Bryggen / Bergen, Norway / February 2016
On historic Bryggen, the Hanseatic League, merchant runes, and walking medieval wooden corridors.
Certain historic sites act as time machines: when you step inside them, you are immediately transported to a bygone era. Bryggen (“the wharf”) is one of these places. The row of two- and three-storied wooden houses (gård) on the harborfront, each with pointed gables and painted a distinct shade of white, brown, red, yellow, or orange, is an instantly iconic sight. In the alleys behind the postcard view, though, history really starts to envelop you.
It had been raining since we arrived in Bergen, a charming harbor city on the southwestern coast of Norway. Rain is usually a bummer for a trip given that it drives you indoors, but we’ve become fairly immune to it after living in England for two years. Later, a server at Fisketorget (the fish market) told us that it is in fact always raining in Bergen – or at least, it rains two out of every three days. Venturing out in the incessant drizzle seemed the right way to truly experience Bergen.
The buildings of Bryggen now house a series of restaurants and souvenir shops that all sell pretty much the same goods.1 Design firms and other offices occupy the second and third levels. The presence of these shops is less anachronistic in reality than it sounds here, in part because the streetview of Bryggen feels a bit like an Epcot façade shielding the real deal behind it.
Though the buildings appear seamlessly stitched together, each is separated by a narrow alleyway you can walk through. When it’s raining, the wooden tunnels empty of people and the scent of centuries of history mingles with an earthy damp-wood smell.2 In these shadowy alleys you can experience this place as it was in its prime: one of the four overseas offices of the Hanseatic League (and the only one which survives today).
Founded in 1070, Bergen was an important medieval port, providing a sheltered harbor and access to a seemingly endless supply of stockfish sourced from northern Norway. In 1191, Danish Crusaders arrived and wrote that the stockfish was so bountiful that it could hardly be weighed. At around the same time, the Hanseatic League was consolidating its hold over trade in the region. The League was a confederation of merchant guilds and market towns which, during the Middle Ages, aimed to protect the economic interests of its members and trade routes in the Baltic/Northern European region. Kontors (offices) were established overseas as trading posts, and in 1360 one was opened in Bergen, centered in Bryggen.
Bryggen, as UNESCO describes it,3 housed a colony of bachelor German merchants who lived and worked in the district. In 1955, a trove of medieval runic inscriptions was found in Bryggen, etched in pine and significant for their elaboration on everyday life (rather than epic or solemn themes). These provide clues as to the merchants’ daily existence – my favorite is B149: “Gyða segir at þú gakk heim”, loosely translated as “Gyða tells you to go home.” The exact meaning behind these words may be lost to history, but given the context, I can hazard a guess: some poor merchant drank too much, and Gyða (weary bartender? solicitous bystander? helpful friend?) unwittingly preserved for posterity this always solid piece of advice.
The downside of building a district of wood, though, is susceptibility to fire. Bryggen has burned down several times, including in 1476, 1702, and 1955, and was rebuilt each time in keeping with the traditional structures.4 Bryggen today, then, is a mashup of old, new, and newer structures built on medieval foundations. However, while modern traders in the new Bryggen may hawk suspect “historically-inspired” goods hailing to the district’s past, you need only step into any alley to feel the League’s presence in every board of timber.
And . . .