Why Kristiansand is Norway-plus for a weekend break and more from Stansted Airport
Norway-plus has been extensively touted as the way forward if and when the UK leaves the European Union at the end of this month.
While the politics of such an option is currently tying parliament in knots, a trip to its southern-most city Kristiansand adds an interesting perspective.
The Scandinavian country is not an EU member but receives access to most of the bloc's internal market through membership of the EEA - the European Economic Area Agreement - which also includes Iceland and Liechtenstein. In return, it accepts free movement of workers and is part of the Schengen Area, so I decided to take a trip with my European passport while I still can.
One of Stansted Airport’s newest destinations, its old town, Posebyen, is just a two-hour direct flight away with Widerøe, making it an ideal weekend getaway as well as a gateway to other idyllic coastal towns, woods that are perfect for walkers, elk safaris and rivers offering white water rafting and salmon fishing.
In the winter, it is a convenient base for winter sports, but in the spring and summer, it is easy to fill an itinerary without leaving its city limits.
With a population of around 86,000, it is more than twice the size of Bishop’s Stortford but its neat streets, following an easily navigable grid, are largely free from the traffic which regularly logjams our town.
The Norwegians have achieved that holy grail worshipped by Herts County Council - modal shift - and bikes, boats and an efficient and largely affordable bus network make public transport a pleasure rather than a chore.
Walkers rule the roads and a visit during August, when the sommerløpet (summer race) - a kids 1km fun run, a 10k and a half marathon - closes the city centre to cars, a large portion of the population ups the pace and pounds the streets in an area famed for its running routes and scenic rambles all year round while the rest of the town’s people show solidarity by cheering them on.
There is a similar civic pride on show at the free concerts held in the beautiful central square on Thursdays throughout June, July and August featuring classical and pop music.
While the Tidy Up Bishop’s Stortford will be on hand to clean up after this May’s Bish Bash in Sworder’s Field, the Norwegians enjoy their event before carefully removing every scrap and crumb of rubbish left over from the revels and have elevated recycling into an art form.
In fact, one of the most striking aspects of even the shortest trip to Kristiansand is the cleanliness of the community - litter and graffiti rarely feature.
Perhaps that can be explained by the cost of living. Even a fast food takeaway is expensive compared to a burger from McDonald’s at Stansted Airport. Norway is second only to Switzerland in the Big Mac Index with a signature patty and bun costing the equivalent of $5.86, compared to $4.07 in the UK.
While pizza, pasta and other Continental favourites are freely available, the best food to eat is the local fare.
The Fiskebrygga (fish market) is now home to a selection of seafood restaurants and Bønder i Byen (farmers in the city) in the central square is renowned for its food using the freshest local produce with open sandwiches and salads a particular speciality.
Alcohol is expensive too. On a leisurely wander around the old town, you will see many people chatting over an al fresco meal in the kind of a wide range of restaurants you would find in any European city, but a whole bottle of wine on the table is a rarity. A glass of Chablis at a beachside bar can cost £30, so it is easy to see why closing time does not result in the rowdiness, vomiting and scattering of kebab wrappers which signals the end of a Saturday night in Stortford.
Even a visit to Christianssand Brygghus (microbrewery) is a civilised affair and the streets of Kristiansand feel safe at all hours, even for a woman walking on her own.
With tourist’s purse strings stretched by food and drink, the city eases the burden on the budget with a wealth of free or price-conscious activities alongside an eclectic calendar of events such as this month’s knitting festival on March 22-24 and Palmesus, Scandinavia's biggest beach party attracting more than 30,000 people on July 5 and 6.
Kristiansand Cathedral in the city square is well worth a visit. The late Gothic building is a neo-Gothic church designed by the architect Henrik Thrap-Meyer and completed in 1885 after its predecessor was destroyed by fire. When the Nazi’s attacked Kristiansand in April 1940, the tower was hit by an artillery shell.
Open all year, there are guided tours and free organ concerts during the summer season from May 1 to August 31. The cathedral also serves as a handy landmark to navigate around the rest of the pedestrian-friendly city.
Ideal for a stroll along the shore, Bystranda is a sandy beach with swim pier, sun deck and palm trees and is one of just five in Norway with a Blue Flag making it ideal for children.
The Aquarama water park, conveniently located next to Scandic Kristiansand Bystranda hotel, is also a favourite with families and features a spa and fitness centre for a whole day’s fun.
It is easy to while away a day at Odderøya, a former naval base, too. The island linked to the city has picturesque paths, old cannon positions, remote beaches suitable for swimming and stunning views out to sea and back to the city.
Used as a quarantine harbour in the 1830s, on Sundays its cafeteria rewards walkers with refreshments and views of a fjord and the Oksøy and Grønningen lighthouses.
Children enter free to SKMU Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, which opened in 1995 and moved to a new building in the centre of Kristiansand in 2000 so it can showcase the best in art from the region of Agder and the rest of Norway.
For those who want to leave the city limits for a day out, Dyreparken (Kristiansand Zoo and Amusement park) is a firm favourite and when you tire of walking, a steam engine ride at Setesdalsbanen takes the weight off.
While Kristiansand is geared up for tourists as a regular stop on the cruise ship circuit, southern Norway will be put firmly on the map very soon thanks to Under, Europe's first and the world's largest underwater restaurant, which is opening nearby in Lindesnes this spring.
Widerøe flies a 78-seater Dash-8 Q400 aircraft from Stansted to Kjevik Airport at 8pm on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays and returns from Kristiansand at 5.30pm on the same days. See www.wideroe.co.uk
For more to do in Kristiansand, check www.visitnorway.com and for a Scandic hotel, see www.scandichotels.com