Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
1. On average, it rains 265 days a year in Bergen, making it the wettest place in Europe!
Estimates vary. Keep in mind that with about 3,000 millimetres of rain a year and so many wet days, chances are you may want to have a few nice museums in mind to visit! Perfect, as Bergen is full of them from the excellent KODE 3 art museum to the Fisheries or the Hanseatic Museum. For inspiration, check this article out!
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2. The cute Bryggen houses were optimized for tax evasion!
Houses on the waterfront of Bryggen, Bergen’s most instagrammable district and UNESCO World Heritage Site, were very expensive and taxed based on their surface area. As a consequence, it is common for the houses of Bryggen to have their first floors as overhangs! Just walk down one of the narrow alleyways, past the iconic façades, and explore the crooked wooden backsides…
3. 61 buildings in Bryggen are UNESCO World Heritage Sites…
Wood, especially covered in tar, burns really well… A quarter of Bryggen went up in flames in the devastating 1955 fire, while about half of it was torn down in the early 1900s. Roughly a quarter of what Bryggen was remains, and today, 61 of its buildings have the UNESCO World Heritage status. Many of them host businesses including a fun escape room.
Careful, some are sinking like the Hanseatic Museum that undergoing critical structural reinforcement to preserve these characteristic wooden warehouses!
4. …despite the fact that Bergensers wanted to let Bryggen burn up in flames!
And it is somewhat a small miracle that they are still standing! Until 1945, because of the long history of Hanseatic traders in this district of town, the wharf used to be referred to as the “German Wharf”. As a consequence, during the great fire of 1955, in the wake of World War II after the Nazi occupation of Bergen and Norway, Bergensers were screaming to let Bryggen burn up in flames.
5. The figures found above tenement entrances were used as street addresses as not everyone could read.
Tenements were rows of houses. As during the Middle Ages, many could not read the Latin alphabet, wood-carved statues were positioned on the façades of the warehouses. This way, it was easy for all to find the proper address. The unicorn is one of the reminders of this technique. Can you find more?
6. The most revered Norwegian composer was a troll!
If Edvard Grieg was a grand man by talent, he was rather short with his 152 centimetres (5 ft 1 in). His wife Nina used to nickname him Grieg the troll. Despite the overall negative role of trolls in the Nordic mythology, Grieg explained himself that he was inspired by them, often playing with them in his summer residence of Troldhaugen in the outskirts of Bergen. He even composed the March of the Trolls!
7. Anchor throwing on Hilter’s birthday
It happened on Adolf Hitler’s birthday on April 20, 1944… The Dutch fishing vessel Voorbode confiscated by the Nazis and used for ammunition transport was loaded with 124,000 kg (273,000 lb) of explosives when it entered the harbour of Bergen.
It simply caught fire… The blast of the explosion created a tsunami, throwing ships on land, destroying about 300 houses in Bergen, killing 158 people and wounding 4,800. The only fun fact of this paragraph is that the ship’s anchor was on a mountain after having been propelled three kilometres (1.5 miles) away at an altitude of 417 metres (1,368 ft)! Entire blocks in Nordnes were destroyed, and later replaced by concrete buildings in the 1950s’ style…
In Holmen on the opposite side of Vågen, the walls of 1261 Håkon’s Hall resisted to the blast!
8. The capital was moved from Trondheim to Bergen to Oslo to Copenhagen to
Oslo Christiana to…
The first capital of Norway was Nidaros, today’s Trondheim, founded in 997 as a strategic location with fjord access and relatively easy to defend.
Then, in 1217 Bergen took the main stage with Håkon’s Hall in Holmen. Despite the fact that Bergen was one of the most vibrant trading posts in Northern Europe thanks to the Hanseatic League, and that it remained Norway’s largest city until 1825, the King Håkon V of Norway moved the capital to Oslo in 1299. Maybe because of Point #1 above?
During the Kalmar Union (1537-1814) that unified Denmark, Sweden and Norway (the three countries forming Scandinavia) under the same flag, Norway was ruled from Copenhagen, today’s Danish capital.
In the meantime, Oslo that was mostly destroyed by large fires ended up being rebuilt and renamed Christiana that became the capital in 1814. Then it got spelled Kristiana, and eventually Oslo in 1924 as it sounded more Norwegian! Basically, even if it has changed names over the years, the Norwegian capital has been located at the same spot since 1814. And Bergen remains the capital of the region of Western Norway.
9. Hanseatic merchants would resell 24 different qualities of dried fish!
During the eighteenth century, there were 24 different qualities of stockfish in Bergen! Fished in the North of Norway, around the Lofoten Archipelago, the stockfish would be delivered unsorted to the Hanseatic merchants who would categorize them based on quality and their knowledge of their markets. They were divided into three subcategories: Prima, Sekunda and… Afrika! No comment…
The value of the fish could be multiplied by 20 folds between the moment it arrived in Bergen and after being sorted out, with the best fish often exported to Italy, and the worse quality to Africa.
Today, stockfish is still exported to Italy, and also to Brazil & Portugal for bacalao, as well as to Nigeria where it is use in stews.
10. The Theta Museum: the smallest museum of Norway!
Between 1940 and 1942, the Nazis who were occupying Bergen knew about a resistance group, the Theta Group, that kept sending critical pieces of information to London, gathered by a network of about 20 resistance fighters all the way from the Russian to the Swedish border: the positions of ships along the 100,000-kilometre long Norwegian coastline, the situation in occupied Bergen and Norway, and a very special message regarding the Tirpitz ship that had been observed by the Norwegian pilots of the coastal ferry, the Hurtigruten. The Tirpitz was not any Nazi ship, but one of the two Bismarck class battleships, the largest and most powerful of Hitler’s warships.
The Nazis were even listening in, but could not break the code of the Theta Group. A bunch of young engineering students, including a few electronic geniuses, they were operating from what has become today’s smallest museum of Norway: the Theta Museum in the heart of Bryggen, barely 400 meters away from the Western Norway headquarters of the Nazis.
This (plus regular fuel shortages) almost paralysed the Nazi operations of the Tirpitz in Norway where she was stationed close to Trondheim, camouflaged under pine trees and fake fog to prevent bombing by the British Royal Air Force.
All buildings of the then larger Bryggen district were searched by about 250 Nazi soldiers. Along the medieval wooden buildings, many doors had been sealed and closed off service over the years. Soldiers knocked on the wood and moved on. They missed the key that was just hanging there, in front of their eyes, in plain sight! A simple iron wire! Connecting two nails on the door with the wire activated the mechanism to open onto the secret radio room of the Norwegian resistance group.
But the luck did not last. On October 17, 1942 at 9:05 am, during a raid, a Nazi soldier fell from the roof directly into the secret room after a rotten floorboard gave way!
Still, it was not the end of the Norwegian resistance (see Point #11 – it only gets better!).
During these couple of years, the Theta Group had coded and transmitted 60 telegrams to London, contributed significantly to the war effort. The Theta group is a symbol of resilience and Bergen pride, defying a deadly enemy and always looking for solutions despite hardships.
11. After the Theta Group was discovered, one of its members continued from his mother-in-law’s home.
Was it because he did not really like his mother-in-law, or because she would scare off the Nazis, had they wanted to inspect the house?
Joke apart, utmost respect and gratefulness to these resistant fighters.
- To enjoy Bergen to the fullest, the very comfortable and stylish Hotel Bergen Børs provides a fantastic base. More about it in this article.
- Click here for your full 72-hour program in Bergen.
- To help plan your trip, Visit Bergen is an excellent source of information too.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!