I’m writing this with a plate of sardines on toast sitting by the keyboard. A bite interspersing the typing. They’re getting me in the zone; a gift from a gentleman called Piers Crocker who is passionate about these small fish.
His life is The Norwegian Canning Museum in Stavanger. I know what you’re thinking. As obvious attractions go, it’s not one. But in fact there’s a bizarre fascination that has its parallels with the North East coast’s herring industry in times past.
Stavanger was once huge in sardines. Now it is oil that brings in the bucks. The city has bold museums which represent the triumphs and challenges of both and add to its sense of place, quiet confidence and subtle style.
The city, just an easy hour away from Newcastle on daily BMI flights, is definitely a surprise.
It’s one of those places your relatives in the oil business might mention in passing as a conference destination and that’s it. But it’s a worth a closer look.
Surrounded by water and mountains, it is clean, airy and calm. Gloriously Scandinavian. The waterfront is vibrant and welcoming. You can sit outdoors with your drink at any time of the year – heaters and blankets come as standard.
The bright waterfront boasts the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, an audacious design of a building – a modern day granite crag. Aside from its very cool restaurant – one of the stylish Café Bolen & Moi Norwegian chain (very fine mussels) – you see a vast display board which in stock exchange-style, is by the second totting up the nation’s income from its (dwindling) oil resources.
It strikes you that it’d be pretty tough for our own island nation to be able to do the same – just where did that money go? But we’re told that the Norwegian income from oil is the equivalent of a multi-thousand pound nest egg for every citizen. The challenge these days is to find another sustainable income for future generations.
What the oil industry has brought Stavanger is prosperity. With that comes designer shops, cocktail bars and smart restaurants.
The elephant in the room is the price of a pint. Less scary than you think actually. But that means there’s a different drinking culture; more restrained and lingering. That is reflected too in the outdoor-orientated pastimes that are readily accessible here.
The obvious destination is the famous Pulpit Rock Preikestolen. You can hike your way there from a starting point drop-off from the ferry which heads out of Stavanger harbour twice a day.
The rock juts out precariously over the very beautiful Lysefjord affording amazing views on a clear day. We travelled on a boat for view from the water – which was dramatic but somewhat obliterated by very low cloud.
You can hire a very luxey-looking speedboat from Stavanger harbour to take you on a private trip to Pulpit Rock along the fjord via inlets and islands that show the natural beauty of this vast and unspoilt country.
Less well-known is that Stavanger is the home to world-class street art. Nuart is an international contemporary street and urban art festival, held annually in Stavanger and considered the world’s leading celebration of Street Art. Every September an invited international team of street artists leave their mark on the city’s walls, both indoor and out, creating one of Europe’s most dynamic and constantly evolving public art events.
Every weekend you can join a tour of the city’s murals and wall art paintings. This starts at the city’s tourist information office – but obviously it is easy and entertaining to spot the works on your own meanderings through the city.
Sights & sounds of Stavanger
Fish&Cow close to the harbour in Stavanger is a new Scandi-bistro favourite, featuring local produce and as the name suggests, sustainable fish and meat. We had artichoke soup with brown crab and croutons – the best soup I’ve ever tasted. The set menu (around £40) also included dry-aged beef with foraged mushrooms and pickled onions followed by almond panna cotta with pickled berries and tonka bean ice-cream.
Fisketorget is the Saltwater Fish Co of Stavanger. With a fish-market and restaurant side by side. It’s right by the waterfront and an atmospheric little place for a good lunch. We dined on a hefty platter of Norwegian snow crab with rye bread and mayo – and a bottle of champagne, having discovered that wine and champagne are priced the same in these parts – result!
Hall Toll is housed in an old shipping building on the water’s edge. It is part restaurant, cocktail bar and nightclub under one cavernous roof. It’s Stavanger’s nightspot, understated but quietly moneyed and glamorous. Food is pan-Asian if you need a sushi or sashimi fix then turns its hand to European for main courses.
Your culture trawl
Take time to wander Gamle Stavanger – the old part of town with its pristine cobbled streets home to a cluster of white wooden houses that date back to the 1700s – and are thought to be the largest surviving wooden house settlement in northern Europe. These were the streets where the cannery workers lived and worked
That Norwegian Canning Museum is the place to be fascinated by the artwork of the cans as well as looking at the ingenious ways fish were decapitated en masse – and you can have a go at fitting little rubber sardines into a can – harder than you think – and the experts do it in six seconds!
In the Norwegian Petroleum Museum you can try on deep-sea kit, see how oil and gas are created and see what life is like on a drilling rig.
Outdoors & snowy pastimes
The Sirdal region is the place to find a vast amount of winter sport activities. It is a 1hr-45 minute drive from Stavanger by car, or by bus during winter.
Activities include dog-sledging with huskies, a salmon safari, curling, cross-country and skiing
The beach at Sola is 15 minutes away for hardcore winter surfers!
Thon Hotel is right in the centre of Stavanger, close to the good shops and the harbour side. A bright and breezy place with dramatic furnishings. A buffet breakfast to rival all others – piled high with smoked fish, fruits, cured meats.
BMI operates a daily regional route between Newcastle and the Stavanger from Sunday to Friday. Fares start from £78 one-way or £139 return.