Exploring Stavanger, Norway

Three Girls - Stavanger, Norway

The city of Stavanger is an interesting one.  Located at nearly the same latitude as the Orkney Islands in Scotland, it’s situated on the inward side of a large peninsula on the southwestern coast of Norway.  The city is the third largest in Norway, though still serves as a home to fewer than 300,000 people and is home to a large portion of the country’s oil fleet.

Tall Ship - Stavanger, Norway

Most of the city’s old town sits on one of two small hills which partially surround the old harbor – a picturesque area full of small cafes, parked ferry boats, and a few masted sailing vessels.  In addition to the cafes the harbor opens up on a large  square (which is on a bit of a hill), a small 4 or 5 station fish market, and the entrance to an old shopping mall.  From the harbor it’s easy to see the large suspension bridge which connects the city of Stavanger proper with a series of small islands which serve as home to some of the city’s more affluent population.  You can see part of the bridge as well as the masts of small sailboats, and the warehouse-turned-residential buildings in the photo above.

International Volleyball Tournament - Stavanger, Norway

To my surprise it turned out that Stavanger was hosting the Conoco Phillips world beach volleyball championships.  They’d brought in tons of sand and set up six full-sized beach volleyball courts along one side of the harbor, in addition to constructing a small free standing stadium around a final match beach/field.   I’m not much of a beach volleyball fan, but was excited to have stumbled onto the event.  In sharing some of the names in attendance with friends who play, it turned out that the event was actually fairly major and had a lot of the most well known women’s international players/teams in attendance.  What made the event that much better was the open (free) access which was available to the six practice/elimination courts which almost all had games going constantly throughout the day.   The events drew huge crowds which filled the harbor area and added to the level and sense of energy in the air.  Not to mention the general appeal of a bunch of attractive international volleyball players wandering around the city.

The Harbor - Stavanger, Norway

A brief 5 minute walk from the old harbor, up a small hill, past a squat old cathedral and back down towards sea level takes you to a large pond which rests directly in front of the rail/bus station and is surrounded by a variety of shops, hotels, and other like-kind establishments. The pond is pretty, if not overly beautiful, and serves as a home to ducks, fountains and the occasional swan.

Street Scene - Stavanger, Norway

The city’s smaller side streets are typically beautiful cobblestone walkways lined by an odd assortment of heartily built structures.  The town’s wet climate is reflected in the green vegetation and moss which can be found everywhere – including growing between the cobblestones. I found myself pleasantly strolling through the city’s quiet side streets surrounded by flowers – some planted, some seemingly wild – which line the city’s streets and decorate the town’s residential buildings.

Main Bridge - Stavanger, Norway

From the rail/bus station I decided to brave one of the city’s hills.  While not a significant climb, I’ll confess to being a bit lazy. The walk left me somewhat winded and my shins burning as I wound up the steep cobblestone streets.  Despite a little huffing and puffing the climb was well worth it. When I finally reached the top I quickly found a small hole between two pitched slate rooftops and enjoyed the view: the bridge, bay and one of the nearby islands was about as picturesque as a highly urban landscape can be.

Downtown - Stavanger, Norway

As I meandered through the city streets I found myself continually drawn towards the bridge.  After all it was large, no doubt offered a unique view of the city and….well…it was there and let’s face it, that’s often more than enough reason in and of itself.  Before long my feet found their way to the ramp leading up to the pedestrian walkway across the bridge.  Dodging the occasional bicyclist I walked about 1/2 of the way out onto the bridge then paused and looked back at Stavanger.  The view was one of a prominent cathedral, pointy pitched roofs, a few converted warehouses, and brought to mind the mental image of an old city given life in an even older story – a city near slumber, late at night, lit by oil powered lamp light and echoing with the quiet rattle of wagon wheels bouncing across cobblestone streets.

An odd visual to have in the middle of the day on a bright sunny day?  Perhaps – but it brought a smile to my face and some how, some way, seemed to fit the city’s skyline.

Graffiti - Stavanger, Norway

From the bridge I continued my aimless meandering, wrapping back down towards the harbor, but not before winding my way through the city’s thriving shopping district which is full of middle-upper class shops and ritzy street cafes.  As I wound my way up side alleys and down main streets I was constantly entertained by the large number of odd murals that decorate walls and street corners throughout the city – most done in a graffiti style, but showing far more care, time, and artistry than random graffiti scribble.  Most were bizarre, but creative and fun in their quirkiness.

Tired, footsore, and feeling more than a little starved I eventually decided it was time to track down a supermarket, pick up some relatively cheap food (though still ridiculously priced) and then head home to the Hospihostelhotel.  Watch the clip above for a look at the meal (sorry about the image/color quality, I was having issues with a lens at the time).

Dinner: Crawfish, Caviar and Chicken - Stavanger, Norway

Let me just say, that shopping in foreign countries can be difficult.  Especially when you’re in a supermarket and the local language is anything but easily recognizable.  As I stood in front of the cooler I couldn’t help but shrug, sigh, and scratch my head as I grabbed what looked like pre-cooked and shelled shrimp tails and what I assumed was pre-cooked BBQ chicken.  The whole time I couldn’t help but wonder if I was going to poison myself by accidentally buying something that wasn’t completely cooked (like the chicken).  Luckily, the extent of my surprise came in the form of the “shrimp” I’d bought.  It was only after getting the container open, draining off the water and tasting a few that I google translated the words on the lid.  Shrimp?  Not so fast.  Turns out they were crawfish tails.  The good news was crawfish was equally acceptable and delicious as shrimp in my book.  Still, I couldn’t help but let out a hearty laugh at myself.  It’s the little adventures that stick out…and this was no exception.

The final meal consisted of several small pieces of bread, a coke, diced barbecued chicken, arctic fish roe/caviar, and pre-cooked/salted crawfish tails. The end result was an odd, but strangely complimentary assortment of tastes that left me stuffed and content – even though I’d faced more than a few surprises.

With a full belly and tired legs I crawled into bed, checked my e-mail, and watched a bit of Norwegian TV which surprisingly was mostly in English with Norwegian subtitles.  The following day promised an adventure – it was time to say goodbye to Stavanger and hello to Bergen.

Prague

Unfortunately, the computers in this hostel are located in the bar area…soo we’ll see how much I get written before I get interrupted and/or can’t focus any more. There are people starting to show up so I imagine it will get fairly rowdy before long.

First – in general. Prague was a very different experience then the other cities I’ve visited. In part due to the Eastern European influence and in part due to the general spirit of the city itself. The elder Czech generations I saw tended to be very hearty looking. You could tell by looking at them that many had worked hard throughout their lives under rugged conditions. In particular I noticed it in a lot of their hands. Both men and women often had rugged, calloused hands with finger nails that showed an existence filled with heavy use and constant wear. The younger generations shared that look to a lesser degree, though as I’d commented previously many of the Czech girls on the subway were quite attractive. Boots seem to be a huge Euro fashion thing currently, especially in Eastern Europe so seemingly every third young girl-woman was dressed in some form of mid-shin or knee-high, high-heeled boot. The locals in general were very friendly and warm. Though there was a huge difference between the locals outside the tourist areas and those within.

The locals located within the tourist sections and working at tourist locals were some of the rudest people I’ve encountered so far on my trip. Brusque, devoid of patience and just generally rude. It was surprising, as one would think they of all people would be polite with their livelihood depending on tourist dollars. From many of them I got the vibe that they didn’t like the direction that tourism had taken the city and in part blamed the tourists for visiting.

Many people talk about Prague as a beautiful city. Which it definitely is, though I don’t feel that it’s as beautiful as everyone claims. Rather, I would say it’s an interesting city with it’s own rich flavors. The river itself, is without question beautiful, as are the old buildings but the skyline is mixed with more modern buildings. Many of which are high rise residential buildings from the 60s, 70s and 80s. From an architectural standpoint I think the two most noteworthy parts of Prague are the monument roofs with their spires and clean lines and the statuary located on the older buildings. Many of the older buildings have incredible figures and statuary over the windows, surrounding the doors, and set at random on the buildings. These figures are typically carved in the very stoic, hard, almost skeletal style that I’ve always associated with the old Soviet Union. They also bring to mind elements of the Chrysler building in NY and that time period. I found them fascinating and beautiful. They have so much emotion which depending on your mood and perhaps the state of the building can come across as either great stoic pride as a modern Atlas steadfast in his vigil while he gladly holds up the world, or alternately as worn and haggard faces that have lived hard lives with a penetrating sadness to them that makes you pity their stone hearts.

Another thing I heard while gearing up for Prague was that it was cheap. Luckily that was definitely the case. Though movies such as Eurotrip etc. exaggerate things a bit, there is a massive difference between the Euro and the Czech Krunar. At about 20 K per dollar a beer or coke typically cost between 15 and 25 K. I could order a full plate of chinese food (rice, chicken, the works – just no drink) or goulash, biscuits and meat for 69 K or so that would leave me stuffed. Though these prices required I leave the tourist section and stray into the city.

Food – as long as it’s not dairy-I’ll eat most things. I usually try and draw the line at eyes, brain or pieces of an animal’s sexual anatomy but depending on my mood and how good it smells I try and keep an open mind. As a result if I’m feeling up to it I’ll ask the waiter or waitress to surprise me with something regional that they think iI should try. It almost always works out and doing it over the years I’ve been served everything from tripe to steak and eggs. I charged my waiter/ress with my meal twice while in Prague and ordered things at random off the menu 4 times. The local Czech food that I ended up with was delicious. One of the meals was breaded chicken, much like a chicken-fried steak, but with real slices of chicken breast and a very different/thick batter served with dumplings and gravy. One of the other meals was gulash- a slice of ham, a slice of beef, and two huge sliced dumplings. Both were delicious. One of the other more interesting things was a large fried potato cake (a huge latka?) with chicken bits in it. It was about a foot long and about 4 inches wide. Regardless of what I ate, be it Chinese (seems to be the Czech version of Europe’s kebab shops or US Mexican), Czech, or just general brats, burgers and random food, it was almost all delicious.

I spent the first two nights of my stay at a hostel a bit outside of town. The hostel was clean, had free internet and friendly people but lacked atmosphere. The common area was closed at 10 and the train ride into town was a pain. When my two nights there were up, i made my way into the heart of town and booked into the Clown and Bard. A boisterous social hostel with a huge 30 plus person dorm room, and then 2 and 5 bed rooms. The hostel had an on site bar, fun playful atmosphere, and a backpacker oriented mentality. The walls of the room were covered in writing, some were quotes, some were profanity, some were insults and some were humorous. Other bits of bedroom graffiti included a giant doodle of Bevis and Butthead, other strange pictures, and a huge face. Despite the graffiti however, the hostel, sheets, and room were all clean.

The arts: I’d been told that Prague was a very musical city so, eager to take advantage of the exchange rate and wide musical selection I saw several shows. In Prague almost all of the cathedrals & monasteries put on small, medium-sized classical shows. Some are basic with just a few violins and cellos, others use organs, others use small symphonies.

The old Opera House: Romeo and Juliet. It had been a long time since I’d seen a ballet as when the opportunity arises I usually choose to see the symphony or opera instead. As I walked around the city I saw signs for Romeo and Juliet at the old opera house. Initially thinking they might have turned it into an opera-and that it would be awesome to see something in the old opera house-I looked into tickets and found decent balcony seats for a fair price. As I purchased the tickets I learned it was in fact a ballet. I decided to push ahead and give it a go (I had missed all of the actual opera shows in my time window).

The opera house itself was gorgeous. A small round classical building with a beautifully fresco’d roof-the house itself was a slightly different layout than I was familiar with. It had group-general seating in a long swatch down the middle on the floor level, which carried up on to the 2nd and 3rd balconies. The swatch though was only the area straight out from the stage, with all of the side area, except for that up on the 3rd story, being filled by small 6 person areas. The walls and ceiling were all coated in golden figures and the whole room while lit seemed to glow.

Now, as I mentioned earlier ballet isn’t my favorite thing in the world but, the shows I have seen I enjoyed. While this one was not necessarily an exception it was a huge disappointment. It wasn’t until the last 1/3 of the show that I felt like I was actually enjoying it and that the performers got on cue. The set was very plain, with a number of wooden constructions that would have looked a lot more impressive with a little paint. To make it more annoying one of the larger ones had a piece of the paneling coming loose which could have easily been fixed with a few screws. The performers themselves, while obviously skilled, seemed off. In many of the group movements there were visible differences between dancers and (perhaps due to my ballroom background?) I noticed that many seemed to have unstable footing and be constantly adjusting. Also, a number of the moves seemed ballroomesque and to be honest I’d rather see the ballroom version. It’s possible I just was overly critical and/or don’t understand ballet, but I think a large part of the sync and performance quality came from nervousness. At the end of the performance they brought an old lady on stage and introduced her. Apparently she was the original Juliet that had launched the performance years ago. Given her presence…it wouldn’t surprise me if their nerves had thrown the troupe off. To top the experience off I’m pretty sure one of the main dancers was REALLY excited to be performing for 5 or so minutes before he was killed off, though from the look of things it was a whole different type of performance he was hoping for. Watching a bunch of guys leap around in skin tight tights was bad enough…the added bit just generally made the whole experience a bit traumatizing. So, Romeo and Juliet – 2 of 5 stars.

Two nights later I decided to try one of the many shows held around town. I purchased my ticket and then killed some time before making my way to try and locate the building. When I followed the map it took me down a main street, to a side street where an attendant was directing people in through a small doorway. Nowhere to be seen was the classical cathedral or small church I’d been expecting. My annoyance went through the roof as I made my way up a flight of winding stairs and was met by an attendant who took my ticket and seated me in a small room with a fresco’d ceiling, bout 50 chairs, a small stage, and 4 seats for the musicians. Ready to demand a refund, I forced myself to sit tight and give it a chance. The room itself was maybe 75 feet long and the seat I chose was about 5 rows back located directly under the center of the domed fresco’d roof. The fresco was of a multi-story library with teachers, books, railings, and objects arrayed above us. While not captivating it was beautifully painted and with the curve of the dome felt 3 dimensional. About 15 people in total filed in and then the musicians entered through the same door we’d all come in, as you can imagine this added to my annoyance. They sat down on the stage and I found myself looking at 3 violinists and a cellist. They paused and then began to play. Within the first 3 notes I knew I’d been wrong and that the show would be well worth the money. Because of the acoustics and my proximity to the performers the power of the music was incredible. Especially due to my location directly under the middle of the dome. Violin is easily one of my favorite instruments, if not my favorite and this show made left me breathless. They played a number of famous pieces including Canon, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and about 10 other pieces whose names escape me right now. Each one was even more impressive than the last. The hour plus that the show ran, passed in a heartbeat. Where the ballet was a huge disappointment, this show blew even my initial expectations out of the water. Easily a 5 out of 5.

Lot more to share about Prague but the bar is getting too rowdy and I can’t focus any more, so for now. Goodnight!