Bryggen, Bergen, Norway
I’ve already told you about Bergen’s nature – the beautiful forests and walks that fill the mountains around the Norwegian city. (You can see my photos here of hiking around Bergen.) This greenery is one of the highlights of visiting the city and it’s so satisfying to see that human development has not encroached on it in any major way.
There was a time, though, when there was a fair bit of human activity in Bergen – hundreds of years ago it was part of an important trading bloc. The evidence of that period is still proudly on display and it’s the other thing I want to tell you about Bergen.
A couple of years ago, I knew nothing about the Hanseatic League, the powerful conglomerate of cities and guilds in northern Europe. They controlled the maritime trade between the 14th and 17th centuries and many of these members became the richest cities in Europe during the time. Although the centre was in Germany, the Hanseatic League stretched to the Baltics and into Scandinavia. Here, on the western edge of Norway, was an important outpost.
Bergen is one of North Europe’s oldest port cities and was established in the 1200s. It was from about 1350 that the Hanseatic League began to take it over. They needed a base to run their trade of fish that was being caught in these waters and this was the perfect place.
And so the Germans came. These rich merchants may have been in an outpost, far from their grand Hanseatic cities like Lubeck or Stralsund, but that doesn’t mean they wanted to give up their comforts. And so the wharf was created.
In Norwegian, the word for wharf is ‘Bryggen’ and that is also the name given to the area that’s left in Bergen from the Hanseatic days. The long line of timber structures along the water’s edge near the original port are still striking today – you can only imagine how they would have looked 600 years ago.
Ok, now I should add here that they would have looked slightly different because they have burnt down quite a few times over history. That’s what happens when everything is made from wood and people are cooking and trying to keep themselves warm through a Scandinavian winter. But each time, the wooden wharf dwellings were rebuilt to the original architectural principles.
From the front, Bryggen presents a row of grand wooden houses – although somewhat quaint – with a relatively uniform design but different coloured paint. Between many of them are little alleyways. Walk down one of these and you’ll see there’s more than just a pretty facade.
In here is the relic of an ancient wooden urban development. These passages once functioned as private courtyards for the different dwellings – some as high as the third floor. The German bachelor merchants all tended to live in units close to the front of the passages, closer to the water. At the back, out of sight, were workshops and warehouses (for the most valuable items). These storerooms were built from stone so they would be fireproof.
Wandering through Bryggen’s passageways and into some of the buildings today gives you a bit of an insight into the lives of those who spent their time here at the Hanseatic outpost. It’s hard to get a full picture, though. Although the buildings have been very well preserved and you can see the architecture, construction and layout perfectly, their use has changed significantly. Most of the ground floor buildings that are accessible to the public are shops, galleries or cafes. While they mostly sell quite nice and authentic handicrafts, it does feel like you are in the middle of a tourist attraction. (If you go yourself, look out for the creepy shop selling animal skins and furs.)
Bryggen is the only one of the Hanseatic League’s foreign bases that still exists. Not only that, it has been remarkably well looked after. There’s a reason it’s such a popular site in Bergen and it’s worth the visit.