The Times: Ålesund Norway’s most beautiful city

Photo by Berit Hessen

Photo by Berit Hessen

This elegant port city was ravaged by fire in 1904 but it rose like a phoenix amid icy islands and snowy peaks

By The Times

The Norwegians have a saying: “I haven’t seen anything like it since Ålesund burnt down.” Since this charming port city invariably tops national polls as the most beautiful town in Norway, it was clearly some rebuilding job.

The destruction of Ålesund in a fire on a stormy January night in 1904 led to an international relief effort, with the French staging what was perhaps the world’s first charity concert at Sarah Bernhardt’s theatre in Paris.

The ever-practical Germans, however, sent architects who were eager to use Ålesund as a blank canvas to showcase the style of the day — Art Nouveau (also known as Jugendstil).

The result is a townscape of graceful gables, pointy turrets and countless ornate flourishes across pastel-hued façades. The Art Nouveau Centre, carved out of a period pharmacy, chronicles the fire and its aftermath, as well as exploring the style’s wider imprint, from Mackintosh’s Glasgow to Gaudí’s Barcelona. The Ålesund Museum, just above Kipervikgata, provides complementary displays.

The streets around Ålesund’s main church are particularly rich in Art Nouveau buildings, although admirers might also head just beyond the town centre to Borgund church, a wooden beauty set beside a collection of traditional houses at the Sunnmøre Folk Museum.

Down by the harbour a handful of pre-blaze survivors flaunts a contrasting white clapboard simplicity. Many house eclectic enticements — the Fabriken theatre, an antique warehouse, now doubles as a quirky café and a glassware centre with a sideline in covetable Norwegian couture.

There is also the little Fishing Museum, and as I sit on the breakwater by the tiny harbour lighthouse — an offshoot of the chic Hotel Brosundet — I’m glad to see that Ålesund retains the grit of a working port with ferries and trawlers streaming out into its stunning archipelago.

For a (literally) breathtaking overview, I climb the 418 steps from the miniature city park to the top of Mount Aksla and look out as Ålesund stretches away on its fish-hook-shaped peninsula, ringed by ocean and islands in a vast amphitheatre of snow-capped peaks that demand exploration.

Then it’s time for a longer trip: two hours from Ålesund by winding fjord road and ferry, the village of Øye marks the entrance to what locals have dubbed the “Magic Mystery Valley” — Norangsdalen. Here I find the Hotel Union, a ravishing Nordic country house hotel favoured by the European elite since the 19th century.

In its grand lounge before lunch I admire old photographs, my favourite showing Arthur Conan Doyle fooling around before “going off to Switzerland to teach the Swiss about skiing” — so the owner, Per Ola Ratvik, assures me.

Norangsdalen itself is epic, with every boulder or tarn seeming to boast a story — a flooded village concealing a Fabergé egg given by a passing tsar, a fallen rock still with the body of a woman beneath, and crumbling shepherds’ huts where rambling royals came to paint.

At Hellesylt my ferry pulls out to the unexpected strains of Me and Bobby McGee drifting from the bridge as we slide along the stunning Geiranger fjord, hemmed by sheer forested slopes where abandoned farmhouses cling and waterfalls plunge in silvery slivers.

At Geiranger I flee past the pier tourist shops and make my way up into the mountains as far as Djupvasshytta lodge, gloriously isolated by a mountain lake at an altitude of 1,000m, before doubling back for coffee and jaw-dropping views at the Westerhas restaurant above Geiranger.

Back in Ålesund I seek sophistication to match the nature. The glass-fronted Kulturhus and KUBE offer modern art in modern spaces, although it’s worth a half-hour ride to the island of Godøya, where the Alnes lighthouse, a 19th-century striped wooden beauty, showcases the leading painter in Norway, Ørnulf Opdahl, as well as Ålesund’s finest cakes at its period café.

Chic shops line Keiser Wilhelm Gate and Kipervikgata, with another cluster around Apotekergata, where my favourite is Invitas for its excellent coffee and gorgeous Norwegian interior design.

Through its hip lounge, though, a simple wooden deck bobs gently on the water surrounded by Art Nouveau visions — a perfect spot to appreciate Ålesund’s mix of charm, style and beauty.

NEED TO KNOW

Stay Hotel Brosundet (00 47 70 11 45 00, www.brosundet.no) has double rooms from £189 a night — room 47 in the lighthouse is from £450. The hotel has the city’s best restaurant, Maki (www.maki.no). Rent spacious fishermen’s cabins at Alnes (00 47 70 18 51 96, www.alnesrorbuferie.no) from £60 a day.

Eat and drink Ålesund hosts Norway’s Food Festival on Aug 26-30. Eat at Sjøbua (www.sjoebua.no) and the salt cod specialist XL Diner (www.xldiner.no). Good bars include Lille on Lovenvoldgata, Lys Punktet on Kipervikgata and Atlantica at First Hotel.

Getting there SAS (0871 5212772, www.flysas.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to Ålesund via Oslo from £236 return.

Getting around 62 Degrees North (00 47 70 11 44 30, www.62nord.no) offers cruises and the Fjord Magic tour, a one-day trip that includes Geiranger fjord and Norangsdalen.

Further information Visit Ålesund (www.visitalesund.com) and Innovation Norway (www.visitnorway.co.uk).

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