No doubt about it, Stavanger, Norway was charming. But it was time to move on. Our next stop was Bergen, Norway. We chose to make the journey via a 5.5-hour bus ride that took us through a number of smaller towns, past lakes and forests and alongside of and across two fjords. Interestingly, the bus went onto ferries 2 times. Each time, we departed the bus, went into the ferry, and then climbed back into the bus when we reached the other side. Ferry restrooms are better than the one on the bus, plus, you can also buy food and drinks on the ferry. Our journey had pretty views, but nowhere near as dramatic as our previous day’s journey through Lysefjord or the view from our climb to Pulpit Rock from Stavenger Norway.
While the journey was somewhat comfortable, we were happy to reach our destination. We were last in Bergen in 1980 and were long overdue for a return visit to this beautiful, historic and incredibly scenic city. Sited on the coast, between two large fjords and at the base of seven mountains, it is dramatically situated.
This site was also instrumental in its history. Founded in 1070 AD, it is the oldest and was the largest city in Scandinavia through the Middle Ages. It was also the country’s capital until the 1830s, when that honor passed to Oslo (where we will be going next). It was the largest seafaring and trading port in Scandinavia one of the four largest, most important centers of the German-originated Hanseatic League, a Middle Age-era trading alliance that provided deep economic and cultural links among about several dozen of Northern Europe’s most important trading cities.
While its commercial dominance lasted over 400 years, the city was gradually eclipsed by a number of Scandinavia’s more southerly metropolises. Today, at 275,000 people, it is the second largest city in Norway and the capital of the Western fjords region.
Bryggen as Hansiatic League Trading Concession
The city was founded and initially built around the port area of Bryggen, a World Heritage site that was burned to the ground in a 1702 fire, but was rebuilt on its original 12th-century foundations and retains much of its ancient character. True, the buildings are much better maintained than in those days and their functions have evolved from crowded trading offices and rat-infested warehouses into upscale retail stores, restaurants and homes. But their charm remains.
The most iconic of Bergen’s cityscape consist of the historic, three block stretch on 17th-century trading houses that line the city’s inner harbor. While now devoted almost exclusively to restaurants and tourist shops, these buildings used to serve as the headquarters, offices, homes and warehouses of the German Hansiatic League merchants that literally owned the most valuable section of the city–the section known as Bryggen. (See below)
Behind these is the equally historic, and even more visually interesting section of Bryggen that housed the tenements in which many of the trading house apprentices worked and lived. While the buildings themselves are from the 17th century, they are kept in repair in a period-correct manner, using the same rough-hewn lumber and building techniques as used in the Middle Ages.
Although the neighborhood’s character lies in its overall effect: the complementary architecture and colors of its buildings, the narrow, cobblestone streets and its many interesting shops.
There are, however, also a number of particularly noteworthy individual buildings and structures in and around Bryggen and the port. These include:
- Bergen Fortress with its medieval, 13th-century Hakons Hall and Tower (built for the then king) and 16th-century Rosenkrantz Tower (governor’s residence). The Hall, which was completed in 1261, was the largest and most imposing building in 13th century Norway. While it has storage rooms, royal living quarters and offices, the Great Hall is its masterpiece. Rosenkrantz Tower, completed in the 1560s, was built into two separate sections one in medieval and one in Renaissance style. The basement housed storage rooms and a dungeons, the first floor had guards’ quarters and the middle floors contained royal bedchambers, dining and banquet hall and chapel. At the top was a two-room cannon loft, with guns pointing in all directions. Although both buildings were severely damaged when a German ammunition ship exploded in 1944, both have been rebuilt as they were during the primary years of their use. The tower also has a few historical exhibits, such as one that describes a 19th century naval battle in the harbor (in which the Tower’s cannons played a critical role) and one describing a trial and the burning of a “witch” in the tower and its courtyard.
- Saint Mary’s Church, the 12th century parish church of the Hansiatic League merchants and oldest original freestanding building in the city. The wealth of its parishioners is suggested by the elaborate gilded alter.
- A reconstructed and furnished Assembly House that was home to one of the League’s leading guilds, complete with its meeting, dining rooms and kitchen. Unlike buildings on the wharf, which were not permitted to have fires for fear of spreading to nearby wooden structures, the assembly house was far enough away that fireplaces were permitted.
The history of Bryggen and the Hansiatic League are portrayed in two primary neighborhood museums:
- Bryggen Museum, which has permeant displays of artifacts from the neighborhood, a partial reconstruction of one of the historic docks and series of temporary exhibitions which, during our visit, included one on the city’s 1912 fire, which totally destroyed 280 buildings near the center city and left 2,700 individuals and 380 people homeless.
- Hanseatic Museumhttps://www.museumvest.no/english/, a restored 1704 trading house that portrayed the history of the German-based Hansiatic lead that dominated trade throughout northern Europe from the 13 through the 17th centuries and that portrays life in the trading houses with originally furnished rooms portraying the warehouse, the offices and the merchant, journeymen and apprentice living quarters of one of the actual trading houses. We got to see, touch and hold the surprising heavy dried cods, learned how they were handled, stored and packed, saw the office from which the merchant ran his business and the different rooms in which the merchant, the journeymen and the apprentices ate and slept—from the small, cramped room in which eight apprentices slept—two per small bunk) to the relatively lavish merchant quarters, with expensive wallpaper and paintings and separate bedrooms for summer and for winter. And we learned of the living conditions in buildings in which fires were not allowed for fear of fire (meaning that there was no heat in the winter and that food was prepared in off-site buildings and brought in) and in which light (in the form of oil lamps) was limited during even on the brightest days, much less during long winter nights.
An excellent walking tour, arranged through the Bryggen Museum, took us through and explained both of these museums, the Assembly House, the Bryggen neighborhood and the relations between the German Hansiatic League merchants and the Norwegian resident of the rest of the city.
We learned how the League approached the poor fishing and agricultural city with a promise of building wharfs and turning the harbor into a lucrative trading port in return for an exclusive trading concession and the right to establish a generally self-governing (operating within the overarching laws of Norway) enclave in the land surrounding the inner harbor. The German merchants delivered on their promise, creating a colony, governed in accordance with the League’s guild rules. They bought fur, gold and especially cod from local fisherman, trappers and miners, dried, packed and exported the cod through northern Europe—trading it for grains, fabrics, tobacco and other goods needed by the local citizens.
The League (and to a lesser extent, the city) prospered and Bergen grew into by far the largest and wealthiest city in Scandinavia. Cod, huge volumes of which were caught in Northern Norwegian fjords, were beheaded, gutted and effectively freeze-dried (without the aid of salt or smoking) by hanging for several months in the cold air. So treated, it could be packed, efficiently shipped and held for 10 to 15 years, retaining its taste and nutritional value. It became a highly sought-after food and commanded high prices. They also exported, lesser cod products such as cod liver oil (the higher grade of which was primarily as a nutritional supplement while lesser grades were used as lamp oil).
While the merchants, who ran the local concessions for their remote owners, prospered handsomely. They effectively ran their own community, bringing in all their own employees (apprentices who did the hard work and journeymen who oversaw the apprentices and acted as agents for their merchants).
These employees were, however, all German—typically 14 year-old boys from poor families were brought over to serve almost as slaves, undergoing harsh initiations, work and living conditions with the hope of someday (generally in about six years) being promoted to journeymen and possibly, of even becoming a merchant.
Norwegians were not only locked out of the League and the guild system, they were also generally excluded from the Bryggen neighborhood, social lives and much of the economic gains. They received little of the ultimate value of the exported products and treated as second-class citizens in their own city—a city that by the 14th century, consisted of roughly 2,000 Germans and 10,000 Norwegians. At its peak, there were about 1,000 Hansiatic merchants—not to speak of their apprentices and journeymen) in the city.
Although the league was, in theory, subject to overarching Norwegian laws, it often flaunted these laws. Relations, in fact, became so tense that in the late 15th century the German’s hired mercenaries to launch an attack on the city fort to demonstrate their power. At least once in the 16th century, the government tried to assert their own dominance by pointing their cannons at Bryggen!
Although the Hansiatic League had an incredible 400-year run, it had generally fallen apart by the end of the 18th century. The last of Bergen’s Hansiatic merchants closed shop in 1792. Those that had so dominated the city’s trade had either moved back home, merged into what be then was a growing local trading community, or searched out other opportunities.