STAVANGER is something of a survivor. Unlike a flotilla of Norwegian coastal towns that have fallen foul of the precarious fortunes of fishing, Stavanger has diversified and is now the proud possessor of a dynamic economy, which has swelled the population to over 125,000. It was the herring fishery that first put money into the town, crowding its nineteenth-century wharves with coopers and smiths, net makers and menders. Then, when the fishing failed, the town moved into shipbuilding and now it makes its money through oil – Stavanger builds rigs for Norway’s offshore oilfields and refines it as well – backed up by a profitable sideline in tourism as witnessed by the mammoth cruise ships that regularly pull into its harbour.
Much of central Stavanger is strikingly modern, a jingle and a jangle of mini- and not-so-mini tower blocks that spreads over the hilly ground abutting the main harbour and surrounding the decorative, central lake, Breiavatnet, the most obvious downtown landmark. None of this may sound terribly enticing, but in fact Stavanger is an excellent place to start a visit to Norway: all the town’s amenities are within easy walking distance of each other; it has excellent train, bus and ferry connections; and it possesses an especially attractive harbour, a couple of enjoyable museums, a raft of excellent restaurants plus several lively bars. The town is also – and this comes as a surprise to many first-time visitors – nearer to the fjords than Bergen, the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the Fjords”: within easy reach of Stavanger are the Lysefjord and the dramatic Preikestolen rock formation.