A surprisingly familiar figure greeted us as we strolled around the streets of Stavanger. During a short visit to the city on a DFDS mini-cruise, cast-iron figures created by sculptor Antony Gormley, which looked strikingly similar to his iconic Angel of the North, were dotted all over the city.
It just so happens that Stavanger, on Norway’s west coast shares the European City of Culture crown with Liverpool this year, and the sculptures are part of an artwork called Broken Column, a series of 23 figures, all 1.95m tall, based on a casting of the sculptor’s own body.
Armed with a map pinpointing the location of all 23 figures, provided by our friendly hotel receptionist, I decided it would be fun to try to find a few as we strolled through the city centre.
So my long-suffering daughters were dragged around the streets of Stavanger in my quest to track down as many Gormley sculptures as I could find.
On paper this looked a very simple exercise, and the first two popped up exactly where they should have been – in the fish market and outside the cathedral.
A short stroll along the waterfront, with its attractive old harbour buildings, a left turn up a pretty shopping street and there should be our next figure. We walked to the top but found nothing. Time for embarrassing mum action as I enlisted the help of a shop assistant who pointed out the sculpture was meant to be at number 14 and her shop was number 19. The mystery was solved. The sculpture was lurking inside a shop, which was closed.
The next sculpture on the map was in an underground car park. It wasn’t until making our way up a different set of stairs that we stumbled across our elusive friend, lurking incongruously half way up the steps.
This was turning into a bit of a silly way to spend precious time on a very brief visit, so we called a halt and headed back to the beautiful 12th Century Cathedral.
Using this as our starting point, we set off on a city ramble which took us along the delightful cobbled Kirkegaten, a small, winding, pedestrianised shopping street with its layout dating back to the Middle Ages.
From there we headed up some steps to the Valberg Tower, built in the 1850s to warn of fires.
Heading downhill we found ourselves in the heart of the city where restaurants of every variety cluster in the streets behind the well-preserved old waterfront warehouses.
Then another climb and we are in another world – this is old Stavanger, Northern Europe’s largest and best-preserved wooden house settlement, where 170 homes built in the 1700s and early 1800s have been renovated.
The peace and beauty of the area was an experience to savour, and so engrossed were we with the spectacular setting, that before we knew it we had unwittingly retraced our steps to the ferry landing where we had arrived just hours before.
A short stroll in the other direction and we were back at our hotel in plenty of time to freshen up for our evening meal. In fact, despite Stavanger being Norway’s fourth biggest city, it is very compact. All the main attractions can be easily reached on foot and the whole city can be covered in half an hour.
This makes it the ideal destination for a mini-cruise which saw us leave North Shields on board the Queen of Scandinavia at 6.30pm on Tuesday, arriving in Stavanger at 3pm the next day.
The ferry journey on the way out was delightful. The boat is comfortable and attractive with plenty of entertainment for passengers of all ages. There are two cinemas showing four newly-released films, a choice of two bars with live music, and two restaurants, as well as a casino and nightclub. The children are well catered for with a playroom, soft play and their very own club led by Jack the pirate. And for the more energetic there is a swimming pool and sauna.
After a decent night’s sleep in a rather cramped cabin we were delighted to spot what we were sure was a whale from our window and sped up on deck to get a closer look. Once outside we couldn’t quite be sure, but we did bump into a mother and two young girls who were certain they had seen some dolphins.
On arrival in Stavanger, we were taken by minibus to our hotel, The Clarion, a clean and modern building with friendly, helpful front-desk staff and only a two-minute stroll to the city centre.
There was plenty of time to explore before dinner at an Italian restaurant nearby, a tasty but very pricey affair, £70 for garlic bread, spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and chicken salad with two soft drinks and a half carafe of house red wine.
The next day left plenty of time for more sightseeing before our 5.30pm pick-up for the return sailing at 7pm. This would have been ample for a three-hour fjord cruise, but we plumped instead for a visit to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, the newest of the city’s many such attractions, which traces the history of how oil and gas were formed millions of years ago and how it is extracted today off the Norwegian coast.
The museum offers a fascinating insight into the industry, whose dangers are brought to life in an exhibition devoted to the disaster on the Alexander L Kielland rig in 1980 when 123 men died when the rig collapsed in strong winds.
The museum itself was inexpensive at £8 for adults and £4 for children.
We then headed for the old fish market where we whiled away our remaining hour with tea and coffee in a waterfront bar and reflected on a thoroughly pleasant trip.
Unfortunately one of the hazards of crossing the North Sea in February awaited us. Gale-force winds made the return crossing unpleasant with all three of us taking turns to be ill all through the night. The only blessing was our Commodore De Luxe cabin for the return crossing, so we were ill in supreme comfort. In the morning the crew came round all the cabins offering seasickness pills, dry crackers and sympathy.
We were delayed by the winds, which were preventing any shipping from entering the Tyne, and it was 9.30pm before we felt dry land again.
By then people were feeling a bit better and the crew did a sterling job providing everyone with a free meal, feeding all the passengers in an hour and a half.
But overall, for me, it was a wonderful experience.