Travel: Oil boom meets Viking tradition

Norway's ancient city of Stavanger is enjoying a new prosperity, thanks to the North Sea.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN NORWAY was a comparatively poor country in relation to the prosperous Scandinavian neighbours who often patronised it, every Norwegian, it was said, nursed the impossible dream of owning a Mercedes with a Swedish chauffeur.

Now the standard of living is so high in Norway because of its fantastic North Sea oil boom, that thousands of Norwegians must be able to turn that dream into reality. But, thankfully they haven't and they continue, it seems, to behave with the understated dignity that has long been their characteristic.

In his wryly amusing book How to Understand and Use a Norwegian Odd Borretzen says his compatriots are sober people who believe that God (and the King) are good things but that they should behave like proper Norwegians and not think they are anything special - after all they are no more than human.

Nowhere is better than the ancient and beautiful city of Stavanger, the centre of the oil boom, to observe Norway's quiet new prosperity grafted on ancient Viking traditions. The city claims to be the heart of original Norway. Near Stavanger in 872 King Harald Fair-Hair won a battle which united the kingdom at a time when his countrymen were ruling much of the north, from Shetland to Dublin and from York to Iceland.

The cathedral with two towers capped by green copper roofs would not be out of place in any British city. It dates back to the 12th century and overlooks a small lake, the Breivatn, which gives the centre a sense of tranquillity and lends the city the air of being a Scandinavian Wells or Ripon across the North Sea.

A hundred yards away the market on the quay provides fresh fish and crab. For years Stavanger made a living from fishing, its fleets supporting 70 canneries where most adults worked. The factories - and the smell - have gone but the link to the sea is still there. In Gamle Stavanger, the old residential quarter, cobbled streets of handsome, carefully preserved wooden houses survive to show how merchants and sea captains lived a century or more ago. It is supposed to have more wooden buildings in one area than anywhere else in Europe. "People actually live there and they enjoy the feeling of history," says Ellen, a local resident.

The town once had a reputation of being tight-fisted, religious in a very conservative manner and an opponent of alcohol (in 1862 the Norwegian Total Abstinence Society was founded in the city). That reputation has abated a little. Yet overlooking the Breivatn is the local branch of Vinmonopolet, the state-wide alcohol monopoly which is a reminder that the subject of prohibition is still a live one in Norway, particularly in the countryside. In an elegant, modern and rather sparse shop a bottle of Tanqueray's gin will cost you almost pounds 30 while a bottle of Teacher's Scotch can be yours for pounds 27. A Norwegian explanation for their partiality for alcohol and for the reaction against it comes from the fact that Norwegians lived alone in caves for 8,000 years, never invented glasses or bottles and so always had to drink up the booze they manufactured at one go.

Stavanger has a number of attractive and cheery boozers, filled with happy drinkers sited around the Vagen, the inner harbour. The Victoria Hotel where I stayed for about pounds 50 a night (including one of those enormous Norwegian breakfasts) even has a pavement cafe.

With or without alcohol, Stavanger is in the big time, headquarters of multi-million pound companies. In its harbour complicated floating factories which go out into the North Sea to service the oil and gas fields are tied up, while across the water shipyards hum and bang. In waters near here they have built oil rigs 10 times as big as the Eiffel Tower.

But human endeavour in Stavanger is dwarfed by nature. This is Rogaland, the southern end of the fjord country where the combination of mountains and water make even the oilmen's mightiest efforts look puny. The best way to arrive in the city is not by plane or boat from England or Scotland but by taking the train from Oslo which takes you through spectacular scenery of high fells and lakes and isolated farms.

On the Lysefjord is a flat-topped peak, the Prekestolen or Pulpit where those who don't suffer from fear of heights can - at the risk of falling to their death down a sheer 2,000 feet drop - get a 180 degree view of miles around. Though this writer would be taken up to such a height only under general anaesthetic, going there is a favourite outing for the locals.

"The Norwegian's ideal is to be a son/daughter of the Sea, the Mountain, the Rustling Forest - in short a son/daughter of the Wilderness, independent of the namby-pamby, European lowlands civilisation, with all its unnecessary luxury and comfort. A silent, pensive and unfettered bird who flies his own way," says Borretzen.

You can do and be all of that in Stavanger. And do it in considerable but understated oil-financed comfort.

Getting There

YOU CAN reach Stavanger from a variety of British cities. Color Line (0191-296 1313) sails twice weekly from Newcastle, with a variety of special deals for short breaks. It is possible to fly to Stavanger from Aberdeen on KLM UK (0990 074074) and SAS (0845 607 2772); Glasgow on Wideroes (which operates a flight on behalf of SAS); London Gatwick on British Airways (0345 222111); London Heathrow on BA and SAS; and Newcastle on Braathens (0800 526938).

For longer stays, there is a variety of rail passes for Scandinavia, which allow unlimited travel all over Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

You can no longer buy these from Scandinavian Travel Services; try German Rail (0181-390 8833) or Rail Europe (0990 848848) instead.

The Norwegian Tourist Board, Charles House, 5-11 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR (0171-839 6255) can provide information and free maps.

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