Telemark is packed with attractions
This lesser-visited region is known for its vast forests, valleys, skiing, and rural churches
The birthplace of skiing, Telemark is a historic inland region of southern Norway often skipped by international tourists yet known domestically for its vast forests, valleys, skiing, and rural churches.
The name is also used for one of Norway’s counties that covers more than 5,500 square miles of the country’s southeast corner. It encompasses small coastal towns and villages and stretches far inland almost to the southeast corner of the vast Hardangervidda National Park.
A historic region of Norway
While there is plenty to see along the coast and in the county’s principal cities of Skien and Porsgrunn, I’m focusing on the historic inner region also known as Upper Telemark. A primarily agricultural area, the region has retained Old Norse customs for much longer than the rest of Norway. This might at least in part explain why the Telemark dialect has a Norse ring to it.
Winter sports fans will know the region’s name because of the style of skiing. The graceful style known as Telemark skiing dates back to the times when skiing was a form of transport, and chair lifts were but a dream. The binding remains free at the heel, allowing you to move both up and down a mountain and use the same boots on slopes and backcountry skiing.
The Telemark Canal
The many hills, mountains, valleys, and lakes of the region mean the landscape is constantly changing, and there is always something different to see. Because the coastal area was home to important industries, including ironworks and sawmills, the beautiful 65-mile-long network of lakes and canals known as the Telemark Canal was constructed to ease industry growth. It connected Dalen at the very heart of the region’s interior with the port at Skien, at the time one of Norway’s most important.
While originally built to help the timber trade flourish, the canal today operates primarily as a tourist attraction. Canal boats meander their way along the water at a leisurely pace—18 locks ensure there is no other option—allowing visitors to slow down and take in the scenery.
The canal has been lovingly restored and maintained, so much so that it is now a living heritage site. Many old walls and lock systems have been preserved in their original forms, and most locks are still operated by hand. Former lock-keepers’ houses, smithies, sawmills, cottages, and old jetties are all visible on the banks of the canal. If you are a fan of “how things used to be” or you want to see the Norway your grandparents told you about, this is the place.
Return trips from Skien are popular, as they are typically combined with an overnight stop at Dalen. If time is tight, day trips are possible, but some bus travel will be needed.
The historic end point of the Telemark Canal, the Dalen Hotel, is one of the most picturesque accommodations in Norway. Many guests on boat trips from Skien choose to stay overnight here and enjoy a three-course dinner before returning the next day. Known as Norway’s “fairytale hotel,” the 19th-century accommodation also offers visitors spa treatments, croquet on the lawn, a piano bar, and even the chance to borrow a small rowboat. An overnight stay also allows the opportunity for a visit to the beautifully preserved Eidsborg Stave Church, a 4-mile drive away along a road that zig-zags up a forested mountainside.
Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Site
Norway’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Site includes hydroelectric power plants powered by waterfalls, along with transmission lines, factories, transport systems, and towns. The site demonstrates an outstanding record of life in the early 1900s, including technological, economic, social, aesthetic, and cultural factors. Also included is the famous Vemork plant, which produced the heavy water that the occupying forces planned to use to develop nuclear weapons during World War II. A new plant was built inside the mountain in 1971, allowing the original Vemork to become the Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum. Visitors can learn about the heavy water sabotage and the story of Norway’s power and industrial adventure from the early 1900s.
The nearby town of Rjukan hit the headlines around the world in 2013 when they installed a set of giant mirrors on the mountain, at more than 2,400 feet above sea level. The mirrors gave the town—wedged at the foot of a deep valley—winter sunlight for the first time ever.
Notodden and Heddal Stave Church
On the shore of Heddals Lake, Notodden is the host of the renowned annual Notodden Blues Festival. But what brings most visitors to Notodden is what lies hidden a few miles away, one of Norway’s most beautiful traditional churches. The remarkable Heddal Stave Church is a wonderful example of stave church architecture, the largest in all the country. Built in the early 13th century, the church has undergone two major restorations, most recently in the 1950s. There’s an intriguing local legend about why the church was built, but I won’t spoil the surprise here!
Buses run from Oslo and Bergen to Notodden, making it one of the easier parts of rural Telemark to reach without a car. The route from Bergen is particularly scenic, albeit slow. The church itself is 4 miles outside of Notodden, but is easy to reach on the local bus service.
David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular www.lifeinnorway.net website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.
This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.