Places to Go: Troll Gazes and Street Art In Stavanger, Norway

Norway is famous for crime on Easter. On the front page of a 1923 edition of the publication Aftenposten, the entire country saw the line, “Bergen train looted in the night.” The title caused a furor in the country as many saw it as a legitimate headline, rather than an extremely clever advertisement for a newly released novel.

Stumbling out of the airport near Stavanger, the third largest city in Norway, the streets were empty. It took 45 minutes on a desolate bus to spot two cyclists riding through the meandering country roads. I expected the city to repopulate after Easter and, while residents flooded back in, the country didn’t feel any busier. If anything, their slowed pace exposed my ‘bull in a china shop’ approach to life. I tried my best to tear through the country, seeing it more like a checklist rather than a newfound home.

Stavanger is easy and slow and welcoming.

The Scandinavian town sits somewhere between progression and heritage. In its early days, it was known for its booming fishing industry and its status as a religious centre.

The Stavanger Domkirke, or cathedral, still stands tall in the middle of Old Gamble, the historic side of town.

“If you are looking, you will find it,” I was told when asking for directions to the iconic building.

After spotting the stone walls, a newly-made friend and I scrambled to get a closer look. The cathedral, built in 1125, was encircled by hundreds of birds snatching bread crumbs from the sky, as a group of elderly men tossed them up with all the strength they could muster.

The church is still open for regular services but like most things in Stavanger, it has more to offer. Figurines and other historical artifacts hide within the burnt-down-then-resurrected cathedral that was integral to the city’s founding. I stopped and spent the better part of an hour trying to locate them all.

Stavanger is also famous for its street art and its hosting of an annual festival where artists from around the world have free rein on the city’s walls.

Rushing through the cobblestone streets, between rows upon rows of whitewashed wooden buildings, I thought I could easily spot the massive art pieces but somehow I managed to miss them all. Others in my group spotted them first, every time, despite hanging back. They caught sight of the street art from a distance because they weren’t in a hurry to get to the next best thing to see.

Artists Jaune, Dot Dot Dot and EVOL’s works were scrawled throughout the city. Some blanketed entire buildings, others occupied easy-to-miss electrical boxes.

After enough failed Where’s Waldo attempts to glimpse the art throughout the city, I joined the other observers and began to spot the art hidden in alleyways. The game was lost on those who shifted gears, wanting to explore local music shops and other foreign stores, but I could have stayed in those streets forever.

With every step, I heard the city whisper, “Slow down, Bailey.”

Another landmark for the city is the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, located on the harbourfront and comprised of old oil rigs and pipes where kids jump across fishing buoys in a scene not unlike one from a dystopian novel. It seems that every resident I’d met had a connection to the oil industry, a fact they proved consistently proud of. Until the 1960s, Stavanger was a fishing town. The memories of this time are not forgotten, with a well-respected maritime museum and local fish markets. But with the discovery of oil off the coast, the city’s focus shifted forever.

The busiest part of the city was the Geopark, located in front of the museum. The colourful Geopark was unable to escape the touch of street artists, as it was entirely covered in graffiti. We quickly joined in on the bouncing and walking toe-to-toe along pipe attractions until our laughter forced us to dismount for our own safety. We scurried away, earning plenty of peculiar looks from parents and children alike.

The Norwegian trolls of folklore kept an eye on me as they appeared in three-foot-tall statues wherever I turned. Instead of gatekeeping the city, these mythical creatures served as a reminder that I was stepping into their land and culture.

A gift store clerk told me the trolls were meant to ward off poor behaviour from kids. The constant gaze from the stone creatures made me reconsider my pace at every turn.

If you don’t mind hopping on a boat for a few hours, one could experience Preikestolen. This massive cliff towers 604 metres above the Lysefjord. I opted for the lake across the street from my hotel instead. Perhaps the value of spending an entire day on a boat just to see one attraction was lost on me, but instead I found myself at a lake alone, again, with a handful of Nidar’s Smash! candy.

Stavanger could be seen in a day, but shouldn’t. The entire town begs for your attention and for you to slow down and savour the trip back in time.

Every choice carries a bit more weight than in other places I’ve been. The mediocre-at-best food requires careful examination of the menus, written in broken English, in an attempt to decide what to buy because nothing, and I mean nothing, is affordable.

You better be sure about your pizza preference, because a personal size costs $40.

I ended my trip with a ceramic mug showcasing an image of the Preikestolen and Sverd i fjell — or swords in a rock — and a much lighter wallet. Sverd i fjell was much closer than Preikestolen so I spent most mornings eating the hotel’s breakfast buffet and eavesdropping on conversations about wondrous trips to both attractions. I left having not seen two of the city’s biggest attractions but toting the same touristy cup as those who did.

Heading back to the airport on the bus that’d shuttled me in, I spotted the swords I had spent so many days trying to make time to see. I’d given up when I couldn’t find them during my own ventures. As my bus raced past, for the first time on my trip I wished I’d made the choice to slow down.