It was a wonderful autumn day, cold and bright; as we drove inland from Bergen in the morning, frozen mist was lying over the fjord. The trees on the mountainsides were displaying red and yellow leaves, the fjord below was like a millpond, the waterfalls immense and white. Karl Ove Knausgaard
We are in Norway. In Bergen mostly. It has been stunningly autumnal, as Knausgaard describes and perfect for photography.
My sense of geography and history – traveling from Iceland by ferry via the Faroe Islands and Denmark before arriving in Norway’s second largest city – has developed considerably during the last month. In my mind’s eye the sea lanes that linked the British Isles with Iceland, Norway, Denmark, the Shetlands, Orkneys, Faroe Islands and Sweden are now quite vivid. The stories told in the Icelandic Sagas and other literature of the Middle Ages that tell of the earliest voyages and ancestry of the Norsemen are becoming more familiar and my understanding of the flourishing trade along these sea-routes is growing.
This new perspective is helping with the unfolding of a personal genealogical map. This now includes ‘Viking’ ancestry from Denmark, Norway, Scotland and the Isle of Man. I am making considerable progress with potential Manx ancestors in the distant past as my web of researchers, biological relatives, academics and online connections grows. You may have read this post and will understand why the following excerpt excites me, whetting my appetite for an even earlier chapter of the story:
…the royal family emigrating to Norway, where their descendants are still to be found in the Norwegian family of Skankes, the Swedish family of Skunck(e)s and the Danish family of Barfods. The emigrants took with them as their Arms “the three legs”, which had been the Royal Arms of the Sudreyan Kings since about the middle of the 13th century. These Arms (a modification of the ancient Indo-Germanic sun symbol) were simplified in Norway and Sweden to one leg and in Denmark to three bare feet, and later to one bare foot.”
Young, G.V.C.: A Brief History of the Isle of Man, The Mansk-Svenska Publishing Co. Ltd., Peel, Isle of Man, 2001: p. 12
Bergen is one of the rainiest places in Europe. That fact has made our sunny, blue-sky week even more enjoyable. So often, in Australia, we take the good weather for granted. I mostly complain it is too hot, preferring temperatures below 25 degrees celsius. Rarely have I appreciated sunshine so much.
Our accommodation, a loft apartment overlooking the old Bryggen wharf area, is just stunning and central. The view at night was something special. Fires, over the centuries, have destroyed most of the town (established in the 11th century) and very little remains prior to the 19th century. Håkon’s Hall is one of the older buildings and certainly is impressive but unfortunately, during WWII, was extensively damaged on Hitler’s birthday. Apparently that was a coincidence and nothing to do with the resistance. The stone remained and the restoration gives one a sense of the space. It is part of the Bergenhus Fortress. We did learn more about World War II and the Norwegian resistance movement at Bergenhus Festningsmuseum.
Bergen was an important base for trade, especially from the 14-16th centuries and we learnt about the Hanseatic League. The trade between Grimston, in England and Bergen seemed to illustrate the larger networks that existed between cities during this wealthy period in the life of the city. Stockfish was traded for pottery. Almost all of the pottery unearthed was from this one town in England. We liked their face pottery a great deal.
The University Museum of Bergen is impressive. The archaeological, historical and cultural exhibitions are superb and very immediate. There is a distinct lack of glass cases separating the viewer from the artefact. The staff were really very helpful and we particularly appreciated the assistance with understanding Norwegian script. The pre-reformation church art, statues and iconography, including stained glass windows were wonderful.
“The exhibition design is innovative and will act as an incentive for debate and engagement.”
The exhibition that commemorated democracy (1814-2014) at the museum celebrated by offering opportunities to challenge ideas of what Norwegian democratic culture represented. The short film of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s most controversial (and one of my favourite) authors, reflecting on what the massacre in 2011 meant for him, as a Norwegian, I viewed twice. I guess he is reading an excerpt from Book 6 of My Struggle which is not yet published in English. I have contacted the curator and hope to gain access to the text, or even better, the short film, in coming days. I will update the post if possible to include what I found to be extremely affecting insights into the horror and challenge for a progressive democracy of the massacre. His comments about his own children, and yours, were deeply moving. The film is shot simply and Knausgaard’s presence captured well. The lighting and camera angles are very effective. It is a quality production.
Museums & Galleries
My knowledge of Norwegian art was limited to Edvard Munch prior to this trip. We certainly saw more his work and development courtesy of KODE: Art Museums of Bergen. The ‘art museums’ are 4 different buildings that house different exhibitions. There was much art on display I personally found banal but several younger artists stimulated the senses. Chief amongst these was Toril Johannessen who explores the spaces between art and science. She plays with language and examines scientific journals, often in a playful but dry and humorous manner. Tom S. Kosmo made me laugh…albeit darkly. I loved the ‘Great Blue Heron‘ by Kjetil Kausland. We were challenged by Robert Overby too (which was in another gallery). That one was definitely not for the kids.
There were two discoveries of Norwegian artists that resounded, for different reasons, in quick succession. Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) really grabbed my attention and I can see why he is such a favoured Norwegian artist. The colours in his early 20th century paintings are stunning. However, the work of Bergen born JC Dahl was interesting on many different levels. He was Norway’s great romantic painter and did much to develop the arts in his country. I really liked his paintings of clouds and landscapes. Like JMW Turner, he seemed to have a superior appreciation of light.
A Blind Eye by Rune Eraker (b.1961) made us all feel guilty. We are travelling in wealthy, first world countries when so many people are eking out subsistence-level existences in hostile environments. The land, their politicians and disease are often insurmountable opponents for so many people. The photography was thought-provoking and the kids wanted to know more about many of the images. It is easy to forget how much context, we as adults, have to bring to images. Political and geographical knowledge that can be imparted, often, easily. I like it when the kids ask good questions that elicit those kinds of responses.
On the way how from a big day of art galleries (we had just exited through the gift shop) we spotted a’ Banksy’ (see below) to challenge us even further. 😉
My daughters love Questacon in Canberra and the Science Centre in Bergen impressed them endlessly. We were there for half-a-day. The opportunity to record weather forecasts, our family obsession kicking-in perhaps, was pretty hysterical. I loved watching my 8 year old filling the robot up with different kinds of food to see the calorie intake. She really messed around with different combinations of food. The kids were recording and analysing data without even knowing it. This kind of kinaesthetic learning, on offer at science centres like these, really engage the kids…and tire them out. They were saving goals, riding bikes and testing their reflexes in many different contexts. It was a joy to behold. Just for fun, I did manage to make some photographic abstractions from the displays, while wandering around.
Fjords & Photography
My understanding of that famous Norwegian geographical feature, the fjord, has deepened beyond Slartibardfast’s insightful ruminations on his award-winning designs. Previously fjords have been ‘crinkly bits’ on maps so spending time exploring them has been very cool indeed. We spent a day on the river, in and around Flåm, exploring fjords. Stunning Nærøyfjorden is understandably a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We loved Bergen. My eldest daughter celebrated her eleventh, and first birthday overseas here – so it will be a special memory for her into the future too. We had a great, relaxing day with exquisite chocolates, instead of cake, after spending quite a few hours bathing, on water slides and enjoying the spa and sauna at yet another delightful Scandinavian pool complex. I am often guilty of “go go go” when travelling and having a chilled-out day was excellent (and appreciated by all no doubt).
Norway feels very different to Denmark or Iceland in a way I cannot put my finger on at all. It is very hilly comparatively but people seem different too. One could certainly live in Bergen, it is the most liveable of cities. If you are considering coming, do factor in that Bergen is the most expensive city I have ever visited. It really is extraordinary. Of course, one can live inexpensively but there is a real dearth of cheap restaurants and cafes. Save your pennies.
Here is the portrait my daughter made of me in Bergen and a selfie while visiting some stunning fjords.
Next stop, Prague!
Featured image: creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Darcy Moore: http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/14931878944