By Thor A. Larsen
Having spent the first ten years of my happy childhood in Stavanger, I was anxious to return with my wife and experience an in-depth visit to modern Stavanger. Prior visits’ focused on family and friends in the region, leaving minimum time to explore Stavanger itself. I felt that two weeks should be a minimum amount of time to really get a meaningful experience of the city and its surroundings.
For the casual visitor to Stavanger, one should certainly stay longer than travel-guru, Rick Steves, who suggests in his book on Scandinavia you only need one day to see Stavanger. A minimum of three days is needed for a casual visit because there are so many experiences you can have in this booming oil capital that still has a strong ‘small-town’ feel. Stavanger is rich in history, culture, with easy access to nature, the ocean, and the fjords.
Before we came I had heard mixed reviews as to the state of Stavanger.’ It is very expensive, an oil center focus, not tourism, the famous ‘Torvet’ (market place) has changed, so many foreigners’, in net, not the old charming Stavanger that I would have remembered. Well, after two weeks in town, our net was very simple - Stavanger has improved noticeably by vastly expanding the pedestrian-only cobble-stone streets, lots of floral plantings plus many other beautification projects, enriched by an infusion of immigrants and has become markedly more tourist-friendly.
In order to minimize the big expenses of lodgings (hotels typically $250/night or more) and food (restaurants meals of $75 each typical), we chose to rent one of many short-stay apartments for two weeks ($1000/wk). The daily rates were below the lowest hotel prices and we could eat many of meals at the well-equipped modern apartment we rented. Our favorite foods were fried fish cakes and fish balls that we cooked. We either purchased them at a fine fish market at the harbor or in one of several super markets near our apartment.
The other very big expense when traveling in Norway is the car rental, typically $100/day or more along with gas prices double to those in the USA. Living in the center of Stavanger, we easily walked to ‘Torvet’ / harbor area, historical sections, shops, eateries, as well as the bus and train terminals, hence, we never rented a car. We visited two smaller, charming cities, Sandnes and Egersund via the trains that came often, on time, very clean, with modest pricing.
Tour boat journeys and commuter rides from Stavanger harbor are very popular way to visit the many islands and several fjords nearby. We chose the most popular boat tour, the three-hour journey into Lysefjorden and observed the dramatic 2000 feet ‘Preikestolen’ from the ship. The boat captain makes several stops on this journey including meeting up with three goats looking to be fed. Of course, the most popular way to see Preikestolen is to hike up, a journey of modest physical demand of about two hours, a journey we have done in prior years. A very economical way to see a number of the inhabited islands and other fjords is to take one of the commuter boats, which we enjoyed on another sunny, albeit cool day.
The greatest change in the main harbor (Vaagen) of the city is the almost daily visit of very large cruise ships, often more than one at a time! The ability to absorb a sudden influx of 5-7000 visitors for the day is a challenge that Stavanger has been able to meet. Now, there is a 12 hour information bureau across the street from the Domkirken, a short walk from the harbor, where multi-language assistants offer excellent help in aiding visitors in selecting tours on land or sea for a day. Also, there are many more sidewalk cafés and bars along the harbor. Visitors do not mind sitting outside as long as it is not raining, with electric heaters to lessen the chill.
Formerly, there were many fishmonger stands by the harbor, but now, there is only one large fish market, an excellent place that sells fresh fish, shrimp, crabs, and fish cakes. The fish market also provides an indoor/outdoor restaurant where we enjoyed a superb fish soup.
The very large open area between the start of the harbor area and the road by the Domkirken is known as ‘Torvet’ or market place. Torvet was the real center of town, this is where we all met when the war ended and were we lined up for the first 17th May parade after the war. Torvet was where the farmers would bring in their wagons, especially on Saturday mornings years ago and daily in later years. It was a place people would meet by chance or by intent. The atmosphere of “Torvet’ has change as the surface is smooth cement, vs. cobblestone, and now, there are relatively large booths selling prepared foods as well as non-foods and the merchants may be Dutch, English as well as some from Stavanger. The ‘farmer’s market’ has moved to smaller quarters across from Domkirken. I share with my Stavanger friends that this change has significantly changed the character of Torvet.
One very positive aspect is the limited access to Torvet by automobiles or trucks to Torvet and nearby Domkirken. Hence, the whole area has become almost totally pedestrian with significant expansion of cobblestones. In addition, the major streets leading from Domkirken into the shopping areas is almost all ‘pedestrian only’.
The fine jewelry shops and sweater shops are unique to Norway and an absolute must for my wife to explore. She did purchase a very fine wool sweater for our grandson for less than $200 (on sale). On this visit, my wife also found some excellent ‘thrift shops’ where she found a slightly used wool sweaters at real bargain prices. Pewterware, now out of favor, was very available at the thrift shops at great bargains.
A very important aspect of our city exploring had been to take periodic breaks by enjoying a number of charming cafes which offered baked goods, however, choosing the inside versus outside seating. In addition to modest sandwiches, ‘bollas’ or sweet rolls were enjoyed as well. (Prices are about twice what one would pay in the US, hence an economic diet control.)
The dominant structure at the heart of the old town is Domkirken, built around 1125 and restored and enhanced since. It is very worthwhile to visit and enjoy is interior beauty, especially the magnificently carved pulpit. We enjoyed an excellent tour by a young docent. Concerts are held there frequently.
Directly behind Domkirken as you head south from the Torvet area is a beautiful park dominated by the lake, Breiavatnet. The park is beautifully manicured with flowers and flowering bushes with several walkways. With a number of benches strategically located, it is a perfect spot for a respite to enjoy the views of the lake, its swans and other birds as well as children and people watching.
As we walked around older residential sections of Stavanger Centrum and surrounding areas, we were impressed how well the houses are preserved, the lovely gardens, and the cleanliness of the streets. The most impressive area of preserved homes of the 19th and early 20th century is ‘Gamle Stavanger’ which lies immediately west of the harbor area. ‘Gamle Stavanger’ is a fully preserved and occupied area of small, white-painted homes in close proximity of each other. An absolute must if one visits Stavanger for only a couple of days.
Walking south from Stavanger Centrum one can enjoy a picturesque journey along the water, first passing along ‘Hillevaagsvannet, a bay of the Gangsfjorden, now almost totally full of pleasure boats with lovely stately homes overlooking the water. Continuing about another half-mile, you would reach the Gangsfjorden entrance and enjoy a walk along the path of a public park where you can enjoy the fjord for several miles if you are ambitious. Along this path is the favorite swimming area of my childhood, known as ‘Godalen’ with a small beach and jetties to stroll out to deeper water. Once here, it is easy to remain there all day if the weather holds up.
Although we did get together with old friends on several occasions, this visit enabled us to meet and chat with new acquaintances that gave us a new perspective of Stavanger. Minimum wages in Stavanger is $24/hour, which attracts many young from EU countries to get a start here, as there is a shortage of people in the service industry. Housing costs are astronomical and young couples struggle to stay in Stavanger, even though they both have very high salaries compared to most areas in the US. One must assume at least $500K for anything suitable. Actually, many find the need to move to Sandnes area and even beyond and commute, often with the train or auto. The shortage of skilled workers helps explain the presence of a scientist/educator from India we met at a bus stop. We also chatted with several skilled workers from Poland building thatched roofed farm buildings as part of a farm museum. Of course, the booming oil industry in Stavanger has brought many Americans, often from Houston, to Stavanger and they have certainly ‘Americanized’ a number of Stavanger’s characteristics. In net, the heart of Stavanger remains a ‘Small Town’ with its colorful harbor area, Torvet, Domkirken, parks, pedestrian-only charming streets with rich blend of Norwegian, Asian, Thai, Indian, European and American shops and restaurants.
I am beginning to plan for our next return visit!