STAVANGER has a slogan "Everything Within Reach", and it is true. There is an awful lot packed into this town and region.
Norway has always sounded interesting; connections between us during the last war, the oil industry straddles the North Sea, and they resolutely keep away from joining the EU and the Euro.
Just now, the direct flights between Aberdeen and either Bergen or Stavanger are on promotion (see www.flysas.co.uk) so that was it... off to Stavanger I went.
The flight is only 50 minutes – if you draw an arc from Aberdeen to Stavanger and continue down to England, you hit Hull. It is that close to us. Stavanger airport is clean, light, compact and efficient, and in the one bank there I changed some money; mistake, got stung! There is a bus every 20 minutes for the half-hour ride to the city centre. Everyone speaks English and the bus driver even accepts credit cards, so it is easy.
As you pass along the seascape, there appears three gigantic swords stuck in a knoll by the sea. They commemorate where three Norwegian kings fought a battle, the winner uniting Norway into one country in 872. The bus takes you across the isthmus from the North Sea coast to the inland sea, and drops you at the combined bus and rail station, by the small lake with a fountain that is the centre of the town. Although there are 120,000 people in the town, it seems small and nowhere is more than around 10 minutes walk from anywhere else.
I walked round the lake to the Comfort hotel, just behind the Cathedral, which was started in 1125. It is a long, low building and fits well with the style of the town. Walking into the hotel reception I was greeted by "aye aye", which is actually "hi hii" in their dialect – just like here. Exploring the town is easy; the rear entrance to the cathedral looks out over a pedestrian area that descends to the harbour. Boats are constantly coming and going, car ferries and water taxis to the off islands, tourist boats, oil supply ships, and locals coming in for their messages.
The harbour is totally open, and so good that the Tall Ships are calling there. On one side the old warehouses, gable end on to the sea, are all eating places now, and on the other is the old town. This is unique. The houses are all wooden, painted white, and jumbled along twisting cobbled streets, some so narrow that only pedestrians can pass. Stavanger has the biggest concentration of wooden houses in Europe, some 8,000 of them, all looking so fresh they must be painted every year. It was here that I stumbled across the Canning Museum. Now there are a great many museums in Stavanger that make it an ideal place to be if it rains, but this museum was the best of them all for me.
The wealth of the town comes from the humble sardine. This low, old factory shows how the fish were caught, prepared, smoked and canned. Originally it was incredibly hard and dextrous hand work, but gradually machines were developed to behead them, seal the lids on, and make the keys to open the tins, and so on. These machines were made in Stavanger, and you can imagine local craftsmen studying the operation and devising this intricate equipment. Fish balls were also a mainstay, as these could be made and canned in the seasons when the sardines were not there. The Norwegians had trouble with the French, who successfully prevented them from using the name "sardine" for their products. Only Mediterranean fish could be called sardines, so the Norwegians have to call them "sild" and "breitling" when selling in Europe, but are still "sardines" elsewhere in the world. It is a fascinating story, including rare old film of the operations. I stocked up on a selection of tins of fish, only to find that they were canned in Poland; there does not seem to be a local industry any more. The major industry now is oil, and there is even an oil museum, which sits out over the sea in a remarkable group of stainless steel buildings that are shaped just like an oil rig, complete with a lifeboat hanging at the side.
Tearing myself away from the canning museum, it was time for a trip up a fjord. The town had many images of the Pulpit Rock, which features in worldwide publicity. To get there you really need to allocate a day, be fit, and have good equipment. It involves a boat, bus, and then a two-our walk up to this odd, huge flat, square-shaped rock that juts out over the Lysfjord, and 1,983 feet (604 metres) above it. Not wanting to spend a day doing this, as there is so much to see, I took a boat trip. This departs from the town centre quay, and zigzags through many small islands, even dropping off a bundle of mail and newspapers to one as we passed. There are houses tucked away on most of these innumerable islands. Then we turned into the Fjord proper. The rocks tower above you up to 3,200 feet (1,000 metres) but you do not feel hemmed in as it is so wide.
On the way up the fjord we stopped to feed some goats that the boat crew said they put there for summer grazing – on a steep ledge that is the result of a rock fall ages ago – but as it is vaguely more level than vertical; it does for goat grazing. The Pulpit Rock does not look much from water level, and people on it could only be seen with binoculars. We headed right into a waterfall, with the crew lady collecting a bucketful of the crystal clear water to hand out to us – perfectly clean water straight off an ice field. Then there was a high-speed dash back to Stavanger, via another route, passing "Clean Up Bay" where, traditionally, the off-islanders would pause on their way by rowing or sailing boat, to collect their supplies from Stavanger. Being a bit sweaty, they paused here to have a clean up, wash their face, change shirts, and then go on round the corner into the harbour.
There is so much to see. Children are well catered for, with a children's museum, and at the tourist office you can buy a teddy bear that speaks the commentary for a walking tour of the town, in English. Apparently, this is a UK export. There is also a treasure trail for children to follow. So many old, magnificent merchant's houses are open to the public. There is a Commonwealth War Grave in the spotless cemetery dedicated to our servicemen who lost their lives, a huge concert hall under construction and due to open in 2012, an orchestra, lovely buildings, and bronze statues everywhere. Some are commemorating notable people from the town; others are just for children who love to come across them.
There are ferries to Bergen, trains to Oslo or along the coast, boat trips to many places locally, and a bus card lets you take advantage of the routes around the area. Stavanger is seriously impressive, open, compact, clean, pleasant, and friendly, with only one drawback – for us with our feeble pound, things are expensive, but you've just got to love a town that is dedicated to the sardine.
For more information, go to www.regionstavanger.com. Their tourist office is very welcoming, everyone speaks English, and you can contact them at Stavanger Region, Vagsgaten 22, N-4306 Sandnes, Norway.