Of realities and rarities: the Norwegian realisation in Rjukan


Nestled within the expanses of a country so dramatic in its range of mountains and glaciers and deep coastal fjords, home to some really wholesome Scandinavian ways of life, resting also in a certain attribute that the Nordic identity allows it to, is a somewhat peculiar town of a lot many distinctions. Residing somewhere in the realms of the land of the midnight sun of Norway is Rjukan, a town with not very deep entrenches into history but significant nonetheless in the relatively small amount of time since it has marked its existence on the Norwegian map. With only a hundred something years of history, having come into existence sometime between 1905 and 1916, emerging from its erstwhile identity as an industrial center, when it was founded by Norwegian engineer and industrialist Sam Eyde perhaps in 1908 after buying the Rjukanfossen waterfall- literally the Smoking Falls or the Steaming Falls, which has been a famous tourist attraction in Norway since long. No wonder, with such a terrific object of natural beauty to boast about by virtue of its very beginnings, Rjukan has always been a tourist hotspot, an essence of its identity that delves also into the town’s distinguished legacy, with such standings like the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site that is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Also famous as the place in Norway from where the most beautiful mountain of the country rises majestically, Rjukan indeed is every bit a tourists paradise. Flanked by the mighty, heighty peak of Mount Gaustatoppen, Rjukan sits in a deep, narrow valley beneath a high barren plateau across a facade of beauty resplendent with sights and allures and aesthetics galore albeit in a fame that might be somewhat out of sync with the vibrant natural vibe of the region. One of the darkest towns in the world courtesy again its locational setting that also however endows it with its picturesque pleasantries, Rjukan’s embedment deep in the midst of the steep Vestfjord valley in Telemark means that it is party to a really paltry amount of sunlight for almost half the year. Between the months through September to March, the city lies shrouded in the shadow of the lofty mountains, missing out on the dose of sunlit exuberance for a hundred and a five long years before it finally worked upon the century long vision of its founder to usher sunlight into the region in 2013. Today a definite definer of the Rjukan identity is this mannerism of its sunlit premises that has been brought about by installation of giant mirrors at the top of the mountain wall over the town square that captures the sun’s rays and reflect it on to it.

rjukan sun mirrors
Source: The Atlantic

Launched by Sam Eyde as early as 1913, this idea of the development of a Solspeil, or sun mirror, above Rjukan to afford its residents and the workers of his company Norsk Hydro access to some amount of sunlight saw however another route of action when the first cable car system in that part of the country was financed in 1928 as the Krossobannen. Designed to take Rjukan dwellers up to the foot of Hardangervidda, Norway’s largest national park, where they’d be able to feel the sun on their faces, the cable system continues to be in existence even today but the advances achieved in the field of technology meant that Eyde’s revolutionary idea came to fruition exactly a century later. But while these three giant heliostats that bathes Rjukan today in the glorious glow of the winter sun have their own place in the town’s distinctive identity, earning it the attention of international media and generating global interest, the charm of the Krossobannen persists still not just as an adventurous way of begetting the warmth of the elusive sun but also doubles as ski lift for ski tourers in winter, and bike lift in the summer season in an area of the country that has been described by travel magazine Lonely Planet as Southern Norway’s activity centre par excellence.

Boarding the heights of nostalgia along the 814 km of distance that the Krossobannen encompasses however isn’t the only adventure that visitors to Rjukan can partake of. As a town named after the eponymous waterfall around which it was founded, Rjukan is very veritable a hotspot of activities centered around its some 192 waterfalls that offers spectacular opportunities for ice climbing every winter when they freeze to ice cold perfection. In fact so numerous are the prospects of ice climbing hoarded by this town of uniqueties galore that sees an annual observation of the Rjukan Ice Festival usually ever February. Equally enthralling can be the embarking upon what is the toughest bunjee jumping experience in Norway, not to mention the numerous peaks and mountain trails to hike through for a view of not just Rjukan but of the entire country that is guaranteed to take your breath away with its amazing splendor. Specifically with the ascent to Gaustatoppen, the pursuit is all the more rewarding offering as it does panoramic views of some 60,000 km2 or a one -sixth of Norway! Or visiting Norway’s largest glacier Hardangervidda part of which makes also for a namesake National Park and is a really popular tourist and leisure destination, with also adventurous beckonings to its credit can be an all in one exploration of Rjukan some little distance away from it.

No trip to Rjukan however can be complete unless you have scouted out the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site. Constructed by the Norsk-Hydro Company to manufacture artificial fertilizer from nitrogen in the air, and the very basis on which Rjukan as a town came to be, the site was include in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015 as a pioneering industrial enterprise of the early 20th century. With a network of dams, tunnels, pipes, power plants, power lines, factory areas and equipment, the company towns, railway lines and ferry service juxtaposed so brilliantly within the dynamics of the natural topography of the place, the site indeed is a wonder to explore in all its mavericks of diversive essence. Also worth mentioning would be the Vemork Hydroelectric Power Station, the largest of its kind when it came into being in 1911, that today houses the Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum, significant itself in being an anchor point on the European Route of Industrial Heritage.

Equally worth a visit is the very natural identity from which emerged the essence of Rjukan- the all famous waterfall of the place. As the highest waterfall in the world during the times of the 18th century, the 104 meter high Rjukanfossen had been the epitome of touristry enticings in Norway that still retains its characteristic charm, though only occasionally. Discovered in 1810 in its immense stature that instantly made Rjukan the cradle of modern tourism in Norway. In fact so spellbinding had been the majesty of the beauty held within the folds of the waterfall that it came to be depicted in numerous works of art over the years, though today it stands as only a shadow of its former self, with most of its water power employed to generate hydro electricity to drive the workings of the Vemork power station. Nevertheless though, the Rjukan waterfall still continues to hold relevance in the history of the town and will continue to do so till the settlement persists at that place of natural abundance.

For a touch of the religious as well as for an exploration of architecture in Rjukan, the most prominent site would be the church there, another namesake structure in town. Built in 1915, this natural stone structure rests also in a history that is as dramatic as the landscape across which it sprawls. The 1927 Rjukan floods triggered numerous rockslides, one of which swept away the vicarage and a corner of the church followed by a 1953 episode of ceiling collapse. 11 years later, it was a fire that threatened to bring the church to ruins, occurring during the filming of The Heroes of Telemark within its premises, burning away everything that is could after which the church was rebuilt and refurbished but in a style that was a modern take on the earlier architecture and design sensibilities on which it was based.

rjukan church image
Source: Visit Norway

The brush with antiquity in this not so old town can be encountered at the Tinn Museum, with the history of rural Norwegian architecture up for exploration across a period that spans from as early as the 11th century to the 1900s. A folklore museum with antiquarian buildings that reveal various stages of development and social disparities through the old agrarian society of Rjukan, this peaceful existence at the eastern end of the town is indeed a revelation of sorts, offering as it does an insight into the life of the farmers and crofters as they had lived in periods of history. Replete with a large collection of implements that which stands testament to Rjukan’s long history of agricultural innovations, Tinn Museum houses also stave church portals, textiles, material from the Second World War and old prints and drawings, making for a serving of the town’s history in the most conveniently comprehensive manner ever.

In the midst of it all though, getting a true insight into the way of life of Rjukan today, dwelling as it does in the form of a town for more than a century now all thanks to Sam Eyde, would perhaps be the most accurate if you wait and take just a moment to regard with admiration the statue of the man who stands high and mighty in the market square of Rjukan as well as in its continuing history. A fine mustached man, with one hand thrust in his trouser pocket and a tightly rolled drawing in the other, Eyde stands much as an embodiment of the prominent personality that he was, singlehandedly bringing into existence an entire entity of people who would come to inhabit a world of their own. In his visionary ideals, right from the foundation of Rjukan by buying a waterfall and harnessing energy out of it to his realistic development of the idea of the sun mirrors that today are a marvel that accords Rjukan a distinction unlike any other in the global realm, Sam Eyde remains the father figure to whom Rjukan owes its all- be it history, legacy or identity that persists simultaneously as the manifestations of art within the realms of science, setting into motion a way of existence so in sync with the forever innovating ways of the world.