Whether you are looking for an inner or an outer journey which offers you peace of mind, tranquility and a sense of being one with yourself and nature, look no further. St. Olavsleden, the northernmost pilgrim trail in the world, might very well be what you are looking for.
Become a modern pilgrim
In Saint Olav’s footsteps
On the left, a wave of sunlight glosses on the dark green ferns and thick mosses, while the sound of a young stream, full of frothy bubbles, tingles in my ears. On the right fine reed and tiny yet colourful flowers pop up from the wetlands. Not far away in the distance, the last patch of snow is clinging on to the hilly mountains that separate Norway from Sweden. The air is clean, and my mood is tranquil. No signs of civilisation here. Nature unsullied.
The view must have been the same for Viking king Olav II Haraldsson in the year 1030 when he was marching through Sweden to his final battle in Stiklestad, just over the border in Norway. He fought to regain his crown, and died trying. But his death on the battlefield and the alleged miracles that occurred with his body gave him something better than land; it led him to sainthood.
From the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean
The path Saint Olav took through Sweden and Norway would from that moment on be known as St. Olav’s Path or St. Olavsleden. It is the northernmost pilgrim trail in the world and approximately 580 kilometres long, extending from the Baltic Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, from Selånger in Sweden to Trondheim in Norway where St. Olav is buried in the Nidaros Cathedral. St. Olavsleden is the Scandinavian equivalent to the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the famous pilgrim route to Spain.
With the decline of religion, the pilgrim trail almost faded into obscurity. But in 2012 all the Swedish and Norwegian regions, through which the trail runs, joint forces and put new energy into this ancient pilgrim’s route.
“Olav landed in 1030 on this spot. The landscape has changed a bit, the main harbour, at the time, was right here. This is where St. Olavsleden starts”
“This is where Olav landed in 1030,” says Putte Eby, our guide and the man who was one of the deciding forces behind the resurrection and redevelopment of St. Olavsleden. We are in Selånger, on the east coast of Sweden, and are looking at the ruins of Selånger church which was built in the 12th century to honour. No sea in sight. Putte looks at my puzzled face and smiles. “The landscape has changed a bit,” he says. “The sea came to where we are standing. The main harbour, at the time, was right here. This is where St. Olavsleden starts.”
Inhale the very essence of these parts of Sweden and Norway.
There are multiple reasons to walk this northernmost pilgrim trail. I find that walking or biking is the best way to experience this part of the world. It allows me to slowly inhale the very essence of these parts of Sweden and Norway. My journey over the well-marked trail takes me partly over the main road but also through vast forests, over mountains, through pastures speckled with red, wooden barns which are typical to Sweden, along glimmering lakes and past historic sites like the Old Church of Åre. And since my feet can only carry me with a certain speed, I have plenty of time to take it all in. Not that I am walking the entire trail. It would take me about a month. As many pilgrims do, I walk parts of the trail instead of the whole thing. It’s a time thing. I decided to walk the first stretch from Selånger to Borgsjö and the stage from Åre to Stiklestad.
For many pilgrims, the scenery is an add-on, wandering along the trail is an inner journey
For many pilgrims, the scenery is an add-on, but their primary reason is slightly different. For many, wandering along the path is also an inner journey. Along the first stage of the trail, we find Hedwig Schetske, from Zaventem in Belgium. She is sitting against her backpack under a tree, enjoying a sandwich barefoot. Her walking shoes are standing in front of her. “I am on an 18-day hike along the path,” she says. “This journey offers me a sense of calmness and time for reflection. It disconnects me from the stresses of everyday life for a while, and it allows me to think, experience a real sense of presence in nature. It evokes inner peace within me.” For others, as in the old days, the pilgrimage is a spiritual and religious experience. I also sense that my mind is slowing down, step by step the hustle and bustle of everyday life are moving to the background while the sights and the smells of the Swedish country sight are taking over.
Stiklestad is the battlefield where King Olav Haraldsson fell on July 29th, 1030
A very important place along the St. Olavsleden is the town of Stiklestad. It was here, at Stiklestad, that the Viking king Olav Haraldsson fell in a battle against the peasants and minor kings on July 29th, 1030. Shortly after his death, he was canonised and became St. Olav.
Every year Stiklestad Summer is held at this very location. You can be a Viking for a day and sleep in Stiklastadir, a traditional Viking longhouse. You can experience what life was like in Viking age by participating in their daily activities. You can learn to light a fire using flint and steel, shoot arrows from a bow and sew your very own leather money pouch.
Stiklestad Summer is held every summer and the dates for 2020 are June 20th to August 9th
It is said that Saint Olav’s horses were very thirsty once, but there was no water. As a superhero before the term existed, he punched a stone with his sword and voila a well was created. I find this well, which still exists, at the foot of Bergåsen in Borgsjö. The water tastes pure and delicious.
In the old days, pilgrimage was sometimes the only way to travel
In the old days, the pilgrimage was sometimes the only way to travel. Since travel was forbidden for ordinary folks, a letter from the church explaining that one was on a pilgrimage, gave freedom to roam. In other cases, walking the trail was penance for sins committed. Along the trail, one had to get stamps at different places to prove that the whole thing had been walked. There were actually professional pilgrims who’d walk the path for wealthy people who did not want to do penance themselves. I am also collecting collect stamps along the trail, constantly on the look-out for little wooden boxes containing different stamps. I know that if I have enough stamps, I’ll get a certificate at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. I love certificates.
No time to walk or bike? Take a bilgrimage! Bil is the Swedish word for car. So, a bilgrimage is what the Swedes call it when you drive the route. You will not be able to drive the entire trail, but you may drive a fair chunk of the way.
Get your very own Olav letter at by the pilgrim priest of Nidaros Cathedral
The Olav Letter is a confirmation and that you have walked the last stage, minimum 100 kilometres, of any of the St. Olav Ways into Trondheim or biked the last 200 kilometres. The only place the Olav Letter is issued is the Nidaros Pilgrim Center, which is located right by the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. You need to present the pilgrim passport in person to the pilgrim priest. with stamps as documentation in order to receive the Olav Letter.
Recommended walks for qualifying for the Olav Letter are Berkåk to Trondheim on Gudbrandsdalsleden, Stiklestad to Trondheim on St. Olavsleden or Tynset to Trondheim on Østerdalsleden.
If you want to qualify for the Olav Letter by bicycle we recommend that you take the trip from Åre, Sweden to Trondheim on St. Olavsleden.
The path of Olav has given me peace of mind
Besides me, around 700 pilgrims walk or bike St. Olavsleden per year and the numbers are increasing. Many people who live along the trail give support. Sigrid and Tommy Nordwall, for instance. Tommy (72) is a retired army lieutenant. I walk past his porch, from which a wide variety of flags are waving in the summer breeze. He offers me coffee. What’s with the flags, I ask? “From other people who live along on the trail, I hear which nationality the pilgrims coming our way have,” Tommy says. “I then put out their flag to welcome them. So far, we have had over forty nationalities passing by. Even from countries like Nepal and Namibia.”
“I hear which nationality the pilgrims coming our way have, then I put out their flag to welcome them”
I am descending a well-maintained gravel road into Norway. The mountain road between Skalstugan in Sweden and Sul in Norway knows a great variety of landscapes. From birch forests at Skalstugan, via barren mountain views to the conifers and moss cladded forests of Sul, where I find another miraculous well which is said to have been created by Olav. The man knew how to drew water from the earth. And again, a great drink. The path of Olav has given me peace of mind and has deleted all my daily life stress. St. Olavsleden offers just that and more: an experience of a lifetime.