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.
Stavanger sits on a long promontory that pokes a knobbly head north towards the Boknafjord, whose wide waters form a deep indentation in the coast and lap against a confetti of islets and islands. To the east of Stavanger, longer, narrower fjords drill far inland, the most diverting being the blue-black Lysefjord, famous for its precipitous cliffs and an especially striking rock formation, the Preikestolen. This distinctive 25m-square table of rock boasts a sheer 600m drop to the Lysefjord down below on three of its sides.
Getting to Preikestolen by ferry and bus is comparatively straightforward, but cruising the Lysefjord by ferry requires a little forethought – best with the help of Stavanger tourist office (see p.000), who sell the boat tickets. Note also that no matter what the publicity hype says, you do not get a decent view of Preikestolen from the waters of the Lysefjord.
Leaving the Lysefjord behind, the narrow road up from Lysebotn (closed in winter) offers spectacular views as it wiggles and wriggles its way up the mountainside. Eventually, after 7km, just above the last hairpin, the road arrives at the Øygardstøl café, which has panoramic views back down towards the fjord. Øygardstøl is also the starting point for the hiking trail which leads west to the Kjeragbolten, a much-photographed boulder wedged between two cliff faces high above the ground. It’s a tough route, so allow six hours for the round trip – and steel your nerves for the dizzying drops down to the fjord below.
Lysefjord’s most celebrated vantage point, Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), offers superlative views, though on sunny summer days you’ll be sharing them with lots and lots of others. How much you enjoy it depends on your vertigo: the bold/foolhardy dangle the odd limb over the abyss, the more cautious stay away from the edge – and there are no fences or barriers. From the car park at the end of the road, where you’ll also find a hostel and a mountain lodge, it’s a four-hour hike there and back to Preikestolen along a clearly marked trail. The first half is steep in parts and paved with uneven stones, while the second half – over bedrock – is a good bit easier. The change in elevation is 350m and you should take food and water; the hike is not feasible in winter unless you really know what you are doing.
From Preikestolen car park, a short sharp hike leads down to Refsvatn, a small lake encircled by a footpath which takes three hours to negotiate, passing birch and pine woods, marshes, narrow ridges and bare stretches of rock. It also threads through Torsnes, an isolated farm that was inhabited until 1962. The lake footpath connects with a rough path that careers down to the Refsa quay on the Lysefjord.
On the western side of the main harbour is the city’s star turn, Gamle Stavanger. Though very different in appearance from the modern structures back in the centre, the buildings here were also the product of a boom. From 1810 until around 1870, herring turned up just offshore in their millions, and Stavanger took advantage of this slice of luck. The town flourished and expanded, with the number of merchants and shipowners increasing dramatically. Huge profits were made from the exported fish, which were salted and later, as the technology improved, canned. Today, some of the wooden stores and warehouses flanking the western quayside hint at their nineteenth-century pedigree, but it’s the succession of narrow, cobbled lanes behind them – along and around Øvre Strandgate – that shows Gamle Stavanger to best advantage. Formerly home to local seafarers, craftsmen and cannery workers, the area has been maintained as a residential quarter, mercifully free of tourist tat: the long rows of white-painted, clapboard houses are immaculately maintained, complete with picket fences and tiny terraced gardens. There’s little architectural pretension, but here and there flashes of fancy wooden scrollwork must once have had the curtains twitching among the staunchly Lutheran population.
With great ingenuity, Norway’s road builders have cobbled together the E39 coastal road, the Kystvegen (wkystvegen.no), which traverses the west coast from Stavanger to Haugesund, Bergen and ultimately Trondheim with eight ferry trips breaking up the journey. The first part of the trek, the 180km haul up from Stavanger to Bergen, includes two ferry trips and sees the highway slipping across a string of islands, which provide a pleasant introduction to the scenic charms of western Norway – and hint at the sterner beauty of the fjords beyond. Perhaps surprisingly, this region is primarily agricultural: the intricacies of the shoreline, together with the prevailing westerlies, made the seas so treacherous that locals mostly stuck to the land, eking out a precarious existence from the thin soils that had accumulated on the leeward sides of some of the islands.