Stavanger Morning

This bustling oil town has managed to keep its unique Norwegian charm, thanks to one architect’s vision.

Cathedral, Stavanger

The cathedral goes back to the 1100s.

In my recent travels to Nova Scotia, I pulled into the beautiful small town of Yarmouth to find that a big old brick church had just been reduced to a pile of rubble. The dust was still settling, literally, and some of the townspeople were enraged. They’d laboured for three years to save it. One of the local innkeepers vented his frustration succinctly: “When you lose your built heritage, you become just anywhere.”

It’s a hard lesson for any town. Particularly in boom times; it seems that when the economy really starts cooking the thirst for expansion is overwhelming, and town planners begin making sacrifices that cooler heads, or calmer times, might have avoided. I recall my hometown of Calgary; it has undergone at least two substantial oil booms in my lifetime, and during the first one we levelled almost everything we had. It’s depressing.

Street scene, old Stavanger

What a joy, then, to arrive in Norway’s bustling oil capital and discover that Stavanger has avoided those irreversible mistakes. It’s a rustic, charming, and quintessentially Norwegian city that also happens to be the centre of this ultra-rich nation’s North Sea oil industry.

I admit that Norway’s architecture isn’t quite what I was expecting. I’m a huge fan of Scandinavian modernism, but in the places I’ve visited along the coast, the appeal is in the gorgeous wooden construction of the 19th-century (and earlier) Norwegian homes and churches. Despite the ravaging North Atlantic storms and the endless risk of fire (which, it must be said, has claimed a few Norwegian towns), these buildings are in fine shape and are, almost without fail, painted and maintained to perfection by their owners.

Street scene, old Stavanger

Gamle (Old) Stavanger is one such neighbourhood. Located right at the harbour in the heart of town, this cobblestone-lined borough of 200-odd houses was once slated for destruction. What a heartbreak that would have been! In the mid-twentieth century, the new town plan called for much of the city’s core to be razed and converted to concrete. Let us thank one Einar Hedén, the City Architect, the sole voice who rose to Gamle Stavanger’s defence.

Street scene, old Stavanger

We made our way through the neighbourhood early one weekday morning, as the residents were just stirring (and as the 3000-odd passengers on our ship were still sleeping.) We walked and photographed with abandon as well-fed house cats trotted up to greet us. It’s all painted white, this neighbourhood, unlike its more famous counterpart, the colourful Bryggen district of Bergen. The monochrome uniformity really lends it self to an appreciation of form. I’m not sure what range of dates is represented in the neighbourhood—late 18th to 19th century is what I have read—but there’s a beautiful variety in the design of the homes.

Street scene, old Stavanger

We spent a fair bit of time walking and snapping photos, and nobody seemed to mind us there. I’m sure the locals have reconciled themselves to being a tourist attraction, with that plum location. It seems a small price to pay to live in such a beautiful spot.

Street scene, old Stavanger

Not far away, the utra-modern offices of Statoil (the national oil company) and other enterprises were coming to life. The gleaming Petroleum Museum, built roughly in the form of an offshore rig, lay just around the corner. But here in Old Stavanger, it could have been the start of any business day of 1865.

Well played, Norway. Well played.

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