Troy Hightower

Ålesund--the Venice of Norway

While it’s sometimes called the Venice of the north, that might be a bit metaphoric for this coastal Norwegian town--there are narrow harbor inlets lined with charming houses and buildings, but actual canals, no. With the exception of a small area of clapboard wooden buildings typical of many coastal villages, the town is an architectural monument to Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau.

This all results from a gale-force wind-driven firestorm that took place the night of January 23, 1904. By morning 850 houses had burned, and the whole town save a very few buildings was in ashes, and over 10,000 inhabitants were homeless, facing a long, freezing winter. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany had visited the area often, and led an international effort to provide relief supplies and construction materials. The town was rebuilt in brick and stone over a period of three industrious years, designed by a team of Norwegian architects in the then-popular Art Nouveau style. 

Two days is plenty of time to wander the streets and enjoy the sights of this charming town. The cobbled streets of Kongensgata and Notenesgata contain most of the shops, restaurants, cafés and bars. Varied and (interesting) examples of Jugendstil line both streets, and most of the rest of town. Look up and around, not just straight ahead as you take in the lanes and byways. Facades contain decorative elements in glazed terra cotta, decorative stucco, and the fanciful looping curlicues of the style. Parabolic arches surround some doorways; gates in intricately worked iron or brass stand guard; tall cones of verdigris copper tiles—fish scale style—cap turrets at building corners.

The Jugendstil Center occupies the elaborate and perfectly preserved former Swan Pharmacy, built after the fire. The Fishing Museum, Borgund Church, Waldehuset Museum, or miracle house, are all worth a look. 418 steps will take you to the top of the Fjellstua Viewpoint which provides sweeping views of the town and the gateway to Gieranger Fjord.

At its height after reconstruction, Ålesund was a fishing center that took tons of cod, lobsters, mackerel, and shrimp daily. There are historic photos of literal rivers of fish being poured out of holds, and the ground completely carpeted in split cod drying in the salt air. The Ålesundlet harbor was crammed with fishing boats and lined with warehouses, most of which have been turned into hotels, commercial buildings and housing.

There is of course still fishing, but that vast array of fishing boats is long gone. During our stay, a Norwegian yacht club rally is in port, and the docks and quays are lined with what must be hundreds of millions of kroner worth of luxury sailboats and motor yachts. It's a beautiful array of craft and wealth glittering in the northern spring sun.

There are a few decent places to eat in Alesund. Our hotel, the Brosundet, one of those converted fish warehouses, contains the fish restaurant Maki. Our first night we variously try cured haddock--translucent slivers cured with salt and lemon; deep fried morsels of cod tongue, a dish revered in basque Spain and known as kokotxhas; tender and impeccably fresh steamed ling cod in lemon cream sauce; and crispy pan fried redfish served with sautéed potatoes. Four, five and seven-course seafood tasting menus are available, but the whole table must opt in.

Lyst in Konigsgard offers a selection of things like a whole bowl of small perfectly fresh peel-and-eat shrimp, tiger prawn sandwich, creamy mixed seafood soup, and salmon smorebrod. XL Diner offers the most stunning view of the harbor and specializes in bacalao...the traditional salt cod that put the town on the map. Available in a variety of styles and sauces--classic, Portuguese creamed, Vizcaina with tomatoes and olives or Italian with pesto. Bacalao always comes with bowls of steamed or roasted new potatoes, and mixed vegetables. It’s delicious food, but making a steady diet of it, as many locals had to do in early days would be daunting.

Our stay in Ålesund was to be the prelude to, and pickup point by, a cruise up the Norwegian coastal waterways and fjords on MS Lofoten, the classic ship in the Hurtigruten coastal steamer line—an actual Norwegian Historic Monument. Unfortunately, emails missed us about late exit from repair dock, and we were stranded on the quay in Ålesund at 8:45 am, with no ship in sight. Phone calls, emails, texts, and much digging unearthed that the ship was bypassing Ålesund, and the spectacular first day’s cruise up the Gerainger Fjord—one of the highlights of the trip. Instead of a dramatic farewell to Ålesund up the gangway of a classic steamer, we had to make our way by foot, taxi, and rental car some 280 km of coastal road, bridges, and ferries to Trondheim, where the ship would dock the next morning. The silver lining, if tarnished, was a very scenic and interesting road trip over hill and alongside fjord.