Burdens…we all carry many with us. What if you could just choose some to leave some behind? That’s what I was thinking about as I slowly and steadily climbed up the Dovre mountain plateau along the Saint Olav Ways Gudbrandsdalen path. And even though I didn’t have a very heavy pack, I always have heavy burdens I seem to carry with me in my mind.
I thought about my rocky relationship, I thought about my next trip with my niece, I thought about my career, I thought about what to write (and wondered if I would ever be strong enough to write it), I thought about happiness, the horrible process of aging, being alone…my mind was full of burdens weighing down my every step. I think the therapeutic part of this idea of the cairn/allemannsrøysa (a rock pile where you leave your burdens behind) was that it forced you really think about your demons – the demons you carry with you. I’ve been carrying these demons for a long time; some are so entrenched that they are a part of who I am. I imagined what it would be like to be free of them…or one of them. It was like a personal therapy session at 3000 feet while huffing and puffing your way up the stark, treeless pass. This is exactly why I think that long distance walks and pilgrimages are sometimes more wellness travel than adventure travel.
However the biggest burden that my mind kept coming back to at that moment was my right pinky toe. It was throbbing that morning when I put in in my boot thanks to a poorly placed blister that had decided to form 2 days earlier. I had popped the blister and drained and dressed it, but my toe was still not happy.
As I scanned the trail looking for the right rock to leave on the cairn at the top of the Dovrefjell pass, I actually entertained the idea of cutting off my pinky toe and leaving that as my ultimate burden on the sacred pile of rocks. However, realizing that would be a very short-term gain in reducing my pain, I instead chose a small, marbled rock and place it on the cairn. I looked around at the barren high altitude landscape, took a deep breath of Norwegian fresh air, and kept walking.
This is just one of the many memorable experiences I had as I did a ‘test-run’ of Norway’s latest tourist offering, the Pilegrimsleden.
The Pilgrim Path – Saint Olav Ways – Pilegrimsleden
The path with many names seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, but whatever you call it, it’s still a very long walk/hike if you decide to do the an entire route. The historic trails that lead into Nidaros (Trondheim) has been used by pilgrims and other travelers since the year 1032. This is a way to walk in the footsteps of those ancient travelers, Scandinavian history, and also take on an immense challenge.
For hundreds of years Christians have been trying to find a way closer to God, and a pilgrimage was one way to do that. This pilgrimage takes you to the burial place of one of Scandinavia’s most beloved Saints – Saint Olav. Originally, by making the pilgrimage to the burial spot, it was said that you gave penance for your sins, and would actually be relieved of them; a big Christian ‘do over’ or second chance. Who wouldn’t want to walk 400 miles to have a do over? Even though the origins of Saint Olav Ways is rooted in Christianity, people walk it for all sorts of reasons. I’ve always been fascinated with pilgrimages for the pure challenge of it and the idea of simplifying and slowing down life for a bit.
Who is Saint Olav?
Born in 995, he started as a Viking, became a king, united Norway, introduced Christianity to the entire country, died in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and then was canonized in 1031 as a saint. He is the most esteemed Nordic Saint throughout the middle ages. He actually ‘earned’ his statehood thanks to the writings of The St. Olav’s Saga, written by the Islandic historian Snorre Sturlasson, who described miracles that occurred at the battle scene where he perished and later around the king’s grave in Trondheim.
“This is as far east as we can come. The end of the pilgrim journey,” said the pilgrim priest who greeted us at the Nidaros Cathedral. We had followed him behind the large Gothic alter to a little enclave where it is said to be the resting place of Saint Olav. We stood there in silence, each in our own thoughts. They’ve never actually found the body and therefore it is not proven that Olav rests in this spot that we were staring at. However, the faith that he is laid to rest there is strong. Regardless 1,000 pilgrims a year come to the Cathedral after walking the pilgrimage to honor his legend as we did.
Saint Olav Ways Routes
There are 7 pilegrimsleden paths that are managed by the National Pilgrim Center in Trondheim. The paths lead through Norway, Sweden, and Denmark with the most popular traveled path being the Gudbrandsdalen path from Oslo to Trondheim; 399 miles and approximately 4 full weeks to complete it. 70% of the pilgrims walk this route. It was the main ‘road’ to Trondheim in the Middle Ages. A number of pilgrim shelters were built along the path in the 1120’s by order of the King Oistein Magnussen in order to encourage pilgrims to do the walk. Today some of those old shelters still stand and you can even sleep in them today! This path also has 6 Pilgrim Centers along the route which not only provide shelter for pilgrims, but also resources.
The other popular path, St. Olav’s Path, starts in Selånger Sweden to Stiklestad in Norway and then Trondheim; 23% of the pilgrims walk this route. This path represents Olav Haraldson’s last journey before the historic battle at Stiklestad in 1030. It is a wee bit shorter at 350 miles, but still a good 3 to 4 weeks to complete the journey.
I was there to get a ‘taste of the Pilegrimselden’ and I did a day section of each of the regions along the Gudbrandsdalen path in order to experience the various landscapes, trail terrain, and lodging resources along the way. And like taking one bite of ice cream, I was hooked immediately and wanted to eat the entire cone and take 4 weeks to walk to Trondheim!
Want more info on the Saint Olav Ways Pilgrimage?
Read my more detailed post about Everything You Need to Know to Walk Norway’s Saint Olav’s Way. You’ll be ready to go in no time!
4 Reasons Why You Should Walk Saint Olav Ways Pilgrimage Route
People walk pilgrimage routes for all kinds of different reasons; religion, looking for change, outdoor adventure, or healing from a personal crisis. And sometimes it’s all of them at once. But after getting a taste of what this Nordic pilgrimage is all about, I offer you some other reasons why you should specifically consider taking on Saint Olav Ways.
1. It’s an Infant
This is the Camino de Santiago of 20 years ago. It’s in its infancy, and that makes it exciting. The businesses/resources along the route itself is not as developed as the Camino de Santiago since it really only started to be in formal existence as a tourism activity since 1998. The path is well marked, and maintained like the Camino, but you will not find businesses that have been created specifically for Saint Olav Ways. Instead you’ll find people who have converted their farm building to accommodate the pilgrims. This pilgrimage is not big business, it is just good rural hospitality. Because of that lack of commercialism, it allows you to really get the most out of this travel experience by traveling slowly and ‘close to the ground’; really getting to know the locals and the culture.
Note: If comparing it to the Camino de Santiago – Saint Olav Ways walk is more of a hike and more challenging than the Camino overall.
2. You (Americans) Will Be In the Minority
You’ll be in the minority, unless you happen to be German! So far the only country that has seemed to discover this beautiful walk has been Germany. 70% of pilgrims are from abroad with Germany topping the list at 32%. The Dutch were next at 9%, Swedish at 4% and the US wasn’t even on the list! There’s a map at the Pilgrim Center in Trondheim that pins where pilgrims are from who have completed the walk or a portion of the walk. I only saw 4 pins in the US so far in the 2018 season! Even though plenty of Americans travel to Norway, no one seems to be making it to the center of the country to hike. Those 4 pins excited me beyond belief! To me travel is about discovering something new, and that’s exactly what this felt like, a secret that American hikers hadn’t discovered yet.
3. Cultural Immersion
You will most definitely see a different side of Norway on this hike. The path is full of interactions with locals who will happily teach you about the history and their culture. In our ‘sampling’ of the trail, we were able to stop and stay at a number of historic farm homes (one dating back to the 1300’s!) that had been updated for pilgrims coming through on the trail. Staying at these farms was a great way to learn about the local culture and rural history. The owners were eager to share their knowledge of the area and learn about you.
Some places, like Pilegrim Farm Budsjord has roots back to the Middle Ages and was in its time a bishop farm under Nidaros. Today, the farm has 17 houses and the owners have spent extensive time and money to develop the old site. Their goal was to rebuild the farm keeping to it’s original heritage and have it serve as a meeting place for travelers and local people – a place for dialogue and contemplation.
In addition to the simple, historic lodging, you were also immersed in the local food. At the Sygard Grytting Farm, they served up a 3-course meal that came soley from their working farm. From fish they caught in their pond to, to lamb they raised, to fresh berry cake. I never felt as if the experiences were manufactured, but it all felt very special and authentic to me, something that is hard to find in travel these days.
4. It’s the Ultimate in Wellness Travel
Who doesn’t want to take a break from everyday life – that’s exactly what this pilgrimage does. Long distance walks like Saint Olav Ways are perfect for breaking down all of the external distractions we have and simply honing our focus into walking, eating, and sleeping…and treating the occasional blisters!
“Modern pilgrimage can also be one of the strongest self transformative and therapeutic processes that we as human beings can use ourselves, without depending on modern professional helpers in psychology or psychiatry.” — lungariuswalk.wordpress.com
These days Forest Bathing seems to be the latest wellness craze. Forest Bathing is just a marketing term that basically means, go take a walk in the woods. It is supposed to have therapeutic benefits. So if a simple walk in the woods has therapeutic benefits, then a 400 miles walk through a country must be uber therapeutic!
When I walk, I slow down and have time to think, to mull things over, make decisions, connect the dots…all while making it to my next bed for the night. I think the need to step away into the outdoors for a week or 4 is essential to our well being.
So many people who go to Norway just stick to traveling the popular Fjords, and that leaves the middle of the country rather unexplored by tourists. Of course, this is why I loved my short time on Saint Olav Ways so much; it’s undiscovered by tourists as of now. And what that means is that you get these beautiful, authentic experiences with locals, as well as some much needed alone time to absorb your surroundings that will make you fall in love with the country.
I didn’t leave my severed pinky toe on the pile of rocks on the Dovre pass, instead I left my little rock, and with it I left a few of those burdens behind feeling lighter than ever as I made my way down the mountain to our next stop. This little ‘sampling’ of Saint Olav Ways was all I needed; I will be back to conquer the entire thing. After all, I have more burdens to leave on that mountain.
How you can plan your Saint Olav Ways Walk
You don’t have to do the entire thing at once, you can slice it and dice it however you’d like. In fact the Pilegrimsleden site has a number of shorter 3 and 5 day itineraries that are perfect way to get started on the trail!
Resources in English
Pilegrimsleden Website – the website has information on how to plan your trip from where to stay to downloadable maps. It’s run by the people who manage the trail, so it’s thorough and has tons of information.
There are few guide books in English, but this is one that was recommended:
This is a guide to the 643km Pilegrimsleden from Oslo to Nidaros/Trondheim. The book is primarily aimed at the “long-haul” pilgrim, who walks in a single journey, alone or with few companions. The guide provides step-by-step walking instructions, runs from one place to the next, beginning with the distance from the previous one, its height and population where known, a list of the facilities available and then the history and places of interest where relevant. Buy on Amazon.
I was a guest of Visit Norway for this hike, however all opinions expressed here are my own.
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