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Norway’s ‘Second City’

Times Staff Writer

This is a city that many travelers put on their “skip” lists. You know, skip it this time but maybe get back to it in a millennium or two.

Even more humbling, sometimes Bergen doesn’t even make the skip list. Many novice travelers have never heard of it. So what if Bergen is the second-largest city in Norway? How many people can name the second-largest city in, say, the United States? (You can stop worrying about that one--it’s Los Angeles.)

But visitors to Norway who stop in Oslo and skip Bergen, intentionally or not, are making the same mistake as foreigners who visit New York City but skip Los Angeles, yet think they’ve seen America.

This is not to compare Bergen to Los Angeles. If anything, Bergen looks something like San Francisco ought to look. Sort of a mini-San Francisco without the tackiness. Instead of Carol Doda’s flashing 50-foot silhouette on Bergen’s main street, Torgalmenningen, there are quiet cafes lit mostly by moonlight.

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And at the city’s delightful wharf area, no fisherman worth his salt will try to peddle you yesterday’s shrimp stuffed into a cardboard carton with a couple of saltines on the side. No, the fish sold here is so fresh it’s still swallowing the bait.

Above all, though, Bergen is an honest city.

It does not claim to have an Eiffel Tower, a Leaning Tower or, for that matter, a Tower Records. And that is what makes it so special. You don’t come to Bergen to impress your relatives, but to impress yourself.

And it is getting to Bergen that can be the most fun of all. For heaven’s sake, don’t even consider flying here. From Oslo, catch the six-hour Bergen Railway train; and take it during the day. Over the last several hours of the ride you’ll find yourself running from side to side of the coach, trying to look out both sides at once.

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Picture Post Card Views

Norway is fiord country. It is waterfall country. It is yellow-flowers-that-look-like-a-painting country.

On the train ride to Bergen you’ll pass through about 200 tunnels, over 300 bridges and repeat “Look at that . . . " about 400 times.

When you arrive at the train station, don’t expect a taxi to be waiting outside to whisk you to the nearest Sheraton. Nor a Hilton, Hyatt or Ramada Inn.

Hotels here have names that sound like Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors. If you want a hotel room on the water--and central--try Hotel Admiral at 9 C. Sundtsgate. There is also the rather fancy Grand Hotel Terminus near the railway station.

But if you want to not only see Bergen but also feel it, the place to stay is at a guest house.

And one of the nicest of all is Hotel Park Pension, at 35 Harald Harfagres Gate. It’s in a residential area just a few minutes from town, across from a tiny park where swans swim virtually outside your window. This family-run pension has just 14 double rooms. Make sure to ask for a room facing the park, for which you’ll pay about $70 U.S., and that includes breakfast.

Not bad for a city where a roll of film costs $7 and a mug of beer goes for $6. If you drink wine instead of beer and bring your own film, you’re fine.

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After you check into your guest room the first thing to do in Bergen is head for the funicular, a tram that will carry you high above the city to the top of Mt. Floyen, from where you can count the six other mountains around Bergen.

Hiking Trails

And be sure to take a picnic with you. Wooded hiking trails abound at the top of Floyen. When you look down at Bergen you will realize that what you’re seeing is an overgrown village that only thinks it’s a city.

Its 220,000 residents are scattered over more than 250 square miles. And if Bergen strikes you as more impressive than Oslo, keep in mind that folks back in the 13th Century must have thought the same thing. After all, Bergen was the first capital of Norway and the country’s largest city until the 1830s.

Big cities tend to attract culture, and while Bergen is only big by Norway standards, it is no slouch when it comes to music and theater. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was started in 1765 and Norway’s first permanent theater was founded here in 1850.

Nor have its residents forgotten their cultural roots. Each year in late May the city hosts a two-week music, drama and dance festival--the Bergen International Festival--which attracts visitors from around the world. But because of the crowds, the best time to visit Bergen is early May, when the city is just recovering from its long winter and tourists have yet to arrive in Scandinavia.

The biggest industry in Bergen is fishing. If you look one of the elephant-skinned fishermen in the eye too long, he might even walk over and say hello.

The time to visit fishermen at the inner harbor, the Vagen, is in the morning. The Vagen doubles as the setting for the town’s flower market. A good sign that the prices--and merchandise--are OK is that the place is often jammed with locals.

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Let’s Go Shopping

Near the harbor are the two busiest shopping streets, Torgalmenningen and Torvalm. If you want to buy all your gifts in one stop, try Sundt & Co. at 14 Torgalmenning, the largest department store.

Wind your way past the entrance, where many tourists grab the overpriced and not-very-attractive troll dolls. The best buys in this store are the Norwegian knitwear, especially sweaters.

But some of the best high-fashion clothing in Norway, if not in all Scandinavia, is at a pricey but imaginatively stocked store, Rene, at 10 Torgalmenning. You may pay $100 for a pair of slacks or $60 for a sweat shirt, but the designs and styles are so unusual that it’s worth the splurge.

Of course you didn’t come to the fiord capital of Norway to shop. You came to see fiords, and the area has more fiords than London has bridges. And it does not require days or weeks of sightseeing to get a good look at them.

If your time in Bergen is limited to several days, you can get an excellent flavor of fiord country in a one-day excursion. Best of all, this combination train, boat and bus will cost you less than $50. And you don’t even need a tour guide.

Stop in at the tourist information center on Torgalmenning (it’s in the square of the same name). Tell them you want to take the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour.

They will hand you a one-day itinerary that, at first, appears to be written for a rocket scientist. But this 12-hour tour only looks complex because of all the transportation involved. It really is simple. And delightful.

Train Ride

You will catch a morning train from Bergen and get off two hours later at a tiny town called Myrdal. There you will hop aboard another train, the Flam Line, guaranteed to be one of the most memorable 40-minute train rides of your life.

Slowly, the five-car train winds down the colorful Flam Valley, dotted with dozens of waterfalls. The conductor stops the train frequently just so passengers can hop off and take a few pictures.

When the train finally reaches Flam there’s time for a quick lunch, then guests take a two-hour ferry ride that glides past two fiords, Aurlandesfjord and Naeroyfjord, one of the narrowest but most beautiful in Norway.

When the ferry docks in Gudvangen, buses are waiting to take tourists back to the train to Bergen, but not without a short stop at the Hotel Stalheim, 5715 Stalheim in Stalheim.

But don’t just stop there. Stay there.

Although this hotel is about 50 miles east of Bergen, it is well worth an overnight stay. The views of waterfalls and snowcapped mountains from most of its 130 guest rooms are spectacular. Make sure to ask for a room with a balcony; it will cost about $130 a night. This hotel is also known for its fine food, something of a rarity in Norway.

Looking for Seafood

For a harbor town, Bergen has a surprising lack of good seafood restaurants. One of the few is Enjorningen (Unicorn), in the heart of the city in a building that has been restored in the decor of the 1700s.

If you just want a light snack but want to see what little night life there is in Bergen, try a spot called Dickens at 8 Ole Bulls Place.

For a cup of coffee and a taste of the Bohemian side of Bergen, stop in at Cafe Opera at 24 Engen. The place is packed with students, many of whom wear sweat shirts bearing names of American football teams, though few know a Green Bay Packer from a Minnesota Viking.

Bergen is not a city to make the focal point of a European vacation. Paris or Rome it is not, but perhaps that is what makes it so inviting. After touring the European capitals for a few weeks, why not settle back for several days of rest among the fiords?

And perhaps even some romance. A woman from the Denver area recently traveled to Bergen to attend the wedding of her best friend, who was marrying a Norwegian. The Denver woman took her boyfriend along.

Less than a year later this same Denver couple returned to Bergen for their own wedding. They were married atop Mt. Floyen, 1,050 feet above the city. And the entire wedding party had to ride the funicular to the top of the mountain.

“The man who drove the tram up wouldn’t accept the ($3) fare from any of us,” said the bride. “In fact, on the ride back down, he gave us a bottle of wine.”

For more information on travel to Norway, contact Scandinavian National Tourist Offices, 655 3rd Ave., 18th Floor, New York 10017, (212) 949-2333.


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