More than a fairy tale
Ålesund provides a perfect blend of past and present
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
Located on the west coast of Norway in the Sunnmøre region, about 147 miles northeast of Bergen, the city of Ålesund is made up of seven islands connected by bridges.
The city center is known for its beautiful Art Nouveau or Jugendstil architecture and is often celebrated as the “Venice of the North.”
With its extraordinarily beautiful natural setting and colorful painted buildings, there is no other city in Norway or Scandinavia that can be compared to Ålesund—making it a truly unique destination.
Ålesund is rich in history, art, and culture, yet its industry—with the most important fishing harbor in Norway—has always been the driving force behind its way of life.
Today Ålesund is a comfortable, modern city, marked by innovation, a perfect blend of old and new.
National Geographic magazine most aptly noted, “Ålesund could be the backdrop for a Nordic fairy tale, with a modern plot twist.”
The best view of Ålesund and its surroundings is from Fjellstua—the Mountain Cabin—on Mount Aksla. To get there you can walk the 418 steps up from the City Park, drive, or take a train.
Once at the top, there is a panoramic view of the archipelago, the beautiful city center, and the amazing Sunnmøre Mountains. You can also enjoy an outdoor restaurant and café.
Once back down in the city center, you will discover that Ålesund is a modern city, full of the hustle and bustle of daily life, yet it still takes time to welcome the many tourists who come from all corners of the globe to experience its natural and humanly crafted beauty.
The tourist information office in the center of the city is a valuable resource with access to everything you will need for a successful visit. A professional guide can walk you through the town to show you the sights and share their history with you.
The legend of Rollo, the first ruler of Normandy in northern France, lives on in Ålesund. His exact origins are unknown, but many believe Rollo was born in the medieval city of Trondheim, farther north of Ålesund.
What is known for sure is that Rollo was a great Viking warrior and chieftain, who took control of the Viking settlements in Normandy in the charter of 918.
For the more adventurous, “Rollo’s Footsteps” is billed as “the ultimate Viking tour.” On this walking tour, the guides are dressed in Viking garb and will tell the story as it is told in local folklore and the Icelandic sagas.
You set out at the harbor gate by a Viking ship and end up at the foot of Rollo’s statue. Not only do you learn about Viking life (including a Viking meal), you will see much of the inner city.
The Great Fire of Ålesund
But to understand the Ålesund of today, you have to go back in history. If you go back to the turn of the 20th century, the city looked much different, before the great fire of 1904.
The fire started around 2 a.m. in the Aalesund Preserving Company factory, when a cow kicked over a torch. The winds quickly spread the fire, the flames ravaging most of the city. In total, nearly 850 houses were destroyed, leaving about 230 houses intact.
Fortunately, the town was quickly evacuated, and only one person died, an elderly woman who went back to her house to get her purse.
Money was sent to Ålesund from all over Norway and abroad to rebuild the city. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany had been a frequent visitor and much of the international help was sent from Germany in his name—in fact, his first telegram was received while the fire was still being extinguished. He dispatched four ships loaded with personnel, food, medicine, materials for shelters, and equipment.
The city then was rebuilt in the Jugendstil or Art Nouveau style of the time, shaping how the city looks today. The wooden buildings that had burned down were rebuilt in concrete, a building practice to be mandated in all Norwegian city centers.
Like putting frosting on a cake, the drab grey concrete was painted in a rainbow of colors and decorated with Jugendstil ornamentation to craft the charming fairy-tale atmosphere. Today, you could almost believe you’re in Disneyland, but you’re not: Ålesund is a real city, full of real life, a fusion of beauty and utility, old and new.
Each building shines like a unique gem, and because the city is built on islands, there is a sense that no space has been left unused, with a very special economy of space. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the “narrowest house.” In Ålesund, there seems to be something to admire everywhere you turn.
A city of museums
For visitors, wishing to immerse themselves further in the world of Art Nouveau in Ålesund, the Jugendstil Museum located in an old pharmacy in the center of town can keep you fascinated for hours. One of the biggest attractions is the multimedia “Time Machine,” in which you can take yourself even deeper into Ålesund’s history.
Housed within the complex is the art museum KUBE, a living cultural center, offering a diverse program of exhibitions and public activities, in the visual arts, applied art, design, and architecture.
For the more serious history buff, a trek to the Ålesund City Museum is a must. The museum is also beautifully situated in the center of town with an excellent view of the harbor and museum park.
First built in 1919, still today the museum has a distinctive character to take visitors back through time. Here the history of Ålesund is presented through artifacts, photographs, and paintings, with exhibits that range from an old country store to Arctic explorers to the Second World War.
At the Sunnmøre Museum, you will learn more about the people of the Sunnmøre region, going back to Viking times. The open-air museum consists of 55 very old and distinctively picturesque houses to admire, and there is a vast boat collection, including replicas of Viking ships. The Medieval Age Museum is also located there for you to explore.
Ålesund and the sea
The maritime history of Ålesund also merits exploration, the industry both a past and present cornerstone of the economy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the port of Ålesund was one of the chief stations of the herring fishery business, and today, the town’s fishing fleet is one of the most modern in all of Europe.
Nearby, a large shipbuilding and ship equipment industry has evolved. When oil was found in the North Sea in the 1970s, the local fishing fleet ship owners began to rebuild fishing vessels to serve the oil industry.
A memorable chapter in Ålesund’s maritime history is the story of the covered lifeboat Uræd—in English, the Unafraid— the “egg that crossed the Atlantic.” Ole Brude was a Norwegian sailor, who designed his lifeboat to sail across the Atlantic for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mo. When he encountered a powerful storm off the shore from Gloucester, Mass., the lifeboat functioned as planned. Brude never made it to the World’s Fair, but when he returned to Ålesund, he was hailed as a hero.
At the Norwegian Aquarium, visitors can learn about the sea life found in the waters surrounding Ålesund. Inside the aquarium center, families and schoolchildren have more opportunities to observe, experience, and learn about life at sea along the Atlantic coast, as they immerse themselves in an underwater world.
Festivals and recreation
Family life is important in Ålesund, and everywhere you look, you will find people of all ages engaged in recreation, both indoors and outdoors. In keeping with the economy of space of the city, when the weather is nice, a popular activity is outdoor table tennis.
But one of the most exciting traditions in Ålesund happens every Midsummer, when the city builds the largest bonfire in the world. The Ålesund bonfire is the modern version of an old pagan tradition, going back to medieval times, when bonfires were lit to keep the evil forces away on the eve of the summer solstice during the feast of Sankt Hans.
There are numerous excursions to take from Ålesund, by both land and sea. About an hour and a half away by car from the city, a popular destination for local families and tourists alike is Gudbrandsjuvet, a dramatically deep ravine. The Valldøla River runs through it, with deep potholes and intricate formations surrounding.
According to legend, the ravine was named after a man called Gudbrand, who ran off with his new bride and saved himself from his angry pursuers by jumping over the ravine at its narrowest point.
Gudbrand was declared an outlaw and lived the rest of his life in a stone hut in one of the valleys above Gudbrandsjuvet. The valley is still called Gudbrand Valley to this day. It’s not known whether his bride followed him over the ravine.
But most likely, she didn’t, and she may have even found her way to one of the comfortable benches in the city of Ålesund—and these days, the benches are even heated, one of the initiatives Ålesund has implemented as an innovative “smart” city.
Comfort—warmth—beauty: These are only a few of the words that can describe Ålesund, Norway’s fairy-tale city on the Atlantic coast. As dusk falls, a veil of wonder and mystery falls on the city, as the fjord beckons you to journey on to Geiranger and the other sights of Norway—and to someday return to Ålesund.
Adapted from Lori Ann Reinhall’s script for the video series Travels in Western Norway, produced by Johns Woods. Other episodes include Bergen and Geiranger, available on Amazon.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.