In the pilgrims’ footsteps part I

By | Category: Travel destinations
image of Lake Mjøsa

Lake Mjøsa

I dare say most pilgrims on their way to Norwegian patron saint Olav’s grave in the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, did not make the journey by train. It’s even more doubtful that their first stop was an aquavit distillery, but such was my lucky lot on a sunny, late summer’s day, arriving in the town of Hamar.

Hamar, roughly an hour and a half north of capital Oslo, is scenically located on Norway’s largest lake, Lake Mjøsa and I was spending four days exploring the surrounding area and its ancient roots. The pilgrims’ trails*, running right through Norway (and throughout Europe), had their heyday in medieval times and after a long era of neglect, they are now experiencing a revival of sorts. It’s even possible to follow in the pilgrims’ “footsteps” by bike in large parts of Norway  and for extra fitness I’d decided to combine walking and cycling during my visit.

But first things first. True to form, medieval monks in Norway also had a knack for brewing/distilling and my first port of call was Atlungstad distillery, situated right on the shores of Lake Mjøsa. (the website is in Norwegian only.) Although the oldest distillery in operation in the area, it doesn’t quite date back to medieval times when traditional beverage-making was already in full swing, but opened in 1855. The grand tour takes in the whole aquavit-distilling process and the fumes alone are enough to make you feel slightly light-headed, in a pleasant way. One lady of the tour party was practically teetotal, but braved the premises nonetheless.

glasses of Aquavit ready for a taste session

Aquavit tasting

We visited the storage room, built in 1886 and home to all the aquavit currently aging, in American white oak barrels. The aquavits are aged a minimum of six months and a maximum of ten years, in barrels that have for the most part previously stored sherry, although there are some bourbon barrels in use as well. By now I was keen to sample the finished product, before heading out on any pilgrim adventures, even though I suspected it should be the other way around: an aquavit reward after successfully completed pilgrimage.

As it is, I have nothing against starting with the reward first and at the end of the tour we did indeed get four different aquavits to try, after first learning about the large number of different herbs and spices that can be added before the aquavit is ready to drink. My absolute favourite, called Pilgrim’s Aquavit, only available to sample at the distillery itself, was very smooth and pleasing with a liquorice-aniseed flavour and without a single hint of paint-stripper. On the whole, the four tasters were all changing my perception of this rather potent beverage (37,5-41,5% as a rule) and my only gripe would be that none of the above could be bought in situ due to the strict alcohol laws requiring you to shop at the state-run monopoly.

Late afternoon and evening were spent exploring two lovely old farmhouses, both south of Hamar. Fjetre Gård  is only a short walk from the above-mentioned distillery, with gorgeous views of rolling farmland and the blue waters of Lake Mjøsa. Third-generation proprietor Astrid, a trained chef, offers accommodation and cooks up a storm for guests. “Medieval recipes with a modern twist,” as she puts it. Nearby Bryhni Søndre  is slightly larger, also offering accommodation and fine dining. Farms here date back several hundred years and form part of Norway’s cultural heritage, with plenty of fascinating history, combined with a spirit of innovation. The latest generation of farmhouse owners are revitalising the area in creative ways, while still often engaging in traditional farming activities.

The following day, after a hearty breakfast, it was time for me to follow in the pilgrims’ footsteps more literally, as I did a guided walk along Lake Mjøsa. Starting outside Atlungstad distillery, but without sampling this time, I joined a group of modern-day pilgrims to walk part of Ottestadstien, a pilgrims’ trail running right along the lake. The day couldn’t have been more glorious, sun shining from a bright blue sky, not a ripple on the waters and, as we’d been encouraged to do the walk in silence, I spent the morning just drinking in the scenery, peace and tranquillity.

the paddle steamer, Skibladner

The Skibladner

Arrived back at the distillery in quite a meditative state, just in time to catch a ride with Skibladner, the world’s oldest paddle steamer in continuous operation. This vessel, dating from 1856, runs a regular service on Mjøsa in summer and can also be chartered in spring and autumn. Spending three hours onboard on such a scenic, sunny day was a wonderful treat – Norway in sunshine has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, with or without aquavit.

It turned out that the tipple of the day was slightly less potent than the day before. During the medieval-themed cruise on the day in question we were introduced to mead, the Viking brew of choice, on offer with lunch. Truth be told, it wasn’t entirely my “cup of tea”, but I sampled a bit, along with the boiled pork and cabbage which left me fairly convinced that it was a good thing palates have moved on since bygone times.

Food notwithstanding, time spent onboard Skibladner listening to tales of Norse mythology with a backdrop of green hills and mountains, proved an epic journey and I was loathe to leave, but the day was coming to an end. Time to settle into my hotel in central Hamar, before preparing for next day’s adventure.

*The paths for walking/hiking to Trondheim are known as “Pilgrim’s Trails”, while the cycle path is known as the “Pilgrim’s Route”.

To be continued in part II.

By Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights

For further information about the Hamar region, click here


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