On the morning of the fifth day on our Norwegian cruise, I awoke, surprised to find that I was not rocking in my bed, as usual. All was still. I threw on some clothes and raced up to the deck, to find that we had indeed already docked – in the middle of a city. This was Stavanger, a former European Capital of Culture, Norway’s fourth-largest city. But the whitewashed, wooden houses that I could see gave more of an impression of a small, provincial town. I later discovered that these buildings make up Stavanger’s Old Town, and it is certainly its most beautiful quarter.
Known locally as Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger), this is a protected area which looks like something out of a picture-book. In fact, what struck me most about Norway, besides its soaring mountains and aquamarine fjords, was that all the little villages we passed looked like toytown, with oversized dolls’ houses and perfectly manicured lawns. Even downtown Stavanger, with its 60s concrete blocks, still had such an air of precision about it that it wasn’t quite real. But in Gamle Stavanger, I could have very well been stepping straight into the pages of a fairytale.
With its cobblestoned lanes and little, white houses, it feels like an open-air museum, but people still live here – it is a living, breathing community. Though, on days when a cruise ship arrives and spills out its 3000 or so passengers, Gamle Stavanger can feel rather more like a tourist trap than part of a real town.
Bright flowers trail from window-boxes and trellises, adding splashes of vibrant colour to the blank canvas of the houses. Tourists are attracted to these like bees – even more so if there happens to be a cat lazing amongst the flowers.
In late August, the roses are putting on a final, valiant show before Autumn sets in. Although some of them are browning at the edges, they are still beautiful.
With unlocked post boxes and bicycles left unchained on pavements, Stavanger has the sense that it belongs to another – more carefree – time, but this is reality in Norway. It is a place where people still trust their neighbours. And really, with all the outdoor adventures and breathtaking views right on your doorstep, why would you bother with petty crime?
Craft shops and ateliers add to the arty feel of the Old Town – you can stop for a coffee in a tiny ceramics workshop, while bowls and jugs are being created before your eyes. As a bit of a pottery fan, these places were a real draw for me.
Above all, it is quiet. Once you leave the main Ovre Strandgate street, the crowds thin out enourmously and suddenly, leaving you wandering past these pretty little houses without a whisper in the air. Even cars barely disrupt the peace, going at a slow, meandering pace a street or two away.
It sounds silly to say, but it has a very Scandanavian feel, in contrast to Western or Southern Europe. Gamle Stavanger represents a cultural heritage unique to this part of the world, and it is very charming indeed.