Northerly dispatches – How Bryggen saved me from hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a word describing a situation that everyone familiar with Greek will understand. In a nutshell, your body temperature gets too low, to the level it can no longer sustain life. Now, I won’t go into pretending that, on one Saturday afternoon in Bergen, I risked my life; but it’s safe to say that I wasn’t in my best shape either.

If you were to pass by the hallway of the Methodist church in Bergen on that Saturday afternoon, you’d have also seen a pathetic figure, huddled around a soaked backpack, looking miserable and, above all, wearing exactly the wrong kind of windstopper jacket. You probably would have spared a thought for that poor sod and, perhaps, wondered what kind of weather forecast he had listened to before choosing such a woefully inadequate garment. The poor sod was me, and the forecast was BBC’s.

Plenty of similar misadventures had happened before, always thanks to the Beeb, and this time it was no different. BBC said a nasty wind would’ve blown, but made no mention of rain. Hence I chose to bring my sturdiest jacket, scoring well in everything but a hood, for it didn’t have one . When the proverbial storm struck, then, I had to resort to seeking shelter in hallways and under balconies, all while cursing the BBC. Last time ever I’m going to trust them, I told myself for the seventh time.

I kept on leaping from shelter to shelter for a little while, mulling alternatives. Cafés seemed packed, and were definitely expensive. I didn’t seem to be finding museums, or churches, open for business and, moreover, repairs from the elements were starting to be scarce. Then, finally, I bumped into Bryggen.

imageIn 1360 a group of men arrived in Bergen. They were traders and, as soon as they arrived, they knew this was a good place to do business: stockfish and timber could be exported from the Norwegian valleys and fjords, while cereals and cloth could be sold here. These men were from the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guild which can – and rightly so – be considered as the grandaddy of all the India Companies. With time they set up a compound of offices, warehouses and workshops in an area called Bryggen, Norwegian for “wharf”. There they stayed until 1760, when the city repossessed the wharf.

imageWhat remains is a group of 50 buildings, made entirely out of wood. Wooden are the main pillars, the stilts, walkways, passageways, walls and window frames. Aged about 400 years old, these buildings have survived wars and unrest, weather and rodents, fires and vandalism, and are still used today.

imageI quickly discovered that this maze of alleyways faintly smelling of forest no longer hosted warehouses but, instead, touristy shops on the front and establishment as diverse as massage parlours, architects’ and laywers’ studios, restaurants and art galleries. But, more importantly, they also offered shelter from rain.

imageA set of walkways linked one warehouse to the other, whilst many had covered passageways and areas where one could sit for many a minute, undisturbed, tasting the rich wood perfume that still emanated from the walls, hundreds of years after these logs had been cut from their forests.

imageimageBryggen couldn’t have arrived to my rescue at  better moment. The driving rain, if possible, seemed to intensify and the air grew colder. Thick clouds descended from the mountains with their load of wet misery, but I didn’t care. I sat on a set of steps, slowly drying off and listening the droplets of water ticking on the roofs above me; it was a good place to have a beer or two and it seemed I hadn’t been the first to think about that.

imageAfter a little while the rain gradually lost momentum and I began to move again. A few doors were open, revealing an interior unsurprisingly made of wooden panels and furniture, even if the sight of a modern laser printer was odd to say the least. Another shop sold ropes and soap, which obviously go hand in hand. A quick peep through a closing side door revealed the warehouses of a fur coats shop, with animal skins all clasped to hooks in orderly lines.

imageimageSoon enough, however, it was time to leave Bergen. My time was short and plagued by adverse weather. Despite that I felt a deep love for the city, and a strong sense of gratitude for Bryggen: much like a port is a welcome sight in choppy seas, Bryggen was my harbour. Thanks a lot, men from the Hanseatic league.


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