The real charm of Bergen lies less in its well-trodden waterfront area than in the numerous and distinctive little neighborhoods that most visitors never enter. Just behind St. Mary's Church is Sandviken, a hillside enclave of cobbled streets and odd-angled clapboard cottages in various stages of gentrification. In this mini-Haight-Ashbury, designers' and architects' studios share streets with everything from vintage clothing and jewelry boutiques to curry cafés, from various New Age healers to a shop specializing in white and black magic.
A 10-minute walk across town, students, artists, and actors lay claim to the area between the city's Art Nouveau theater and its university. The newest hangout here is Cafè Mago, a health-food joint, where the menu provides footnotes detailing the nutritional statistics of every entrée. Another hot spot is Cafè Opera, which combines a sixties coffeehouse with an art gallery, a restaurant (reindeer stew is a specialty), and a dance club (after 10 on weekends). This area also contains some of Bergen's most fashionable restaurants—big with the après-opera crowd—from the calm, well-lighted dining room of Naboen to the white-tiled salons of Soho Kitchen & Lounge.
Somewhat off the beaten track, Klosteret is another happening neighborhood. Edging the city's modern port, which is usually crowded with freighters as well as with megacruise ships that might otherwise mar the beauty of Bergen's downtown harbor, part of Klosteret has a gritty, industrial feel, with former factories now providing space for filmmakers, photographers, and performance groups. The other side of Klosteret is a fairy-tale village of gardens and wooden cottages that is now home to quirky galleries and shops such as Retro, a café specializing in Mid-Century Modern furniture, where you can sit on the merchandise while sipping a cappuccino.
Of course, there's more to Bergen than cool cafès and trendy neighborhoods. Heading the list of the city's serious cultural attractions is the Bergen Art Museum, with three major collections in three adjoining buildings. My favorite is the Rasmus Meyer Collection, which shows off the most important Norwegian artists from the 18th century to 1915. The star is, naturally, Edvard Munch; he's represented by 105 prints and 32 paintings, many of which reveal the lighter, brighter side of the famously tormented artist. Also unexpected are the powerful landscapes of Gerhard Munthe, the romantic portraits by Christian Krohg, and the crisp interiors of Harriet Backer, which foreshadow the Scandinavian Moderne look that eventually conquered the decorating world. More treasures hang in the museum's Stenersen Collection, which features all the major names in modern art, including a whole room filled with Picassos, another devoted to Paul Klee, and yet more Munch.
Bergen's main claim to fame on the cultural front is not art, however, but music. Perhaps no other city on earth has so many music festivals: rock in January, blues in April, chorales in May, jazz in May and October, tango in June, plus summer concerts at Troldhaugen, Grieg's enchanting lakeside home, as well as in the futuristic hall in town that bears the composer's name. In addition, there's the world-famous Bergen International Festival, which brings stars in music, dance, and theater to the city every year in late May and early June.
In Bergen, you never know when or where you'll find music. One evening a few days into my stay I decide to go to the top of Mount Fløyen, Bergen's striking downtown mountain, which shoots up a thousand feet, just two blocks from the waterfront. The sun is shining—again—so I forgo the funicular for a walking trail. The first few switchbacks are easy enough—offering great views of Bergen's peaked roofs and green mountains. But then the path grows steeper and I spend much of the next hour in a dark forest of tall trees, wishing I'd taken the tram after all. When I reach the top, I'm sweating and breathing hard, but my reward is a café with a huge terrace bathed in the golden light of a sunset that will last for hours. After an alfresco beer, I venture inside to peek at the formal restaurant, only to be stopped by the sounds of Mozart. A chamber music concert has just begun in Mount Fløyen's small theater. An usher invites me to enter, telling me not to worry about my shorts or baseball cap. A hike, a sunset, a beer, and now a little night music—can it get any better?
Except that it does. The next morning, it is finally time to take on the fjords. There are many ways to see them: bus tours, train trips, mini-cruises, even short hops via helicopter. And there are many fjords: some just a few miles beyond the harbor, others, like the stunning Hardangerfjord and Sognefjord, farther afield. For my initiation I've booked a 12-hour odyssey called the Glacier Trip to Fjaerland. In addition to traveling a good chunk of the Sognefjord—the longest (127 miles) and deepest (4,265 feet at some points) fjord in the world—I will be able to glimpse an arm of the spectacular Jostedal Glacier, the largest on the European continent.
My journey begins at 8 a.m. aboard a rather glamorous double-decker ferry with airplane-style business-class seats. Leaving the harbor, we glide under a series of suspension bridges that resemble small Golden Gates. Soon, we are in an area of lumpy islets and tidy farms. It's all rather þat at first, but an hour or so into the voyage, monolithic mountains start to layer the horizon, although the view is somewhat compromised by the largest oil refinery in Finland.
We make occasional stops to pick up and discharge passengers at lonely little ports. Eventually, the mountains are snowcapped and sheer, plunging into icy water that is now the clear blue-green of the Caribbean. At noon, we dock at a town called Balestrand and many of us leave the boat for a smaller, older, and slower vessel for the journey up a narrow cul-de-sac. The mountains are even more precipitous now, enclosing us in a gigantic wedge of green slashed with white. I soon spot the glacier in the distance: it's a ski bowl of grayish slush, smudging the otherwise pristine scene.
Another 40 minutes and the fjord opens into what looks like a large lake, edged by the loveliest village of the entire sail. This is Mundal, farmland on one side, high mountains on the other. The most distinctive structure in the village is the Hotel Mundal, a turreted, pale-yellow Victorian mansion. We dock here, but before I have time to check out the town and the hotel, we are herded onto a bus that takes us to a glacier museum and then supposedly to the Jostedal Glacier itself. The museum has all sorts of interactive displays and esoteric facts about the phenomenon of slow-moving ice that we call a glacier—but our "close-up" view of Jostedal is more of a medium shot and decidedly underwhelming.
Back in Mundal, I hope to have time to explore the village and perhaps have tea. But the boat is departing in five minutes. Quite simply, I don't want to leave this beautiful village. Something clicks inside me and I must now make one of those snap decisions that can affect the outcome of a journey in a major way. It turns out that my return ferry ticket will be good tomorrow, and there's room at the inn. So with no luggage other than a camera bag, I check into the Hotel Mundal.