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Southern Norway : Road trip across the fjells

By: Jörg M. Unger
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Admittedly, it takes some will power to peel off your sleeping bag and get out of a car when mist still creeps Preikestolen, jutting out over Lysefjordacross the fjells – the mountain plains in Norway – at 45°F on a chilly summer morning. However, traveling by car is the best option to explore this country, which would reach from the mouth of the Mackenzie River to Bristol Bay in the south-west of Alaska, if you transferred it from Europe to the American continent – or, in other words, it would stretch from Maine to Alabama.

The Norwegian Automobile Federation offers 268 camp sites and additionally there are about one thousand other camp and cabin sites as well as parking lots for caravans and recreation vehicles throughout the country and its fifteen national parks. Due to the Norwegian allemannsretten (everybody’s right), you may also park your car somewhere beside the road for just one night, which makes it easy to follow Norway’s national roads and enjoy the quiet lakes, dense woods, gentle hills, steep mountains, roaring waterfalls, sparkling glaciers and narrow fjords alongside.

While the Vikings, who had discovered Newfoundland in the “new world” long before Columbus explored the Caribbean Sea, once conquered foreign lands with their longships and terrified their southern neighbors, the descendants have become quiet and unassuming, open and hospitable to foreign guests. Blessed with the Gulf Stream, North Sea oil, and plenty of energy produced by hydroelectric power stations, the 4.7 million inhabitants enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world.

Coming from Oslo, we headed southwest for the region of Telemark, the home of skiing. In the town of Skien, we followed the Telemark Canal, which was the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and the most spectacular waterway of Europe in the 1890s. It took five years to build it and was designed to foothills east of Gaustatoppen, seen from summitraft wood from the north of Telemark down to the seaports of Skagerrak, where the Baltic Sea meets the North Sea. Eighteen still original, hand-operated locks in eight places level out a difference of 236 feet in altitude between Skien at the south-east end of Lake Norsjoe and the town of Dalen, 65 miles further west at the end of Lake Bandak. Today, you can sail or paddle up and down the canal in the summer months or go for a comfortable, nostalgic boat trip.

“The world’s highest waterfall, I have discovered at Rjukan in Telemark.” geology professor Jens Esmark reported back to his king in Copenhagen in 1810. Well, this was a slight exaggeration, as the waters plunge only 340 feet down into the valley of Vestfjorddalen. However, the sentence made Rjukan the cradle of tourism and the first vacation resort in Norway. Visitors from all over Europe came in the summer months and checked into the hotel of Vemork or booked Norway’s first tourist cabin on Krokan farm above the thundering waters of the fall. Artists came to paint the waterfall and scenery below the cone of Gaustatoppen that towers majestically over the town. With an altitude of 6,178 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest and most beautiful mountains of the region. About thirty thousand people make the trip up to the summit every year to enjoy the fantastic view down into the valley and wooden troll face in Rjukan’s Tinn Museumover the foothills of Hardangervidda that offer plenty of opportunities for hiking and cycling.

At the entrance of Rjukan’s Tinn Museum, troll faces (queer-looking giants and dwarves from the Norwegian woods) greet the visitor, and old farm houses and barns show the history of house building from medieval times to the end of the 19th century. Textiles, old prints, paintings and wood carvings represent the art and traditions of the farmers who once settled in this valley before bold scientists and entrepreneurs discovered the place and started to produce energy from the power of its waters.

A winding road brings you up to the mountains in the south, and a narrow fjellveien (mountain road) leads up to 4,134 feet and over one of the highest passes of Norway. Via the places of Tuddal and Sauland, it isn’t far to Heddal, where you can visit the biggest and best preserved stave church of Norway. Built without any nails and steel parts, the wooden building is an architectural masterpiece of the early Middle Ages. Still being the parish church of Heddal, its doors are open to tourists during the summer season.

If we had known about the annual blues festival in Notodden that takes place in early August, we would have changed our itinerary. However, we went further west to see the fjords at the country’s North Sea coast and the pulpit rock of Preikestolen, which is one of the most visited natural sights in the south of Norway. The 2.5-mile-long foot path from the parking lot took us two hours and 1,100 feet up to the mountains and the famous cliff, which juts out over the Lysefjord that lies 1,980 feet under your feet. Meandering 25 miles into the interior of the country, it ends at Lysebotn, where the cliff of Kjerag rises 3,555 feet vertically into the sky.

Next time we are going to explore Sognefjord (with 126 miles the longest fjord of Norway) and I hope for better weather conditions when we go on hikes in the national park of Jostedalspreen, the biggest glacier in Europe.

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