The Olavsleden, or Saint Olav’s Way, like the Camino de Santiago, is a blanket term for a number of routes that lead to a single destination.
In the case of the Olavsleden, that destination is Saint Olav’s shrine at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway.
This year, two of the Olavsleden routes have been officially certified by the European Institute of Cultural Routes. Mark Nienstaedt, an American skier, hiker and cyclist, walked one them last July, an approximately 640-kilometre (398-mile) route from Oslo to Trondheim. Mark added a small section of another route for a total of 669 kilometres (416 miles).
You have two options for continuing with my interview with Mark about his journey on the Olavsleden. You can listen to the slightly edited version in my first Pilgrim Roads podcast (an MP3 file that runs 46:16), or read my briefer article based on the interview below.
The article has substantial quotes from Mark, but doesn’t cover as much ground as the audio version does.
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When Mark Nienstaedt set out on the Olavsleden, he already had an impressive hiking résumé, which included the Camino Francés and Via de la Plata routes of the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail, and other wilderness thru-hikes. He has also cycled about 130,000 kilometres (80,000 miles) in different parts of the world.
A More Isolated Route Than the Camino Francés
While the Olavsleden isn’t exactly a wilderness trail, it’s more of a wilderness route than is the Camino Francés. But Mark said anyone who has walked the Camino Francés should be able to handle the Olavsleden:
Anybody that’s walked the Camino Francés from start to finish is certainly equipped to do it. Which is not to say that they aren’t going to have to learn a few more things and adjust to life on the Olavsleden….
If you set out to walk 800 kilometres like you do on the Camino Francés, or 650 kilometres across Norway, and you’re going to stick it out, you’re a plenty hardy person by definition and you’ve probably got the resources it takes to do that kind of job. But I would say that the Olavsleden at times is significantly more of a mountaineering exercise—and I’m not talking technical mountaineering, but it’s more of a mountaineering type exercise than the Camino Francés is.
You do not—and this part I would be emphatic about—you do not walk through towns every day. And in fact while you walk in sight of towns most days, that’s the operative phrase: “in sight of.” If you really want to go to them, you have to walk off to them, and they may be a detour of two to three kilometres, usually down slope from you. And if you go into town, well, you’ve got to climb back up to get to where you had started.
But it’s a different experience [from the Camino Francés], and it’s better to say that it’s different than to say that it’s harder.
Physically Strenuous, But Usually Not in Long Stretches
Physically, Mark said, the Olavsleden can be more strenuous than the Camino Francés.
I am going to say that it can be quite physically strenuous. Usually not for long stretches. I’m not going to tell you that there were whole days, or days on end where I was exhausted or anything like that. I am in good physical condition. I’m 56 years old, don’t forget….
But what I’m going to say is that you’re in mountain country, and some of the times that means that you’re walking very steep slopes. I’m not talking treacherous like I’m going to fall and crash and break my skull slopes. But I’m talking effort. And you’re going to need to deal with that. …
There are ways around all that stuff. All you got to do to avoid some of that is to drop down in the lower valley where the main road thoroughfares and places are. And you can give yourself an easier spell along some alternative route, and then you can go back to a place that is more your style.
When Mark started out at the beginning of July 2009, the Oslo area was going through an unprecedented heat wave. Later, on the Dovrefjell, which is above the tree line, he worried about hypothermia.
It rained 24 out of the 28 days he walked, but, he said, the rain wasn’t usually much of a problem.
It’s probably also true to note that only two of those days were heavy rain days. And the rest of the time it was kind of like, maybe I could call it Irish rain. The little kind of shower that is borderline between misty and sprinkling.
A lot of the time I wasn’t even putting on rain gear. I was probably using a rain cover on my pack all the time, but I was staying plenty warm enough just by keeping moving, and I was enduring some kind of half-hour shower or something. It just was a question of getting used to the idea that it was going to happen every day.
And once it became baseline normal, you realized that, hey, forget about it. Just start enjoying the place. It’s beautiful. And indeed it is.
After learning about ultralite gearing on the Appalachian Trail, Mark didn’t even carry heavy rain gear.
I had a little tiny raincoat with me in Norway, but it was hardly a shell, and it weighed an order of maybe 1.5 ounces I think, or two ounces…. If it was going to rain heavily I was going to get wet. On the other hand, during this misty kind of sprinkle rain I was dealing with a good part of the time, it was more than adequate.
Often Alone But Not Lonely
Mark didn’t meet a lot of other walkers who were walking the entire trail, but out of the several people he knew from guestbook entries were ahead of him, two were Camino de Santiago veterans.
“Which is to tell you,” he said, “that if you’ve done the Camino and you’re interested in this pilgrim way, you should definitely think about doing this one too.”
One of the Camino pilgrims was a man Mark had walked with on the Camino. Unfortunately, the other pilgrim was a week ahead, and Mark never caught up with him.
But despite the low numbers of other pilgrims, Mark didn’t find the trip lonely.
Yes, during any given day you’re going to spend a lot of time on your own, but by the end of your day, on a typical day, you’re going to set yourself up somewhere … and stay in civilization for the evening. And suddenly you’re going to be in the company of people who are very welcoming, they’re very interested in your experience, they’re very interested in helping you, and they do help you. To me, that means I’m not lonely.
Mark doesn’t speak Norwegian, but he found a lot of Norwegians—particularly the younger ones, spoke English. This was especially true of people involved in services pilgrims might need.
When it comes to places where you need to transact business that’s going to be important to you—you need to buy your groceries, you need to arrange some lodging for the night, you’re worried about a transportation problem. When it comes to people that work in those areas, you can almost take it for granted that they’re going to be able to speak English to you.
The Olavsleden is also not as thoroughly way marked as the Camino Francés. For Mark, this meant that he usually lost the way marks for a while every day. But he found it easy to stay oriented, and came to enjoy the challenge of finding his way again.
[The Olavsleden] is really, actually—I want to emphasize—very well marked. It’s just not as continuously and frequently way marked as the Camino Francés, for example, is.
When I said I was getting lost, I’m saying I lost my way marks. And that, of course, always resulted in a certain indecision, in terms of, okay, what do I do next? But … you were never lost in terms of where to go, because it would be a question of interpreting the landscape.
Typically you’re walking up a valley, for example, and if you lose your way marks, you still know how to follow the contour lines of the valley. You know where you’re going to go. You certainly can equip yourself with decent maps. You can look at a map, and you can decide where the cross-roads in your line of walk are going to be, and you can walk until you cut one of them.
And then it’s a question of discovering where you are on the road, and whether you have to turn left or turn right to reach a road crossing that’s going to have a marking, and on you go.
And, notwithstanding that I was lost, I never really lost that much time finding myself…. I typically always just persisted moving ahead. I knew which way to go; I could be confident which way to go. And it just meant that I was going to spend a lot more time, or be a lot more alert, for recovering way marking. And it always worked.
And honestly I’m going to say that once I got used to the fact that this was going to be more routine, I began to regard it as a lot of fun. … It was like, “Oh my God, I’m lost again. I wonder where I’m going to have to go to figure it out this time.” …
I was never worried about finding my way.
It would be different for someone without his wilderness experience, Mark said, but not impossible. He once heard from a man who didn’t have his extensive wilderness experience, and ended up writing a book about walking the Olavsleden:
It’s very, very clear that he really enjoyed his experience, and the challenges it posed for him. The overcoming of those challenges was clearly very satisfying for him.
And I think that kind of experience is out there for anybody. If you think you’re up to this, and you’re willing to put some effort into it, and stick to it and be determined and have a little courage and faith in yourself, you’re going to do just fine.
The Dovrefjell: Walking Above the Treeline
For much of the route, pilgrims walk within sight of roads and towns, but the route also passes through the Dovrefjell, a national park, for several days. The Dovrefjell is above the treeline. Walking in July, Mark passed snow banks and mountain lakes with ice floating in them. There were also no real roads.
“[The Dovrefjell is] every bit as wild and park-like as some of your beautiful parks there in Canada, and some of ours here in the United States,” Mark said. “You can get to civilization, but the country that you’re passing through as you go between civilized points is not civilized.”
Accommodation along the Olavsleden ranges from campsites to hotels. Norway’s right of access laws also specify that you can camp anywhere in the countryside or wilderness that isn’t cultivated, as long as it’s also at least 150 metres from the nearest house or cabin.
Mark started out with a lightweight tent and a plan to use it often. He used it three out of his first five nights.
That probably was the period of my walk that I regarded and experienced as being most lonely. Because then I was spending a lot of the time during the day by myself, and where was I at the end of the day? I was in the woods and I was still all by myself.
The unusual heat wave that gripped the country while Mark was walking, and the occasional rain also made camping a less attractive option.
“To be a pilgrim, you really have to be capable of adjusting,” Mark said. After five or six days, he decided to sleep indoors for the rest of the trip.
He stayed in youth hostels in cities, and in some special pilgrim refuges, but he stayed in what he described as “rustic” farm accommodation.
Typically … on a farm, [the farmer says], “We have one of our old historical buildings here next to our principal residence, and maybe 50 yards from the barn. It’s a nice old house, and we’ve fixed it up a bit. There’s some nice bedrooms in it. There’s a rudimentary old kitchen that we haven’t used for a while in it. It’s still got its plumbing functional.”
And you’d get to stay there. And the farm wife would bring you out your dinner, and you, and possibly you could get breakfast the next morning.
Breakfast was usually a smorgasbord with breads, toast, hard-boiled eggs, fresh veggies, meat and herring. Mark found if he got breakfast, he could usually ask for niste. That meant for an extra US$2 or $3 he got a paper bag he could fill with food from the smorgasbord, and save it for lunch.
Accommodation costs weren’t as cheap as in Spain, but Mark found he could usually choose from a range of options. He usually ended up paying about 100 to 400 kroner, or approximately US$15 to $50. Often, for US$40 or $50 he got accommodation and enough food to last him for 24 hours.
But staying on farms wasn’t just about finding affordable accommodation, Mark said:
The other thing you’re getting when you’re staying in these places, you’re getting immediate contact with local people. And they are wonderful. And there wasn’t a dollar that I spent on the Olavsleden that I didn’t consider very well spent.
Once night Mark chose to spend about 800 kroner to stay at Sygard’s Grytting, the only pilgrim’s farmstead refuge still in existence that used to house medieval pilgrims.
I loved every minute of my time there. And the great news was, the very next night a guy offered me a place to stay for the night for free. So it kind of evened out after it was all over.
But Sygard’s Grytting is a place you have to go to, and if you don’t spend the money you’re being foolish. Penny wise, pound foolish. And the reason is that, hey, this was the oldest period-authentic pilgrim hostel on the entire Olavsleden. You could sleep in it, and they’d done the carbon dating work, and it was a bona fide, recognized national historic landmark.
It was dated to the 1360s, and places don’t get any older than that in the countryside of Norway. And I was sleeping there right in the bed that had been around for—what does that make it?—700 years.
And the people were wonderful. The dinner that I had that night with eight Norwegian big house guests, with wine and courses and conversation, the pan-fried fresh trout we had the next morning for breakfast, it was just awesome.
And overall, it being pilgrim travelling and simple walking, I didn’t spend that much money in Norway. If you go to Norway and you’re driving around in your car, it’s going to be a lot more expensive than walking.
The Saint Olav Festival
Mark walked into Trondheim on July 28, the day before Saint Olav’s Day.
“That is the way you need to do this,” he said. “You need to time your arrival in Trondheim to be there on … the eve of St. Olav’s feast day.”
He arrived around four o’clock and went to the cathedral. Immediately upon arriving at the pilgrim’s hostel next to the cathedral, he was told to shower and get on a bus to take him out to the edge of town by eight o’clock:
And I’m going, “Okay, what for?” And they say, “Well, the custom on the eve of St. Olav’s here in Trondheim is that people gather at all the churches on the periphery of the city, and then they walk [the five kilometres or so] in groups into the cathedral. …
But the way they organize these little evening of the feast day walks, is that you stop at two or three churches on your way in to the cathedral, and by about ten p.m. a stream of people , local people, pilgrims arriving, anybody that’s interested. …
A number of streams … converge on the cathedral, and by midnight you’re all sitting inside the cathedral, and it’s several thousands of people. And they have a midnight Mass for you. And then they have a vigil scheduled all night long. Every hour on the hour there’s a little mini conference involving singing, dancing, prayer reading—you name it, but continually until dawn. And dawn is the beginning of six or seven days of festival.
Mark compared the festival to the Spanish festivals he encountered along the Camino. There are concerts, lectures, craft demonstrations, outdoor bazaars, and events in churches through the day. Pilgrims can stay cheaply in the pilgrim hostel for the entire week, and it’s well worth doing that, Mark said.
“Trondheim for the week of the Olav’s Days is marvelous.”
Spirituality and Walking With a Group
I asked Mark what it was like walking as a pilgrim in Norway, which is a relatively secular country, compared with Catholic Spain. He warned me his answer wouldn’t be what I expected, and it wasn’t.
“There was a really unique and wonderful way in which pilgrimage on the Olavsleden is far more spiritual than it was in Spain,” he said.
He experienced this side of the Olavsleden this year, when he returned to Norway to spend ten days walking 175 kilometres of another Way of Saint Olav route, the Nordleden, as part of an organized group. Walking this way is a little more expensive than going alone, “but completely worth your money,” Mark said.
Some groups have a pilgrim priest (male or female), and all have a minister who walks the entire distance with the group. Additionally, in a tradition dating back to medieval times, each day the group gets a different kjentmann (pronounced shent-man), a local person with a lot of local knowledge who escorts the group for that day.
The kjentmann, on every occasion, is a local person who loves the outdoors and knows the country that you have to pass through on that given day, and who’s going to guide you the whole way. And if you walk in one of these groups, you’ll never get lost.
If you go with one of these groups, what they’ll do for you is they’ll create for you this uniquely pilgrim experience, which is going to include, for example, prayer, morning, noon and night, sort of like praying hours, as was done in medieval times. You’re going to be received—they use this terminology—you’re going to be received at every single church along the way.
Being received at the church is going to involve the minister coming in to open the church up for you. But far more than that, it’s going to involve something like a dozen or 15 people gathering at the church with hot coffee and little cakes and some fresh fruit. And they’re all going to just sit around and pass the time of day with you, and chat with you. The priest is probably going to have a bit of a blessing or a sermon for you.
And when you leave that place, some of the local people are going to spend the next first few kilometres after it walking with you until they have to turn around and go back to their cars.
And you’re constantly, if you’re in one of these groups … you’re in the flow of the local people coming out to the pilgrim way, and sharing your experience, and enriching your experience with you. And all I’m going to tell you is, it’s religious, it’s spiritual, and it’s absolutely marvellous. There’s nothing like it along the Camino or the Via de la Plata in Spain.
Other Roads to Trondheim
Mark doesn’t plan to go back and re-walk the Olavsleden from Oslo.
I’m not the kind of person that goes back and re-walks routes that I’ve already walked. I won’t do that, I’ve never done it yet. I believe life should always be new and fresh and interesting, and so I’ll do something different.
But he does plan to return to Norway for some pilgrim walking. Next on his list is the Romboleden—the second of the Saint Olav’s routes that were recognized by the European Institute for Cultural Routes earlier this year.
The Romboleden runs from the German/Denmark border, through Denmark and Sweden to Norway. There’s no guidebook in English yet, but Mark figures it’s about 1500 kilometres (932 miles), give or take a few hundred kilometres.
“It’s on my—what is that famous movie called?—it’s on my bucket list.”
A Great Challenge
In the end, Mark highly recommends the Olavsleden to anyone who’s walked the Camino Francés and is interested in going on pilgrimage in Norway.
It is a physical challenge, and at the same time that I’m going to say that it is by no means an insurmountable challenge. It’s the kind of challenge that once you master it, you feel really good about the fact that you took it on and you conquered it, and I would encourage people to give it a shot.
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You can read more about Mark’s journey and see more of his beautiful photos on his Olavsleden blog, which he created after his journey from letters and postcards he sent home as he walked. Mark also has a brand new blog on the Via de la Plata.
For further information on the Olavsleden, visit the English part of the pilegrim.info website.