From the sea to the mountains
Quite apart from the skiing for which it is so famous, Telemark's natural scenic beauty, reliable climate and rich cultural traditions make the county one of Norway's most popular and well organized holiday destinations. The diversity of the landscape is striking: seaswept rocky shores merge with open farmlands, vast forests and narrow valleys; steep mountains plunge into bottomless lakes or widen into high moorlands with their exotic profusion of reindeer, grouse and cloudberries.
Norwegians like to say they are “born with skis on” - and indeed, ancient rock carvings suggest that skis have been used in Norway for at least 4000 years. Fast-forward to the 19th century, and a poor Telemark farmer by the name of Sondre Nordheim is reputed to have originated modern skiing as a recreational activity, enabling Telemark to market itself as “the cradle of skiing”.
The county offers thousands of kilometres of well-prepared trails and modern alpine slopes, with every possible variation on the sport from children’s adventure trails and gentle slalom slopes to the most precipitous downhill runs. Outstanding ski areas and resorts include Gautefall, Gaustablikk, Rauland/Vinje, Bø/Lifjell and Vrådal. In Morgedal, Sondre Nordheim’s home village, the Olympic flame was lit for the Winter Games in Oslo in 1952, Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lillehammer in 1994.
Every style of accommodation is available to suit every taste and budget, from magnificent Swiss style hotels to simple pensions, motels and cottage parks, campgrounds, or farms with rooms for rent. Serious campers can pitch their tents alongside a burbling stream in the forest or in a sheltered cove by the sea.
Winter is obviously the peak season here; but summer and autumn in Telemark are also blissful, ideal for exploring some of Norway’s unique stave churches in a landscape, legendarily haunted by trolls, that has influenced the great Norwegian artists from lbsen (visit his childhood home at Venstøp near Skien) to Munch.
Few visitors will want to miss the spectacular Rjukan waterfall at Vemork, site of the world's largest power station on its construction in 1911, now a museum featuring one of the most famous incidents World War II: the sabotage actions that prevented Hitler from developing an atomic bomb. The struggle for control of the German occupiers' heavy water plant at Vemork took more than two years, involved four separate assaults and claimed 92 lives. In Rjukan you can also take the cable-way Krossobanen and enjoy a spectacular view of Mount Gausta, Vemork, the Gausdalen valley to name a few.
The Telemark Canal
No visitor to the county should miss the famous Telemark Canal, a proud winner of the Europa Nostra medal for restoration and preservation. When the canal was completed in 1892 it was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world; 500 men had worked for five years, blasting their way through the mountains to create a total of 28 locks along a steep 105 km route from Skien to the ancient town of Dalen, a sailing route of 105 km with an elevation difference of 72 metres.
The canal became known as “the fast route” between eastern and western Norway and was also the most important transport route between upper and lower Telemark for people, domestic animals, goods and timber. These days, traditional elegant canal boats − m/s “Victoria”, m/s “Henrik Ibsen” and m/s “Telemarken”, carrying up to 220 passengers − travel the canal regularly between May and August; from July 2009, the service has been supplemented by a small yacht, “Marie Claire”.
Telemark also claims to be the home of Norway’s answer to the Loch Ness monster. Selma the sea serpent is the notional denizen of a large lake in the ancient municipality of Seljord. Sightings have been reported regularly since the 17th century and several scientific expeditions in search of Selma have been mounted in recent years.