We delve into its past, present, and future to see why hundreds of thousands of people flock to visit it every year. 

Tourism city 

To most Norwegians, the mention of the city Lillehammer means one thing: the 1994 Winter Olympics, billed as one of the best. Here, the charm and beauty of a Norwegian winter were beamed to billions across the globe. 

More recently, it has also been the location for a crime-comedy drama featuring a New York mafia gangster hiding out in this bucolic slice of Norway. 

Yet, tourism is nothing new to this city. In fact, tourists have been flocking to this part of Norway since at least the early 20th century thanks to a peculiar cultural attraction: Maihaugen

Back in 1901, a local dentist named Anders Sandvig decided to preserve a sample of rural Norwegian life that was quickly disappearing. 

Starting with the collection of a few small houses and buildings, his passion project soon grew into Maihaugen, a major cultural and ethnographical museum that is now one of the largest cultural institutions in Europe. 

Through architecture, the museum tells the story of how Norwegians have lived in this region since the medieval period. 

What had started on his farm with a mere collection of buildings had, by 1904, led the local council to dedicate a vast swathe of land for him to house his architectural and ethnographical collection, including a recently purchased stave church. 

Nowadays, thousands of people flock to see the gem in Maihaugen's collection, the Garmo stave church. 

The Garmo Stave Church, purchased by dentist Anders Sandvig in 1888, was moved and restored in Lillehammer. Photo: RPBaiao / Shutterstock

The dentist and a holy purchase 

Now, the thought of an early 20th-century dentist purchasing a stave church sounds a bit odd. I mean, I don't know about you, but the prices that dentists charge nowadays are fairly astronomical. Yet, I have never visited one who owns a church. 

However, like most stave churches in the late 19th century, the one originally in the village of Garmo was in a state of ruin and degradation. 

The village was shrinking due to both migration to the industrializing Norwegian cities and emigration to places like the United States in search of better economic opportunities. The Garmo stave church was in dire need of repair and a new lease on life. 

Church authorities decided to sell it to Anders Sandvig back in 1888, and by the time he had secured land for his passion project, it was to take pride of place. 

The church was meticulously disassembled and shipped to Sandvig, who then oversaw its reconstruction. 

The Garmo Stave Church features a mix of Christian and Old Norse iconography, including well-preserved dragon heads. Photo: RPBaiao / Shutterstock

Synthesis of old and new beliefs 

Taking pride of place in Maihaugen is just the latest chapter in the life of the Garmo Stave Church. Before it was purchased by Lillehammer's most famous dentist, it served for centuries as a local parish church. 

As with most stave churches, we do not know exactly when it was constructed, but modern historians believe it was sometime around the mid-12th century in Lom, more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) further north. 

According to legend, the stave church was constructed on the exact site of a former church commissioned by a local Viking chieftain. 

Frustratingly, we do not know who this chieftain was, but it speaks of how Christianity was spread throughout Scandinavia in the early medieval period, often by winning over political and ruling elites. 

As Elena Melnikova details in her 2011 book, How Christian Were Viking Christians?, despite Christianity having, by the mid-12th century, secured a grip on hearts and minds throughout the medieval Norwegian kingdom, there was still a strong cultural association with the old pagan (Old Norse) religion

Like other stave churches, the Garmo Stave Church represents this synthesis of spiritual beliefs. 

Carved throughout the church is a mixture of Christian and Old Norse iconography and symbolism, exemplified by some of the best-carved dragon heads still intact in a stave church. This was very much a nod back to the Viking past of the church community. 

The church's inventory mainly dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Apart from the claystone baptismal font from the 1100s, all furnishings in the Garmo Stave Church originate from other churches. Photo: MichaelMaggs (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Centuries of restoration and repair 

The church's modern reconstruction was not the first time it had been worked on. 

According to Kristen Bakken, in her 2016 book Preserving the Stave Churches: Craftsmanship and Research, after centuries of wear and tear from countless communal celebrations and occasions, the local parish church in Garmo was in dire need of repair by the late 17th century. 

Given the unique structural design of stave churches – built using timber with vertical wooden boards (staves) as walls featuring intricate joinery – much of the church was repaired and reconstructed from 1690 onwards. 

In fact, the only remaining original relic from its initial construction is a late 12th-century baptismal font. 

However, this does nothing to diminish the significance of a church that has been the center of worship and divine (and now secular) inspiration since the medieval period. 

What about the faithful in Garmo now? 

With the Garmo Stave Church now taking pride of place in Maihaugen, has there been a spiritual hole in the village of Garmo for over a century? 

Even before the sale of the stave church to Mr. Sandvig, church authorities had recognized the need for a new church. The current parish church, completed in 1879, can house about 150 worshippers. 

Whilst it lacks the medieval majesty of its stave counterpart, it is still a charming little 19th-century church. However, it has large shoes to fill if it is to live up to the longevity of its stave predecessor. 

So, should you find yourself in one of Norway's most visited cities, make a beeline for Maihaugen and be sure to visit the Garmo Stave Church, proving that when it comes to Norwegian architecture, Mr. Anders Sandvig had it nailed. 

For more information on why Lillehammer should be the focus of any trip to Norway, visit The Telegraph here

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