Long. long ago, when I was working for a Big Ol’ Internet Travel Agency, I made the decision that one day, I would take a vacation that was strictly for me. I’d go where I wanted to go, where I didn’t know anyone so I wouldn’t feel obligated to make visiting time, and I wouldn’t go with anyone so that my itinerary was entirely mine.
At the time, I was thinking this mildly misanthropic and wholly selfish dream of a trip would be to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but in the intervening decades I have come to understand that I don’t so much like beaches. Or heat. Or constant sunshine. Or bathing suits. And definitely I do not like sand.
So okay. When the time came, I went entirely the other direction: Norway!
The city of Bergen, on Norway’s western coast, is the country’s second largest city and former capital. Lots of pop cultural things that Americans associate with Norway specifically come from Bergen – comedy duo Ylvis, singer Gabrielle Leithaug, composer Edvard Grieg, World Idol winner Kurt Nilsen, all of them hail from Bergen. Norway’s current Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, is also from Bergen.
Enough about that, the important thing is that Bergen is a very picturesque city and I had a freakin’ blast.
The Hanseatic wharf houses, or Bryggen, are probably the city’s most recognizable landmark. They certainly caught my eye when I was idly poking around deciding whether or not I wanted to go to Norway. I am an absolute sucker for buildings like this. I don’t know why this is, but I have decided I should just embrace it. In photos, they’re charming. In person? Enchanting. The buildings are all connected by a series of alleyways, and I know for a fact I didn’t do all the exploring of those nooks and crannies that I could have done.
The whole city was still decorated for Christmas here and there – I was a bit sad I had missed Julemarked – and the lights. The lights. Although the sun was setting at 3:45 PM while I was there, the city was never pitch black. I would turn a street corner and find a huge Christmas tree still ablaze with plenty of lights, I would walk down Strandgaten in the pre-daylight hours and there would still be strings of lights overhead. The apartment I was staying in was in the basement of a townhome that was still decorated with fairy lights.
Bergen is surrounded by mountains, and I had to take the Fløibanen funicular up to the observation deck on Mount Fløyen. I had seen the view from the Fløyen webcam so many times, and it was amazing, but again, in person? Incredible beyond words.
I met plenty of nice fellow travelers (one of whom took the photo of me on the Fløyen observation deck) and plenty of very generous and patient Norwegians who were extremely tolerant of my efforts to speak and understand Bergensk. I think I spoke it all right enough, people definitely understood me, but I did not understand them terribly well despite all my practice. Back to the listening comprehension drawing board!
Knitting nerd that I am, I did take a quick jaunt up to Dale, as in, yes, Dale of Norway, the folks responsible for so much awesome Winter Olympic knitwear. Visiting the factory store and checking out the championship sweater display was pretty cool.
Dale ended up being where two trip firsts occurred: it was the first place I successfully spoke Norwegian, and it was the first (and certainly not the last) time I was asked, hvorfor kommer du har nå (why have you come here now)?
I suppose they thought that the snow should have been more of a deterrent.
Explaining that I had lived in Wisconsin for two winters seemed like it was going to take longer than I felt like spending on the topic, so I always just shrugged and said, “I like snow.”
Besides, it was never all that cold, or all that snowy. Which was another reason I had selected the western coast of Norway for a winter jaunt rather than, say, Telemark. Maybe if I had ever in my life spent any time at all on skis, I’d go to Telemark in the wintertime, but I grew up in the swamps and I’ve never even strapped on water skis. I am content with a few inches of snow, a layer or so of handknits, and some good waterproof boots I can stomp around in.
Anyway, Telemark doesn’t have, as far as I know, the world’s largest gingerbread city, and Bergen does. For weeks, people and families and schools and companies build these elaborate gingerbread buildings, which are then gathered into one big white-draped room and displayed for the holiday season.
You don’t know what Christmas spirit is until you’ve walked into a room the size of a small gymnasium and been smacked straight in the snoot with a wall of ginger scent. It’s intense. I loved it. And of course my Christmas-loving self bought two big gingerbread hearts – dodging throngs of excited Norwegian children who were hurling themselves down a big plastic sledding hill and directly at my shins – to take back to my rental apartment and have with a cup of tea. The sales of the cookies help support Bergen’s continued dominance in the Gigantic Gingerbread City department. And eating the cookies helped to fortify me for watching New Year’s Eve fireworks over the wharf.
Possibly the coolest New Year’s Eve experience I have ever had. I thought back to last year, when I had set a firm intention to do something new and different for New Year’s Eve, and I was well satisfied with how I’d made that play out. Sometimes I do make good choices.
I mean, in short (uh…) I went to Norway and it was beautiful and amazing and I loved it and I am absolutely going back. Specifically to Bergen. Despite the hills. We did not talk about the hills, but there were hills. I have buns of steel now. It was worth it.
Absolutely and entirely worth it.