'Think like a vagabond': Tales from the world's northernmost pilgrimage

Andrew Peacock
Andrew Peacock - [email protected]
'Think like a vagabond': Tales from the world's northernmost pilgrimage
Lake Stöde, Stödesjön. Photo: Svante Harström, St. Olavsleden photo bank

Stretching from the Swedish to the Norwegian coast, St Olavsleden is a hiking route and pilgrimage following in the footsteps of a Norwegian king. The Local spoke to some of those who have made the journey who told us what it meant to them, and shared their tips for anyone hoping to embark on the trail.


At 580 kilometres long, St Olavsleden is no easy feat, but the route offers a chance to connect with antiquity and find peace off the beaten track. Passing through forests, lakes and mountains and taking in countless historic sights, travelers experience Swedish and Norwegian beauty along the route.

So what's the story behind the world's northernmost pilgrimage?

The trail takes its name from Olav Haraldsson, a king and saint born over a millennium ago in 995 CE. He hailed from Ringerike, not far from present day Oslo, the son of a Viking king with a strong claim to the Norwegian throne.

Olav's first Viking voyage was at age 12, and he soon became a chief, living at sea. As he voyaged, he converted to Christianity and when he was declared king - the first to rule over all of Norway - he introduced the theology, which became fully adopted seven years later.

St Olav detail from Trondheim Cathedral. Photo: Brandon Wilson

Olav faced fierce resistance and was forced to flee eastward in 1028, but two years later, the legend goes that he was told in a dream to take back his country. He began his journey at Selånger on Sweden's eastern coast, traveling on to Stiklestad in western Norway. There, he was killed in one of the most famous battles in Norwegian history, and his body was transported on to Trondheim to be buried.

This route has become the present-day St Olavsleden.

Throughout the 11th to 16th centuries, Christian pilgrims traveled the path of St Olav to pay homage to him, traversing tundras, valleys, and Bronze Age settlements. But Sweden's king banned pilgrimage in the mid-16th century, with Norway introducing its own ban some decades later, and so the path fell into disuse. 
It wasn't until 1997 that Norway began to restore the route as part of an effort to reclaim their history. Sweden followed suit and the entire path was officially reopened in September 2013.

Ljungan River, Ljungan, and church in Stöde. Photo: Svante Harström, St Olavsleden photo bank

Today, the journey continues to be a source of enlightenment for the pilgrims who undertake it, with many spreading the word of St Olavsleden to share the passion and ideas they find along the trail.

The Local spoke to some of those who have taken on the challenge, to find out what they gained from the experience and what others should know or expect before embarking on the trip.

Sweden/Norway border. Photo: Brandon Wilson

"Don't worry. Think like a vagabond."

Putte Eby, a Swedish Project Manager who helped reopen St Olavsleden in 2013, says visitors have varied reasons for embarking on the trail.

"Some come for a change in their life, because they have a sickness, like cancer, or just to find time to think," he tells The Local. While they start on the walk for many reasons, he says people often form bonds with others taking the same path.

Eby also emphasizes the safety of the path and wide availability of accommodation, with over 130 places of refuge along the way, making it a good choice even for inexperienced hikers. "The worst thing that could happen is you have to sleep somewhere odd one night, but that's the kind of story you could tell your friends one time," he says.

For newcomers to the trail, he advises preparing for the trip by checking maps and guidebooks.

But ultimately, Eby says the key to the experience was: "Don't worry. Think like a vagabond."

A Hostel near Norway. Photo: Håkan Wike, St Olavsleden photo bank

"The best of both worlds: The exotic and the familiar!"

"Come to the Olavsleden ready to appreciate the differences," says Roland Nock, who walked the trail in May 2016. 

Nock had completed several other pilgrimages previously, including the Spanish Caminos, but was attracted to the Scandinavian walk because he liked the idea of traveling coast to coast, from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

What surprised him about St Olavsleden was how much English was spoken in both countries.

"It made the journey much easier practically and also gave a great sense of comfort and security. The best of both worlds: The exotic and familiar!" he explains.

He encountered only three other pilgrims in 17 days on the trail, and adds: "The impression that comes first to the mind as I remember the walk is solitude".

Wooden church in Hålland close to Åre. Photo: unknown, St. Olavsleden photo bank

"Of course you will have fear, but that is part of the journey." 
Spanish artist Juanma González chose to walk the trail as he was intrigued by the discovery of a religious path in secular Scandinavia.

"When I found Olav's Way here in Sweden, for me it was the most agnostic countries in the world, why?" He recalls. 

It's an intriguing question, but González believes he may have found the answer.

"It's more a personal journey. You not only walk the landscape, you walk inside of you," he says. As for his tips for other would-be pilgrims, the Spaniard advises: "Be open. Of course, you will have fear, but that's part of the journey."


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