06 September 2012

Bergen's Hanseatic Bryggen

This is Norway's "city of rain." On wooden streets – even if they are storm-soaked and age-softened – footsteps echo so loud that two people can sound like a troop.  Bergen’s Bryggen (the name translates to “wharf”) is a neighborhood of lilting gutters, odd angles, old houses, blind corners, narrow spaces and medieval history.
Created in the 11th century, settled by the Hanseatic league in the 14th and updated during the late renaissance, the pretty stretch of buildings is the symbol of Bergen, a UNESCO site and an unfailingly charming tourist trap.
At every Bryggen entrance, there’s a big “no smoking” sign.  It seems silly on wet days in September, but the city is truly worried.  Most of the buildings have burned down at one time or another.  Fire destroyed most of the buildings in 1476 and 1702.  In 1955, several of the waterside houses were flattened in a conflagration that burned more than one third of Bergen.  In each case, the buildings were carefully reconstructed according to the original settlement plans, with old tools and methods  - which is interesting in the 20th century, but is astounding for the 15th and early 18th centuries.
The result is a fascinating area of boarded canyons and dripping clearings, filled with shops and confused tourists.
The Hanseatic League was, during the middle centuries of the last millennium, the pre-eminently powerful trading force in northern-coastal Europe.  The German-based association of tradesmen (all of them bachelors, all of them sworn to German law and the Holy Roman Emperor) existed as a kind of extra-state, self-governing partnership.  They set up enclaves in cities from London to Novgorod, with closely-held internal management, and essentially built their own cities - Gdansk, Bruges, Malmo - where they could.
Bergen was an outlier, far away from the north coast of the continental mass.  Still, its sea wealth and northern location made it a valuable outpost, and it became a major Hanseatic port. The Bryggen kontor, or enclave, was established in 1360, mainly to trade in Atlantic fish (which was brought to the south) and southern grains (which the people of Norway had a difficult time growing).  As a Hanseatic settlement, it was excused from local rulership and laws.  The traders mostly kept to themselves.
Wandering through the Bergen Bryggen, it's easy to feel off-kilter, as though you've just stepped off a rolling ship's deck.  None of the lines are plumb, none of the windows seem square.  People bump into eachother in wooden passageways - the whole place seems more in danger of tipping over than burning up.  It's especially off-kilter after the square lines of the modern town and present-day Norway in general.
In Bergen, like in most Hanseatic enclaves, the trading center was a compact and well-guarded compound close to the docks.  These mini-towns consisted of the trader's houses, storerooms and shops, all enclosing open courtyards where markets were held and goods were unloaded.  Today, there are high-price hair salons and antique stores, souvenir shops, art galleries and clothing boutiques scattered along the wooden walls.  They all have a quaint, nordic softness to them; frayed wool and well-worn wood, moose-heads hung on the walls, bold paints and grey skies overhead.  The courtyards are of well-rounded cobblestones.  The shop-proprietors are Norwegian now - not German - and generally they trade in tourism.
The Bryggen is one of those places that at first looks tiny, then feels huge, then reverts back to feeling small.  From across the harbor, it appears as a simple row of buildings.  A few minutes wandering through wooden alleys makes it seem like an endless sequence of corners and uneven boards.  Roofs hang, second-floor protrusions loom.  Then, it runs out - a few turns through and one realizes they've passed the same courtyard twice, the same yarn store three times.

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