I arrived in Bergen on a day so spectacular it looked almost unreal. A brilliant blue sky was reflected in the city’s central lake, punctuated by a shimmering fountain; at water’s edge, students sprawled on emerald-green grass under bright-pink cherry trees in bloom.
The entire city seemed to be in bloom as well. We were in the middle of the Bergen International Festival, an annual highlight in Norway’s cultural capital, and streets, parks and plazas were jammed with cosmopolitan crowds. You could tell immediately who was local and who was not: Norwegians wore T-shirts and shorts, while the out-of-towners sported fleece and parkas. Whether you find 65 degrees summery, it turns out, is a matter of what you’re used to.
Bergen is perched amid fjords and mountains where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, a strategic position that has long ensured its economic vitality. Since medieval times, when the wooden wharves at Bryggen hosted the Hanseatic League, Bergen’s waterfront has been central to a fish-and-oil-based economy.
Yet until the fairly recent North Sea oil boom, Norwegians were a largely poor nation of peasant-farmers — a legacy that still shapes the national character, which values humility and modesty and shuns conspicuous consumption. “Bergen has no luxury hotels,” a local guide told me as we strolled downtown Bergen, admiring statues of local heroes like Ibsen and the violinist Ole Bull.
The message: You’ll be comfortable anywhere you stay, but you can’t outspend your neighbors in a $5,000-a-night luxury suite, because such things run counter to the national psyche.
It was a refrain I heard in one form or another throughout my stay in Norway. Norwegians are justly proud of the well-organized harmony of their country — a place where everyone’s income is above average, nobody worries about affording surgery or child care or college, and there is such widespread faith in your neighbors’ reasonableness that they don’t even check IDs at the airport. Ostentation is held in such low regard, Oslo Chabad Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm told me, that parents encourage their children not to show off or stand out — a contrast to countries like the U.S., where children are encouraged to be unique and special. “Why can’t everywhere else be like Norway?” I heard over and over.
At some point, however, boasting about modesty can seem more boastful than modest. And after all that perfect harmony, it came as a bit of a relief to find some discord. While sunny Bergen looked like something out of a fairy tale, there had to be a dark side to the land of Edvard Munch.
I found it at the Munch exhibit in the Kode Museums, a complex of lakeside villas that house Norway’s greatest art collection. While Oslo has more Munchs, Kode has an impressive series of rooms devoted to the artist’s iconic themes: death, melancholy and existential angst, all in prosaic settings tweaked with a frisson of terror.
Why schlep all this way to see Munch, beyond the fact that most of his oeuvre remains in Norway? After a week in Scandinavia, I was struck by the organic way that Munch’s paintings echoed the aesthetics of his natural surroundings, something that never occurred to me in New York.
The disquieting, undulating curves of “The Scream” were undeniably reminiscent of the Norwegian coastline, whose watery inlets and craggy fjords are omnipresent even in cities. The strange, eerie light that characterizes so many Norwegian landscape pictures — blood orange skies and pale silvery-blue nights — made intuitive sense after a week of midnight sunshine. And given that Munch is the only artist widely known outside Norway, it was enlightening to see the Nordic perspectives of his countrymen, the painters J.C. Dahl and Nikolai Astrup.
Next door, there were more Munchs in a wing devoted to 20th-century giants, along with Picassos, Mirós and some stunning works by Scandinavian modernists like Anna-Eva Bergman. Nobody seemed to know about these treasures, though: I had the galleries all to myself.
Wandering back out into the sunshine, I browsed the modern shops along Torgallmenningen, a broad pedestrian thoroughfare. A brief swing through the shops revealed that I can’t afford to buy clothes in Norway (and explained why Scandinavians are among the most-represented tourists in New York, taking Macy’s and Abercrombie by storm). For $10, however, I bought a picnic lunch that ranks among the best take-out I’ve had: a crusty multi-grain loaf stuffed with salmon and garnished with dill, cucumbers and lemon.
While central Bergen is flat, its most scenic vistas are found in the hilly district around the harbor. Cobblestone alleys wind upward through neighborhoods of old wooden houses; corner bakeries and flowering window boxes give the area a charming, small-town feel.
Just up from the Bryggen wharf, I caught the Floibanen Funicular, Bergen’s most popular attraction. Seven very vertical minutes later, I found myself atop one of the peaks that ring the city, gazing out at mountains, bays and a city that stretches from fjord to ocean.
It was a view reminiscent of San Francisco, yet the light and colors were unmistakably Nordic. If Bergenites forget their modesty and brag about the view, I can’t blame them in the least.