Reaching into its medieval past, Norway has revived an old pilgrim path as a challenging long-distance walking trail with possible spiritual vibes.
Called St. Olav's Way after the country's patron saint, it follows the footsteps of pilgrims to Trondheim, called Nidaros in the Middle Ages, and the earthly remains of St. Olav, buried under its great cathedral.
In life, the saint was King Olav Haraldsson, credited with sealing Norway's conversion to Christianity with a martyr's death in battle in 1030. He was rushed into sainthood a year later. His spreading fame made Nidaros a major destination for European pilgrims, along with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims trod St. Olav's Way until Lutheranism reached Norway in 1537, shutting down saint worship.
Retraced and sign posted in the 1990s, it is a Nordic entry in the pilgrim tourism field dominated by Spain's Santiago way, made famous by many books and a recent movie with Martin Sheen.
Norway's trail is Santiago without the crowds, and with natural beauty replacing the historic villages and churches of Spain.
"We are completely different," said Cathrine Roncale, manager of the Nidaros Pilgrim Centre, a lodging and meeting place for pilgrims and others in a secluded riverside setting in Trondheim.
"In Spain, it is easy to walk and you meet people all the time," she said. "But here, you can walk alone in lovely nature for days and days."
There are several routes, collectively known as St. Olav's Ways, but the main one runs 640 kilometres from the capital, Oslo, to Trondheim, with lodging from hotels to huts to campsites spaced along the way. It avoids roadsides, but is close enough that hikers can select shorter segments or bail out and take the bus or train.
My own St. Olav pilgrimage was by entirely by train. Time was scarce and I wasn't in shape for the suggested pilgrim pace of 25 kilometres or so a day, up and down, day after day. Instead, I would seek out tales from arriving pilgrims.
The seven-hour train ride from Oslo at least followed the pilgrims' corridor through farmland scenery of the Gudbrand River valley and over the 1,000-metre high Dovre Mountains, a treeless upland where snow can linger until August.
Roncale was my first contact in Trondheim. She said interest in pilgrimages "exploded" in the late 1980s and 1990s with Brazilian author Paulo Coelho's book (The Pilgrimage in English translation) on walking the Santiago de Compostela road.
As for pilgrims' motives, spirituality takes a back seat to a desire for a break from the grinding pace of modern life.
"Most people have lives full of stress and just want to walk close to nature, away from telephones and disturbances from relatives," she said.
Roncale introduced me to a German couple newly arrived after spending their week's vacation walking seven to eight hours and 20-30 kilometres a day along St. Olav's Way. Experienced walkers back home, they are in their 60s.
"We didn't see it as a pilgrimage at first, but it became one," said Wilfried Buschen, a pension consultant from near Cologne who describes himself as religious but not a churchgoer. "You learn about yourself and develop as a person."
His companion, Karin Bach, added, "It was a way to collect ourselves and find peace. We saw just one other pilgrim in seven days."
A cool, rainy, sunless June helped build character.
"When you are wet all the time, it's an achievement just to keep going and keep your concentration," Buschen said. The trail is up and down all the way and steep in places, he said.
On the positive side, he recalls the geniality of overnight hosts and the abundance of flowers.
"The countryside is gorgeous, it really is."
Pilgrims are not swarming into Trondheim. Roncale can't provide a figure on trail use, because pilgrims don't have to register on arrival. But judging by the number of St. Olav's letters given out for walking at least the final 100 kilometres, there were 190 pilgrims in 2010.
"We're quite new," she says. The trail opened in 1997, the year Trondheim marked its millennium.
The walking season runs from June to September, but July is best for weather and long days. For a good time, pilgrims should arrive during St. Olav days, a 10-day music festival with a food and crafts market that starts July 29, the day Olav fell in battle.
Nidaros Cathedral, successor to the first church built over Olav's remains, is Trondheim's main attraction. An immense Gothic monument, it seems out of place 500 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, but stays in the national loop as the setting for royal weddings and consecrations (Norwegians don't "crown" kings).
Its front wall presents a gallery of 55 stone statues, including Olav himself with his signature battle-axe, biblical prophets, tradesmen and more. Inside, the soaring ceiling and stained-glass windows, including an eight-metre-wide rose window, are the main attention grabbers.
The cathedral visitor centre sells pilgrim souvenirs, including badges with images of St. Olav, T-shirts with the St. Olav Way logo and books on pilgrimages. Eat Sleep Walk Eat Sleep Walk by Janet Hall stands out for its title.
Trondheim is a compact, walkable city nestled in a bend of Nidelva (Nid River). Bridges over the river give an iconic Trondheim view of colourful historic warehouses along both riverbanks, now converted into offices and residences.
Across the river, Bakklandet is a neighbourhood of picturesque narrow cobblestone streets and wooden buildings. Central Trondheim's streets were straightened and widened following a fire in 1681.
Other Trondheim tourist attractions include the former archbishop's palace, Norway's crown jewels, various museums (art, archeology, natural history, maritime) and a central marketplace with a statue of city founder King Olav Tryggvason, predecessor to Olav, perched atop a tall column.
The Ringve museum of musical instruments sounds narrowly focused for a non-musician, but appealed to me with its country manor house setting surrounded by botanical gardens, along with the curiosity of having guides play the historical instruments on display. It is out of town, but easily reached by city bus.
Along the tour, my guide, Eugenia Kochetkova, played little classical pieces on old clavichords, harpsichords and organs and demonstrated the Hardanger fiddle, symbolic of Norway with its haunting vibrating strings.
That evening, on June 23, another city bus took me to the Trndelag folk museum, a cultural mustering spot where Trondheim families celebrate St. John's Eve. The open-air museum is a collection of old wooden buildings from town and surrounding farms.
Families pushing baby carriages and herding children were exploring the rustic buildings, some with sod roofs. Then they gathered for a giant bonfire, the main St. John's event.
There was live music, but it was a country and western band, not the Hardanger fiddle. Sour cream porridge was the food specialty of the evening.
Back in town, I walked through deserted streets in the cold rain. Beer priced around $14 a half-litre discouraged a pub crawl. Instead, it was somehow comforting to return for another lingering look at the cathedral, under its spell like a pilgrim.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
PILGRIM WAY INFORMATION
pilgrim.info gives St. Olav's Way information on possible partial walks, dates for group walks, what to pack, the pilgrim passport, stories from pilgrims who walked St. Olav's Way, suggested Gregorian music with pilgrimage connections, and more.
With the only English guide to St. Olav's Way (by Alison Raju) sold out, pilegrim.info is the sole source of topographic maps. Under "Ways," click on rectangles along the path for contour lines on that trail segment and icons indicating lodging and cultural sites. Click on a lodging icon for information to make reservations.
Oslo Pilgrim Centre director Roger Jensen said hikers normally print out their own maps, but pilgrim centres will make free printouts as long as demand stays low. Oslo's Pilgrim Centre is beside the main cathedral on Karl Johans Gate. Email email@example.com to make an appointment.
Trondheim.com, the Trondheim city site, has a useful pilgrim way section with links to the cathedral, accommodation in Trondheim, etc.
Nidaros Pilgrim Centre in Trondheim (pilegrimsgarden.no) offers relatively cheap lodging (for Norway) at $110 single and $150 double rooms. Some Trondheim hotels are the Comfort Hotel Park, near the cathedral, but a long walk from the train station; the Rica Nidelva Hotel, near the train station and a trendy bar-restaurant area, with a prize-winning breakfast buffet; and the Britannia Hotel, the elegant grande dame of Trondheim hotels.
Cold-smoked salmon (lox) salad at the Ringve music museum restaurant was the best value I found in Norway. Havfruen fish restaurant has a cozy setting in a historic warehouse on the river, but prices are staggering: A three-course meal of fish soup, halibut, and strawberry and rhubarb dessert cost $90. Antikvariet is a pleasant riverside bar in the Bakklandet neighbourhood.
The purpose of reviving St. Olav's Way is described by project organizer Mari Kollandsrud in Saint Olav of Norway: Reviving Pilgrim Ways to Trondheim, an article in a 1998 collection of papers on pilgrim tourism titled In Search of Heritage: As Pilgrim or Tourist?
"The project's aim was to provide a spiritual experience -- which may be cultural, religious, emotional or esthetic," she wrote.