Risør: Norway’s White Town on the Skagerrak

On Norway’s southeastern coast, in the county of Aust-Agder, lies the lovely town of Risør, known for its well-preserved white wooden buildings and sheltered location by the Skagerrak sea.

An important harbor as early as the 1500s, Risør developed into a center for timber export and shipbuilding during the 17th century. The town was officially established in 1723, making it one of the oldest towns along Norway’s southern coast.

As Risør’s population grew, wealthy merchants built large, multistory houses along the waterfront, while working class neighborhoods with narrow alleys and steep staircases developed closer to the mountainsides. The tightly packed wooden houses and the use of oil lamps and open fires for heating meant there was a constant risk of fire. The worst fire occurred in June 1861, when the entire center of Risør was destroyed. During a 14-hour period, 248 buildings burned to the ground. Some houses escaped the flames, as did the town’s 17th-century church.

Following the fire, Risør was rebuilt with white wooden houses, but new regulations were implemented requiring wider streets and greater space between houses, as well as specific stylistic features such as vertical wooden paneling, straight roofs, and windows with three panes.

During the 20th century, many Norwegian towns underwent redevelopment and modernization, but due to the decline in sailing and shipbuilding, Risør did not have the financial resources for such projects. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since the lack of funds for new construction ensured the preservation of the town’s beautiful old buildings, which have given Risør the nickname Trehusbyen (the wooden house town).

A walk through Risør’s picturesque center is the best way to get a feel for the town’s special character. The area around Solsiden and Torvet has some of the most interesting historic buildings that were rebuilt after the fire. The Tangen neighborhood, once home to less wealthy merchants, artisans, and sailors, survived the fire and contains some of the town’s oldest houses, including Tangengata 28, built in the 1720s. The website of the local tourist office provides information for a self-guided walking tour, which can be downloaded as an app that can be used offline.

One of Risør’s treasures is the baroque Church of the Holy Spirit. Prior to the church’s construction, the people of Risør had to row or sail a significant distance in order to attend services. In 1646, they petitioned King Christian IV for their own church, promising to pay for its construction if the king would approve their request. He did, and the white wooden church was completed the following year.

Notable interior features of the church include an elaborate pulpit from 1647 and a barrel-vaulted ceiling, from which hang several impressive chandeliers, as well as a model of the warship Najaden, once the largest ship in the Norwegian-Danish Navy. (It was sunk in 1812 during the Battle of Lyngør). The altarpiece is a copy of a Rubens painting of the Last Supper and was intended for a church in Riga, Latvia. The ship transporting it was shipwrecked near Risør, and the painting was salvaged and sold at action to a prominent local resident, who donated it to the church. The organ dates from 1743 and was imported from Holland. Its builder, Kristoffer Gloger, fell in love with Risør and remained in the town for 20 years as the church’s first organist.

Every year over the first weekend in August, Risør hosts a popular wooden boat festival with exhibitions, cultural performances, a sailing regatta, and a motor boat parade.

The Risør archipelago and other natural areas surrounding the town also offer plenty of scope for fun and exploration. Just beyond the harbor, the small island of Stangholmen guards the channel to the Skagerrak. The wooden Stangholmen Lighthouse dates from 1855. A more modern, automated light was installed on the island in 1959 and is still in use. The old lighthouse is now a restaurant and bar open from mid-June to mid-August, with an outdoor stage for concerts. During this period a passenger ferry makes the short trip from Risør, with frequent afternoon and evening departures.

Published October 18, 2018

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