Each colorful, identically shaped building was reflected in the glassy water below, making the view look like a model of miniatures constructed with cardboard and mirrors:
How could it possibly be real? Maybe I should hang out at the Mount Aksla lookout a while longer, rather than approaching the city only to have it lose its definition, like a pointillist painting at close range.
I suppose there really wasn’t a choice, given that our hotel was already booked and this was the very city in Norway I had most wanted to visit. But for a split second, I did hesitate…
Alesund – also written Aalesund (or the correct version, Ålesund) and pronounced something between AH-lay-sund and OH-lay-sund – is special because it was built in such a short period of time, using a very distinct architectural style which now defines the city.
A ravaging fire demolished the city at the turn of the century, and it was completely rebuilt within just a few years, from 1904 to 1907, right as Jungendstil was popular. Never heard of Jungendstil? A similar little movement was happening in France, called Art Nouveau. In Barcelona, Gaudi was taking Catalan Modernism to new heights.
This city definitely ranks among the best of what to do in Norway. It’s much less touristy than Bergen, despite almost bursting through the cute-o-meter and drawing loads of cruise ships each year. Even while day-tourists stroll the streets, cameras flashing (I fit right in), the town retains an unaffected, almost sleepy vibe, and the tourist stores offer higher-end merchandise often produced by local artisans. Even more importantly, these tourist stores are interspersed between “real” stores – you know, kitchen stores, copy shops, hardware outlets – the kinds of places that tell you you’re in a city where locals live and do business (here, it’s the cruise and fishing industries). Refreshing, isn’t it?
What to do in Alesund
Climb 418 steps or drive up Mount Aksla to the Fjellstua lookout for an extraordinary view, the same one that would have been shared by the inhabitants of the WWII bunker located there. After that, exploring the town is easy:
The Brosundet Canal is the center and main focal point, best viewed from the Notenesgata (street). Skansegata (street) is filled with Art Nouveau – excuse me, Jungendstil – buildings, and 0n the other side of the canal, Apotekergata turns into Molovegen and winds lazily past wooden edifices clinging to the wharf that hint at Maine or Nova Scotia. The antique shops here are overstuffed with vintage curios, and the bold brews of the coffee shops will keep you buzzing well into the evening. Take a moment to visit the Art Nouveau Centre, a museum housed at the base of the Brosundet Canal.
For a half- or day-trip, the sky is the limit: kayaking in the canals, hiking along the aquarium‘s shores, visiting the nearby fjords (including UNESCO-listed Geiranger), or skiing in the winter. A nearby island, Godøy, accessible by ferry, is known for nice cycling greenways and a lighthouse housing a fantastic cake shop. Nothing like some exercise to work up the justification for homemade cake! There’s an outdoor museum dedicated to the Sunnmøre Alps, and endless possibilities for eating bacalao – salted cod – the city’s specialty.
The down-low on drinks in Norway
The topic of cocktails and other alcoholic beverages is unique enough in Norway to deserve its own section here. First and foremost, prices are prohibitively expensive. It’s worth it to bring your own poison of choice from home! In fact, as soon as you arrive you’ll see locals and tourists alike crowding into the duty free stores for one last buying spree….
Crazily enough, even if you’re willing to empty your pockets of kroner for the privilege of a cocktail, you won’t receive more than four centiliters of alcohol per drink. That’s right: it’s illegal to pour anything more! If you’re in the mood for a martini or cosmo, you’ll have to make do with a diluted version or a half-filled glass.
We learned about this tasty tidbit – along with an entire course in Norwegian microbrews – from up-and-coming mixologist Icaan at Brosundet Bar in the Hotel Brosundet. His specialty is a berry-infused gin cocktail, set aflame with the aid of orange oil (fire does seem to be a recurring theme in this city). If you’ve been in doubt that Norway is a foodie (and libation-ie? What is the word for that?) heaven, I hope you’ll be convinced as this series continues over the coming weeks.
For the meantime, a tip: stop by to see Icaan and ask for a sip of the Grand Reserva Spruce Liquor with vanilla. To paraphrase a line from a movie, I wish I could get as excited about anything as Icaan does about gin and spruce liquor. It will warm you from the inside out, no flames necessary.
**Special thanks to Hotel Brosundet, which helped make our stay in Alesund possible.