Ooh I am just slightly late following up on my Oslo post! It is currently 25 degrees outside and writing about snowy mountaintops is a tad surreal. However! Sometimes life (read: thesis) just gets in the way of writing up adventures. Anyway, back in March when I was in Norway, I had two days ‘off’. And what do you do, with two days? I Googled ‘World Heritage sites near Oslo’. The only convincingly reachable one was Rjukan-Notodden, Norways’s youngest World Heritage site, added to the list only in 2015!
Here is what I did: I took a bus from Oslo Central Bus Station (subway stop Grønland, or a 5 min. walk from Sentralstasjon). It is possible to buy the ticket on the bus (and not possible to buy it online!). There are two companies which do the route to Notodden, and the busses go at different times; it is possible to find schedules online, but they are frequent enough. The bus trip takes c. 3.5 hours. At Notodden, you switch busses to Rjukan. I am not sure if this is always the case (it does look like it), but the bus stop is right next to where you get off the previous bus, so very convenient! A single student ticket, from Oslo to Rjukan, costs 370 Norwegian crowns.
I hopped onto Couchsurfing, because accommodation in Rjukan is a little tricky of course. I got so, so lucky, and found a lovely local to stay with. In the middle of nowhere in Norway – what are the odds! If you do not get as lucky, try asking your Norwegian acquaintances where their (summer) cabins are. There is a small chance it is in the area, because it is a very popular cabin region! Otherwise, I am afraid there are no brilliant hostels, and B&Bs can be a bit pricey (hey, it is Norway after all).
Rjukan featured in the news in 2013 for its sun mirrors. Because the town is boxed in by mountains, the sun vanishes for a substantial period in winter. It just cannot get over the mountaintops. A local genius had the idea to install some mirrors on one of the mountains, to reflect the light back into the town. I stood in the square and had a look. It is just very cool. I asked how the locals feel about it, but I guess when you are used to the dark it is not really an earth-shattering change? Or, Norwegians are just very cool people. I did see a few people walk across the square and stand in the sun for a little bit though! It is really something that happens.
This year the locals have been very (very) excited about The Snowman. Or at least the local council. Because there is a sign announcing it, blinking on the mountainside, day and night. This is apparently a film, to be released in 2017. Here’s a description: Fassbender stars as an elite crime squad’s lead detective who investigates the disappearance of a victim on the first snow of winter, fearing that an elusive serial killer may be active again. With the help of a recruit, played by Ferguson, the cop must connect decades-old cold cases to the new one. Okay. I will look out for it.
Finally, on the topic of modern media, Rjukan was the scene of ‘The Heavy Water War‘ both an actual historical event, and a rather good mini-series produced in 2015. Here is a Norwegian trailer, if you are interested. This is incidentally also why it is a World Heritage site (the industry of which the heavy water was a part; not the television series). Rjukan used to be a significant industrial centre in the Telemark region of Norway, having been established at the beginning of the 20th c. (Who said all heritage sites have to be at least Medieval?) when Norsk Hydro started saltpetre (fertilizer) production there. The Rjukan Falls, a 104-metre waterfall, provided easy means of generating large quantities of electricity. At the moment it is dammed (I think?) most the year, so do not bother visiting for an impressive waterfall photo!
Locally very famous is a man called Sam Eyde, who had the idea to use this waterfall for electricity. In 1934 Norsk Hydro built what was at the time the world’s largest power plant at Vemork in Rjukan, and with it a hydrogen plant. A by-product of hydrogen production via water electrolysis was heavy water (deuterium oxide or 2H2O). It is a form of water that contains a larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium (2H – rather than just H). I am writing what I remember here fyi – chemistry is not something I am otherwise knowledgeable on. The additional neutron makes a deuterium atom roughly twice as heavy as a protium atom (I googled that last one). It has a density of something like 10% greater than water, but is otherwise physically and chemically similar. Anyway the point being – nuclear fision needed some kind of neutron moderator. And heavy water is one of the two principal moderators which allow a nuclear reactor to operate with natural uranium as its fuel. Aaand… German efforts during World War II concentrated on using heavy water to moderate a reactor using natural uranium. Thus: the heavy water war. The Germans wanted to get to Rjukan. And the (British) allies tried their best to stop them. I kind of feel like spoiling the story if I tell you what happened in the end! Even though it is actual history.
There is more to Rjukan industrial heritage than heavy water and the war though. This was a whole system, covering the entire valley between Rjukan and Notodden. Transmission lines, factories, transport systems, towns. It reflects the entire Western world’s growing demand for agricultural production. It is a monument to workers’ accommodation and social institutions of the early 20th century. As UNESCO writes “an exceptional combination of industrial assets and themes associated to the natural landscape”.
The Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum provides a fascinating insight to life during this period. At the very beginning of the 20th c. c. 2.000-2.500 people lives in the Tin parish. By 1920, the population had increased to 12.000! (!!) The plant was a popular workplace, where workers earned good money. However, although work was popular, it was often monotonous. The workers worked in isolation from each other and knew little about production. It was lso a perilous workplace. In the years 1933 to 1943, 10 workers died – not to mention many serious injuries. There is a little special exhibition where you can read the life-stories of different people during different periods, men and women, young and old. I found it fascinating.
So, Rjukan was the first (?) designed city in Norway. Made for its workers. They thought about improving the standard of living (which is interesting in a time when toilets were still in your outside alley…) and houses were built with running water… and of course electricity. However, because of the influx of workers, there was still a housing shortage and the place was very crowded. They also built the ‘people’s house’ (town hall? community centre?) in 1930 which became a gathering place for the labour movement. –> The first trade union was founded in Rjukan in 1907! Less then ten years later there was a clash between the working class and the bourgeoisie. 15 workers were sent to prison or fined : ( Clearly they never gave up however!
In the 1960s, Norwegian Hydro began to use new technology to produce hydrogen. This involved making ammonia using oil, not the electrolysis of water. Of course it was downhill from here, for the industry of Rjukan. Between 1960 and 2001 the population decreased by nearly 36%. I would characterise it as a lovely quiet village, today. There is 1 pub, which is more for locals than visitors. And a rather large number of hairdressers.
Having explored the valley and the museum, we went up for a short trip to Gaustatoppen, the highest mountain in the county Telemark and very popular for skiing obviously. There is a free bus from Rjukan town centre a few times a day : ) Driving up by car requires some courage, especially in winter. It is steep!
I had never really seen people skiing up close before. I am from a flat ice-skating country after all. Going on a holiday just to do sports does not appeal to me particularly, unless it were possible to ski by some nice archaeological sites and maybe a church or a mosque. I did discover there is such a thing as cross-country skiing… so maybe, in the north of Sweden, along a trail of Rune stones…? Does anyone have any recommendations?
Last but not least, we visited the Heddal stave church outside of Notodden. This is only open during the summer months, so it was not possible to go inside. However, we had a good look at the exterior. I was very excited about this, because I did not have time / money to go further north in Norway to see other stave churches, and I had never properly seen one up close apart from a reconstructed/renovated one in Sweden.
The church is a triple nave stave church and is, I think, Norway’s largest stave church! Technically it was constructed at the beginning of the 13th c. (or some bits even earlier!) but as with all stave churches, it has somewhat of a construction history. It had some work done in the 19th as well as 20th century, and it is slightly unclear to me how much is original…? The Lonely Planet website told me that it has ‘rose’ paintings on the walls, a runic inscription in the outer passageway and the ‘Bishop’s chair’, which was made of an old pillar in the 17th century; but I was not able to see any of this : ( Carvings relate the pagan tale of the Viking Sigurd the dragon-slayer, which has been reworked into a Christian parable involving Jesus and the devil. I just love how stave churches were able to mix these different cultural / religious beliefs.
I did like circling around the closed building, but in this case I might see if I can return during the summer some time!