On our final approach to Stavanger airport, I was trying to remember the last time I had travelled to a new country. Answer? Iceland, sixteen years ago: obviously, there’s a reason why I’m not a travel blogger! 😁 This was ~ finally ~ the trip to visit Sam and Adrienne that we had to cancel two years ago because of the pandemic. They have lived in Norway for almost three years now, but it was our first trip there and we were their first visitors, so it was definitely a cause for celebration! How exciting, too, to be spending the week of the summer solstice at a latitude of roughly 59° north, the days flooded with light, darkness almost non-existent and everything in full bloom.
In my mind’s eye, I had imagined the landscape to be similar to that of Iceland but this south-western corner of Norway is green and lush and full of trees, leafed up and lovely in their fresh green foliage; there are farms with patchwork fields of grass and potatoes, and gardens brimming with blooms, so many of my favourites in a chaotic, cottagey tumble of colour and scent. Totally charming.
Sam and Adrienne were fantastic tour guides; they had planned thoughtful trips out in every direction from Stavanger to give us a real taste of the local area and some of the places they love to walk. Obviously, we didn’t go there for the weather but we were blessed with some beautiful warm and sunny days between the damper, cooler ones, and although we had to alter our plans here and there to avoid getting very wet, it really didn’t matter because it felt like we did it all anyway.
Island hopping . . .
Hill walking . . .
Fjord bagging . . .
Sightseeing . . .
Beachcombing . . .
Ah, such beautiful landscapes . . . Now for the city. As a dyed-in-the-wool bumpkin, I don’t tend to feel very comfortable in urban settings but Stavanger was full of surprises. Blessed with many open spaces and green places, it didn’t feel like a city somehow; the streets were quiet and the centre was vibrant and lively in an accommodating, self-contained sort of way. That wild landscape beyond was never far away.
The only fly in the ointment were the cruise ships; on our first foray to the harbour, two had just docked and were in the process of disgorging literally thousands of passengers onto the quayside. I can’t find the words to describe the size of those things, they were grotesquely monstrous, dwarfing everything around them and totally dominating the landscape.
Wandering around the winding streets of Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger), I wondered how the original inhabitants ~ local fisherman and artisans ~ would have felt to see such an intrusive backdrop to their pretty white wooden houses and gorgeous cottage gardens.
We went back a few days later when the ships had gone and the entire atmosphere of the place had completely changed. (As a brief aside, the cruise ships are a very controversial issue at many levels and there is a push to have them banned from the port within the next two years.) People were sitting outside restaurants and bars, enjoying the sunshine in a relaxed and uncluttered environment, and the true character of the place seemed to be shining through.
I loved Fargegate (Colour Street) with its joyfully unapologetic celebration of life . . .
. . and the old town, now free of cruise ships, was delightful.
When trying to find a sense of place, I like to anchor myself in the natural world and, with us being northern Europeans ourselves, there was much about the flora and fauna that was familiar. There were wild flowers everywhere that I recognised ~ elder, honeysuckle, roses, clover, valerian, buttercups, vetch, trefoil, flag iris and lupins to name just a few ~ and the swathes of fluffy white gossamer of bog cotton on our hillier hikes reminded me of Wales. There were plenty of new plants to see, too, like dwarf cornel, cloudberry and oysterplant which were not things I remember coming across before; I took many photos of unknown flowers and now need to get busy identifying them!
Most of the resident birds were also familiar and there was a good range of migrant visitors, too, with cuckoos, chiffchaffs, warblers, swallows, swifts and martins all enjoying a Nordic summer. It’s some years since I’ve seen hooded crows in their smart grey waistcoats or heard the evocative call of curlews, and it’s most definitely the first time I’ve ever experienced a dawn chorus delivered by city-dwelling oystercatchers! They were literally everywhere, those little black and white clowns with bright red beaks . . . yet suddenly and frustratingly elusive when it came to posing for a close-up photo.
Along with wild places and walking, good food and cooking are a love we share with Sam and Adrienne and they thoroughly spoilt us with their delicious home cooking. Norwegians have a penchant for hot dogs and pick-and-mix sweets but thankfully we managed to sidestep both those culinary delights and enjoyed some of the best food Norway has to offer instead. Staying in what was very obviously a productive agricultural region, there was a wealth of local seasonal produce to enjoy and the generous (and hugely appreciated!) treat of a meal in the Söl restaurant in Stavanger proved to be a delight to the senses. I came away completely inspired, not just by the innovative and inspired use of local ingredients but also by some fascinating flavour combinations such as rhubarb with chervil which I will definitely be trying at home. Another treat were kanelsnurrer, mouth-watering twisted cinnamon pastries that we ate for breakfast in a local coffee shop and I have to confess I fell head over heels in love with brunost at first taste. This is a brown cheese made from caramelised whey which looks like a block of fudge and is traditionally cut with a special cheese slicer (ostehøvel); it’s something of an acquired taste but I liked it so much that I’ve brought a block of it home to France with me ~ better than a piece of souvenir shop tat any day.
The sharing of good food with loved ones must be one of the most fundamental and life-affirming human activities there is and after all the separation and disappointments that the pandemic has thrown at us over the last couple of years, it felt truly wonderful to be breaking bread (and let me tell you, that seeded rye bread is the cat’s pyjamas!) with Sam and Adrienne once again. At last I am able to picture clearly the life they have made for themselves in Norway and I can understand why they are so happy in the beautiful country they now call home. What a privilege to have spent such a precious week with them. Tusen hjertelig takk, you two! 😊