Paul Wade - 2003-12-01
Not so long ago, Lillehammer, was barely known outside Scandinavia. The home of Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset, the village was famous among Norwegians for making pipes and cheese slicers, and for staging the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race.
Lillehammer emerged, blinking, into the international spotlight when the local slopes and rinks hosted a highly successful Winter Olympic Games in 1994. Unlike most Olympic venues, Lillehammer was not a commercial or even glamorous ski resort, and the Games did nothing to spoil what is an unpretentious winter destination, two hours north of Oslo. Peering out between the silver birches are large wooden houses, more often than not painted corn yellow, chocolate brown or rusty red. The pace is rural rather than urban, and the air that whistles across Lake Mjosa is clean and clear.
Then there is cross-country skiing. What Wimbledon is to tennis and St Andrew's is to golf, Lillehammer is to løype (cross-country skiing). Its championship is the annual Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. Covering 54km/34 miles, it commemorates an 800-year-old act of heroism, the rescue of the baby prince of Norway from the threat of rebellious nobles. He was carried to safety across the mountains by loyal soldiers who wore protective birke beiner (birch-bark leggings). The race was inaugurated back in 1932 and, although there are now 'Birkies' around the world, Lillehammer's is the big daddy of them all.
Snow is guaranteed in Norway, and with long, narrow cross-country skis standing propped by every back door, I half-believe the old saw about Norwegians being born with skis already strapped on. Certainly, mums, dads, grannies and grampas go off skiing, as we would for a Sunday walk. Even babies are pulled along behind in mini-sledges.
Thankfully, locals are kind to visitors having their first go. In my knee-length breeches, long woolly socks and woolly hat, I think I look the part. No one stares as I awkwardly strap on the skis for the first time. No one laughs as I fall over in a tangle of skis and poles. We take the lift up to the plateau about 800m above the town. This is what makes Lillehammer special - gently rolling terrain, with wide-open spaces and over 350km/220 miles of machine-set trails. You can ski for ages and never see another soul, gliding through forests of spruce and birch, past one frozen lake after another. Follow the signs for hamlets such as Nordseter (15km/10 miles) and Sjusjøen (16km/10 miles), Pellestova and Hornsjo, farms that have now expanded to include small inns, apartments and cafés.
Rather like a ramble in the Lake District or a stroll along the Thames Path, the idea is to take time to admire the views, to rest and chat, and best of all, to refuel. One Norwegian described cross-country as, "a walk from one cup of coffee to the next". Suck on an orange with a lump of sugar stuck in it; sip hot coffee from a steaming thermos; munch a chocolate bar. In this sport both legs and arms swing, burning up the calories, so snacking is positively encouraged!
Apart from cross-country trails, there is an Olympic legacy to explore. As well as visiting the Olympic Museum, you can have a go at bobsleigh and luge, freestyle skiing (at Kanthaugen) and downhill (at Hafjell). But for a reminder of Norway's rural past, take time to go to the Sandvig Collection at Maihaugen, on the edge of town. This is the largest open-air museum in Europe, where costumed interpreters recreate the skills and crafts of times past among a collection of 185 buildings, from churches and farms to private homes. These, along with over 40,000 objects, such as furniture and farm tools all come from the Gudbrandsdalen valley, north