Travel Tuesday: Alesund, Norway
By: Melissa Jones
Ålesund bears very little about what makes Norway so appealing to its visitors. Disappointingly, it possesses no traditional stave churches found in South Norway, few wooden huts and hardly any ‘byggeskikk’ style houses. Yes, the town does bear the vibrant colours often associated with Scandinavian architecture but in a way few tend to think of as ‘Norwegian’.
In the north of our continent lies Norway. Travellers rarely venture beyond it main cities of Oslo and Bergen, merrily content with what sub-arctic circle delights they could find. But, look beyond the vast expansiveness of the forests and head upwards to that artic barrier, and a cultural masterpiece awaits on the bridge of the arctic lies a Sunnmøre Alps and nestled in their vast expansive fjords lies one of Europe’s undiscovered gems, Ålesund.
The town was originally a fishing town, home of Atlantic Cod and craft trade. It was also a place of historical significance in European history as it was home of Rollo, the first Viking leader of Normandy. On the 23rd January, 1904 a horrendous fire ravaged the town, gutting the centre of its traditional Norwegian wooden abodes. An evacuation was called, and within hours flames fanned by gales engulfed the town, destroying streets after street of traditional Norwegian, wooden architecture. As well as destroying a town of cultural and economic significance, this was a Norwegian humanitarian crisis which left 10,000 homeless. When townsfolk saw the extent of the damage the following morning many feared that Ålesund was lost, never to rise again.
The news of Ålesund’s devastation touched many, including Kaiser Wilhelm for whom it had been a much treasured retreat. Understanding the extremity of the damage, he sent ships with materials for refuge camps. After calling upon the expertise of some of the most talented architects in Norway who had been educated across the continent, the plans were made to rebuild a safer town. The new town would mirror the desires of a modern community. The area became a blank canvas for artistic experimentation. It was at this point that Europe was awash with the newness of the Art Nouveau. Naturally it became obvious that this was the style of choice for the vibrant young architects who redesigned the town. The town’s variant on this style was created and hereafter named Jugendstil. Completed in 1907, Ålesund became a uniform town and emanated Jugendstil, demonstrating many of the style’s quirks, including dreaming spires, curvaceous doors and vivacious colours. This flair was found not only on the exterior but also in the interior of the buildings.
Due to such a high concentration of the style in the area, Jugendstilsenteret, became the centre for the preservation and study of Art Nouveau, a gallery which opened in the town in 2003. The centre is home to many finely preserved examples of Art Nouveau interior design. It now works in partnership with many Art Nouveau strongholds such as Barcelona, Glasgow and Vienna. The town is particularly significant in Norway as the style was rarely found in the south of the country and Olso bore few buildings according to the movement.
While this beautiful town is a feast for the eyes, experiencing the area is difficult. For those who do not live in mainland Europe, travelling to Ålesund is hard. One can expect a change of flights in Schiphol airports, followed by a rather hair raising flight, in a rackety plane to the region’s airport which flies dangerously close over the Sunnmøre Alps. Norway is also extremely expensive and while cheap flight tickets may lure you closer promising a student budget, be prepared to live entirely on a diet of bread and cheese and what else can be found cheap in the local supermarkets. But its worth it, for what doesn’t quell your appetite will feed your soul.
Ålesundhas a unique atmosphere. It’s quiet and contemplative, yet welcoming and homely. The scent of sea is beautiful and fragrant and pervades the town like an ethereal mist. As one of the most important fishing harbours in Norway Ålesund is a haven for fish lovers. Many eateries serve a fantastic selection of fish dishes including a much loved Scandinavian favourite, Pickled Herrings. Beyond Ålesund there’s much to do in the town and the local area. Recently the town has started to identify itself as the adventure capital of Europe. The mountains, forests and woods provide fantastic opportunities for walks, bike rides and cycling. The area of the sunmore alps is equally as stunning as its leading town. For those in search of the traditional Norway, the neighbouring islands of Giske and Vigra boast its traditional and iconic wooden huts. On Alnes, one can find a lighthouse in the classic Norwegian style. Never one to allow its visitors to freeze, a cafe will serve beautiful cakes and smooth Norwegian coffee. Norwegian hospitality is undeniably warm and welcoming. Equally, the area is close to Geirangerfjord Fjord. A trip down this fantastic UNCESCO world heritage sight is worth whatever crazy measures are taken to visit this secluded part of the world.
As a 17-year-old visiting Ålesund, the scenery, the architecture and the good hospitality of the Norwegians who made this town visit unforgettable, will remain imprinted in my memory. As an undergraduate who studies History of Art, I am certain my visit had an impact on my love of the subject.