Fire, Water, and Charm

Text: John F.L. Ross

Ålesund, gateway to fjord countries, is a visual delight

Norway’s Atlantic coast, with its skerries, fjords and fishing villages, has the feel of the “real,” timeless part of the country. Yet Ålesund, a picturesque town about halfway between Bergen and Trondheim, seems transported from another time and place.

Water, water everywhere: that was my first impression of Ålesund as the plane from Oslo descended, a little worryingly, over the open sea, rain streaking the windows. The airport is perched on an island, Vigra, and the road into town takes in a liquid world: past a bay, over a bridge, under a deep tunnel, then another. Before reaching town you’ve crossed three islands.

Deposited in the late gloom and immediately lost, we were met by the sounds and smells of the sea. Ropes slapped against swaying masts, a foghorn bellowed in the night. Scents of salt, tar and fish permeated the night air – or was I imagining it? All the pictures in the room had sea themes. I even dreamed I was adrift on the ocean.

But by morning the watery confusion evaporated as we quickly found our bearings. As long as you remember the essential layout of the place – Ålesund is built like a ragged horseshoe around the protected Indre Havn, where kayakers dart among the ships at anchor – it’s easy to get around. It does make for quirky geography: you can practically throw a stone across the narrow harbor mouth, but to walk to the boat terminal there takes a good 20 minutes. The harbor seems to take center stage in Ålesund, a fishing entrepot that has long prospered on trade in sill and herring, mackerel and cod,

Place out of time
When you reach a certain age, places you visit for the first time bring to mind others you’ve seen. For me Ålesund immediately recalled Venice’s Grand Canal, only cleaner; it could equally be a miniature Amsterdam or Bruges. A closer look revealed an unmistakable Teutonic stamp.

Time as well as place has played tricks with Ålesund. Way back it was called Borgund and was a prime Viking port. But development was not gradual. Uniquely for Norway, the history of Ålesund is built around a before and after, its fate overturned on a single, tragic day.

Early on 23rd January 1904 a fire broke out in one of the wooden buildings, possibly from a candle. Flames whipped through town, fanned by an Atlantic storm. By afternoon some 850 buildings lay in ashes and 10,000 people were rendered homeless in the heart of a Norwegian winter. Miraculously just one died, and even she had tempted fate by reentering her burning home to save valuables.

Help was soon on the way. First to respond was Norwegian writer Alexander Kielland. A more unlikely savior also appeared. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, a regular area visitor who sailed the fjords aboard the royal yacht Hohenzollern, immediately dispatched three relief ships, which arrived within days.

Rebuilding Ålesund became an urgent national project, coinciding with independence in 1905. It gave an economic boost for a recession-hit country, providing work for the builders and architects who flocked there for work. This was a fitting role: Ålesunders are still known for their enterprising ways, and their reputation for being the hardest-working Norwegians is not one they care to deny.

What transpired was less urban regeneration than a kind of open-air art contest. The happy legacy for today’s visitor is a museum-like time warp, dating mostly from 1905-07. The prevailing theme is the Jugendstil or Art Nouveau, then wildly in vogue.  Each house (most are still in wood) is its own whimsical gem, ornamented with lace, flowers, meanders and fanciful faces. Bright colors predominate, so that whenever the sun shines (as it sometimes does), Ålesund positively gleams. You can spend hours just gazing at the facades. Even the town manholes have an artistic twist.

A tight harmony with the sea is retained via the common roofing style, slate tiles rounded like fish scales. It is as if turn-of-century Bavaria had landed on, and adapted to, this delightful stretch of Nordic coastline. Yet it was a thoroughly Norwegian project, since most of the designers had been trained in the German school, many in Munich.

Other sights
The Art Nouveau center on Apotekertorget, with its distinctive stone exterior, contains a turn-of-century pharmacy just as it was. Inside is a multi-media show featuring the fire and all it wrought. A nearby street hugging the sea, Molovegen, was left intact by the flames. It’s worth seeing, as is the jetty with the lighthouse nearby.

In Norway you’re never far from a great view, and a popular spot is the hill of Aksla that looms above town. It’s easier to spot than to reach; first through a nicely landscaped town park, then up 418 steps. The colorful town huddles at your feet and the vast expanse of the fjords and Sunnmøre Alps stretches into the distance. The cafe’s pretty good too, having hosted the likes of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

In the park far below stands a reminder of older times. Perched on a little knoll is a statue of Rollo or “Ganger Rolv,” a Viking chieftain born in the area (possibly on nearby Giske, yet another island). He wandered in Europe – so tall, it is said, that he traveled by foot rather than by horse – and ended up in possession of Normandy. The statue was cast from the original in Rouen and donated to the town. He was an ancestor to William the Conqueror, the Norman warrior who took England by storm in 1066. Rollo, and Ålesund, might well qualify as forerunners of modern Europe. The town, which borrowed richly from the European heritage, also added to it.

Fjord country
Ålesund is a popular stop for Hurtigruten, the coastal steamer and west-coast lifeline that doubles as a cruise liner. The boats run daily like clockwork from Bergen north to Kirkenes and back, all year. From Ålesund during fall the ships make a day’s detour into the Hjørundfjord, the heart of the Sunnmøre Alps. While less famous than the Hardanger or nearby Geiranger fjord systems, this was the kaiser’s favorite destination, and it’s easy to see why. The ship – ours, one of the newest, was the nicely named Fjordtrollen – goes as far as Urke, a peaceful hamlet. The last hour of the ride passes within tight channels sided by sheer mountainside, many topped by snow even in mid-September. Here the countryside is so rugged that the only way out is by sea. High in the peaks is is the famous Royal Route, which Queen Sonia has featured on her many walking tours. Further inland lies the “lost valley” of the Norangsdal (best seen with your own car).

If you go: Take walking shoes, an umbrella, and a mobile device to book excursions online if possible. Summertime is crowded (this is the fifth-largest tourist destination in Norway) but fall and late spring are great off-peak times to visit, though opening hours are shorter after mid-August.