Bergen and beyond

Sister city exchange as a voyage of discovery


Photo: Lachlan Gowen / Unsplash
Bergen, with its location on the sea, has much in common with its sister city in Seattle: a beautiful natural environment, a rich maritime tradition, and a strong culture of outdoor recreation. Both cities are rated as some of the most desirable places in the world to live and are magnets for thousands of tourists each year.

The Norwegian American

In a hectic digital age with information at our fingertips, video travelogues, instant international messaging and the like, a transatlantic flight doesn’t always seem to have the same appeal it had even 20 years ago, with long lines at airports, crowded planes, and jet lag. A Google search can instantly serve up thousands of pictures and links; there are almost too many new impressions to digest without leaving your own home. 

Yet we all know that surfing the internet or connecting in a Skype chat will never replace the smell of fresh sea air during a morning stroll, the scents of an outdoor market, the joy of holding a newly discovered treasure in your hand, talking face-to-face with a newfound friend, waving goodbye or receiving a warm embrace. And now, with the coronavirus looming over us, we have become more acutely aware of what we are missing.

A different kind of travel experience

Sister Cities International, founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, has long supported travel exchanges with its core mission of citizen diplomacy, and since its inception in 1967, the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association (SBSCA) has been active in Sister Cities’ people-to-people programs.

Over the years, the association has sent numerous delegations of entrepreneurs, politicians, educators, students and ordinary people. Some had their roots in Norway, the social welfare state model intrigued others, some traveled in search of the dramatic scenery of the Norwegian landscape, and some may have gone along out of sheer curiosity. 

What is for sure is that all returned home enriched by their time abroad. “My parents were Norwegian, and I had heard about Norway all my life,” reports former delegate and current SBSCA Vice President Bernice Furdal Chouery, “but a new world opened up to me with Sister Cities, new places and new faces. I got to know an aspect of life in Bergen that I hadn’t known before.”

Bergen and Seattle representatives in 2017

Photo: Emil Weatherhead Breistein
Traveling with Sister Cities International opens up doors almost unimaginable. Here a delegation from Seattle presented a gift at Bergen City Hall to celebrate the 50th jubillee of the two sister cities in 2017.

Through new eyes

When I came on as president of the association four years ago, I realized that a trip to Bergen was high on the list, and in 2016, I made my first official visit to rediscover Norway’s second largest city (one of many trips since). 

While our own Pacific Northwest is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, it is not always easy to be impressed by other landscapes, but Bergen was an immediate “WOW.” I had remembered that it was beautiful from earlier visits, but after just a few hours, I was completely enchanted. 

Just as Seattle is situated among seven hills, Bergen is surrounded by seven mountains. The city is a photographer’s dream, and for the first few days, I took in as many of the sights as possible: the World Heritage Site Bryggen, the old German Wharf; the historic fish market; Fløibanen, the funicular that takes you up to a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding mountains and fjords; the museums, the concert halls; and the many statues celebrating the history of Bergen and Norway. 

And, of course, as a music aficionado, I made my pilgrimage to Troldhaugen, the home of composer Edvard Grieg, where I met with museum administrators and soaked up the beauty of natural surroundings along the fjord.

Also a must was a stop at Nordnes Park to see the totem pole gifted to the people of Bergen by the City of Seattle in 1970 to celebrate their sister city’s 900th birthday. Everywhere I went, officially and unofficially, the welcome was warm and friendly. In one week’s time, I had found a new home in our sister city.

Back home

Returning home to Seattle with hundreds of photographs, a travel journal, an armful of books, and more indelible memories than I would ever have time to share, I knew it was inevitable that I would have to organize another trip to Norway for our association and friends. 

As good fortune would have it, I learned that the Norwegian cruise and cargo line Hurtigruten would soon be opening its North American headquarters in Seattle.  I was ready to learn more—and ready to travel again.

Hurtigruten, the Coastal Express, has been in operation for over 100 years and operates voyages on Norway’s western and northern coast between Bergen, the gateway to the fjords, and Kirkenes in the northernmost part of the country. It has been called “The Most Beautiful Voyage in the World,” and there was no better time to put together the trip than in 2017 for the 50-year jubilee of the Seattle-Bergen sister city friendship.

The famous Bergen fish market

Photo: Robin Strand / Norphoto /
A popular stop for all Bergen tourists is Fisketorget, where you can enjoy both a tasty meal and a magnificent view or simply admire the variety of fish and seafood at the famous market there.

Trip of a lifetime

The result was a close collaboration with Deane Motis, a Seattle-based travel consultant. Motis knows the itineraries he promotes firsthand, and he works with his clients to put together customized trips for the once-in-a-lifetime travel experience they are looking for.  

For the SBSCA, this meant extending the time in Bergen to both see the sights and to visit with friends who share in our sister city work. Booked into the itinerary would be a reception at City Hall, along with the places I had gotten to know on my earlier trips.

Early September worked as the ideal departure time, with summer vacations over and mild weather conditions (with a little rain in Bergen, where the climate is similar to ours in Seattle).

Bergen offers a large variety of accommodations, and the overall standard is very high, making it both easy and difficult to choose your hotel. The Scandic Ørnen Hotel with its sleek Scandinavian modern design was selected for both convenience and comfort, along with the fabulous breakfast buffet served each morning. 

Norway in a Nutshell

Our four days in Bergen seemed to fly by with so much to see and do. But before taking in Norway by sea, a trip inland has much to offer, and fortunately, the Norwegian National Railways make this very convenient with the ever-popular Norway in a Nutshell tour. 

Departing from the Central Station in Bergen, the journey takes you to Voss, where you board a bus to Gudvangen. Here you can visit the Viking Village and learn about medieval life in Norway before boarding a ferry for Flåm, a picturesque destination popular with tourists since the 19th century. 

Along the way, you experience some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery, culminating with a journey on the historic Flåm Railway up into the mountains, billed as “one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys.” And finally, once in Myrdal, another train takes you back to Bergen just in time for dinner—and all of this happens in just one day.

Photo: Terje Rakke / Nordic Life AS / Fjord Norway
A highlight of the 2017 Sister Cities tour was a journey on the Flåm Railway, billed as “one of the world’s most beautiful train journeys.” The trip is part of the ever-popular Norway in a Nutshell tour, which departs from Bergen Central Station. Passenger travel by train, bus, and ferry offers some of Norway’s most breathtaking scenery—all in one day.

All aboard!

On board Hurtigruten’s MS Polarlys, our somewhat hectic travel itinerary took a relaxing turn, as the ship embarked for its first port of call, Ålesund, sister city to Seattle’s neighbor Tacoma. And while there is a lot to see in Norway’s Art Nouveau city by the sea, even a few hours there will give a glimpse into its unique beauty.

North of Ålesund is the royal city of Trondheim, the capital for Norway during the Viking Age. A focal point is Nidaros Cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, where many of Norway’s early Christian kings for Norway lie in their burial vaults. Located on the Nid River, Trondheim was the center of Norwegian spiritual life throughout the Middle Ages and is a city rich in history and tradition, remaining an important cultural hub today.

Going north from Trondheim, more dramatic landscapes unfold, as the ship route crosses the Arctic Circle, reaching the town of Bodø and the Lofoten Islands. 

Known for its distinctive scenery, with dramatic mountains and peaks, open sea and sheltered bays, beaches, and untouched lands, the Lofoten archipelago is a uniquely Norwegian natural wonder. For over 1,000 years, it has been the center of the great cod fisheries, with Viking settlements dating all the way back to the Bronze Age.

The six-day voyage made stops in Tromsø, Hammerfest, and Honnigsvåg, and the North Cape, with a final stop in Kirkenes, concluding with a flight to Oslo. As you go farther north, the coastline gets more and more dramatic—and it is never boring. Motis has noted that, although he taken the trip many times, “There always seems to be something new to see.” That is easy to believe once you’ve taken the trip yourself.

A voyage of discovery

It’s important to know that Hurtigruten vessels, while equipped with all modern amenities, are not luxury cruise ships with full programs of entertainment on board. There is no fancy dress code or gala dinners and cocktail parties, but you can enjoy gourmet Norwegian cuisine, a bar, a library, a fitness room, Jacuzzi, and sauna.  

Yet in the end, for our group, the quiet moments at sea and the time we took to get to know one another and share in our discovery were the most memorable.

Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”—and that is why we travel. The Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association’s 2017 trip to Norway not only took us to extraordinarily beautiful landscapes but opened our eyes to a new world of experience.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.