In 1904 the fishing city of Ålesund burned to the ground. There was only one fatality but the whole city was homeless. Around Europe people responded. In Paris there were benefit concerts, in Germany Keiser Wilhelm personally got involved in supplying aid. His statue still stands in the city. In Norway there was a recession with a lot of unemployed. Unemployed masons and carpenters flooded the ruined city. Architects drew up designs for new houses, not only for the rich, but for displaced workers. The fire kick started the whole Norwegian economy. Brick makers in other cities got orders, stone quarries around Norway put people back to work. Labor unions organized and won better working conditions as Norway rebuilt its scorched city. The story is told in a beautiful museum, Jugendstilsentert. We walked past it twice, looking for it, because it’s disguised as an early 1900s apothecary shop. We thought it was a modern drug store trying to look cute until we walked in asking where the museum that was on our map went to. We were in the museum.
They put us in a room that looked like a large elevator, they called it “the time machine.” In the elevator windows you see the 20th century played backwards, back through the Balkan wars, the collapse of communism, the moon landing, Nixon’s resignation, Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. King’s “I Have a dream”, the Marshall Plan, World War II, Chamberlain’s “peace in our time,” Hitler’s rise, the depression, World War I, the Belle Epoch ending in Ålesund, 1904, just before the fire. Then the doors open on the other side of the “elevator” and you are in the center of a 15-minute multimedia presentation on Ålesund, the fire and recovery.
Following the show, you can wander through a display of art and furniture from the Art Nouveau period, a demonstration of bricklaying techniques that both save money and create insulated walls, and different types of building facings from the time, the facing depending on the budget. There was a display on Art Nouveau architecture and a film about the Nouveau movement around Europe. They also have a good café.
Across the street is KUBE, the Modern Art Museum. The theme of the exhibits is art relating people to the edge of the sea. There was painting, film, multi-media, textile, even an exhibit where you could smell different shorelines around Norway. Living on the sea I found it moving.
But the best thing to do is just walk around the city admiring the town Norwegians voted the prettiest city in Norway. The city is in a single architectural style, but with tremendous individuality between the buildings. Then you can take about 500 steps up a hill (we took a cab) for a panorama of this beautiful city.
The cab driver who took us to the outlook point said they have had a winter like Southeast Alaska, less rain than usual, virtually no snow and nicer than normal weather. Except for today, when it snowed in the morning in Ålesund and temperatures were in the low 40s. Tomorrow the forecast for us is for the low 30s degree with possible snow in Geiranger, where we are headed, up a deep fjord that cuts deep into the mountains.