Looking Back On Stavanger - By Stuart Forster

Issue 93

Tom Cruise famously hung out here in the film Mission: Impossible - Fallout. A neckwrenching 1,942 feet above me, the sheer face of Pulpit Rock juts reminiscent of Thor's anvil high above the placid blue surface of Lysefjord. The serenity of today's summer weather contrasts with the exquisite drama of the landscape in this steep-sided Norwegian fjord.

We sailed from Stavanger in a surprisingly quiet, electric-powered catamaran about 90 minutes ago. Passengers stand on deck snapping photos, filming and murmuring appreciative wows. The captain of the Rødne Fjord Cruise informs us that she’s going to take us right up to the normally powerful Hengjanefossen waterfall. Following five weeks without rain, today it’s cascading down a nearby rockface with far less force than usual.

Following the brief pause, we turn back towards Stavanger, a charming city that’s made a positive impression over the past few days. Old Stavanger, a five-minute stroll from Vågen – the harbour – is like a living postcard. Its cobbled streets and 173 white-painted wooden houses are adorned by hanging baskets and plant pots in full bloom. Occasional signs remind visitors that these are people’s homes and not part of a museum.

There is, though, a sizable twin-centred museum at the top of the hill. IDDIS tells the story of fish canning and printing, industries that were major employers a century ago. After viewing colourful labels and smoking ovens, I head up a creaking wooden staircase to former offices and read about Angus Watson, who imported canned brisling – known as Norwegian sardines – into Newcastle under the Skipper brand. The museum’s suntrap terrace outside is a gorgeous space to enjoy a coffee before continuing to explore.

At the Viking House, down by the harbourside, I take a seat in a longboat and pull on a Virtual Reality headset. The 25-minute immersive show provides insights into Harald Fairhair’s rise to power. Inadvertently, I find myself twisting to avoid a hail of incoming arrows during the section about the Battle of Hafrsfjord. A key moment in Norway’s unification, it was fought in 872 at a point now roughly halfway between Stavanger’s airport and the city centre. In commemoration, three vast swords plunge into weather-worn rocks by the waterfront.

Their scale prompts me to me think of North East England’s Angel of the North. Coincidentally, the artist behind the angel, Antony Gormley, also created Stavanger’s Broken Column, 23 identical steel sculptures collectively forming an art trail. One faces into the harbour outside Fisketorget, a highly regarded restaurant where I enjoy an excellent lunch of fish soup accompanied by an IPA from the local Lervig Brewery.

Gormley’s artwork is among many public pieces adorning Stavanger and the surrounding region, where street art is clearly embraced. In the neighbouring city of Bryne, there’s a clench-fisted depiction of free-scoring footballer Erling Braut Haaland celebrating a goal in Borussia Dortmund colours. While I stand appreciating it, a local explains that it’s by Pøbel “Norway’s answer to Banksy”.

Bryne is my first stop on a self-drive day trip encompassing pretty coastal villages. By the mouth of the River Sokna, Sogndalstrand is a popular destination because of its restored heritage buildings and nearby salmon fishing. And driving, on roads that twist through Magma Geopark, proves fun in its own right. An undoubted highlight is heading up to Gloppedalsura, northern Europe’s largest scree, and gazing over rugged boulders high above Vinjavatnet Lake.

Perhaps it’s filling the hybrid vehicle before returning it that piques my interest in visiting the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The waterfront attraction tells the story of Norway’s oil exploration in a balanced manner, conveying lessons learnt from offshore accidents in the 1970s and also examining environmental considerations. Symbolically, the main building represents bedrock while overwater platforms introduce aspects of working life on rigs.

Strolling between boutiques on nearby streets brings opportunities to pick up presents for family members while appreciating the colourful facades and character of the city. To gaze over Stavanger I visit the Clarion Hotel’s 14th floor Espier Bar. A fellow guest lends me his binoculars.

Through the lenses I see a city that’s ideal as a short break destination and distant mountains that form part of a landscape I would not hesitate to return to explore as part of a campervan adventure.

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