Travel - Stavanger

Stavanger, Norway

Northern light

Mark Fisher heads to Stavanger to see a European City of Culture that’s giving Liverpool a run for its money

If Disney had designed the streets outside Duncan Robertson’s studio, you’d say it was too Mickey Mouse to be true. Like the view of the sunlit mountains that skirt the edge of the city, the wooden houses of Stavanger’s old town are chocolate box cute. The cobbled streets, the woodwork painted in immaculate white, the cheery well-dressed neighbours . . . if you didn’t know you were in a Norwegian port built on the fishing trade and made rich by the oil industry, you’d swear you were in a theme park.

The impression is reinforced if you step inside any of these traditional 18th century cottages with ceilings so low that anyone approaching 6ft has to bend down. Robertson, an Edinburgh sculptor, has a touch more room in his second-floor studio, which he’s occupying for a two-month residency as part of Stavanger 2008, a European City of Culture programme that dwarfs that of Liverpool in scale, coherence and ambition.

Tonight the artist is hosting a low-key showing of his work – a chandelier made from antlers; another made from bullets; photographs of the artist in a wedding dress and waving a Norwegian flag on an icy outcrop known as the Pulpit Rock – pieces that have, he imagines, absorbed the character of the place.

‘Norway’s a really comfortable place to be,’ he says. ‘When you’re away on a residency, it focuses you on your work. I’ve only been thinking of things Norwegian since I’ve been here.’

Robertson is one of a number of Scottish artists contributing to the North Sea Project – one strand in the £29m Stavanger 2008 programme – making connections between the west coast of Norway and the east coast of the UK from Shetland to Gateshead. As well as a series of visual arts residencies, there is a commission for composer Catriona McKay, appearances by several Scottish storytellers and a site-specific performance by Edinburgh’s Grid Iron theatre company in October. ‘We tend to look south to London or continental Europe,’ says Grid Iron’s director Ben Harrison. ‘But looking north we may have more in common with those countries than we might at first think.’

Geography justifies the theme, but it’s no coincidence that the director of Stavanger 2008 is the Wick-born Mary Miller, a former Scotsman music editor and head of Scotland’s now defunct Northlands festival. Using the slogan ‘open port’, she is alerting a sometimes inward-looking city to the artistic glories of the outside world.

‘The danger is the comfort level,’ she says about a city where all seems right with the world. ‘Stavanger needs to be capital of culture very badly, because culturally it’s necessary to push boundaries. It was very important to find the best work, but not just drop it in and fly it out again which is why we’ve brought in four amazing companies for a whole month.’

What this means is a line-up that bypasses many of Norway’s home-grown crowd pleasers in favour of some of the world’s most inspiring artists. Having been wowing audiences in London with War Horse, South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company will be in residency (November), as will Belgium’s Musiktheater Transparant (February), Tel Aviv’s Inbal Pinto Dance Company (May/June) and Lithuania’s Oskarus Korsunovas Theatre (September).

Additionally, there will be symphonies in the cathedral, light sculptures in neighbouring Sandnes, jazz reworkings of Edvard Grieg, exhibitions in six local lighthouses and a snow-based dance-theatre performance accessible only on skis. Throw in brass bands, food festivals, kite flying, stand-up comedy and street theatre and you get the impression of a city capitalising on its cultural year as few places have since Glasgow in 1990.

Plenty for the cultural tourist, then, but in any year Stavanger, a twin city of Aberdeen and about half the size, is a great starting off point to explore the startling scenery of the Norwegian coast. To get you in the mood, follow my lead, check into the Radisson Atlantic Hotel and take a sauna. The window of the top-floor room looks out to Lake Breiavatnet with its illuminated fountain. It’s postcard perfect and not a view you expect to find slap bang in the city centre. The 8am cathedral bells only add to the effect.

On the other side of the lake is a warren of pedestrian streets with a mixture of independent and mainstream shops, leading to the docks, waterfront bars and the strikingly sleek oil museum. Not far away are the ferry terminals to take you through the stunning scenery of the 23-mile Lysefjord, with its islands, waterfalls and dramatic granitite formations. Alternatively, those with weaker sea legs can explore the bigger islands by car thanks to two major under-sea tunnels on the road north.

Doing any of this on a budget will be a challenge. Although some things, such as clothes, are competitively priced, it’s impossible not to be taken aback by the cost of drink. A round for three in an ordinary pub left me with little change from £20, while a bottle of wine in the delightful Café Sting was closer to £30. Perhaps this is the reason that when you order wine by the glass in this cosy cabin just next to the Valberget tower, you pay not by quantity but weight, the bar staff pouring out your drink on scales.

But don’t let this put you off: the welcome from Stavanger’s open port is compensation enough.

Stavanger is just a hop across the North Sea from Aberdeen and the best direct flights go from there, taking an hour and costing from £143. From Glasgow and Edinburgh, prices start at £200 and you’re likely to have to change in Copenhagen or London, not to mention spend upwards of four hours in transit.

Lovers of outdoor sports are attracted to the wild scenery close to Stavanger. For a more sedate time, there are the beaches of the Jæren coast.

Save up before you go or don’t expect to spend much time in pubs and restaurants. Although alcohol is expensive, some things, such as clothes, are not. You can find bed and breakfast accommodation from around £45 per night for a double room.

Useful websites has pages on everything from sustainable architecture to cutting-edge puppetry, as well as tourist information. is a privately run site with loads of local information. The official tourist site is

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