Nordicaa: Travels in the Nordic Lands – Bergen and Stavanger

The bus departs from the underground station, a study in brutalist concrete, and urban piss. Our holiday had taken us from the bright lights of Oslo, through mountain and fjord to the city of Bergen, thence to Stavanger. We were battered; we were broken; we were bruised. We would find joy.

We climb an almost impossibly steep, arched bridge, a flavour of the Atlantic Ocean Road. The bus works its way out of the Sentrum; winds its way through concrete banked roads, through sprawling suburbia. Soon we are amidst green; soon we will find ourselves aboard a passenger ferry, a vital, working extension of the road which carries us. The smell of Lapskaus fills the air; we are moving.

Bergen and Stavanger are as different from each other as they are from the rest of Norway. At times sparse, clean, full of light and water; at times dense, dirty, full of people and their associated thrum.

While Bergen had a glittering history as a Hanseatic League trading post – North German merchant guilds (Hansa) operated trade routes in the North Sea; this came to include Bergen and, with it, its exclusive access to Norwegian fish – the ancient city of Stavanger did not experience its boom until the late twentieth century. Then that came via the North Sea’s other great commodity: Oil.

The fjords and towns of Western Norway are now magnets for tourist ships. The volume of ships varies from city to city; the size of ships varies from fjord to fjord. Bergen attracts them all. Stavanger only attracts one huge boat at a time; it towers over the surrounding buildings. It is an imposition.

Bergen. Bryggen to its friends: The tourist trail is strong with this one. Boats of all shapes and sizes come and go all day, divesting themselves of their myriad cargo. Tourists follow the same trail as the millions before them: a walk around the old town, a gawp at the wooden pavements, buying some overpriced tat, finish off in a pavement café where you can spend the weekly food budget of a family of four on a non-open face sandwich and a frosty beer. They miss the heart of the city by miles, and in so doing miss the point. The ancient harbour, with its famous, gaudily painted faces is far from the truth of Bergen. It is crowded, and it is fake. It is more American in accent than it is Norwegian.

Stavanger, for its part is English in its accent, if it has an accent at all. It is a city built on oil, and it has preserved its face with the near limitless funds the oil industry has pumped in to the area over many years. It is clean, it is crisp, and it is beautifully maintained. So much so that it feels hollow at times.

Stavanger wears a shiny face: crisp white houses, preserved as a city of time capsules; bright flecks of vibrant colour: life. This masks a less palatable truth: much of the city centre is merely a play park for oil workers: bars, restaurants, entertainment. It could be given that the real Stavanger hides a short walk out of the Sentrum, in neighbourhoods of repetitive white boxes. Stavanger is beautiful and transcendental, but a dirty transient chaos hides just below the surface. Then again; Bergen.

After the bone-crushing calm of the fjords, Bergen feels like it occupies its own circle of hell. Every sight intimidates and repulses: a man loitering uneasily behind you in a supermarket; clip-boarded “charity workers” waiting to prey on tourists; a woman on a street, mimicking your every step; the graffiti, the day drinkers and the sweet, sickly smells. The streets of the city alienate and unsettle.

In reality it’s just culture shock. Charity workers are just charity workers; people walking too closely are just busy texting; there is graffiti and day drinking in every city, everywhere. Then again, blue lights in toilets always give me pause. They’re installed to stop intravenous drug users finding a vein, but when you’re at a world heritage site with a small child, it puts the locale in question somewhat.

You enter a tunnel at the foot of the mountain – dark, stone – and you board a carriage. Up you rise, through the roof. You are being hauled by a rope; it feels wrong. You climb above the city; your ears pop. Bergen becomes a memory as you enter the forest of Floyen. The pressures drop away as you see the city spread out like an unfurled map. The harbours, the lake, buildings: people aren’t even ants from this vantage. Your perspective has changed once more; this time it is for the better.

The buildings of Bergen and Stavanger feel old and new: an historical document, but also a living, vital community. It feels like an intrusion to use these places, but that is precisely what they are for.

Art is written across the face of urban Stavanger: on the walls of the shopping complexes artists have written odes to loves; every few metres around the lake is a sculpture, a fountain; an area of wasteland has been converted to a graffiti emblazoned park for children, built from old bits of the oil industry. There are families everywhere, playing. Stavanger is beautiful. I may have forgotten to emphasise that. The municipality has built a centre which begs to be inhabited. Right beside the train and bus station is a lake, upon which myriad birds swarm, swim and sleep. It welcomes you in.

Entering Stavanger felt safe; it is a city which suits pedestrians, even though car is king. Boundaries blur between road and pavement; it gives the disorientating feeling of shared space. Every door feels open; every path feels free; everything feels fresh. It bursts with light and shade; leaf and water.

Getting to Stavanger from Bergen is not a straightforward thing. Both are served well by plane, train, boat and road; however, the train would have taken 13 hours, crossing most of the country. Instead, we took the bus: 5 hours, almost due South, with two short ferry hops. Through tunnels, diving deep beneath fjords; through farm land and forest; through the half life of petrol station communities.

Entering Bergen was a shock of people, fish and drunkenness. The journey there, by fjord, had been dreamlike; to be woken up by a city in full May Day revelry was discomfiting; itchy. The sight of the fish market warmed our hearts, but the prices poured cold water on our ardour. That would change.

The butter arrives smeared on a rock. The soda bread is still warm from the oven; the knekkebrød is rich with seeds and rye. The ever-present local water has been poured: we clink glasses. A great meal washes away the grit from the soul, and that is precisely what we found in Bergen. Eventually.

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