An atmospheric city with much of its nineteenth-century centre still intact, TRONDHEIM was known until the 1500s as Nidaros (“mouth of the river Nid”), its importance as a military and economic power base underpinned by the excellence of its harbour and its position at the head of a wide and fertile valley. The early Norse parliament, or Ting, met here, and the cathedral was a major pilgrimage centre at the end of a route stretching all the way up from Oslo. A fire destroyed almost all of medieval Trondheim in 1681 and, at the behest of the Danish governor, a military engineer from Luxembourg, a certain Caspar de Cicignon, proceeded to rebuild Trondheim on a gridiron plan, with broad avenues radiating from the centre to act as firebreaks. Cicignon’s layout has survived pretty much untouched, giving today’s city centre an airy, open feel, though the buildings themselves mostly date from the commercial boom of the late nineteenth century. Among them are scores of doughty stone structures that were built to impress and a handsome set of old timber warehouses that line up along the river. Together, they provide a suitably expansive setting for the cathedral, one of Scandinavia’s finest medieval structures.
Trondheim is also the capital of the Trøndelag province, whose sweeping valleys are – by Norwegian standards at least – very fertile and profitable: indeed the region’s landowners acted as a counterweight to the power of the south for hundreds of years and, when the country regained its independence in 1905, it seemed logical for the new dynasty to hold their coronations here in Trondheim.
With a population of around 175,000, Trondheim is Norway’s third city, but the pace of life here is slow and easy, and the main sights are best appreciated in leisurely fashion over a couple of days. Genial and eminently likeable, Trondheim is a pleasant place to wave goodbye to city life before heading for the wilds of the north.
Accommodation is plentiful in Trondheim, with a choice of private rooms, two hostels, and a selection of reasonably priced hotels. What’s more, most of the more appealing places are dotted round the city centre, which is precisely where you want to be. The exception is the private rooms booked via the tourist office, which are usually out in the suburbs. These private rooms are good value at around 500–600kr per double per night (400–500kr single), plus a small booking fee.
Beyond the Bakke bru bridge, tiny Bakklandet is Trondheim’s own “Left Bank”, a one-time working-class district of brightly painted timber houses that now holds a battery of quaint cafés and restaurants, including some of Trondheim’s best. Bakklandet abuts the Gamle Bybro (Old Town Bridge), a quaint wooden structure offering splendid views over Kjøpmannsgata’s eighteenth-century gabled and timbered warehouses, now mostly restaurants and offices.
As befits Norway’s third city, Trondheim has a good selection of first-rate restaurants serving a variety of cuisines, though the Norwegian places almost always have the gastronomic edge. In particular, there’s a couple of especially fine restaurants in the Bakklandet district, by the eastern end of Gamle Bybro, and a third at the south end of neighbouring Kjøpmannsgata. Bars are dotted all over the city centre, but the weekend scene is at its liveliest on and around Brattørgata and in the Nedre Elvehavn district, where the former municipal shipyard has been turned into a large leisure complex of shops, bars and restaurants. Finally – if needs must – the city’s mobile fast-food stalls are concentrated around Sentralstasjon and along Kongens gate, on either side of Torvet.
The goal of Trondheim’s pilgrims in times past was the rambling Nidaros Domkirke, Scandinavia’s largest medieval building, whose copper-green spire and multiple roofs lord it over the south end of Munkegata. Gloriously restored following several fires and the upheavals of the Reformation, the cathedral, which is dedicated to St Olav, remains the focal point of any visit to the city and is best explored in the early morning, when it’s reasonably free of tour groups. In the summertime, there are free English-language guided tours and you can climb the cathedral tower for a panoramic view over the city and its surroundings.
The crowning glory of this magnificent blue- and green-grey soapstone edifice is its west facade, a soaring cliff-face of finely worked stone sporting a magnificent rose window, rank after rank of pointed arches, biblical, religious and royal figures by the dozen and a fancy set of gargoyles. The west facade and the nave behind may look medieval, but date from the nineteenth century: the originals were erected in the early Gothic style of the early thirteenth century, but they were destroyed by fire in 1719 and what you see today is a painstakingly accurate reconstruction. The fire did not, however, raze the Romanesque transepts, whose heavy hooped windows and dog-tooth decoration were the work of English stonemasons in the twelfth century. English workmen also lent a hand in the thirteenth-century choir, where the arches, flying buttresses and intricate tracery are the epitome of early Gothic – and are reminiscent of contemporaneous churches in England.
Inside the cathedral, the gloomy half-light hides much of the lofty decorative work, but it is possible to examine the strikingly ascetic early twentieth-century choir screen, whose wooden figures are the work of Gustav Vigeland. Vigeland was also responsible for the adjacent soapstone font, a superb piece of medievalism sporting four bas-reliefs depicting Adam and Eve, John the Baptist baptizing the Christ, the Resurrection and a beguiling Noah and the Ark: Noah peers apprehensively out of his boat, not realizing that the dove, with the telltale branch, is up above. The other item of particular interest is a famous fourteenth-century altar frontal (front panel of an altar painting) displayed in a chapel off the ambulatory, directly behind the high altar. At a time when few Norwegians could read or write, the cult of St Olav had to be promoted visually, and the frontal is the earliest surviving representation of Olav’s life and times. In its centre, Olav looks suitably beatific holding his axe and orb; the top left-hand corner shows the dream Olav had before the Battle of Stiklestad, with Jesus dropping a ladder down to him from heaven. In the next panel down, Olav and his men are shown at prayer before the battle and, in the bottom right-hand corner, Olav meets a sticky end, speared and stabbed by three cruel-looking soldiers. The final panel shows church officials exhuming Olav’s uncorrupted body and declaring his sainthood.
What you won’t see now is the object of the medieval pilgrims’ veneration: St Olav’s silver casket-coffin was taken to Denmark and unceremoniously melted down to be made into coins in 1537.
One of the most spectacular Vikings of his time, Olav Tryggvason is surrounded by myth and legend. The most plausible account of his early days has his mother fleeing Norway with her son when he was about three years old, ending up in exile in Sweden and ultimately Russia. Thereafter, Tryggvason cut his Viking spurs in a series of piratical raids, before leading a large fleet in an attack on England in 991. The English bought him off, then again three years later, and the two payments of this “Danegeld” made him extremely rich. Part of the deal for the second payment was that he become a Christian and, against all expectations, the Viking chieftain seems to have taken his new faith seriously. Tryggvason then hot-footed it back to Norway, where he quickly wrested control of most of the country and founded Trondheim in 997. His brutal imposition of Christianity, however, infuriated many of his subjects – the Tronders, in particular, were determined to hang onto their pagan gods and were especially hacked off by Olav’s bloody attempts to force them to be Christians. Few mourned when, after just five years as king, Tryggvason was ambushed and killed.