A trip back in time: Blaafarveværket and the Cobalt Mines

Marie Peyre
Marie Peyre - [email protected]
A trip back in time: Blaafarveværket and the Cobalt Mines
Blaafarveværket. Photo: Marie Peyre

Interested in Norwegian art and history? Blaafarveværket and the Cobalt Mines at Modum make for a great day trip from Oslo, says our travel editor Marie Peyre.


Cobalt was once more precious than silver. Its blue pigments were prized for their intense colour, and were the only ones that could be used in glass and porcelain production, as they alone could withstand really high temperatures.

The Cobalt Works (Blaafarveværket) at Modum, Buskerud, was Norway's first big industry - and for a while its most profitable. It was also the country's largest employer - up to 2,000 people in its heyday were either employed here, or made a living directly related to the works. At that time Blaafarveværket exported up to 80% of the world's cobalt, which was sold to countries as far away as China and Japan.

Later Blaafarveværket attracted several artists, who followed their friend Frits Thaulow to Modum (his uncle was the local doctor at the works). Many have painted motives from the area. For the past 40 years, art has played a big part in drawing visitors to the works, and Blaafarveværket has established a reputation for its outstanding art exhibitions. 

One of Norway's most visited attractions, with 200,000 visitors every summer, Blaafarveværket is today a cultural museum offering precious insights into Norwegian art, history and industry - only 80 kilometres from Oslo.

Frits Thaulow's Winter by the Simoa River (1883).

The Cobalt Mines
Cobalt ore was discovered in the Skuterudåsen Ridge, Modum, in 1772 by Ole Witloch, an unemployed prospector who had just lost his job at Kongsberg Silver Mine. While he first thought he had found silver, it turned out he had actually discovered a huge cobalt ore seam - one that stretched over 3 kilometres. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Cobalt Mines. Photo: Marie Peyre

The entrance to the Cobalt Mines is located 350 metres above sea level, and affords great views over the area. The unique cultural landscape around the mines, created by the miners who dug out millions of tons of stone from the mountain, is testimony to both the size and painstaking nature of the work that was once undertaken here.
Mine building. Photo: Marie Peyre

Inside, the mines offer a glimpse into another age, as time stands still in the cold, dimly lit tunnels. The rock in the mines was extracted by heating, then rapidly cooling, later by hand-drilling and explosives. Guided tours in the mines are available daily in season. 

The Cobalt Works
Some 7 kilometres away down the valley, located in a picturesque park by the River Simoa, The Cobalt Works (Blaafarveværket), where the cobalt mineral was processed, is where you will find the visitor centre and main exhibition area.

The main building, Glasshytten (the glass smeltery) once housed the factory's two big glass melting furnaces. Today part of the building is occupied by a small museum recounting the history of the works, while the main room is used for special events and private parties. The building next door, Mølla ('The Mill'), boasts an interesting collection of antique cobalt blue glass and porcelain - as well as a well-stocked gift shop.

Inside the shop at Blaafarveværket. Photo: Marie Peyre

It is the summer art exhibition at Blaafarveværket, though, that draws most visitors to the works today, and indeed is a highlight of any visit. This year's delightful exhibition, 'The dream of a garden', features paintings by some 40 Norwegian and Scandinavian artists reflecting on the significance of the Nordic garden.

From here you can take a short stroll up the hill to Haugfoss Waterfall, where the Simoa River tumbles 39 metres down a wide rock face. This is where the crushing works were once located. The mighty falls make for a great photo stop. Enjoy a bite to eat in the Thranestua Café (the blueberry pancake is a local speciality) or browse the wares inside Haugfossbutikken, an old-fashioned country shop offering sweets, vintage goods and a large range of stones, jewellery and minerals. 

Haugfoss Waterfall. Photo: Marie Peyre

Nymoen and Nyfossum
A few minutes up the road is Nymoen, where many of the works' employees and their families lived. Retaining a big enough workforce in a sparsely populated country was crucial to the success of the business, so workers enjoyed many privileges at the time. They had their own home and yard, a school for their children to attend, access to cheap food, free wood and lighting, free medical care and medicine, and even right to sick leave. Nymoen no. 9 has been preserved so visitors can see how an average family lived. The Nymoen school is also open to the public - it is Norway's oldest rural school building.

Nymoen School. Photo: Marie Peyre

Further up along the road, the former residence of the Technical Director at Blaafarveværket, picturesque Nyfossum, is surrounded by lush grounds, including a herb garden, rose bushes, apple trees and a pond. Inside the main building the rooms have been carefully restored to their original state, as they would have been back in the 1840s, when Friedrich Roscher and his family lived there.

Nyfossum. Photo: Marie Peyre

The adjoining timber barn hosts temporary art exhibitions. Don't miss Marit Roland 'Paper Drawings #20' this summer: the sheer size of her paper installations is impressive (several hundreds of kilos of paper have been used in the making of these giant ephemeral 'sculptures'), but even more interesting is the way they turn paper, traditionally seen as a support to draw on, into a work of art in its own right. 

Marit Roland's Paper Drawings. Photo: Marie Peyre

Other attractions and activities
The Kittelsen Museum nearby is well worth a stop. It presents some classic works by Norway's most famous illustrator, famed for his iconic trolls and atmospheric landscapes, but also reveals some lesser-known aspects of his art, including some intricate wood carvings and a broader range of painting styles than most visitors will be familiar with. 

Kittelsen Museum. Photo: Marie Peyre

Hiking and cycling are other options. There are several marked trails in the area, including a short cultural walk around the Haugfoss Waterfall, and several hiking trails by the quarries at Gruvetråkka. Bikes are also available for hire, but be aware that the road from the works to the mines is steep in parts.

Popular with children is the little ferry across the Simoa River (you have to propel it yourself by pulling the ropes) and the Children's Farm, where youngsters can see goats, sheep, calves, horses, rabbits, pigs and more. 
Plan your trip
How to get there: You need a car. Driving time is 1.5 hours from Oslo. Allow a full day if you want to see everything.
Prices: Entry to the grounds is free. Art exhibitions 60-100Kr each (combined tickets available, children free). Guided tours in the mines from 145Kr (children 80Kr).
Opening hours: Blaafarveværket is open from mid-May to late September (24 Sep 2017). Check website for details.
Eating and drinking: There are several options on site. If visiting the mines, make sure you try the local gruveost cheese, left to mature in the mines for several months. 


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