysverket (next door to KODE Art Museum), where chef Christopher Håtuft’s exquisite modern take on Bergen fish soup is a triumph.
Then a cultural treat awaits – a night at the opera. Fittingly for a trip facilitated by Netherlands-based carrier KLM, the work being performed is The Flying Dutchman by Wagner. The production by Bergen National Opera (with former Scotsman music critic Mary Miller at the helm as general and artistic director) attracts rave reviews – Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson is spellbinding as the eponymous Hollander, and the rousing Sailors’ Chorus will live long in the memory.
On our last day, we climb several flights of steps to Hotel Havnekontoret’s distinctive tower to take in a 360-degree photo opportunity of the city and surrounding hills. We also have time to do some shopping, and while it’s true that many things in Norway – especially food and drink – can be cripplingly expensive for UK visitors, clothes are relatively reasonably priced and I pick up a couple of garments for under £20 from youth apparel emporium Session that my two teenage sons seem pleased to receive, while a handwoven cashmere scarf for my wife from Zander boutique is well worth its £50 price tag. (My overlooked daughter has to make do with a small soft toy polar bear, hastily purchased at the airport.)
All this retail therapy is thirsty work though, and by 11.30am it seems sensible to try a few craft ales at the Bryggeriet Restaurant & Microbrewery, where master brewer Gareth James Stewart talks us through the delicious selection he has most recently created, including a citrusy Hazy Sommer pale ale (5.3 per cent) and Havre Kadavre superstrength stout (11.4 per cent).
These set us up nicely for our final excursion, to Troldhaugen, the house where Grieg and his wife Nina lived for 22 years before the composer’s death in 1907. The charming and perfectly preserved wooden villa overlooking a lake even has his original Steinway grand piano, which is still played at concerts. Grieg described Troldhaugen as his “best opus so far” and it’s easy to see why. It’s an enchanting place in a beautiful part of the world – and it’s a fine note on which to end our trip.
KLM flies to Bergen from 17 departure points across the UK via Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. KLM operates up to five daily flights between Edinburgh and Amsterdam, and four between Amsterdam and Bergen. Return fares from £138, www.klm.co.uk or 020 76600293.
Hotel Havnekontore, double room and evening meal from £175, www.nordicchoicehotels.com.