Ten years later...
in 2014, I recently completed the eastern segment of the St. Olav's
Trail from Selanger, Sweden to Trondheim, Norway. It was an
Explorers Club Flag Expedition with Anders Stävhag--and a totally
different experience. Enjoy my radio interview with Cindy Paulos at
KAOI-FM as we chat about that memorable pilgrim's adventure.
Perhaps a book will follow. Stay tuned. Click below to
Brandon Wilson Interview, KAOI with Cindy Paulos
Trekking the Trail of Norse Kings
by Brandon Wilson, © 2004, all rights reserved
Surprising, yes? But that incident was typical of the adventure and super-natural surprises I discovered on my recent 400-mile (643-kilometer) trek along the St. Olav's Way in Norway. Stretching from Oslo, Norway's capital, to Trondheim nearly on its northwestern shore, St. Olav's Way offers an intriguing way to discover this country of natural superlatives.
Originating back in 1031 AD, the trail traces the early Norse pilgrims route as they traveled to Nidaros to pay homage and pray for miracles at the grave of King Olav, who is credited with spreading Christianity in the country. For which, he was granted sainthood.
Today this trail, or pilgrimsleden as it is called, is being re-discovered by modern Norwegians, adventurous world trekkers, pilgrims, and those simply seeking solitude and peaceful contemplation. St. Olav's Way is quite different from the Camino de Santiago, that classic pilgrimage trail across northern Spain. For all the culture that the Camino offers, it can be difficult to find privacy because of its well-deserved popularity. The Via Francigena, another premier route from Canterbury to Rome, offers an incomparable taste of Italy, Switzerland and eastern France. However, many travelers would be relieved to get off those small country roads and into the countryside.
Although there's no need to be in marathon condition, you should be in fairly good shape, as this trail is strenuous at times. Of course, you're free to set your own pace, stopping to gasp deep lungs-full of crisp Nordic air whenever you want. It's enough to clear any head. Pollution is refreshingly rare here and environmental consciousness is a cornerstone of the national character. Each day, traveling with only a light backpack (no more than 25 pounds is necessary), many can easily walk 10-15 miles. Although with the longer summer days and more light, you could easily trek until nearly 10pm at night–if your body is willing to cooperate.
The terrain varies. For several days, beginning not far outside Oslo, you trace the edge of crystalline Lake Mjøsa, Norway's largest. After passing Lillehammer, site of the 1994 winter Olympics, you spend several days in picturesque Gudbrandsdal Valley, the setting for the famous literary trilogy about Kristen Lavransdatter and her family. Written by Sigrid Unset, Norway's Nobel-prize winning author, it provides a revealing glimpse of 14th century life when pilgrimage was popular and the hardships were more severe than today.
Leaving Sel, the trail continues to wend through fields of wheat, barley and rye, down ancient King's trails, through primeval pine forests dotted with wild mushrooms, and past holy healing wells. This is still the enchanted homeland of Peer Gynt. Up and down–and up again–you climb to mountaintops offering eagle-view panoramas. All the while you're surrounded by an abundance of wildlife, from the tiniest tundra wildflower, to wild raspberries the size of California strawberries, to wayward sheep and elusive deer, elk–and yes, even moose.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of this journey occurs after a cozy night's stay at Budsjord, a recreation of the 14th century bishop's farm. The Dovre plateau, or Dovrefjell, at nearly 3280-feet (1000-meters), stands in stark contrast to the bucolic valley below. Suddenly you're walking in another world, across a tundra-like landscape, vibrant with minute, delicate wildflowers, spongy lichen and the occasional musk ox.
When I began the trail in early August, I was surprised to have three blistering days of nearly 90ºF (30º+C). This is rare in Norway, with a latitude similar to Alaska. Then two weeks later, on Dovrefjell, I was face-to-face with sleet and near-freezing winds. Snow already blanketed the surrounding cratered mountaintops and it felt like winter-- in August. Yet that is one of the beauties and challenges of this trek. You need to be prepared for almost anything--and improvisation is key to having a good time. Why? Much of this experience is slightly unpredictable.
If the trail maddeningly disappears (as it often does) because the path is overgrown or a snowplow has knocked over the signpost, you either do a little orienteering and create your own way across fields, thickets, bog or over fences–or simply find a local to set you on the right path. Thankfully, most speak very good English.
Although August is the end of their season, folks were accommodating, and some even willing to negotiate their price. Between very affordable camping cabins (averaging $25), more luxurious bed and breakfasts, some of the finest youth hostels you'll find anywhere, and stays in historic sites, farms or in free, rustic pilgrim's huts, you'll be covered. Just phone ahead at least a day in advance for reservations.
As I arrived, weary after 25 days on the trail, an organ recital was held under the gaze of its 10,000-piece stained-glass rose window. However I was anxious to duck out of the rain, so I headed over to the pilgrim's office nearby where they presented me with a certificate for completing the journey. Then the Archbishop, eager to hear about my experiences, personally led me to their pilgrim's room for complimentary stew, hot coffee and a pastry. Although it was just what I needed on a chilly, wet Norwegian day, nothing was quite as satisfying as traveling this way, one-step-at-atime.
It makes all the difference. You slow down and live all the nuances that you would otherwise miss along the way. Plus, I like to think of walking as a "trampoline for the mind." After you place your body on "auto-pilot," your mind and soul are free to set off on travels of their own. You travel without–while traveling within. And, to me, that seems like one unbeatable companion fare.
When to go:
May-August is the optimum trekking season, otherwise plan on snow, rain and shorter days. A popular time to walk the trail is late July when many arrive in Trondheim for "Olav Wake" and the cultural festivities that continue for a week afterward. For details visit: http://www.nidarosdomen.no/english
How to get there:
There are many flights from the US and Canada to London or Amsterdam, your easiest gateway cities. From London, you can catch a budget flight to Oslo on Norwegian Airlines or Ryan Air, or KLM from there or Amsterdam. Trains and buses leave frequently from Trondheim to Oslo for your return.
How long does it take:
23-30 days to trek it in one stretch. Or take as long as you wish
How much to budget:
Norway has one of the world's highest standards of living. At bare minimum, budget $60 US a day. It may be less if you carry your own tent. You can camp anywhere outside city limits as long as you're at least 492 feet (150 meters) from a house, fence, or boundary and stay no more than two nights. But this will limit your chance of meeting locals.
For further information:
Pilgrim Road to Nidaros by Alison Raju, 2001, Cicerone Press, England
Pilegrimsleden Gjennom Eidsvoll by Tron Hummelvoll, 2003, and Pilegrimsleden Gjennom Stange og Hamar by Tron Hummelvoll, 2004
are helpful 4-color guides in Norwegian for two sections of the trail with brief English summaries
Overnattingsguiden is an indispensable lodging guide; all available from the Pilgrim's Office in Oslo
Confraternity of St. James (Pilgrim's Office), Kirkegaten 34A, 0190
Oslo phone: 22.33.03.11; email: [email protected];
the author: Brandon Wilson is a Lowell Thomas Award-winning
has walked ten long distance paths, including the Camino de Santiago (twice), the Via de
la Plata, the Via Francigena from England to Rome, and the St. Olav's Way across
Norway. In 1992, he and his wife Cheryl became the first Western couple to hike an
ancient pilgrimage trail 650-miles across Tibet, as chronicled in his IPPY award-winning
book, Yak Butter Blues. In 2006, he and a friend founded a pilgrim’s path following the
route of the First Crusades from France to Jerusalem, naming it the Templar Trail. Their
adventure is told in Brandon's book, Along the Templar Trail, named 2009 Best Travel
Book by the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers. His other books include:
Dead Men Don't Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa and Over the Top & Back Again:
Hiking X the Alps. They are available from Amazon.com or from your favorite
bookstore. Visit http://www.pilgrimstales.com for a preview and more.