Start with the soup, then try the fiords

Taste of tradition ... Saturday markets near the harbour.
Taste of tradition ... Saturday markets near the harbour. Photo: AFP

From its trademark Scandinavian delicacy to the markets and historic buildings, Bergen's deep connection to the sea is everywhere, writes Ewen Bell.

NOTHING says Bergen like a bowl of fish soup. That might not sound like a huge compliment but it is. The local recipe is rather old, full of good things and has been embraced by modern Scandinavian style. Just like Bergen itself.

Each spring, the snow melts from footpaths around Bergen and residents come out to enjoy the sun and a bowl of fish soup. The name really does lose a little in the translation. I was expecting something potent and pungent, with lumpy bits dragged out of the ocean deemed unusable for any other purpose.

Like the quaint and picturesque city of Bergen, the fish soup proved far more elegant than I would have imagined. Traditionally, the dish uses bones of coalfish (noted for its rich flavour) for the stock and is given some extra depth with the addition of pickled purslane and then brought together into a smooth mix with the help of blended seasonal vegetables.

My first encounter with Bergen fish soup is at the city's famous fish market, Fisketorget. From May until September, the market is the premium place in town for fresh seafood of any kind - shellfish, deep-sea creatures and a dazzling variety of North Atlantic species that sits high on the underwater food chain. Fresh fruit and vegetables surround the Fisketorget, making it a one-stop market for Nordic home cooking.

A small sign on one of the stalls advertises the modestly named soup, one of the few market specialties with seafood presented in a bowl instead of on ice. There was a time when Fisketorget was thronged with rowing boats and fishing vessels tied to the wharf, with fishermen trading their catch straight off the decks. This tradition dates back more than 500 years but modern regulations have made the market a more orderly sight.

I don't try the fish soup by the harbour. One of the local residents gives me a tip about somewhere special to make my introductory experience a memorable one. Spisestedet pa Hoyden, a 15-minute walk from the harbour, is an organic cafe that prepares its entire menu from Norwegian wholefoods. Everything, from mushrooms to lingon berries, is found within Norway, if not within a few hundred kilometres of Bergen.

Fish, wild meats from the mountains and shellfish from the shallows are coupled with vegetables and dairy goods that grow well in the local climate. The intention is to prepare dishes that reflect the culinary heritage of the region presented in a modern context. Such old-fashioned consideration for healthy and hearty foods has become nouveau once again in Scandinavia.

Head chef Hanne Frosta is a fan of Bergen fish soup. "The people of Bergen like the soup because of its long tradition and great taste," she says. "At our restaurant, the soup is made from the base up with the addition of smoked haddock and julienne of vegetables, with fish that is seasonally available."

The trade of fish in Bergen is integral to its history and identity. For fishing communities along the north-western fiords, the wharfs at Bergen are a hub for selling stockfish, cod and other species that can be dried in the cool northern air without salting. Stockfish stores well, travels light and provides flavour and sustenance.

The Norwegian word for wharf is bryggen, which is also the name used by locals to refer to the esplanade where historical timber buildings line the shore, once the site of the international stockfish trade. From a distance, the scene looks like something from a quirky Scandinavian fairytale: gabled timber buildings popping up from the cobble-stone streets like rows of wonky daffodils. Each construction leans slightly to one side or the other.

For the past 900 years, Bryggen has been decorated in a narrow range of hues, from white to orange and red. Locally sourced copper and tar dominate the palette because they are effective at preserving timber against the winter weather and salty air. It's not so much that Bergen has resisted modernisation; it just hasn't been in a hurry to do away with all of its traditions.

Most of the trading at Bryggen today involves cool artworks, warm clothing and inviting cuisine. Cafes and restaurants mix in with Nordic knitwear, fine galleries and exclusive jewellery. You can sample pretty much all of Norway right here without leaving the harbourside.

But the pretty facades of Bryggen and the full flavour of fish soup are not the primary attractions that draw holiday makers to the region. It's the fiords.

A day trip from the city centre takes you into some of Norway's most scenic landscapes, with massive mountains that plunge dramatically into the water.

For much of the year, the surrounding peaks are capped with snow, adding a dramatic finish to the scene. The mountains appear to slide into the fiords, although in reality they rise ever higher out of them - about an inch higher every decade.

Speckled in among this impressive natural beauty are a handful of villages that have carved themselves into the landscape. Tiny farms sit isolated by the geology of mountains, claiming a patch of semi-flat terrain with room enough for small dwellings, a jetty and a modest number of livestock.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the families who built their homes in this wilderness more than 1000 years ago in a stubborn act of defiance against the elements. Long before there were roads and buses, there were entire townships in these fiords, some surviving on the production of an unusual goats' cheese, while others caught fish in the wind-sheltered bays. The water was their highway in centuries past, albeit a slow and often treacherous one.

These were the people who brought trade to Bergen, who shipped their catch down to the Bryggen to be sold. Bergen's connection with the fiords is profound. They are more than just an interesting geological formation in the backyard, they are a part of Bergen's heritage.

Spring is my favourite season to visit Bergen and the fiords. The coast starts warming up while the mountains are still under snow. In the higher altitudes, the days are long and the snow is very deep. Trains between Bergen and Oslo are half-filled with skiers heading for a few days of cross-country adventure, while the other half are bound for Norway's scenic north-west coastline.

Where the railway line reaches its peak altitude at Myrdal, there's a side track that offers a brief but scenic journey. The Flamsbana service takes the short way down to sea level by zig-zagging its way across the precipitous edge of the Flam Valley. When completed in the 1940s, the train line was an engineering marvel, with 20 bridges carved into the mountain making the gradient manageable for small train carriages.

The train terminates at the town of Flam, from where you can catch a connecting ferry service that explores Aurlandsfjord and Sognefjord. From here, travellers can continue further north to explore dozens of other fiords, connect with ferry services or stay outdoors for hiking and biking adventures. Or they can just make it a day trip on the bus and train back to Bergen to enjoy more fish soup.

The fiords of western Norway may be the big drawcard for most visitors to Bergen but the cultural charms, timber homes, quaint wharfs and fishy cuisine are equally memorable and sure to keep them coming back for more.

The writer travelled courtesy of SAS, Visit Scandinavia and MyPlanet.

Trip notes

Getting there SAS flies to Bergen via Copenhagen daily with the option of combining economy with premium economy or business class. 1300 727 707, flysas.com.au.

Packed and ready MyPlanet Australia offers hotel accommodation in central downtown Bergen starting from $138 a person, twin share, inclusive of breakfast. Its two-day Norway in a Nutshell tour from Bergen starts from $690 a person, twin share. 1800 221 712, myplanetaustralia.com.au.

More information Go online to the Scandinavian Tourist Board at visitscandinavia.com.au or see Visit Bergen (visitbergen.com) for information on the city itself.

With the kids

FAMILIES get great value from Bergen, with all attractions within close walking distance, plus a range of outdoor adventures to keep active children entertained. Go online at visitbergen.com to find bike and GPS rental; go white-water rafting on the Voss; find a guide for walking tours; or choose a package of fiords, funiculars and the Flamsbana. If you prefer to stay close to town, the Bergen Card provides prepaid access to public transport around the city and offers discounts and free entry to museums, galleries, ferries and the aquarium. VilVite is an interactive science centre with a free shuttle from the Bryggen area every 10 minutes and is free to enter with the Bergen Card.

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