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In the Hall of the Mountain King - Norway's Silver Mines: A Nutter in Norway on the Looney Front - Part 5

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Edvard Grieg may have written the music for Peer Gynt's fantasy dream of visiting the troll mountain king, but you can ride one and a half miles into a mountainside in a low metal container on a funny little railway into the King's Mine in Kongsberg, southern Norway. You'll have 1,122 feet and 0.54 inches of rock above you - and look very cute in a yellow hard hat.

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The story has it that in July 1623 Helga and Jacob were shepherding Daddy's herds in the hills and dales when a bull scraped his horns against the mountainside and, lo and behold, something glistened. They took it home to Dad.

OK, all that glistens isn't gold, but Dad knew right away that it was silver. He started melting and selling it in the local market, even though all minerals belonged to the king.

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Well, Christian IV of Denmark, with whom Norway was then in union, was not amused. He threatened to give Dad the chop if he didn't reveal where he found the silver. As the chop was not from a lamb but an axe, Dad willingly revealed the location of the precious, Christian visited, founding the town of Kongsberg (King's Mountain), and that's how I'm now in the hall of the mountain king.

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The mine functioned from 1623 until 1958, when it became uneconomical. During that time 450,000 man-years were spent producing 1,300 tons of silver. The depth makes it so impregnable that Norway's archives and museum displays, including Munch's famous Scream, were sequestered here during the war to protect them from allied bombings raids.

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I'm with a guide and they've closed off many of the tunnels so that I can't lose my way in the enormous maze or fall to my death. But way back in the 50s, in the early days of tours, more than one unwary soul disappeared down a black hole.

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Some of the early mine equipment gets an A for ingenuity. One, a lift operated by water, consists of two beams of wood hundreds of feet long that alternately move just 20 feet up and down, with little wooden platforms every 20 feet. When the beam you're going down on reaches its 20-foot limit, you hop on to the platform on the beam that's just moved up to take you down another 20 feet. And so on ad infinitum.

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Lighted map of the tunnels

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Kongsberg itself is a pleasant little town astride the Numedalslågen River amid richly forested hills, with Norway's largest baroque church, dating from 1761, and an old royal mint and smelting furnaces now turned into a museum.

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Besides the Kongsberg-Rjukan route into the heart of the Telemark region, you can also get there from further south, from the town of Kristiansand, behind which the beautiful valley of Setesdalen rises 2,500 feet to the ski resort of Hovden, nestling under the ramparts of the Hardangervidda plateau.

It's pissing down in Kristiansand and wanderlust sets me aboard the one bus a day for the 3 ½-hours' trip. Once out of town the weather works its enchantment despite, or rather because of the rain. Mists and clouds swirl in the forested mountain folds, spreading evanescent veils over the fir trees.

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More clouds hover like greyish-white wads of cotton wool over the wooded hummock islands of Lake Byglandsfjord, and the glorious neon greens of moss and other plants glimmer with a mystic glow.

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Yellow and purple flowers welcome the steady downpour while the occasional hiker is all kitted out in waterproof trousers and jacket. Snow mottles the mountain tops, torrential waterfalls crash down the precipitous sides, rivers cascade over boulder-strewn beds, and there are the rushing streams galore of hikers' dreams.

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With the glories of off-season travel - it's June 16 - there are only a half dozen people at most at any given time on the bus.

On the deficit side Hovden's little Iron Museum will not open for the season until June 21, and the winter ski chair-lift won't begin its summer season until July 2 - and a very brief season it is, lasting only until mid-August.

But there's still stuff to do in the three hours till the bus returns to Kristiansand. There's a lovely log fire in the empty alpine resort hotel, although there's only pizza for lunch until after tomorrow.

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The downpour has stopped, the turf atop the hotel cabin roofs is glowing a rain-fresh green, and the cloud ceiling has lifted way off the peaks, while leaving enchanting wisps scurrying through the pines.

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There's an iron museum because the Vikings mined the bogs here 1,000 years ago for the super-strong weapons and tools that contributed to their glory days. Today you can stroll round the wooded peninsula on Lake Hartevatn and espy the remains of a Viking house and a charcoal pit for working the ore.

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Overall I've been exceptionally lucky with the June weather in Norway. It's been sunny nearly all the time, while the couple of days of rain and dour grey have given the magnificent scenery a mystic aura for my troll and giant fantasies.

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The many motorbikers hereabouts don't draw up an exact schedule. They check the forecasts the day before and rearrange to avoid the rain.

Oh, by the way, if you see sheep browsing atop the little wooden country houses, you're not drunk. The turf's put there for insulating warmth, the grass grows, flowers and little bushes sprout, and to keep it neat they let loose sheep or a goat or two.

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I suppose in the US of A they'd use a dirty great tractor-mower and collapse the roof.

[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Beyond Oslo - Norway's other historic cities]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.