Gamle Stavanger: Picture-Perfect?

What's wrong with this picture?
What's wrong with this picture?

The poet and filmmaker Odveig Klyve for several decades has lived in Stavanger, an inspiring seaport city. We especially liked the whale-bone-white of wooden shops clustered along curving cobblestoned streets. The cheeky street art. The Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The restaurant Sabi Sushi. And Gamle Stavanger—the old town, a place we’ve been meaning to tell you about—and now we are, prompted by the film View that Odveig Klyve just released.

A woman at the tourist office practically insisted we visit Gamle Stavanger. Located along the west side of Vågen Harbour, the old town is a warren of whitewashed timber buildings, some dating back three centuries, 173 of them (she was definitive), lovingly restored, immaculately kept, privately owned, lived-in and protected—the largest surviving settlement of wooden houses in Europe.

A blazing sun intensified the dazzling white of these historic homes. Few people were wandering about, the stillness easing us into a slow meander. A feeling of time past that re-emerges when I envision that September afternoon.

The houses used to belong to fishermen who migrated from surrounding islands when herring shoals off the coast turned Stavanger into an important fishing centre. (Norway’s first cannery opened in Gamle Stavanger in 1873.) Some fishermen brought their homes with them, not unusual at the time as timber houses were easy to dismantle and transport in row boats. Initially, these homes were brightly painted in red, yellow and blue because working-class families couldn’t afford expensive white paint.

After WWII and the closing of the cannery, Gamle Stavanger was destined to be razed and rebuilt. We can thank city architect Einar Hedén for leading a successful campaign to preserve the historic area. The old town also benefitted from being one of three projects in Norway cited for preservation during the United Nations’ Architectural Heritage Year in 1975.

Rounding a corner, we noticed the Worker’s House Museum was open for viewing. Built in the Regency style, the first floor is decorated in the fashion of the 1920s while the second floor has a 60s’ vibe. Families often rented a house and then to make a little money, sublet the upstairs and loft to a second family.

Most buildings in Gamle Stavanager are still private homes but some of the bigger ones on the harbour front are offices, museums or shops.

Seeing bicycles unlocked and leaning against houses, rose bushes flourishing beside picket fences and soft-pawed cats lazing in the sun, we wondered who lived behind the linen-curtains. All we know is that over the years Gamle Stavanger’s popularity as a place to live has soared.

Given its proximity to the harbour, the old town has also become a soaring tourist attraction for cruise ship travellers.

Stavanger has a population of 120,000 people, similar to Kelowna or Coquitlam. But even in 2020 during Covid, cruise ships disgorged four times the city’s population.

Tomorrow, the cruise ship Viking Ocean is scheduled to arrive with 930 passengers; Iona with 6,600 and Silver Whisper with 466. If only one-third of the passengers visits Gamle Stavanger, there will be almost 2,900 people wandering its narrow streets. In the summer, five ships (or more) belly up to the harbour berths.

Depositing too many tourists in small spaces is far from the only problem caused by cruise ships.

In 2021 Euronews reported that a large cruise ship can have a bigger carbon footprint than 12,000 cars and an overnight stay onboard uses 12 times more energy than a stay in a hotel. According to an independent consultant quoted in the Guardian, a large cruise ship emits more NO2 gas per day than all the traffic passing through a medium-sized town and more particulate emissions than thousands of London buses. Plus, the cheaper low-sulphur fuel these gargantuan ships often rely on is 100 times worse than road diesel.

These nautical behemoths are wrecking havoc in small cities, towns and villages throughout the world. Norway is no exception. At Gamle Stavanger, pollution from cruise ships is darkening the sparkling white homes a smoggy grey.

Stavanger participated in a three-year project that concluded at the end of 2021 called “Innovative solutions for sustainable tourism in Nordic harbour towns.” In advance of the project’s recommendations, Stavanger is considering limiting the number of cruise ship visits to 200 a year. “Residents have for a long time been very dissatisfied that huge floating residential buildings come sailing in and anchor up in Vågen (the central harbour), causing problems for those who live here,” local politician Mimir Kristjansson told state broadcaster NRK. He thinks 200 cruiseship visits a year are still “very many,” but souvenir shop owners and tour operators want as many visitors as possible even though studies show that cruisers spend a fraction of other visitors.

You can guess which side Odveig Klyve is on.

And like us when you watch View, her brief, silent, elegiac film, you’ll see why. (View received the Short Film Award at the Bergen International Film Festival last October.)

Perhaps the opening verse of her poem “COME” offers a solution.


Come let us sail
in the thirsty wind
through the sweet the sour
Let us sift the hour
mix the mild the bitter
the foaming
to distinguish the taste of truth from that of illusion


UPDATE: November 9, 2022. “I name this ship … Human Lasagne?! The world’s biggest cruise ship goes viral for all the wrong reasons.” The Guardian, November 9, 2022. Want to cruise with 9,999 others on a ship with 20 decks?

8 Ways Cruise Ships Can Cause Marine Pollution

6 Responses

  1. This is astoundingly, startlingly, horrifyingly obscene.

    What a terrible shame that such an idyllic village can be overwhelmed and besmirched in this way.


  2. Well although the article speaks of Norway, I think the bigger picture here is what we are all doing to our waterways, pollution levels that are running unchecked world wide.
    Never mind cruise ships, although they all add to the problem, how about our everyday sewer and septic output, no one is doing an acceptable job in that regard.
    I am amazed when I see the militaries of the world had plants that can take sewage water and make it drinkable that we do not make this mandatory for every country world wide, bar none.
    This is a natural resource we need to look after, everyone drinks and uses water, why do we not look after our lifeblood 🤔🤔🤔🤔

    1. Fully agree with you Barry – all you must do is look around the corner from us here in Victoria.
      “ Victoria started dumping raw sewage into ocean waters that flow towards Puget Sound in 1894. The Greater Victoria area no longer uses surrounding ocean waters to flush away raw effluent now that a $775 million sewage plant has started treating the equivalent of 43 Olympic-sized pools of waste”.

      Public outcries (Like Mr. Floatie in Victoria) are changing things. I do feel that things are moving in the right direction.

      From what I understand the cruise lines are moving to a “net zero” carbon footprint by 2050 (at the latest). Many of them are far ahead of this date. We have been on many cruises over the years and the most recent one we saw many things changing – such as no more disposable plastics – water bottles etc. The cruise ship industry is on track to reduce greenhouse gases by 40% by 2030 we have been told.

      If we talk about a negative carbon footprint – do you know how much carbon a Saudi oil tanker puts into the atmosphere bringing oil to Canada because these idiots in Ottawa have banned a Canadian pipeline east?

      BTW – Stavanger is the home of my wife’s family (Stavenjord family) and we hope to visit there on our next trip to Norway.

      1. So true. Some pipes in Vancouver, as in other Canadian cities, still carry both raw sewage and rainwater runoff to treatment plants. And when it rains heavily (you know how often that is), these pipes end up carrying more waste water than the plants can handle, which overflows untreated sewage and rainwater directly into False Creek, the Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River. One of Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s nicknames is Mayor Sewage.
        The City’s goal is to separate its sewer and stormwater systems—-by 2050! It’s outrageous.One mayoralty candidate for this fall’s election is making “Vancouver’s shitty little secret” his key platform position.

        You will love Stavanager, such an idyllic city.

    2. A whole lot of feel-good greenwashing and diversion tactics (like paper bags instead of plastic) substitute for real political action and meaningful solutions.

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