Friday, May 09, 2014

Bergen – The City of Seven Mountains

Straight from the blistering 42 degrees May heat of New Delhi, landing at Oslo several latitudes up on the globe can cause a steep, unexpected drop in mercury levels of those old thermometers of yore which used to signal something drastically different not necessarily for bad reasons though.

The wind outside the Oslo airport from where I need to take a train to Oslo Sentralstasjon is predictably chilly for my Delhi skin, and there seems to be a nip in the air exacerbating the effect. I am not well prepared for this climate a voice in the brain tells me, evaluating the contents of the small backpack which is the only luggage I have. I am on my way to Bergen, a 6 hour ride from Oslo on the Bergen Railway that runs from Oslo to the Western Coast of Norway, crossing the Langfjellene mountains and the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.

After spending 5-6 hours in downtown Oslo shivering through its most popular attractions and getting the usual tourist clicks at the Royal Palace and the Vigeland Park, I am ready to ride the Bergen Railway arguably one of the most scenic train routes on the planet. Completed in 1909, this 500 kilometers line is Northern Europe's highest stretch of railway with almost 100 kilometers of tracks running through the wild mountain country. The train crosses several areas of open countryside, wooded valleys, lakes, and snow-capped mountains to reach the western fjords of Norway. The route also passes through Finse, the highest railway station in Norway (1222 meters above MSL) located above the ridge of Hardangervidda. Between Finse and Myrdal, the train runs atop a relatively flat mountain-plateau covered with thick snow even at this time of the year a treat for the eyes. The Bergen Railway route is known for its several tunnels dug through the mountains, the longest of which is more than 5 kilometers in length (the Gravhalstunnel).

Soaking in the the artistic beauty of the countryside all through the train journey, I get into Bergen a city surrounded by many mountains whose numbers is arguable. It is Norway's second largest city and even served as Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. The old name for Bergen was Bjørgvin, meaning 'the meadow among the mountains'. It was one of the trading posts (kontors) founded by North German merchants (Hanseatic merchants) who traded in cod and stokfish with fishermen from northern Norway in the 13th century. The area of Bryggen, a World Heritage Site, is a medieval style reconstruction of the old warehouses used centuries ago by the Hanseatic merchants. The city has seen numerous fires and in one of them in 1702, almost entire Bergen burned. Most of the old buildings of Bergen, including Bryggen, were rebuilt after the fire. The area around Bryggen is a lovely walk in the evening, offering great views of the numerous yachts and cruises parked along the bay. There's a small market on the harbour that sells local culinary preparations of the day's catch the prices, however, like the rest of Norway, could be steep for what's on offer.

Another must-do on the list in Bergen is the hike up to Fløyen, a plateau in the mountain massif north-east of the city center offering some great views of the city. It is also served by a funicular (Fløibanen); however, it's advisable to take it only one way, and walk down the other way through the numerous alleys and beautiful hillside houses of the city. The view up at Fløyen is magnificent on a clear day such as the one coinciding with my trip, the top offers a bird's eye view of the main fjord. Bergen could be notorious about weather, though; clear sunny days switch to rains in less than 10 minutes (it rains almost 260 days a year in Bergen), and not carrying an umbrella or a poncho could lead to scampering into the souvenir shops. The sunlight itself during summers is generous it's a treat to visit these areas in the summer having almost 18-20 hours of daylight.

My host at Bergen is Eugene, a student from Belarus working towards his Masters degree in computer algorithms at the local University. The city has numerous student accommodations, the biggest one being at Fantoft a suburban locality to the south of Bergen served by the city's modern tram called Bergen Light Rail (Bybanen). I meet Eugene in his hostel room at Fantoft, and amongst other things, learn about one of the quaint urban traditions of the students here "diving."  About once a week, Eugene and his friends (all postgraduate students) leave on foot or bicycles at about 11 in the night to various supermarkets, grocery chains and other food stores, scourge the trash of the day, and rescue eatables. It might sound repulsive at first, but considering how easily the supermarkets throw away stuff, it becomes increasingly easier to "digest" the novelty of this method. Most of the bigger chains discard food which do not conform to the highest levels of quality checks a little mark in the skin of fruits, just day old packs of bread, coffee and packed groceries with damaged packaging due to manhandling, several products which are nearing their stated expiration dates strict Norwegian laws constraint the chains to give-away these items directly as charity lest someone sues them for feeding stuff gone bad, and it's always easier to just trash them. The rescued food is distributed amongst the gang, and students wash and store them for consumption over the next few days. Eugene tells me he hasn't bought any food except oil over the last several months. The process also makes him a great experimenting cook based on what he finds after a dive, he generally tries to cook something out of it. During the night, we try to make a pancake from some bananas, chocolate milk, and semolina, all 'dived' during the previous week! Eugene introduces me to Stephan Micus' music, a music so beautiful that it seems to reflect the beauty and magnificence of the world outside the hostel windows. I am lost in the thoughts of exploring a bit of Norwegian countryside from Bergen, and Eugene's experienced hands over the Jew's Harp produce a beautiful trance music at this midnight hour curing me of the tiredness of day's walking and putting me to sleep.

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