Modern cruise ships plough the same waves as generations of sailing ships carrying cargo and people, ideas and cultural influences, and laying the foundation for today’s vibrant cities.
If you get someone from Bergen in Norway started on the old days, they will never stop. Shopping centers and modern living have not erased the city’s medieval past – a period of commerce, fisheries and shipping. That was how Bryggen, Bergen’s Hanseatic wharf area came to be a Nordic tracing center for dried fish, which, despite several major fires, has always been rebuilt.
Nowadays, the city council works hard to preserve the wooden buildings, which are under threat from traffic. Bryggen is the city’s foremost symbol of its Hanseatic heritage. It was here that the sailing ships docked from the outbreak of the Black Death in 1349 and the next 300 years. During this period Bergen was not only the country’s largest city, it was also its capital.
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Ships lay crammed together, which buzzed with activity. And not always without conflict. Buying and selling fish took place in competition with German and Dutch merchants, which was not much liked by many of Bergen’s inhabitants. Disagreements about prices and accusations of fraud caused feelings to run high.
The Hanseatic League maintained international trade during a difficult period for Norway and achieved an almost complete monopoly in the trade in stock-fish and fish oil.
However, it started modestly enough with a Hanseatic trading post. But the rich fishing off the Norwegian coast soon prompted German and Dutch traders to establish themselves in the city between the seven hills. Their culture and language followed. The influx of people from surrounding coastal districts, known as ‘strils’ also made Bergen a melting pot of local and international coastal cultures.
The Strils would ride or sail to Bergen’s waterfront Fish Market to sell their wares. A stroll along the narrow passages dividing the wooden buildings lining the historic wharf area is like stepping hundreds of years back in time. It is easy to imagine the dockworkers rolling barrels packed tight with herring, hear them cursing, listen to the creaking of the swivel hoists and, not least, smell the pungent stench of horse manure and human sewage.
Vågen was the central bay with Fish Market and World Heritage Bryggen. It used to be swarming with small steamers, all of them heading for local coast villages. Today swift catamaran vessels have their routes from Bergen to towns and villages along the coast and bring busy people to and from several times a day.
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The trading office was closed down in 1752, but we can still find traces of the city’s Hanseatic past. There are German names and expressions in the local Bergen dialect, and it is certainly no coincidence that Bergen’s local brewery is called Hansa. Until the second world war the row of buildings leading to the Fish Market was called Tyskerbryggen (Germans’ Wharf), and one of the city’s oldest streets is called Hollendergaten (Dutch Street).
Foreigners made up a large part if Bergen’s middle class for hundreds of years. It is a very important period in the city’s history. Bergen was a center of Nordic trade.
The men who graded the fish being brought ashore were among the most important tradesmen in the Hanseatic period. Cod was turned into dried fish, and it was vital to select the best quality fish for the purpose. The dried fish was sorted into some 18 different grades, depending on quality, size and destination. The graders were experts the like of whom we rarely see today.
The people of Bergen love their history, with the great stone edifices Håkon’s Hall and the Church of St. Mary (previously the German Church) from the 13th century. Here high mass was said in German right up until 1860. Next to the Church of St. Mary is Bergen’s famous Bryggen, the old Hanseatic wharf that attracts thousands of tourists each year.
The building lining the harbor rest on tar-impregnated piles, driven down into the mud and surrounded by seawater. The popular promenade has been placed on the UN’s World Heritage List, but it could disappear forever unless traffic restrictions are imposed. The question is whether a rescue effect has been left too late.
But Bryggen is also facing other hazards. In recent years the city has experienced a series of exceptionally high tides which has washed in over the quayside and flooded the many small shops located there.
However, statistically speaking, exceptionally high tides levels only come around once every 20 years. The water level in Bergen can reach up to 225cm, and the highest recorded water level in Bergen was recorded in 1990 with 240cm.
That the inhabitants of Bergen love their city is manifested in many ways. Market days and Hanseatic festivals are staged on regular basis, with Bergeners dressed up in historic costumes. Five former Hanseatic towns, Bergen, Riga, Lübeck, Bremen and Bruges, take turns to stage the event, which is a cultural happening, where entertainments, old costumes and sailing ships put their stamp on the city.
In the Medieval Footsteps of Norway, written by Tor Kjolberg