Canadians travelling the world seldom have to worry about the price of the local currency in the countries they visit. The Canadian dollar goes far in most developing countries. You can act like a king when a meal costs a tenth of what it does at home and souvenirs are so cheap you have to remind yourself about your luggage limit. Very seldom do Canadians travel to any country where they end up feeling poor. Should you ever find yourself in the town of Stavanger, Norway, you will enjoy the extraordinary feeling of being a poor peasant in a global village. Then again, if you have won the lottery, perhaps you may not.
Norway is rich. Everything in Norway costs about five times as much as in Canada. This has something to do with oil. The Norwegians used to be poor. They caught herring for a living and then the herring disappeared which made them even more poor. Then oil was discovered in the North Sea and Norway became rich. To the people of Norway, prices seem normal. To tourists, the prices come as a shock.
The town of Stavanger, in particular, presents a challenge for those not well versed in the use of a pocket calculator. At one time long ago it was dependent on fishing, and then the herring went away to see what they could see. Today it’s the oil capital of the modern world, a western version of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Given that we are talking about Norwegians, nobody went crazy and built high rise glass towers. You don’t notice any change until you look into your pocket for some change and discover it has gone.
The downtown is a visual delight, with cobblestone streets amid statues and lovely old-fashioned buildings turned into precious little boutiques. You wander around the streets in a state of delight, shooting photos and deciding what to buy. Then you take a look at the sticker prices. Oh my! What are kroners? How much are they compared to dollars? Are you serious? A pair of jeans, on sale for only $400 US?
One day I met a passenger from my cruise ship walking around on the cruise ship deck in a daze. He seemed very sad and confused. Evidently he had taken his family from the ship to Burger King for lunch without bothering to check the prices. That error set him back $175. I told him Burger King was where I went to steal a free wifi signal. Even buying a coffee there to get a password costs $12 US. A good dinner for two in a fine restaurant in Stavanger would set you back a minimum of $300 Cdn, and don’t bother ordering any wine unless you want to sell your children. The clever wanderer will discover there is free wifi to be found in the city library. An alternative is to follow the staff from the cruise ships that dock there and see where they go to borrow a wifi signal.
People watching is terrific. Shooting photography also costs nothing. Browsing in the shops is also free, and fun – until you ask the price of anything. There are free drinking fountains. In the center of town, right by the harbour, lies the picturesque and historical Old Town. It is a small area with small white painted wooden houses. In this area you also find the canning museum, which offers discounted rates (40 krone, or $8 Cdn) for students and seniors. If you don’t wish to spend any money at all, a stroll around this beautiful neighbourhood is good enough in itself.
At the centre of town stands the Domkirke, or cathedral. You can’t miss it because it sits atop a small hill and it looks just like a cathedral. Pop in if it’s open and have a look. Lovely stained glass windows. Behind the cathedral there is a lovely small lake with the mandatory ducks paddling about, well worth a circumnavigation, and it costs nothing to do so. On your wanderings around town there are lots of little cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating to which you may be attracted, but if you sit down at a table a server will come by and ask for your order at which time you will be embarrassed because you can’t afford anything unless you have pawned your watch.
One thing that is always free is Norwegian friendliness. There is a good reason why the Nobel Peace prize is given annually by Norway. Everyone seems well mannered and eager to help. Why, if you ask nicely, they might even be able to help you find your wallet, which you have cleverly buried in the bottom of your bag. Or, better yet, left back in your hotel or cruise ship with your passport.
Many cruise ships stop in Stavanger on their way to the famous fjords further north. If you happen to be a passenger on one, simply make yourself a lunch from the breakfast buffet and bring it with you. Don’t forget your water bottle too. You can sit on a bench in the beautiful town square and enjoy your snack and watch the tourists gaze at the restaurant menus with looks of stunned amazement. After all, the best things in life are free.
Michael McCarthy is a freelance travel writer whose articles have appeared in many Canadian newspapers and magazines. For more travel stories log on to www.transformative-travel.ca.