Meeting romantic Norway deep in Telemark

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

Many travellers skip the Telemark region, shooting for more arctic landscapes while visiting Norway. However, it is mostly this southern region that helped shape the country’s national identity: slow down a little bit and explore Telemark, the romantic idea that most Norwegians have of their own country…

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We left the coastline and its islands to follow the Telemark Canal inland towards Skien. The landscape changes fast. The narrow winding road elevates us through a pine forest, past waterfalls and working farms with their characteristic lofts, each looking like a charming open-air museum Norwegians are so fond of.

Wonderful Open-Air Museums

At the end of the winding road, the small settlement of Kviteseid opens up beautifully on the homonym lake. If the Telemark Canal was dug only in 1861 to ease timber transport, trade has occurred along the same route involving portage since the Viking Era. Rivers and fjords were the only ways to connect communities in this rugged mountainous landscape. The proximity of Kviteseid to the water with its heavy traffic allowed its population to flourish and the parish to become one of the most important ones of the country.

As such, when timber stave churches were built all over Scandinavia, Kviteseid could afford a stone church. Built in the twelfth century, the noble material symbolized not only wealth but also God’s power and glory. Kviteseid Church, dedicated to Saint Olaf, is all the more special that it contains a serpentine weeping stone with healing powers, most likely brought by pilgrims all the way from the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.

By the church, the cute Kviteseid Bygdetun gathers houses from the surroundings that were collected to showcase a seventeenth-to-eighteenth century prosperous local farm. Typical Telemark farms used to be composed of several buildings: the living quarters richly decorated inside with rose paintings on one side and the working buildings, often one per task, on the opposite side: barns for grains and livestock, stables, storehouses for dried flat bread, grains, linen and dried meat, the stable for the precious horses that would ease life so much…

Other risky tasks often involving open fires would take place further on the land where one could find a bathhouse used to dry grains and rid skins and clothes of lice and fleas, a firehouse to cook safely away from the dwelling, a smithy to forge tools, a sauna to dry and smoke food, a water mill to grind cereals…

As Tilman Hartenstein, the public program coordinator for the Vest Telemark Museum explains to us: “The lofts were important buildings as even though rather small, they showed status as can be seen by the beautiful wood carvings on the façade”. They were also the only two-storey buildings in the Middle Ages. Guests were hosted on the upper floor where the household’s most precious valuables were stored, from ceremonial clothes to precious silver jewellery in filigree, whereas corn, ham, milk, cheese, butter, vegetables… were stored at the ground level.

Everything was thought through: overhangs were built in to prevent mice from reaching the precious food. A small gap between the stone steps and the actual building was also put in for this reason.

Whether in Kviteseid, or at the West Telemark Museum where world’s oldest civil building constructed with 1167 timber is showcased, or on the Grimdalen farm, one of the best-preserved high pasture farms in Telemark where the famous Norwegian sculptor Anne Grimdalen grew up, Telemark farms have become part of the cultural heritage of Norway, and open-air museums are a must-visit in the region.

Unique Stave Churches

The winding road takes us further to the village of Dalen. A few kilometres above it, the masterpiece of the West Telemark Museum’s open-air area, the small Eidsborg Stave Church marks the entrance to the popular attraction. The construction of such all-timber churches from shingles to nails required serious lumber resources, and hence are found only in southern Norway. The word “Telemark” actually means pine forest, and some of the finest of the 28 stave churches remaining in the country can be visited in the well-named region.

Here is more about the Eidsborg Stave Church and stave churches in general!

The Excellent West Telemark Museum

The West Telemark Museum itself elevates local craftsmanship to a proud heritage that is still well alive in today’s daily life in Norway. There is beauty in everyday object. Traditional wool dresses that are still used for confirmations, weddings, or on Norway’s national day, ornamental knifes, filigree silverwork for jewellery and traditional costumes, rose paintings…

Maybe even more so than in other parts of Norway, in West Telemark, flat surfaces tend to disappear to be artistically engraved, carved or painted! Actually, if it is found all over the country today, it is in Telemark that rose painting really took off: during its heydays between 1850 and 1900, about 140 rose painters were traveling from farm to farm, decorating interiors with floral decors in exchange for room and board.

The Telemark Canal [Skien to Dalen]

A model of the Telemark Canal with miniature locks has been built on the site of the West Telemark Museum. The trade route that has been followed for centuries became a lot easier to travel from 1892, when the canal was completed.

With 8 locks and 18 lock chambers, boats are elevated over 72 meters (236 ft) from Skien from where the coast is within easy reach to Dalen in Upper Telemark, easing the prosperous timber trade. Whetstone quarrying – probably Norway’s first export along stockfish and reindeers – and copper mining also benefited from this logistic improvement. However, the railway made the canal obsolete fast, and it has become purely a tourist outing.

The Relaxing Soria Moria Sauna [Dalen]

If saunas were built to dry food in the old times, they are becoming more and more popular in Norway to relax. The early morning is misty, and the water of the Bandak Lake is quite cold. Still, it feels great after spending about 20 minutes in the warmth of the picturesque Soria Moria sauna with its extensive and relaxing views. Designed by architect David Fjågesund, the very modern Soria Moria sauna recalls the shingles of the local stave churches and the copper mining of Telemark. To check it out and enjoy a relaxing moment, make sure to book it and enjoy not only its architecture that reflects in the fjord, but also its stunning views on the fjord on surrounding mountains and soothing warmth.

Åmdals Verk Copper Mine

Rusty abandoned tools, former wagon tracks, a mountain of stones… Driving up to Åmdals Verk, traces of mining remain in the desolated landscape. The local community still stands on the opposite bank of the river, far from the copper mine that used to be considered a fire danger.

In place of a working mine, a museum is run by passionate locals to honour the workers, often their ancestors, and this important part of Telemark’s cultural and industrial heritage.

It all started in 1689. A young boy was looking after cattle when he saw something shiny on the ground. He thought it was gold. He ran back home saying they would become rich! It was not gold, but copper. Two years later, the mine was opened. The little boy never became rich, but his discovery provided jobs to up to 500 people during the heyday of the mine between 1870 and 1912, and to hundreds more throughout its on and off operation between 1691 and 1945.

With the king’s will to develop mining to mint his coins, in the sixteenth century, know-how was imported from today’s Germany, Europe’s leading mining region. Over the years, Telemark and its copper, gold and silver mines attracted miners from Germany, Denmark, Finland, etc. to work. The coexistence with local subsistence farmers had not always been easy, but with time, a melting pot was created, a dialect mixing German with a bit of Norwegian was used and a cohesive community was born. Solidarity was a key value. Families helped each other when food was lacking thanks to the vegetable gardens, a few hens or the berries picked in the mountains or some hunting and fishing to complement the meagre pay day.

The Åmdals Verk mine has hardly been profitable though, but under British ownership between 1857 and 1902. Thanks to dynamite technology, it was easier to dig the tunnels to look for orebodies, instead of heating up the mountain as miners used to do in order to break it down.

As we walk inside the mine, I am startled by the temperature: 6°C year-round. This must feel warm in the winter, I think. But during this month of July, I feel chilled to the bone. Kilometres of tunnels connect with each other, up to 300-meter deep and over 1.3-kilometre long leading to orebodies in the tough granite mountain. Working conditions were harsh, even if there were not too many casualties in the mine. But men passing 40 were not many: the fine dust killed them softly. Outside, everyone was working, including women and children: they were hammering down the thousands of tons of stones brought by wagons from the bowels of the earth to find traces of copper.

Over the years, an estimated 8,000 tons of copper was extracted. Today, local communities greatly benefit from the hydropower, and Telemark has come a long way since mining and subsistence farming. Retirement homes, healthcare and schools are well funded. There are not too many jobs around, but many men work for the oil and gas industry often spending the week on oil platforms. Many rivers were channelled to supply the power plants and care is taken to preserve the remaining ones despite the huge economic interests at stake in order to preserve the beauty of Telemark.

Conclusion

Telemark has been shaping the national identity of Norway. After centuries of foreign domination, it was essential to build national unity when the country became independent in 1905. But with so many influences, what was the essence of Norway? The hard-to-reach region of Upper Telemark that could not be controlled with its strong-headed inhabitants preserved this romantic idea of what Norway was. Craftsmen have become artists and resilient farmers, heroes. Visiting Telemark is the best way to feel the essence of romantic Norway and pay tribute to these everyday life heroes who shaped the country, and are also majestically celebrated in the capital such as in the Art Nouveau city hall of Oslo.

Travel tips:

  • The West Telemark Museum is excellent with a great scenography and was voted best museum of Norway.
  • The Grimdalen farm is a beautiful Telemark farm as well as an art gallery showcasing the art of Anne Grimdalen that can be admired all over Norway such as in the Oslo city hall. Anne was very influenced by nature maybe due to the time she spent looking after the family livestock in these high pastures where she grew up, and sculptures of animals dominate the farm grounds.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

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