Norway's Trondheim is Europe's new 'pilgrim hotspot'

Pilgrims walk the original mountain route of St Olav

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Thousands of people are attending a landmark festival in Norway to remember Scandinavia's most famous saint. But why is Trondheim one of Europe's fastest growing pilgrim destinations?

Roman Zieba unzips his waterproof jacket to reveal a wooden necklace covered in ancient Christian symbols including a fish and candelabra.

The 44-year-old training manager carved it himself before flying in from Poland.

He is visiting Trondheim with his friend Wojtek Jakowieci, a lorry driver who converted to Catholicism during a spell in prison six years ago.

Mr Jakowieci, 47, says he has spent three months walking 2,300km (1,500 miles) across Germany, Denmark and Sweden to get here, joined by Roman on various stretches along the way.

"Years ago Trondheim had a similar reputation to Lourdes and Jerusalem and we wanted to recognise that," says Mr Zieba, smiling up at Nidaros cathedral.

The medieval building is the world's most northerly pilgrim destination and a place Norwegians call their national sanctuary.

"We have have met Christians from all over Europe and there is an atmosphere of love and unity. I think a pilgrimage is a kind of metaphor of Christian life."

Medieval memories
Wojtek Jakowieci and Roman Zieba Wojtek Jakowieci and Roman Zieba have further to go on their pilgrimage

Trondheim was Norway's first capital, founded in 997 on the country's western coast.

Today it is a university city with a thriving technology sector. Red and yellow wooden buildings line the cobbled streets.

Restaurants serving freshly caught fish back on to the River Nidelva where locals kayak in the long summer evenings.

Last year the city's tourist office, Visit Trondheim, registered around 100,000 people, although exactly how many were here on pilgrimages is up for debate.

"Our cathedral is the most popular pilgrim site in Scandinavia, if not in northern Europe," insists Randi Haugen who directs St Olav's Festival.

It is based on an annual event staged in medieval times. This week is the 50th anniversary of the pilgrimage being revived.

Saturday's opening ceremony saw hundreds of people parading through the city, waving flags, banging drums and wearing Viking-inspired armour.

The cathedral's grounds were transformed into a historical market complete with jesters, sculptors and a toffee apple stall.

'Dedicated pilgrims'

Who was Saint Olav?

  • Olav Haraldsson was a Viking King who ruled Norway for 13 years until 1028
  • He tried to spread Christianity across the country but faced fierce resistance from powerful farmers and those who supported his enemy, the king of England and Denmark, Canute the Great
  • He died in a battle in 1030 at a town called Stiklestad and was declared a saint a year later

Some of the festival's rising popularity must be linked to the 10-day arts programme that runs alongside the religious services and is well attended by locals.

But there has also been an increase in what many would describe as the most dedicated pilgrims, those who walk at least 100km.

The National Pilgrim Centre awarded 320 certificates to this kind of visitor last year, more than double the figure for 2010.

This week's pilgrims include a group of 200 Spaniards, aged nine to 82, who have completed a 300km trek.

Inga Juul, 67, and Inger Nore Rauan, 67, were amongst a team from Oslo, who arrived carrying traditional wooden hiking sticks and celebratory red roses.

"We walked for 38 days to get here. And we are grandmothers!" they exclaimed in unison.

In 2002, Norway's Princess Martha Louise made a secret 50km pilgrimage to Trondheim with her future husband, Ari Behn.

Money matters
St Olav festival is attracting many tourists St Olav festival's rising popularity is helping tourism to flourish

The increase in long-distance treks has also been attributed to recent government investment to improve shelter, access and signposting along what are known as St Olav's Ways, 5,000km of trails that connect Trondheim to remote parts of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

"Obviously specific religious groups come here but others are hikers and nature lovers who have another kind of spiritual dimension," says Randi Haugen.

"Walking in Norway's wilderness can be another way of finding what I call one's inner root or values."

She believes that the resurgence in pilgrimages may even be linked to the eurozone crisis.

"Nowadays people are reflecting on their lives in a different way. The modern pilgrim is someone searching for inspiration."

That is a view shared by Penelope Denu, who is visiting Trondheim from Luxembourg, where she is the director of the non-profit organisation European Institute of Cultural Routes.

"There are growing numbers of tourists visiting cultural heritage sites across Europe that are a long way off the beaten track. It is quite hard to tell how many come for religious reasons but many are looking for something that enables them to break off from their stressful lives."

Inga Juul, 67, and Inger Nore Rauan, 67, carried traditional wooden sticks and celebratory roses Inga Juul and Inger Nore Rauan walked for 38 days to reach Trondheim

The European Union has also recognised the trend and pledged to spend up to 1.2m euros (£940,000; $1.5m) promoting and developing cultural trails in 2012.

So are we all about to start swapping our flip-flops and beach reading for sturdy sandals and mountain maps?

"It will always be a personal choice, but a cultural experience will leave you with your batteries much better charged than if you just flop on the sand for a week," claims Penelope Denu.

Roman Zieba and Wojtek Jakowieci are certainly putting her challenge to test.

After their long journey from Poland they are preparing to walk another 500km to Oslo and Utoeya, where they will pray for the ‪77 people killed a year ago in twin attacks by Anders Behring Breivik.‬

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