Not Quite Four Seasons

Bergen, Norway
August 2015

There’s a picture on the wall at Skansen Pensjonat that reads, “The weather forecast is just an indicator — you need both your sunglasses and your umbrella.” The picture displays every meteorological symbol.

According to a magazine framed on the same wall at the bed and breakfast, it rains on two-thirds of days each year in Bergen. You have to pack for a week’s worth of weather just to go out for the day.

I head out on a Saturday morning after a sleep binge last night and a mild scolding from the girl who works there for lingering too long over breakfast. Outside it’s a steady, somewhat cold downpour that makes the three flights of stairs down the hill to the main street that much more treacherous. I had to catch myself from slipping once halfway down. Bergen is built on steep hills overlooking the Vågen Harbor. The tight streets zigzag up the hills, with stairs in between for pedestrians. The old houses are close together, most of them painted in brilliant primary colors.

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Shopfronts

On the Torget, a popular street at the end of the harbor, the fish market is just getting going. People unload the catch from the boats for the waterfront restaurants catering to tourists, and food stands are setting up.

I walk along the Bryggen side of the wharf, as the rain begins to taper off. The plan is to be outside when it’s tolerable and duck inside the museums when the weather goes south. That plan lasts exactly until I reach the Bergenhus Fortress, jutting into the sea. As I step inside its gates at the base of the Rosenkrantz Tower, the rain starts pouring down.

For the duration, I shelter inside the tower and look around its many rooms heading purposely toward the top. I especially like that the route begins in the dungeon. And there are swords and armor in one of the rooms and cannons at the summit. It is odd that Governor Rosenkrantz and his wife lived rather luxuriously in the same place as the guard that was prepared to defend the keep with everything at its disposal — such as the hot tar the soldiers could pour down through a passage in the floor boards.

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Rosenkrantz Tower

The tower and fortress only saw battle once, in 1665 when the British tried to confiscate the cargo of valuable goods from Dutch East India Company ships that had sought refuge in the bay. When the British attacked, the Norwegians protected the ships and their fortress and came out victorious.

But back to the weather. Standing on the roof of the tower, it seems less rainy, but with a gusty wind rising. The wind and rain apparently have combined into a strong gale while I was descending the winding staircase to the ground level, because when I step into the courtyard outside it’s raining buckets and the wind nearly snaps my umbrella in two.

I duck inside the neighboring Håkons Hall, a public hall that also was used for religious services. When I emerge outside again, the rain is letting up, and I walk out to the ramparts looking onto the sea and the ships just as a large group of sailors are coming back from a commemorative ceremony.

On return to the Bryggen section of town, the clouds have parted and the sun is peeking through. Within an hour, the sun is gleaming and becoming a little warm — too warm for a heavy rain jacket. I wander through the old merchants’ quarter, where German traders with the Hanseatic League set up shops in tall, wooden buildings on the wharf to trade goods for North Sea fish, beginning in the 14th century. The buildings had showrooms and offices on the main floor, living quarters for the chief traders on the next level, and cramped quarters for the young apprentices up in the loft space.

Merchants Desk, Bryggens Museum

Merchant’s Desk, Hanseatic Museum

Hanseatic merchants seem to have had a great life: good money, camaraderie with their peers, and brutal hazing of the new apprentices, according to displays at the Bryggens Museum. German men weren’t as tall then. In the Hanseatic Museum, they still have the cupboards where the men slept. Also, they had a strict rule against having fires in the buildings, even for cooking, so they wouldn’t burn down — not that it didn’t happen several times. For warmth on the long cold nights, the merchants gathered in meeting houses where they enjoyed hot meals, tankards, and games. Today they shoot a reality TV show in the living quarters of the last old meeting house, the Schøtstuene. The young woman at the ticket desk there scoffs when she relays the news. “The things in those rooms are props from the show,” she says.

As I step back outside, the clouds are beginning to descend again. A light sprinkle steadily builds into a downpour between Bryggen and the KODE museums, which are located alongside a lake in the town center where even the ducks won’t swim in such weather. KODE is four separate museums, which can be viewed for one 24-hour ticket. KODE 3 features Norwegian artists, with a good collection of Edvard Munch paintings and etchings, including several variations on “The Scream.”

Munch wouldn’t be so positive if he was going back out in this rain.A side note on Munch. In the years after he painted “The Scream” and his Life Frieze series, he had a nervous breakdown and had to go into a hospital. When he was released, he began to paint more optimistic works spurred by a wellness philosophy that dictated good food, exercise, and a positive attitude.

Munch wouldn’t be so positive if he was going back out in this rain. I walk down the long pedestrian plaza between the Torget and the town center, heading toward the cultural center towering high atop a long flight of steps. There’s a good view of the city from there, and the rain is beginning to let up by the time I reach the top. I have a nice chat with a couple of young men I met yesterday on the Sognefjord boat. One of them gives me a good tip for my time in Copenhagen, where he lives.

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Rooftops at twilight, around 10 o’clock

The nicer weather makes me brave enough to stroll around the neighborhood and shops away from the tourist center, heading out to the Hurtigruten port and then back down the hill toward the wharf. Eventually, I end up at a nice little restaurant, Pingvinen, where I have dinner at the bar. When I head back outside after an hour or so, I’m inexplicably surprised by the heavy rain, which follows me back to Bryggen and intensifies as I climb the hills overlooking the city. The miserable rain builds in misery the higher I plod along until I finally give up and go back to my inn.

I’ve pretty much had it by this point, but then about ten minutes before sunset, the rain lets up and a little light appears. I race down to the old fortress in hopes of seeing the sunset, but the sun has already disappeared behind a heavy cloud well above the horizon.

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