After walking the Camino de Santiago in the second half of 2014, we were very thankful that we had been able to complete this epic walk and didn’t really think about the possibility of repeating a similar experience. It had been wonderful and we treasured the memories but somehow there was always the lingering longing for the feeling of freedom and the dependence on one another we had experienced on the Camino. As it happened we read about the pilgrimage on the St. Olav’s Way in Norway in a local newspaper. We simply took note and didn’t really think much about it. But somehow a seed must have been planted and we started reading about the St. Olav’s way. When a seedling is being nourished, it starts to germinate and the little seedling began to grow. Hans-Werner consequently spent hours on the internet researching this walk from Sundsvall on the east coast of Sweden to Trondheim on the west coast of Norway.
Whereas the Camino in Spain is visited by thousands of pilgrims annually, the route through Sweden and Norway is the quiet opposite, or the Scandinavian answer, to the Camino. The route through Sweden and Norway provides ample time for reflection in beautiful landscapes. Hans-Werner and I were attracted by just this promise of quietness and beautiful new landscapes.
After a long train journey from Frankfurt to the north of Sweden we arrived in Sundsvall late on Sunday, 21 May. My thorough husband, who had done his homework well, had a hotel room booked for us and with the code ready, we gained entrance to the building and dropped in our beds, excited about the prospect of starting a new adventure the following day. We realised (theoretically) that this route would be very different to the Camino. How different we would find out in the next weeks!
The route is very clearly marked with the characteristic Olav’s crosses which determined our direction for the following thirty days. While the route had virtually fallen in disuse over the centuries, the developers still managed to create a route that at many sections can be verified historically. It is interesting, however, that the water wells that Olav and his army used, or even created miraculously when Olav prodded his staff into the ground, still exist and we passed several of these wells. Although we started walking in Sundsvall, the real start is in Selånger, 10 km from Sundsvall, where Olav stepped ashore in 1030. The pilgrimage starts at the ruins of an old church that was almost on the beach at the time. In the course of centuries, the sea pulled back and the harbour and North Sea incredibly no longer exist in Selånger. There is a sign on a tree to indicate the place where the king debarked.
There are many reasons why one would embark on a pilgrimage. There are the prospects of freedom, simplicity, silence, sharing, reflection, but also discovering new landscapes. When walking, one observes much more than when speeding through the countryside. Hans-Werner and I were also totally reliant on each other for support and company!
Sweden and Norway are par excellence countries of mountains and rivers, lakes and forests, of wooden house and many small villages. The most important component of any country, however, are its inhabitants. During the thirty-one days that we walked, we experienced so much friendliness, support and interest in our undertaking that we realised once again that the peoples of a country can and should never be generalised. People can never be generally seen as “reserved” or “aloof”. And this was the picture of the descendants of the Vikings that we had in our heads. Nothing can be further from the truth. Right from the first day we experienced unparalleled friendliness and sincere interest in us. Sometimes people approached us while we were walking and were simply interested in why we were walking to Trondheim and wanted to know where we were from.
The people where we stayed always went the extra mile to make us feel comfortable and at home – often by presenting us with “fika” to make the coffee experience even more special. The Swedes stand by their fika – something sweet with coffee! In the supermarkets the cashiers often helped us to find things we couldn’t locate. Where we didn’t understand the Swedish instructions, there were always people at hand to translate for us. Motorists (usually) reduced speed when passing us on a road. In Spain one of the highlights of our mornings was the cafe con leche in one of the many bars on the way. The Olav’s Way passes through remote villages with not a shop in sight, but a couple of times people invited us into their homes for a cup of coffee. This also happened to other pilgrims that we met later on. On one occasion we happened to pass a coffee shop, which was still closed. We were nevertheless given access and could have coffee and fika!
We followed beautiful roads through the countryside where one little farm follows the next one. People no longer farm as it is not economically viable, but the road meandered through many grain fields. We also encountered cows and horses, sheep and goats. Unfortunately we never saw any reindeer or elks. According to many people there are still bears in the forests through which we walked. We never saw them! To say that that we really envied the Scandinavian their beautiful wooden houses.is almost an understatement. The houses in Sweden are often the traditional red brown, whereas in Norway we saw more white, yellow, grey or blue houses. I am sure that Hans-Werner photographed at least a thousand houses and we never stopped marvelling at how few people were present on a building site at any given moment.
More than half of Sweden consists of forest. Small wonder then that their houses are made of wood. The soft green foliage of the trees in the forests was a constant source of joy. The soft, moss covered tracks through the forests were good for our feet, even if we often had to clamber over tree roots and trunks. The silence in the woods, only broken by the happy singing of birds and the wind in the trees, was a constant source of great happiness. And also the reason why the pilgrimage there is the “quiet Scandinavian answer to the Camino”. When it rained the trees protected us against the falling rain. As we progressed towards the west and the border to Norway, cultivated forests gradually gave way to natural birch forests. Even in the planted forests it struck us that birch trees were often left standing when the trees were felled.
If half of Sweden consists of forests, I am convinced that the other half consists of lakes and rivers. Somewhere in between a bit of dry land was left for the population to build their cities and homes. When we were not crossing a wood, we passed a natural lake. They all have names and many Swedes have a little summer house next to the water where they spend a large part of the summer. We started walking before the summer and thus many of the little “stugas” were still waiting for their summer occupants.
Summer in Scandinavia equals light! There is no darkness at night and we were amazed that we saw neither moon, nor stars. The population make the most of the short summers – because the flipside of the coin is that the winters there are long and dark. Everywhere people were planting flowers in pots and containers. The lawns are huge and people were mowing them with little tractors. But where the lawn owners still have full time careers, the Swedes have an answer for the time consuming job of lawn mowing in the form of a little robot that criss-crosses the lawn, mowing as she goes along. Is she in need of power, she simply travels to a docking station to charge batteries! (Friends convinced us that this little miracle is a she!) And if we weren’t passing a forest or a lake or a farm, then the road would follow a river.
At times the water would be calm and peaceful. These peaceful and calm waters would sometimes quite suddenly turn into raging waters, whirling over rocks and rapids. In days gone by the rivers were often used to transport timber, to which big concrete blocks in the water still pay testimony. There are long stretches where the route follows a tarred road. Fortunately most of these sections are not next to busy main routes. This was the one aspect of the way that I struggled with. Tar is not very foot-friendly and by the end of the pilgrimage I suffered the results of this hard and unfriendly surface when I developed tendonitis.
On the last couple of days in Sweden the planted needle forests gradually gave way to natural birch forests. We were thrilled to hear the cuckoo birds who live in these forests. Unfortunately we never saw this elusive forest inhabitant. It was very special as it was the first time ever that we actually heard their call in nature, as we only know the sound from our cuckoo clock at home!
We crossed the border to Norway on day 21. It was the strangest feeling to almost unexpectedly come to the border crossing between Sweden and Norway. We had prepared ourselves so long for the walk through Sweden, and suddenly this part of the pilgrimage had come to an end. Although the border only consists of a stone beacon, many things became different. We had to adjust mentally to walking through another country. The road surface almost immediately became different. We now walked on grass, at times we even had to cross snow that still covered the road. The landscape that had gradually started to change in previous days, now became wilder. We reached Hjøgfellet, the highest point of the Olav’s Way, although we encountered much steeper ascents, and the inevitable descents, later on! This stretch of road is known as the Karl Johans Vegen and was built centuries ago. We often spared a thought for the people who had to build this road through such a desolate countryside. Water, snow, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, swamps, forest and birch trees alternated to offer us a never-ending scene of beauty and undisturbed landscapes on this first day in Norway.
By the end of the day we were really tired, but not tired enough not to tackle the steep detour to visit the place where King Olav performed his first miracle shortly before his death. Near Sul, where we planned to spend the night, a memorial was erected to commemorate this phenomenon. Olav and his men spent the night on the farm of the farmer Torgeir Flekk, just a few days before the battle of Stikklestad where he was slain. Farmer Flekk was justifiably upset when he found his grain fields trampled by the army. Olav then mounted his horse, prayed to God for help and after riding around the field, the grain stalks miraculously stood upright again!
Another big change in Norway was the weather. Where we had had good weather in Sweden most of the time, we had to face lashing rain and strong winds on many a day in Norway. We counted ourselves lucky to have very effective ponchos to protect us and our backpacks. In a way the rain made a spectacular landscape sometimes even more spectacular, as waterfalls cascaded down the slopes of the forested mountains. Rivers were changed into raging waters which is beautiful to the “beholder”. The other side of this beauty is that the tracks through the forests sometimes became almost impassable. At times we seriously wondered how to proceed! Sometimes there were wooden walkways at the wettest and muddiest places, which we were immensely thankful for.
Accommodation is fairly scarce on the Olav’s Way, but thanks to our good guidebooks (one in Dutch and the official English translation which only became available when we had already progressed quite far) we were able to find a good sleeping place every night. Sometimes we slept in a little “stuga” (a garden house). Sometimes we were offered accommodation in a house or a refurbished, but beautiful, cowshed. We once spent a night in a caravan when the farmer was fully booked for the night. Very often meals were provided, but there were also days in which we had to provide for ourselves and then had to carry provisions in our backpacks. These extra provisions certainly did not help to make the backpacks lighter and I then inevitably consoled myself with the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:30. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I just strained myself and thought of people who have to carry a much heavier burden than I had to shoulder physically. Somehow I then forgot about the weight on my shoulders.
We treasure the memory of the night spent in the Kungstugan – the King’s house. The house is in a total state of disrepair, but one room has lovingly been restored for pilgrims. There is no electricity or running water and we hauled icy water up from the well for washing.
But accommodation that we will not forget lightly, was the “Blokkhuset”, almost halfway between Sul and Vuku in Norway. The distance between these two places is 28 km and because I started to experience problems with my foot at that stage, we decided to interrupt the long distance after our friendly host at Sul had told us about the Blokkhuset (a military bunker) which had just become available to pilgrims. He showed us some pictures, and perhaps a bit apprehensively, we nevertheless decided to put it to the test!
The bunker was built more than a century ago at a time when the Norwegians feared an attack from the Swedes (that never came). It is well placed on a mountain top with stunning views over the valley far below. With some misgiving we started the steep ascent to the top of the mountain, crossing a streamlet several times on the way up. We stepped through the triple barbed wire fence and entered a dark, mouldy staircase. Downstairs the place is totally uninhabitable, but a surprise waited upstairs. The big area there was clean and fit for spending a night. Candles, and some provisions are stored in a box for use, but as in Kungstugan there is no running water, and not a well either! For that Hans-Werner went down to the stream. One can only make a fire outside, provided it is dry. Which it was not. When the intermittent rain stopped for a short time, my wonderful husband managed to get the fire going and we could boil water and prepare a “meal”. We spent the night on the uncomfortable and very hard wooden benches, listening to the falling rain outside.
Needless to say that the walk downhill the next morning was a slippery affair. It definitely wasn’t the most comfortable night in our lives, but certainly one of the most memorable ones. We now know that it is possible to “enjoy suffering”, in hindsight! There were beautiful, old churches in almost all of the towns and villages that we passed. We would have loved to enter them all to admire the lightness of the Scandinavian churches.
The next night was spent in Vuku. The night after that Stiklestad where Olav fell in battle. It is a historical town with a big open air museum. The small, but beautiful church was built just a year after Olav’s death. We spent a wonderful afternoon exploring this special place.
As in Sweden, we also experienced wonderful hospitality from the Norwegians. We had wonderful conversations with people who did not understand English (and our Norwegian amounts to zero).
And then we reached Trondheim and ended the long walk at the Nidaros cathedral where it is believed that Olav has been buried. We attended a service for pilgrims, which unfortunately was not nearly as special and appealing to us as the mass in the cathedral in Santiago in Spain. It was however good to celebrate the end of this pilgrimage in a beautiful cathedral and give praise and thanks to our Lord who protected us on this long road. We are deeply thankful that we could realise yet another dream together.
The train journey back to Elke in Frankfurt lasted a solid 37 hours. We could rest a few days in Elke’s lovely place before starting the last leg of our journey home to Namibia.