Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Art Nouveau-designed Ålesund, Norway, reinvented and rebuilt its wooden-structured self after a devastating fire swept through the town in 1904.
Romantic-looking pastel-painted buildings topped with turrets and towers line the harbor and are sprinkled throughout the city center. Stone and brick structures with decorative tile roofs call out to be noticed and admired. There’s even a museum called Jugendstilsenteret – The Art Nouveau Center – dedicated to the town’s passion for the architectural style that gave Ålesund a new life.
Ålesund – pronounced Oh’-le-sen – was the first stop on our Norwegian cruise and my first glimpse of Norway. It’s a picturesque setting along the west coast, spread out over seven outer islands in the county of Møre og Romsdal. As we sailed into port, mountains capped with lingering snow and the rippling reflective waters of the Norwegian Sea painted a welcoming scene.
Herb and I picked up a map at the Tourist Information office and headed to our first destination, Fjellstua Viewpoint, for the 418-step climb to the top of Mount Aksala. On the way we walked through a lovely, leafy city park at the base of the viewpoint – one of those great surprises that you often find on your way to somewhere else.
The paved trail to the top is well-maintained, with old stone steps mixing with modern pathways, and handrails and benches for taking a break along the route. Every so often, a numbered step appears, letting visitors know how far they’ve climbed – and how many steps they have ahead of them. At various points, the coveted view peeks through the trees, offering motivation to reach the top.
At the top, we spent some time taking in the views from every direction. With billowy clouds floating overhead, Ålesund looked especially dreamy, almost ethereal. The terrace restaurant was not yet open, and although we had shared the trail with quite a few other visitors, we didn’t have to jostle for photo spots. Tour buses – there is a road to the top if you don’t want to hike – were beginning to drop off passengers as we were leaving, and I had the feeling that the viewpoint gets quite crowded as morning turns into afternoon.
Dråpe Kaffehus & Ålesund Architecture
Back from our hike, we headed to a café that I’d read about when researching Ålesund. Known for its cozy ambiance as well as tasty food, Dråpe Kaffehus turned out to be a great choice. The seating area has the look of a modern library, with books lining the walls and sofas and armchairs mixed in with wooden dining tables. We placed our order at the counter, and our beautifully presented sandwiches were delivered to our table.
After lunch we wandered through town, taking in the charming streets and architecture on our way to the Art Nouveau center. We stopped at a terrace overlooking the Brosundet Canal, where two sculptures dedicated to Ålesund’s fishing industry stand near the water’s edge.
Across the street from the canal is Jugendstilsenteret, Ålesund’s Art Nouveau Center. Housed in the former Swan Pharmacy building, the center features a museum dedicated to the Art Nouveau style as well as original interiors from its days as an apothecary shop and pharmacist’s residence. Swan Pharmacy was built between 1905 and 1907 and was the first Art Nouveau building in Ålesund to be granted protected status.
The Jugendstilsenteret’s office and gift shop are centered around the original pharmacy, an inviting space with carved wooden cabinetry, turn-of-the-century lighting and a stunning silver cash register. Intrigued by the beautifully preserved décor, Herb and I purchased tickets for the self-guided tour and headed upstairs.
About Those Trolls
Nordic folklore and Norse mythology abound with stories of trolls – mountain- or cave-dwelling creatures whose behavior toward humans can range from the dangerous to the mischievous. Tales of their escapades are deeply woven in Norway’s cultural fabric, dating as far back as the Middle Ages. Over the years, they have become symbolic with the country’s tourism, and their likenesses can be found in gift shops, on postcards and along street corners.
“Trolls are more of a fantasy figure than anything else, but many held the notion that nature was inhabited by different types of creatures and that humans lived side by side with these creatures, which were more or less visible and more or less dangerous. Some are more imaginative and part of the fantasy, while others were more real and people maybe took some precautions against them.”
~Ane Ohvik, professor of history and museology, University of Oslo, visitnorway.com
On this visit to Ålesund, I saw my first troll outside a souvenir store as we were heading to Fjellstua Viewpoint. Later in the day, I spotted another in a different part of town. I thought it might be fun to see how many trolls I happen upon during our travels in Norway. One per town would be a respectable goal. Let the trollspotting begin!