Exploring Drammen and Telemark

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August 31st 2009
Published: March 14th 2016
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We were standing in an idyllic tree-filled gorge overlooking a sweeping, glacier-carved valley. Thick clouds of mist flowed over the ridges and shrouded their heights in mystery. In places the thick forest gave way to sheer gray walls of stone that rose up into the mist and disappeared. Below us to our right was a giant box canyon with smooth, vertical walls. There was a small waterfall there that trickled down the wall into a calm pool at the bottom. To our left, hidden behind a blanket of trees was the town of Rjukan, once a major Norwegian industrial center that produced saltpeter. Across the valley in front of us there were large pipes running down the forested slope to a grand stone building in the valley. The waterfall had put Rjukan on the map, but it was the grand old building in front of us that had made it famous.

I stood there surveying the valley as Cato told me a story that seemed like a grand fictional tale. He told me about the massive waterfall, once one of the world’s grandest, which flowed down into the box canyon, and of the quest to harness it. He explained that the grand building in front of us, the Vemork Power Station, was the world’s largest power plant when it opened in 1911 and then he went into the events that took place in the valley during World War II, events that were so important that, had they not happened the way they did, they might have changed the outcome of the war.

It was April 1940 when Germany invaded Norway. The fighting lasted more than three months before Germany was victorious. Germany had many reasons to invade Norway, but one of the more important ones revolved around Germany’s aspiration of building an atomic bomb. One of the key ingredients in the bomb was Deuterium, commonly known as heavy water, and Vemork Power Station happened to be one of the only places in the world that produced it as a byproduct from the production of hydrogen. The Nazis took over the operation of the power station and started producing the heavy water that they needed for their weapons program. The Allied forces aided the Norwegian Resistance Movement during operations Grouse, Freshman, which was a total failure, and Gunnerside in an attempt to stop production. After operation Grouse the Nazis were able to rebuild the plant and get the heavy water production back underway. In operation Gunnerside Norwegian commandos managed to destroy the plant’s production and then Allied bombers ensured that there would be no rebuilding. The Germans decided to evacuate the heavy water that they had produced back to Germany, but the Norwegian Resistance sank the ferry they had loaded it on in Lake Tinnsjø, thus ending Germany’s hopes of getting the atomic bomb. Cato was rightly proud of what had happened at Rjukan.

On our journey across the beautiful Telemark landscape we had paused our drive at a roadside picnic area on the shore of Lake Tinnsjø. We sat at a small table and had coffee while we looked out across the lake to a lone orange buoy that marked the final resting place of Germany’s atomic ambitions – It was a powerful place nestled in a stunning landscape of fjords and rugged greenery. When we returned to the shores of the lake after our visit to Rjukan we paused at a rest area that had a similar ferry to the one that sank in the war on display. I was surprised to find out that the ferry had been built as a railroad link across the lake and that during the war it was the only way to come or go to Rjukan.

Cato’s original plan had been to drive up over the plateau from Rjukan and do a large loop around the Telemark region, but roadwork blocked our route. Instead we backtracked for a while and then took another road toward Heddal. The verdant, heavily forested countryside was beautiful and rugged. It seemed like every farm we passed had the famous grass-roofed timber structures that used to be so common in Scandinavia. Eventually the landscape flattened out and then we reached Heddal.

Heddal was home to one of Norway’s most magnificent churches. The Heddal stave church was the largest church of its kind in the country. Stave churches were known for their amazing wooden architecture and unique carvings. They were typically made without the use of any metal, yet they stood several stories tall. The Heddal stave church was high on my list of places to see and Cato felt that the church was one of the gems of the area. The majority of the structure dated from 1242, though parts of it may have been older. We explored the mysterious wooden structure with its dragon headed gables and beautiful tiered woodwork. Inside, its dark spaces smelled strongly of preserved wood and smoke. The sanctuary was mysterious with beautiful floral paintings on the walls and massive support columns that disappeared into the darkness in the towering ceiling. I had always thought of the stave churches as the pinnacle of Norwegian architecture, so It was amazing to finally see one with my own eyes. We spent nearly an hour at the church. It was an amazing stop on our grand Telemark road trip.

From Heddal we headed on an easterly track through more rugged terrain. Eventually we arrived in the silver town of Kongsberg. The town’s historic center was built around a wide section of river in the 1600s and grew into a major silver town. The lovely town was once the second largest city in Norway and still served as the location of the national mint, though silver mining in the area stopped in 1957. We paused for a while in the town as we walked along the river and out across the bridge. It was one of the most picturesque towns I had seen in Norway and we enjoyed our time there. From Kongsberg we followed a mountain road above the river back to Drammen ending our Telemark adventure.

By the time our road trip took place I had been in Drammen for about a week. I filled my time exploring the town of my forefathers. Cato took me past the old family house, which still stood on a hill on the outskirts of town. I had seen a photograph of the house in my great aunt’s home in Seattle just a few years before and she had told me that her parents, my great grandparents, had lived there before they boarded the ship that brought them to America more than 100 years before. It was an amazing place to see – Cato told me that it had remained in the family until just a few years before.

We also explored Drammen’s amazing tourist attraction called Spirilen. Spirilen was an engineering marvel. It was a tunnel that entered the mountain on the outskirts of Drammen and then corkscrewed up through the mountain in a tight spiral that went up and up and up in a seemingly endless curve. The tunnel emerged at the top where there was a nice parking area, a café, and a sweeping panoramic overlook. Cato and I paused at the overlook and looked over the sweeping river valley. He pointed out the main features of Drammen, just below us, and then he followed the river to the west to where their home was – It was an impressive view! We stopped in the café and had some traditional Norwegian waffles and coffee while we talked about our family and how wonderful it had been getting in contact with each other.

On the days when Cato and Mona were both working I would go for long walks in the thick forests above their home. I was always on the lookout for moose and other interesting animals – Bears were rumored to be in the area as well, though I never saw any. I gorged myself on wild blueberries and took in the peace and quiet of the forest. One day I went on an excursion with one of Cato and Mona’s friends, Torg, who I had previously met in Rhodes, Greece. We went to a big sheer-walled canyon called Kjøsterudjuvet in the hills above Drammen. I was amazing by the stunning walls of the narrow canyon. The landscape was bathed in a mossy green light with large trees and a rushing creek. The narrow path ascended the mountain in the bottom of the crevice, frequently crossing from one side of the rocky creek to the other. There were several places where the path ascended tall waterfalls via a series of ropes and ladders that were bathed in the torrent. We eventually made it to the top of the canyon. The sheer walls ended at a small stone dam and a still pond. We spent the rest of that hike exploring the forest above town. We discovered vast fields overflowing with wild blue berries and we ate our fill as we walked. Eventually the winding network of deeply rutted trails converged onto a small dirt road lined with tiny summerhouses. A short time later we reached a lodge that was closed for the season. We paused there to have lunch overlooking a sweeping valley and a small lake and then we walked into town – Our walk at Kjøsterudjuvet Ravine was wonderful and completely unexpected.

I also spent a lot of time exploring Drammen itself. The massive town square ran perpendicular from the edge of the river for several blocks to where a large church with a tall, narrow spire was located. Cato told me that it was one of the largest squares in Europe. The roads around the square were filled with shops and small restaurants and several cafes, so I spent a lot of time there just taking in the sights. I also enjoyed walking along the river that bisected town. There was a beautiful, musical pedestrian bridge that joined the two banks and added a very scenic and modern twist to the town’s wonderful old architecture. One day I joined Cato and Mona for a bluegrass concert in a tree filled park near the square. The band was from North Carolina and they played some of the best bluegrass I had heard – It was an amazing day.

Interspersed with all of my explorations in and around Drammen some of my favorite experiences took place. Most of those experiences revolved around my newfound family and their closest friends, mainly the members of theDrammensølets venner at the historic Aass Brewery. My first encounter with the beer club happened years before when I met Cato and Mona on the island of Rhodes. I remembered them as fun-loving, crazy Norwegians and we had a lot of fun there. Because of that earlier encounter, there were a lot of familiar faces in the beer club in Drammen. I don’t even drink, but I joined the beer club as one of their most distant members and I started attending some of their fun events in town. There was the hilarious night at the main beer club meeting at the brewery where a humorous Swedish singer provided entertainment while the Aass beer flowed freely. I struggled through several conversations in my broken Norwegian/Swedish with the help of those around me that spoke English and I even tried the two varieties of non-alcoholic beer that the brewery put out – Beer has never been my thing, so I settled on the lovely ice water for the rest of the night.

On another evening we attended French Night with another group from the club. French Night was amazing. The room was decorated with French motifs, Édith Piaf filled the air with the classical sounds of Paris,and red wine was the drink of choice. There was wonderful French food and a Moulin Rouge inspired cabaret dance where Pierre, the life-sized human doll that Mona had made for the occasion, was the star of the show. It was a great evening filled with laughter and merriment.

Two weeks into my stay in Norway I decided it was time to do a little exploring on my own. It was time to head to the coastal city of Bergen on one of the most picturesque train journeys in Europe. Cato dropped me off at the train station and I was off into the unknown…

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15th March 2016

Great to see you back on TravelBlog
Dave here....Keith, great blog. Enjoyed a good read as you recounted your trip a few years back and searched for family history along with great hiking and other adventures. Keep the blogs coming!

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