Ålesund: An Art Nouveau hub nestled amongst islands, fjords, and mountains

AlesundPhoto: Nicolai Berntsen / Unsplash
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Ålesund can trace its root back at least a millennium to the time of the Vikings. Yet this very modern town, stretched over 3 islands, is a mix of world-class architecture, a bustling and vibrant cultural life, and endless possibilities for those that want to feel at one with the beauty of the west coast of Norway.

Ålesund: Gateway to the fjords

For many tourists, locals, and guidebooks, Bergen is perhaps the most beautiful city in Norway. Yet if you travel a little further north, following the Gulf Stream that flows off the west coast of Norway, keeping the weather relatively mild, you will arrive at the picturesque town of Ålesund. This charming port town is just over half way between the cities of Bergen and Trondheim.

Situated on the dramatic west coast of Norway, what makes Ålesund extra special is that the center of town is sprawled across the islands of Aspøy and Nørvøya. Though traditionally not housing a large population, its position as “the gateway to the fjords” makes it an attractive and popular tourist destination all year round. It is also one of the ports of call on the world-famous “Hurtigruten” cruise which snakes its way up the western coast of Norway.

Ålesund has the perfect combination of being a thriving cultural hub set against a backdrop of stunning surroundings dominated by fjords, mountains, and the Norwegian Sea.

A history that stretches back to the Viking Age

The history of Ålesund stretches back over a millennium to the “Age of Vikings.” Local legend has it that this port city was settled by Gangerolf (or better known as “Rollo” outside of Norway), the famous Viking warrior who established Norsemen rule in Normandy, France. Whether he actually established a settlement here is debatable but there is archaeological evidence of settlement from the 11th century.

Ålesund remained little more than a tiny fishing village and part of the larger Baugrund parish until the late 18th century. It was during the 19th century that fishing soon began to dominate the local economy and started to bring in labor and wealth to the town.

In 1835, when the town was granted “market town rights,” there were just 435 inhabitants. By 1900, however, the population, thanks to the thriving fishing industry, had exploded to 11,000. It became a firm summer favorite of European royalty with German Kaiser Wilhelm II making the trip north annually to visit this quaint fishing village. Disaster would soon strike though, changing Ålesund forever.

Alesund harbor
Some of the buildings were rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style after the 1904 fire that wrecked Ålesund. Photo: James Obernesser / Unsplash

How a cow’s kicks rebuilt Ålesund

On the night of January 23, 1904, a cow kicked a firelight torch at a factory in the middle of Aspøya. This fire soon engulfed the old wooden buildings which dominated the center of Ålesund. With a strong wind blowing, the fire spread throughout the town ultimately destroying over 850 houses within town borders. The historic town of Ålesund, with wooden buildings dating back centuries, has been completely ravaged and destroyed by fire. Amazingly due to the size of the fire, only one person was reported to have died during the blaze.

The fire became the first international cause celebre of Northern Europe with aid and money flowing to the fishing town. Kaiser Wilhelm, remembering holidays spent nestled in the fjords surrounding the town, sent both financial aid and four warships full of building materials. During reconstruction, most of the architects were German-educated with the then-current Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) dominating the style of construction. Kaiser Wilhelm’s help was not forgotten – a road through the center of the town was renamed after him.

“Jugendstilbyen” and KUBE

There is little left of the old historic buildings of Ålesund however the town now has the largest amount of Art Nouveau buildings in Norway and is part of a larger Art Nouveau city network that includes Vienna, Barcelona, and Glasgow. Much of the Art Nouveau buildings that dominate the center of town are now heritage listed and protected by the National Heritage Board.

The best place to start to find out more information about the fire of 1904 that reshaped and rebuilt Ålesund is the Art Nouveau Museum and the Kube Museum (Jugendstilsenteret). The building itself has the best-preserved Art Nouveau interior and it is now a museum and an interpretive arts center featuring local, national, and international artists and exhibitions. There is no better way to get a sense of Ålesund’s rich architectural beauty than by wandering the streets or by taking a guided walking tour of the town. Perhaps, though, the most memorable way to experience Ålesund’s Art Nouveau charm is by a kayak tour.

Majestic mountaintops just minutes away

Ålesund also possesses a wealth of natural charm. Its location at the very end of the Geiranger fjord makes it a perfect stop for those visiting the fjords of Norway. From here, you can take day cruises through the harbor, islands, and into the fjords that are accessible from the town.

Surrounded by mountains, Ålesund is also a hiker’s dream. From the town’s main park, Byparken, you can walk 418 steps up to the Mount Aksla viewpoint. Here you can see a panoramic view of the town sprawling across the islands and of the natural harbor and stunning mountain backdrop. A restaurant and viewpoint here are also accessible by bus or car.

For those wanting to stretch their legs a little more, the area surrounding Ålesund is the mountain paradise of Molladalen. Here the popular peaks of Jønshorn, Randers Topp, and Mohns Topp are accessible for intermediate and experienced mountaineers. There are also multiple fishing possibilities and a few walking paths for those who want a more gentle mountaintop experience.

A rail journey like no other

Ålesund is accessible by air, road, rail, and car. An airport serves as a hub for the area with most flights coming either from Oslo or Bergen but flights to many locations in Northern Europe including Amsterdam and Gdansk.

Though the Oslo Bergen rail trip often gets more publicity, the rail journey from Bergen to Ålesund is just as spectacular. Hugging the western coast of Norway, the train takes 9 hours to slowly wind its way through the mountains and fjords. For those who want to see the beauty of Western Norway, there is no better way.

There are major roads that connect Ålesund to Oslo, Bergen, and Trondheim. As much of the journey will be in the mountain tops, extra caution should be taken and avalanches can occur in winter making the journey long. You will, however, see majestic views of the mountain ranges that dominate this part of Norway.

Archaeologists found
The ferry “Volda” on the route from Ålesund to Magerholm and Sykkylven. Photo: Halvard Alvik / NTB scanpix

Come and see why Ålesund is Western Norway’s best kept secret

More than just a humble fishing village, Ålesund is a hidden Art Nouveau gem sprawled across temperate islands. Its vibrant cultural life is bettered only, perhaps, by the sheer beauty of its natural surroundings. This town truly is Western Norway’s best kept, and most beautiful, secret!

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.

About the author:

Jonathan is a lover of the written word. He believes the best way to combat this polarization of news and politics, in our time, is by having a balanced view. Both sides of the story are equally important. He also enjoys traveling and live music.

Source : #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayTravel

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