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A newly developed app aims to provide pilgrims with a more personalised experience
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make use of Europe’s many pilgrimage walks every year. However, the pilgrims tend to visit only a few of the attractions along the routes.
Every year, over 400,000 pilgrims from all over the world set out on a journey towards one of Europe’s most famous pilgrimage destinations, Santiago de Compostela. Along the way, they leave behind more than 300 million euros worth of consumer spending.
A less gratifying reality lies behind these impressive numbers, however.
“Some accommodations or cultural heritage sites in the immediate vicinity of a pilgrimage route might be visited by thousands of people every year, whereas a few hundred metres away, just as fine a destination could be on the verge of bankruptcy,” Ole Edward Wattne says.
He is an assistant professor at NTNU’s Department of Design in Gjøvik.
This skewed distribution, which is typical for several of Europe’s many pilgrimage routes, is just one of the challenges that the EU project rurAllure aims to tackle. Earlier this year, the project was also highlighted by the World Tourism Organization for its efforts to create a more sustainable and universally accessible tourism model.
“Good signage and trail marking – both physical and digital – help to promote the route for all users. In the rurAllure project, we build and share knowledge about labelling, accessibility, and universal design among the European participants,” Wattne says.
Religious tradition in secular garb
Historically, people embarked on pilgrimages for mainly religious reasons. In Norway, the tradition has been closely linked to the Catholic faith. When the Lutheran Reformation took place in the middle of the 16th century, the activity almost died out.
But in the 1990s, almost 450 years later, the practice of pilgrimage experienced a new renaissance in Norway. Nidaros (today’s Trondheim) was re-established as a pilgrimage destination. Today, there are several thousand people who use the various routes to reach it.
Many people still go on a pilgrimage for religious reasons, but a number of other reasons also inspire people to walk a pilgrimage route.
“Some people see it as a personal challenge. Some people might be most interested in nature experiences along the way, and others primarily think of it as an environmentally conscious alternative to taking their holidays abroad,” Wattne says.
Much more than just an interactive trail guide
It is not a given that everyone will be interested in visiting the same cultural heritage sites and attractions along a route.
One of the main goals of rurAllure is therefore to give pilgrims the opportunity to tailor their own journey to the greatest extent possible.
To this end, rurAllure is collecting relevant information for pilgrims within a radius of 25 kilometres from the trails in an open database.
This resource contains practical information about cultural heritage sites and other attractions. The database will also contain large amounts of local historical knowledge, obtained and organised specifically for the project.
The extensive collection work is already well underway and includes a mobile app.
“With the new app, you can see where you are along the path at any given time,” Wattne says.
Along the way, information about cultural heritage sites and other relevant points of interest appear on the screen.
The app might sound confusingly similar to Google Maps. However, the rurAllure pilgrims’ portal offers a number of functions specially developed for walkers to customise their own pilgrimage experience, developed in collaboration with the Spanish technology company GVAM.
Tailored stories delivered straight to your ears
“Every pilgrimage destination will have stories adapted to the natural and cultural-historical conditions along the trail,” Wattne says.
The stories are presented as soundwalks in the form of audio recordings that automatically play as you approach a certain location. This allows pilgrims to 'read' and become acquainted with the physical landscape. The stories might also open up opportunities for deeper interpretations.
Pilgrims interested in Christian cultural heritage and medieval archaeology, for example, will be able to choose soundwalk stories that not only take them through all of Gudbrandsdalsleden’s well-preserved medieval churches, but also connect them together in thematically coherent narratives.
“On the other hand, if you have more secular interests, the rich distillery history along lake Mjøsa’s banks might tempt you more,” Wattne says.
This feature facilitates a more personalised experience. These stories also bring unique learning opportunities that a pilgrimage offers.
“Pilgrimages usually take place over several days, or even weeks and months. This opens up completely different opportunities for immersion than a traditional museum visit,” Wattne says.
No desire to commercialise routes
The technology is set up so that service providers along the trails can create their own accounts and maintain the content themselves. Although dining and accommodations can be found on the rurAllure app, Wattne makes clear that this is not where the focus of the project lies.
“The project has no desire to commercialise the pilgrimage routes. It is about making them accessible and attractive to more people through a focus on cultural heritage and universal design,” the NTNU researcher says.
The National Pilgrim Centre is a key partner for rurAllure in Norway. Senior adviser Mattias Jonsson explains that the Centre joined the project to learn more about how the academic world works and to get to know other cultural institutions along the pilgrimage route better. He says the collaboration has already borne fruit.
“We’ve learned a lot about good working methods and practical devices from our partners in rurAllure,” Jonsson says.
He can confirm that pilgrimages are by no means a thing of the past.
“Their scope is extensive, and we’re seeing a big increase in pilgrim traffic."
Estefanía López Salas. A collection of narrative practices on cultural heritage with innovative technologies and creative strategies, Open Research Europe, 2021.
The name rurAllure plays on the words ‘rural’ and ‘allure.’
As of today, the project has four pilot projects underway with the following pilgrimage destinations. Each pilot has a separate area of focus adapted to the natural and cultural historical conditions along the trails associated with it.
- Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Focus: Spain's rich literary heritage
- Rome, Italy. Focus: The many historically important heat sources along the trails
- Csiksomlyó, Romania. Focus: Romania's natural heritage attractions and the spaces for reflection they open up for pilgrims
- Trondheim, Norway. Focus: Ethnological descriptions of the local population's life and artefacts through the ages
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