The coastal town of Alesund (pronounced ‘all’ as in ball) is a popular tourist destination, well-known for its Art Nouveau architecture, the beauty of the surrounding fjords, and the stunning views of the Sunnmore Alps. Alesund is built on a row of islands that extend towards the Atlantic, on a narrow, sea-bound peninsula shaped rather like a fish-hook. The municipality covers 93 square km, and includes seven outer islands. The picturesque old town centre is tightly packed onto the islands of Aspoya and Norvoya, and surrounded by water. Most of the population of just over 45,000 (in 2013) live scattered across nearby peninsulas and islands. There are now tunnels connecting some of the islands.
Like many Norwegian towns Alesund was built predominantly of wood, and on 23rd January 1904, in the middle of the night, the town was almost completely destroyed by fire. A strong gale aided the flames, and with only a few minutes notice the whole population of over 10,000 had to flee. After the fire Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who had often stayed in the area, sent four warships with building materials to erect temporary barracks to house the townspeople, who had been left without any shelter in the midst of winter. With other international aid, and much planning, the town was rebuilt using stone, bricks and mortar, in the Art Nouveau architectural style of the time, involving about 20 master builders and 30 Norwegian architects. Alesund is the most important fishing harbour in Norway, and the home base of Norway’s largest cod fishing fleet. In the 1950s and 60s it was also a prominent herring fishery station. In the 1970s oil was discovered in the North Sea, and local fishing fleet owners seized the opportunity to rebuild and adapt fishing vessels so they could be used for oil exploration and production. Soon purpose-built vessels were constructed and off-shore supply ship owning companies became a cornerstone industry in and around Alesund.
After a leisurely breakfast we took the short walk into Alesund, and were soon recommended a good coffee shop by a couple of friendly Norwegians, and sampled a large piece of Kvaefjordkake – Norway’s national cake – some say the best in the world! A sponge cake, topped with meringue, filled with vanilla custard and whipped cream, and sprinkled with nuts – all my favourite things in a cake!
Back to the cultural experience! The Art Nouveau architecture of Alesund is certainly quite striking. The facades are geometric and brightly painted, and the overall effect is one of consistency, and rightly so, as most of the buildings were built in a short space of time, straight after the fire, between 1904 and 1907. Unfortunately the Art Nouveau Centre itself was closed.
Having done a bit of research, I had already decided I wanted to climb the 418 steps up Aksla Hill to the Kniven viewpoint; so having sampled the cake, and had a good look at the buildings, off we went. It was a tough climb, but well worth the effort. Alesund and the other islands were laid out almost like a map below us. Unfortunately it was quite a grey day, with rain at times, so the tops of the majestic Sunnmore Alps to the east of Alesund, were shrouded in cloud.
I’ll leave it your imagination which I enjoyed the most; the architecture, the views, or the cake!