Seeing Double at Torpo Stave Church

  • The only place where you can see a stave church and a 19th century church side-by-side

If you’re driving on the E7 between east and west Norway, Torpo Stave Church is one of the best roadside stops on the eastern side. The town of Torpo itself is a little sleepy and lacking in things to do, but the stave church is a true highlight. After all, it is one of the oldest stave churches in the country. It is the only preserved stave church in the traditional district of Hallingdal. It’s unique as the new church stands immediately next to it. It creates this intriguing juxtaposition between old and new church architecture in Norway.

I have been to Torpo Stave Church a few times; I always make an effort to have my groups see it when we are driving on the E7. However, in September 2020 on my road-trip, I decided to make a quick stop there to take some photos. The church wasn’t open due to it being off-season. Still, I got some great photos of the outside and did a little research on the church.

Here’s what you need to know about Torpo Stave Church for your visit.

Torpo Stave Church
Visiting Torpo Stave Church
An early photo of the two churches together // Thomhav, C. Christensen (1857-1937) // Riksantikvaren

One of the Oldest Stave Churches in Norway

There is a little back and forth about when Torpo Stave Church was built. Some say it was constructed around 1160, others say it may be closer to the end of the 12th century. In any case, it’s certain that Torpo Stave Church was the first church in Hallingdal and is the only preserved church. It’s also believed there was an older church on this site before the stave church, furthering the importance of Torpo Stave Church.

According to a rune inscription, a man named Torolf built the church. A person with the same name is listed as the builder for Ål Stave Church. Ål is the next town over if you’re driving towards Oslo. Its stave church was torn down. The plank with the rune inscription is in the Historical Museum in Oslo, but you will see other inscriptions on the church. If you take a guided tour, the staff will highlight it. At the time, Hallingdal (the valley) belonged to the diocese of Stavanger. There is a rumour that one of the bishops of Stavanger is buried under the church, but it is just a rumour.

There is another stave church surviving from Hallingdal, Gol Stave Church (Gol is a major town on the E7). However, Gol Stave Church now stands at the open-air museum (Folke Museum) in Oslo. There used to be many more churches in the valley, but they were all demolished at one point or another.

Torpo Stave Church
Torpo Stave Church (My Photo)

Changes from the Reformation (1537) Onwards

After the Reformation, when Norway went from being Catholic to Lutheran, all stave churches underwent huge changes. Common for all churches is the addition of pulpits and pews. Windows were added later on. All the windows on Torpo Stave Church are from the 17th century. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the church was richly decorated. When the Preservation Society bought the church, they removed these decorations.

From 1725 onwards, Torpo Stave Church had private ownership.

Details of the tarring on the church exterior

Preservation for Norwegian Ancient Monuments Takes Over

In 1851, Norway introduced a new law that affected stave churches. The law required that all churches have enough seating for 30% of the village’s population. Towns tore down their stave churches, as they didn’t meet the requirement. After all, we only have 28 of the original 1,000 remaining. In 1875, Ål Municipality took over Torpo Stave Church with plans of renovating it to accommodate the new law. When the Preservation for Norwegian Ancient Monuments heard of this, they knew it would damage the church’s original appearance. So, they set out to buy it. They tore down the choir while financial negotiations were underway. In 1880, the Preservation purchased the church. They took out all the post-Reformation decorations and kept everything in the remaining church original.

Gorgeous detail around the portal

Similarities to Other Stave Churches

Today, only the nave (central part) of the church is remaining. In the nave, you’ll see the original 14 pillars holding up the saddle roof. Inside, it looks very similar to the torn-down stave church as well as the stave churches in Sogn, particularly Borgund and Kaupanger. It’s believed that Torpo improved the construction method of Urnes Stave Church and took elements from Borgund Stave Church.

Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune / kunsthistorie.com

Rich Painted Decorations

The choir, which was demolished shortly before the Preservation bought it, had rich paintings. Luckily at the time, the paintings were in the nave, saving them. The vault had richly decorated paintings depicting Christ, the Apostles, and the legend of St. Margaret, who the church is dedicated to. This vault is the most famous part of Torpo Stave Church. It is some of the oldest decorative paintwork in Norway.

Torpo Stave Church (My Photo)
Torpo Stave Church (My Photo)

The Exterior

If you don’t want to pay for entrance to the church, or perhaps you arrive off-season as I did, you are still in for a treat. Dragons, vines and animal heads decorate the portals. A bell tower stood next to the stave church; this is common of many stave churches – bells were too heavy for the supporting beams. However, it is gone due to the new church. The small wooden building across from the church was a room for the church people; it was the only place with heating. Still today, Torpo Stave Church is without electricity and heating.

The New Church

Torpo built a new church in 1880. It is in a Neo-Gothic style and seats 200. In the 1970s, parts of the stave church’s choir were found under the new church. The new church is still in use and is not part of the admission to Torpo Stave Church.

Information sign out the front

Visiting Torpo Stave Church

Location & Parking

The stave church is located in the village of Torpo, which is off the E7 between Bergen and Oslo. At this point, you’re roughly halfway between Geilo and Gol, which will be on all the yellow roadsigns indicating how far away the next town is. You get a glimpse of the stave church from the highway, but it’s best to turn off and visit it properly. There are brown tourist signs on the highway pointing in the right direction, so it’s hard to miss it.

Considering the popularity of this church, there’s very little parking. There is a small parking lot across the street, but I am unsure how busy it will get in the summer months. Please note that there is a private home next to the parking lot; don’t park in their space! They have signs up saying “privat” or “private”.

See Also

Opening Hours & Admission Fees

Typically, the church is open every day from the beginning of June to the end of August from 10am to 6pm. There’s a sign out the front indicating its opening hours, and you can find up-to-date information here.

There is an admission fee of 70 NOK to enter the church (up-to-date info can be found here).

Bathroom facilities are at the church, but there is no food/drinks place. You can get food and drinks from the Joker supermarket down the road.

Travel Suggestions

If you are thinking of staying in the area, I’d recommend staying in Geilo. Gol is a little industrial, whereas in Geilo you’ll get all the charm of Norway’s oldest ski town. Torpo Stave Church is a 30-minute drive east of Geilo and a 15-minute drive west of Gol. However, the detour is quick enough that you can still drive all the way to Bergen or Oslo.

When we did this drive, we had left the Numedal Valley, had lunch in Geilo (so many good options) and were then making our way to Fagernes, where we spent the night. The following day, we went on the Valdres National Tourist Road – there are more stave churches in the area!

Visitor info for Geilo can be found at the bottom of my Numedal Valley page (click here).

Torpo Stave Church
Torpo Stave Church (My Photo)

Tell me what you think!

Have you visited Torpo Stave Church or do you have any questions for me? Let me know in the comments 🙂

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