To be a pilgrim! Exploring Norway’s St Olav Ways

The pilgrim path in Stange. Picture: www.stolavways.com
The pilgrim path in Stange. Picture: www.stolavways.com

“Only six people from Britain have travelled through this year,” Stig Grytting informs me as I gorge on a divinely succulent and gargantuan serving of lambs legs selected from his own animal stock at the 700-year-old medieval farm hotel he runs with his family in Eastern Norway.

Disbelief and apologies on behalf of my nation are quickly offered as I search for a satisfactory explanation why many more Brits seem to be enjoying this part of Scandinavia from the window of a cruise liner when there’s a deep, rich and authentic history to be embraced inland.

The pilgrims trail runs through the Dovre mountains

The pilgrims trail runs through the Dovre mountains

I’ve earned my meal after a day trekking along the St Olav Ways - a pilgrimage route to the Nidaros Cathedral inTrondheim, Norway, the site of the tomb of St. Olav - a viking king canonised for bringing Christianity to the country.

Snaking along the spine of Norway through beautiful wilderness, agricultural landscapes and historical places which have been used since 1032 the pilgrimage is gaining renewed popularity internationally - numbers of walkers along the trails have been increasing by around 20% - 30% annually.

At Stig’s place weary travellers can stay in an original medieval hostel at a traditional Gudbrandsdal-farm with 20 log buildings steeped in history. Stig and his wife Hilde are the 16th generation owners.

Guests use their own sleeping bags on beds covered with fur rugs, light the open fire and sleep in fold-down beds.

John and Karon Wanvik, owners of Sundet Farm, which is located on the pilgrim path and offers accommodation and food for pilgrims and others.

John and Karon Wanvik, owners of Sundet Farm, which is located on the pilgrim path and offers accommodation and food for pilgrims and others.

Restoration work here has inspired others along the trail to restore pilgrim hostels to their former simple majesty - adding to a growing network of authentic accommodation en-route.

Our souls had also been fed before arrival at Stig’s with a visit to Hamardomen - a modern glass cathedral built over ruins dating from the 1100s - where our singing guide Mari Sjølie enthralled us into silence with an angelic rendition of a Gregorian chant. Tentative applause echoed around the church’s perfect acoustics as we try not to shatter the reverence.

Ringebu stave church - where fascinating depictions of Norse gods such as Thor and Odin can still be seen- is another highlight of our day’s trek. Built around 1220 it is one of just 28 of its kind that remain.

It’s time to get serious about our walking - although not of the Nordic kind - and really get a sense of the arduous journey pilgrims had to endure to reach their goal - the tomb of St Olav in Trondheim Cathedral.

Ringebu stave church

Ringebu stave church

Taking on a five hour hike through the Dovre mountains, where wild Fennoscandian reindeer are reputed to roam, the rocky inclines soon begin to test my mettle but the snowy peaks and stunning vistas as we ascend are worth the pain.

Waymarkers bearing the pilgrim logo are dotted along the entirety of the path and we pass (mostly German) pilgrims who are wild camping and stay in pilgrims hostels and hotels.

At around 1,300 metres above sea level the pure eviscerating Nordic air lifts my spirits and eases aches and pains while the epic landscape prompts imaginings of Tolkien.

A further ride in our group minibus (we are merely tackling 60km of the best bits of the 643km trail from Oslo to Trondheim) brings us to Sundet Gard where hosts John and Karon Wanvik have taken up the old tradition of ferrying pilgrims across the river Gaula to their accommodation - a storehouse from the 1700s.

We are served hearty traditional pilgrims soup (Trønder sodd) and watch the sunset after midnight from the banks of the river.

Our final day is a 21km trek over “Norweigan flat”, which is what our small but mischievous group had coined the peaks and troughs of the bumpy route.

Through woodland and after refreshing our water bottles from streams we enter the coastal city of Trondheim - making our way in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims before us to Nidaros Cathedral.

Pilgrims worship here at the tomb of patron saint St Olav where a miracle water spring was once thought to have healing properties. Built from 1070 to 1300 it’s imposing and impressive architecture gives a sense of completion to the journey.

Easing my pin into a world map in the pilgrims visitor centre - I’m only the second person from the UK to do so - I’m feeling Indiana Jones-esque. But this won’t be the last time I explore this wonderful country.

Andrew Wakefield travelled to Norway courtesy of Visit Norway (visitnorway.com) and the St.Olav Ways (http://pilegrimsleden.no/en/)

The eventual goal for pilgrims is Nifdaros Cathedral. Picture: Henning Gr�tt.

The eventual goal for pilgrims is Nifdaros Cathedral. Picture: Henning Gr�tt.