To Bergen, Norway’s second city, for the opening of its university’s new £100 million waterfront Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design, KMD. Designed by Snohetta, the architects of Oslo’s landmark opera house, which rises from the fjord like a white marble iceberg, not to mention the recent radical reinvention of Times Square in New York, there’s every reason to believe it will become a landmark for the city.
Bergen as seen from the waterfront CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES/JEAN-PIERRE LESCOURRET
Ordinarily a university building, even one as architecturally inventive and beautifully finished as this, would be of limited interest to general visitors, but Kunst Musikk Design — to give it its full name — is like almost all public buildings in Norway accessible to visitors. In addition to its exhibition spaces, visitors who tour the building are likely to catch glimpses of its studios and workshops. Lectures here are also open to anyone, free and all in English. (While I was there I heard the British artist Jeremy Deller talk about his oeuvre and the philosopher Roman Krznaric speak on empathy.) And it has a pleasant place for lunch in Kafe Munck (named after a local crane manufacturer, not the artist).
KMD in Bergen CREDIT: KMD FACEBOOK
Bergen itself was yet more of a revelation, a captivating place for an easily accessible, yet off-the-beaten track weekend, altogether prettier than Oslo and less expensive too. Its chief attractions are, famously, access to the fjords by which it is surrounded, along with a string of seven mountains (hills, really, though rugged, forested ones) and the infinitely photogenic Unesco-protected harbour area Bryggen, a wharf of tall gable-fronted wooden houses, tenements (now filled with artists’ studios) and alleys, dating back to its medieval glory days as a member of the Hanseatic League, though rebuilt at the beginning of the 18th century.
The city itself is packed with museums (some quite niche, admittedly, unless the Norwegian knitting industry or leprosy hold a particular fascination), art galleries and historic buildings, and well worth a weekend exploring. It hadn’t occurred to me, for instance, that the late 19th-century American architectural style known as Carpenter Gothic (think of the houses in Psycho or Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic) is actually Norwegian. (Norway may be the richest country in Europe now thanks to its oil reserves, but so poor was it in the 19th century that between 1880 and 1890, 250,000 Norwegians – more than a ninth of the population – emigrated to the US.)
The dining room in Edvard Grieg’s house Troldhaugen, where the composer lived until he was 15 years old CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES/DEAGOSTINI
Visit the turreted clapboard home of Edvard Grieg, named Troldhaugen (literally Trolls’ Hill; the composer was fascinated by folklore and kept an endearing troll toy on his bedside table) or the Fantoft Stave Church, and you can’t help but be reminded of the architecture that inspired Disney’s Haunted Mansions. Troldhaugen is one of five museums that constitute KODE. It also includes another musician’s house (the fantastical island home, Lysoen, of the violinist Ole Bull, inspired by the Alhambra in Granada and built in the 1870s) and four art galleries strung out along the little lake of Lille Lungegård in the centre of the city – with collections ranging from old masters to contemporary work to exhibitions by Norway’s most famous artists: Edvard Munch and, at least till December 31, Nikolai Astrup, in whose captivating paintings the trees become trolls.
Fantoft Stave Church CREDIT: BERGEN
There is also a handsome, very comfortable new hotel, Bergen Bors, converted from the former stock exchange, with a spectacular suite on its top floor with views across the harbour (Bryggen is a five-minute walk away, as are components of KODE), fish market and Mount Fløyen, which rises 1,050ft above the town. From its summit (accessible via a funicular) there are sublime views over the fjords, their islets and the city. The views are said to be better still from the top of Ulriken (2,210ft above sea level), a nine-mile/five-hour hike away along a plateau trail, but the wind had put the cable car to the summit out of action the day I was there.
Suite accommodation at Bergen Bors CREDIT: ÅKE E:SON LINDMAN
Even so I was hungry for dinner at Colonialen – by all accounts the city’s best restaurant – found unexpectedly in Litteraturhuset or House of Literature. The room is an object lesson in understated Scandinavian design; I’ve never eaten more toothsome hake (with artichokes); and despite Norway’s reputation for expense the prices are reasonable by London standards.
Like almost everywhere I went, it was five minutes’ walk from the hotel. As I passed through an imposing square, Vagsallmenningen, I noticed a piece of public art: a giant ceramic jar, four metres (13ft) high and decorated in matt and metallic glazes that emits both sounds and steam. I asked what it was: a piece called Resonance, installed in 2004, came the answer, by Magne Furuholmen, a major player on the Norwegian contemporary art scene, whom readers of a certain age may remember as Mags from 80s pop sensation A-ha.
For more on what to do Bergen, see visitbergen.com.