One of the most popular sights in Bergen, Norway, or for that matter in Norway as a whole, is the ancient wharf called Bryggen ('the harbour'). The area is full of life, and has an interesting history.
The World Heritage Site of Bryggen is all that remains of an ancient wharf on the east side of Bergen's central harbour - Vågen. The area was rebuilt following a fire in 1702 that reduced the whole city to ashes. Due to fires and urban renewal in our own time, only a quarter of the original structure is left. The buildings are arranged in tenements - long rows of wooden houses and store rooms on one or both sides of a common passage. At the back there are a number of stone buildings said to date back to the 15th and 16th Centuries. Today Bryggen is a living illustration of the city's history, with 61 protected buildings covering about 13,000 square metres. Bryggen has been on UNESCO's World Heritage List since 1979.
1070 - 1360 Bryggen
Bergen was founded by King Olav Kyrre around 1070. The city's oldest urban development and financial centre throughout medieval times was located on Bryggen. The earliest recorded buildings were single-storied post structures, set in parallel rows up from the shore which in the 11th Century lay about 140 metres further inland from today's quay front. As the need for storage space increased, the buildings were extended into the harbour. By the 13th Century, Bergen was an important centre for European trade, for the kingdom and the Church. By this time, Bryggen was a densely built-up area with around 30 tenements. Commercial sailing vessels from the Faeroes, the British Isles, the Baltic and Continental North Sea ports would lie moored on Vågen in front of the wharfs. It was through the port of Bergen the Black Plague entered Norway in 1349. The plague ended up killing more than half of the Norwegian population.
1360-1754 The Hanseatic Merchants
Around 1360, a Hanseatic Kontor, or trading office, was set up on Bryggen in Bergen, as in Novgorod, Brugge and London. For the next four centuries, the Germans dominated life on Bryggen. They based their trade on dried fish exports and grain imports. When the dried fish was brought from north Norway, the wharves and sheds seethed with activity. Counterpoise hoists were used to load and unload cargoes, which were then provisionally stored in quay side sheds before being taken to the warehouses. The Hanseatic Kontor on Bryggen was a male-dominated community characterised by hard work and strict discipline. The Kontor had its own laws and educational system. Members were not allowed to fraternise with the locals, and especially not with the local women.
Fish dried in north Norway was the country's most important export commodity. The many religious fasts in Europe's Roman Catholic countries ensured a steady demand for stockfish. In turn, Norway depended on grain imported from England and the Baltic countries. Bryggen acted as an entrepôt for this trade. Luxuries such as textiles, wines and ceramics were also imported in large quantities. Though most of the buildings on Bryggen were built as warehouses, they also housed simple offices and living quarters for merchants, journeymen and apprentices. Assembly rooms - schøtstuer - were located in the rear of each tenement, and the men would gather here for meals and recreation. Today, Bryggen is the only Hanseatic Kontor still in existence.
1754 - 1899 The Norwegian Kontor
The position of the Hanseatic League in Europe grew weaker during the 16th and 17th Centuries as various national governments gained stronger control over their own trade. Norwegian merchants took over the first Hanseatic firms on Bryggen in 1630, and by 1740, only nine firms were left in German hands. Many of the German merchants became citizens of Bergen. On 17 October, 1754, the Norwegian Kontor was set up to replace the German Kontor. The old system remained virtually unchanged, with the Norwegian Kontor adopting the Hanseatic regulations and methods of trade and German remained the everyday language. The disbanding of the Norwegian Kontor on 31 December, 1899, signalled the end of an old and unique way of trading.
1850 - 1955 Change and Decay
After the 1850s, the arrival of the industrial era was also felt on Bryggen. The traditional stockfish trade was gradually replaced by new businesses. The old harbour area soon became unsuited to the requirements of modern and rational transportation and storage of goods. New zoning plans demanded redevelopment. Maintenance was neglected and decay set in. By 1910, the southern part of Bryggen had been torn down and replaced by five-storied brick structures. In 1927, a preservation order was issued for the northern section but the decay continued. In 1944, an explosion in the harbour destroyed large areas of the roofs, and then in 1955, a fire destroyed half the remaining buildings. Bryggen's future was uncertain.
As you walk through the narrow passages and along the dark covered balconies, you are transported back through the centuries, into the dim past of history. But Bryggen is not a museum. It is a living cultural heritage. The area today houses a wide range of shops, artists' studios, craft workshops, restaurants and offices. To the north there is the Bryggen Museum with its exhibitions of the rich findings from Bryggen's medieval history. To the south, the Hanseatic Museum enables the study of living conditions of the Hanseatic merchants. Together with the buildings on Bryggen, they provide a unique insight into life on Bryggen from the Middle Ages to the present day.