Over the North Sea 14.10.22
The good news: I'm flying to Norway. The bad news: judging by the safety leaflet, it might be in the B737 MAX – the one that is so unstable if fell out of the sky twice. [Actually, Flightradar24 tells me later that it was the older, safer B737-800.]
On the way to Stavanger. Why? It seems very small – not even Norway's second city – shops seem to close almost as soon as they open, and the weather forecast for the next four days is rain, rain, heavy rain, rain, thunderstorms, and then showers when we leave. But in all those respects, it's interesting.
Truth to tell, I was going to fly to Georgia – I've not been for three years thanks to Covid. But as I was just about to book hotels and buy flights, that nice Mr Putin began his "partial" mobilisation, and tens of thousands of young Russians fled the country – strangely unwilling to get killed to salve Putin's pride. In particular, flights to Tbilisi went up from $300 to $600, and hotels were sold out as Russians piled in. So Georgia not the happiest of places – and probably a little too close to Russia in the circumstances [turbulence…]. Admittedly, Norway also has a border with Russia, but a long way from Stavanger. Also, I don't think Putin would attack NATO country. Little, helpless Georgia (population three million, two great chunks already missing thanks to Russia) on the other hand…
So, Stavanger is a kind of anti-Georgia. Very expensive, very clean, very orderly. Interesting for those reasons, although not much else to do. It would have been nice to climb to the Preikestolen – the main image I have of Stavanger – but the torrential rain that is threatened is not really ideal for this. Even fjord cruises are likely to be compromised somewhat. But hej – at least we have the Oil Museum… In fact, since everything else in terms of museums and art galleries seems closed on Monday, the Oil Museum may be our only hope of getting out of the rain…
Flying Norwegian for the first time – I've often seen their planes. Efficient Web site, expensive (around 500 euros for two), pity about the Boeings those chose [they do have some B737 MAX, and are buying more, it seems…]. Turns out that UK school half-term is upon us: result – Gatwick South Terminal awash with young families. Not a problem, but made everything feel rather crowded, which I had not expected.
Sitting in Fisketorget – pretty expensive, but then everything is here. Fab view of the harbour, a big powered catamaran berthed nearby – seems the only one offering tours of the fjords.
An easy trip from the airport on the bus to hour hotel, Darby's Inn, greeted by Mr Darby, I think. A fine Victorian-era building. Out into the rain, through the backstreets with their characteristic white houses, all similar, but all different. The electric cars swish by, the only sound the wheels cutting through the rainy road. The house number have a very pleasing typeface.
Down to the harbour, where a huge tug (?) looms. Around the harbour, along to the old town. Everything so far has been very restrained – reminds me of the Outer Hebrides, Cornwall, Iceland. The gently sloping lanes remind me of the similar but completely different hill streets of Tbilisi. The old part of the town an explosion of colour after the uniform white. Rather gaudy and excessive – looks like something created with a digital painting program. A bit more lively. Reminds me again of Tbilisi, but also of Bucharest. We take coffee in the Bacchus café – decent coffee, tea and apple cake. This reminds me of a restaurant I visited in Copenhagen – relaxed, nice atmosphere. Then through the streets full of female navy ratings (Stavanger is a NATO centre – our hotel has people from it staying) out on the town. Then to here, lucky to find a table, especially by the window overlooking the harbour and sea.
Back in Darby's. Harbour very attractive by night, especially after rain (lots of it), with the lights reflected on the wet pavement. As well as the electric cars – and the absence of places to park, for example in hotels – there are electric scooters everywhere – being used, or left all over the shop.
A famously good breakfast at Darby's in the splendid dining room upstairs. A mirrored ceiling, lots of chinoiserie. Turns out Mr Darby was in the oil industry – Singapore, Houston, London, Paris, Stavanger. Awkward. His Norwegian wife extolled the virtues of the Oil Museum, understandably, perhaps.
To the city, absolutely devoid of people – looked like a film set for some post-apocalyptic movie. Around the old part, bought some lunch – having failed to do in the nearby Extra supermarket – seems Norwegians don't eat sandwiches…
Bought tickets for the only cruise to the fjords at this time of year – 650 Kr, reasonably, unlike the £100 Booking.com site was quoting for exactly the same trip. Reminder to self: don't use Booking.com for offers… Now on the super-modern boat (catamaran). Fair number of people, but far fewer than the 297 the boat can hold. Rather fresh this morning, so sitting inside, not on the open top. Views would be better there, but I think we'd freeze. Strangely, not raining, even a hint of sun. But rain promised later, and for all Sunday.
The endless parade of hills and mountains woven together, reminds me – perversely – of the train ride from Samarkand to Tashkent. That sense of consonance among opposites. Almost impossible to stay outside – wind so strong, you'd lose a camera so easily. The neat houses and cabins perched on patches of grass remind me this time of the buildings high in the Alps as we drove from Italy to France. So many clearly expensive places owned by so many rich people, about which most of us know nothing… The walls of the fjord vertical, with lines that make them look like perpendicular style architecture – truly natural cathedrals.
Half way into the fjord, to the waterfall, a majestic force of nature. In close, with water spraying everywhere (not me, though – I stayed inside). The boat turns, stops at Preikestolen. I realise I have misjudged the height of these walls: on the Preikestolen itself I can just make out tiny, tiny dots – people. The top is gobsmackingly high. Then we stop at the Vagabond's Cave – basically a huge cleft in the cliff. Beautiful rock formations, sculptural.
The bridge at the entrance to Lysefjord reminds me of the multiple bridges and viaducts on the road leading to the Mont Blanc tunnel – an amazing drive. There, the mood was refulgent summer; here, mellow autumn. Sailing back the way we came, but with a different feeling. You depart full of expectations, energy. You return full of experience, tired but content. The rain held off for this, and we are grateful.
Another echo, but a distant one: when I went down other fjords, as far from here as possible, in New Zealand. Slight smaller and tamer, as I recall, but beautiful nonetheless.
Another contrast. Norway is confirmed for me as an efficient, functioning society, as I saw in Oslo all those years ago. Its huge North Sea oil fund means that it is well placed for whatever the future holds. The UK, of course, is the complete contrast to that, especially now. A government so dysfunctional that is already a global byword; chaos politically, financially, economically, ecologically. I love it. "May you live in interesting times" may be meant as a curse, but for me is a blessing. I love wondering what new disaster will unfold each day, hanging on Twitter so as to be among the first to know. I love it – the buzz, the madness, the sense of living on the edge. It's so exciting. Stavanger, by contrast, opens at 10am and closes at 4pm. Restaurants shut early, museums are closed on Mondays. It's efficient, smooth – and rather dull. Give me bonkers mayhem every time.
After the boat trip, a walk around the town, which is finally a little lively. Then along to the bus station, which is also next to the train station. The latter small, as might be expected. We're here to buy buy tickets for tomorrow's visit to a slightly distant museum. I buy a 24-hour ticket, not realising it is for the next 24 hours. Ah, well, at least we can take the bus back. Both stations sit next to the Byparken, Stavanger's main city park. Seagulls and swans dominate its lake, which is striking pastoral given the presence of archetypal urban features such as bus and train stations. Back to the room. It starts raining heavily, but at least we had no rain during the fjord trip.
Out for supper to the nearby Matsmagasinet. No room in the restaurant – it's Saturday evening after all – so we sit in the bar, and choose from its small but inventive menu. Tables full of young women laughing raucously and explosively set the tone. Just one man there, sitting on his own, absolutely immobile for minutes on end. We eat, pay and leave to avoid any acts of mass murder he may be about to commit…
A day that went far better than feared, with most of it rainless. Tomorrow still threatens to be thoroughly wet. We shall see – the weather system here seems to be even more unstable and less predictable than London's…
In the café of the Archaeological Museum. Bright and modern, very few people. Exhibits well displayed, with explanations in Norwegian and English. After a while, Norwegian becomes vaguely comprehensible, close enough to German.
Raining mostly today, but odd spells of dry weather – enough for us to take the bus to the Kunstmuseum by the park. Typical small city art gallery: modern building, very clean and tidy, with a couple of temporary exhibitions, plus a few older Norwegian paintings – some very good landscapes. Park largely empty, as everywhere. Then on the bus to the Archaeological Museum. Again, the space very modern, the exhibits well laid out. Lots of gold and other jewellery, posts, a huge cauldron, broken swords, a section meditating on the universality of Yggdrasil, the tree of life.
But for me, the highlight without doubt was the pair of lurs – ancient Germanic horns. These were found in a bog, and were intact. Not only were there two of them, they were a matching pair: tuned to the same note, and each forming a serpentine coil with different chiralities. Amazing sophistication, and also shows how important music was to ancient tribes.
After lunch in the museum, it was still early, so we walked along to the Stavanger Museum. Full of kids, and kid-suitable exhibits, with one notable and striking exception. A propos of nothing, one room contained an installation called "Cranium Music". It consisted of a dozen or so suspended animal skulls onto which were projected the faces of singers such that the animal jaws coincided with the singers' mouths. In the background, the music that the singers – and thus the skulls – were performing. Pretty disconcerting, and hardly consonant with the rest of the museum.
There was still a little while before every museum in the city shut, so we decided to fit in one more – the Maritime Museum down by the harbour. A nice old building, ceilings showing lovely beams, perilously low for me. An eclectic mix of exhibitions, plus recreations of merchants' rooms. Nothing spectacular, but interesting enough.
Just as museums close at 4pm, so are many restaurants shut on Sunday. Even supermarkets are closed. We managed to find one, Bunnpris, which a few bits and pieces we will eat tonight, since the forecasts are awful – not the weather for wanderings.
As the saying has it: "as quiet as Stavanger on a Monday" – well, almost. All the museums are shut, bar one – the Oil Museum. Pretty much the last thing I'd want to visit, but needs must when the devil drives. And there is a certain timeliness in the topic, when a European war is being fought over, and waged with, oil. The museum itself is rather splendid, architecturally speaking. It looks as if made out of leftover oil pipes and rigs. As usual, very clean and neat inside, with jolly exhibits about the origin of oil, the history of drilling. One thing I already knew but still find amazing is that the modern oil industry is so young: it more or less began in Azerbaijan at the end of the nineteenth century, when people noticed that his black stuff bubbling out of the ground burnt rather well. (Reminds me, I really want to go to Baku – I do wish Armenia and Azerbaijan would sort out a peace deal…).
The exhibits have a certain abstract charm: the rigs looked like enormous metal artworks. My favourite bit was the, er, bits – various kinds displayed in a row. A photo showed them arranged like exotic sea animals, or viruses. Also interesting was a control room of some kind, an ecstasy of analogue dials and switches. But overall, like all museums in Stavanger, rather small – not worth the £25 it cost us to get in… Then out around the barely stirring town, people going quietly about their quiet business, mostly in quiet electric vehicles, which seems appropriate as well as laudable.
Stavanger airport. Like the museums here, modern, clean, efficient – and quite small. Just three days ago, this city was completely unknown to me. Now, I've seen the main sights and walked its streets in myriad ways. Certainly, I don't claim to know the place, but I have an mental image and a plan of it.