On the Pilgrim’s Path to Nidaros

Old trail, new travelers

Nidaros pilgrimage

Photo: Barbara Dougherty
Norway’s Nidaros Pilgrimage isn’t just about scenery and exercise: it’s also a journey through time.

Kristine Leander
Seattle, Wash.

Nearly a thousand years old, yet just recently restored, Norway’s Nidaros pilgrimage has become a brand-new hiking destination for anyone reasonably fit and ready for adventure.

A pilgrimage, of course, isn’t just about scenery and exercise; it’s also a journey through time. In this case, the history goes back to the Viking king Olav Haraldsson, who sought to regain control of Norway from the Danish king Cnut the Great and reunify it under his own leadership. But Olav died in battle against some of his former allies at Stiklestad on July 29, 1030,

Photo: Barbara Dougherty
Hiker and photographer Barbara Dougherty captured her own shadow in the afternoon sun.

His followers, eager for a posthumous win for Olav, soon noted miracles happening around his grave. His body was exhumed and placed in a silver casket, and a small wooden chapel was built over his new grave in the nascent city of Trondheim. Canonized only a year after the Battle of Stiklestad, Olav quickly became Norway’s patron saint, achieving through his death what he could not accomplish in life, the unification and Christianization of Norway.

This chapel grew into Nidaros Cathedral; miracles continued; and pilgrims began trekking to the burial site for both repentance and healing. German medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen first mentioned the pathway in the 11th century. Stories told of the blind gaining sight, invalids healed of their diseases and nonessential crutches hanging in the trees outside the cathedral.

The pilgrimage found its way into culture and literature. The medieval heroine Kristin Lavransdatter, in the 1920s Nobel-prize trilogy by Sigrid Undset, walks barefoot and carries her infant son to St. Olav’s tomb to be absolved of her sin of becoming pregnant before wedlock.

Rediscovery and restoration

The faithful trudged this path for 500 years until 1527 and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation when Sweden’s King Gustav I declared both saints and the pilgrimage illegal. Consequently, the path fell into disuse and was mostly forgotten. But in the 1990s, Norway began working to restore it, and it reopened in 1997. Some sites along the pilgrims’ way were still known; for example, after hundreds of years, the St. Olav Spring at Brettum was officially identified as such. In other places, local municipalities were encouraged to establish a section of the path.

Not everyone initially thought of the pilgrimage as a route that would be hiked all the way from Oslo to Trondheim. Some localities thought of it more as a Sunday promenade and planned the local path to achieve the best view of the town—to the consternation of hikers who followed signage to the top of a hill to find nothing but a scenic vista!

First adventure

In 2005, after living in Trondheim in the 1980s and witnessing pilgrims arriving in 1997, I was both curious and enthralled with the idea of a month-long hike. The history of the route and the beauty of Norway enticed me to train for the 400-mile trek from Oslo to Trondheim. I decided to depart in May, known to be Norway’s least rainy month. But while rain was rare, other problems arose—most significantly, snow that made the Dovre Mountains impassable. Another regret was that Norway wasn’t in its glory. Leaves hadn’t budded, and the famous green landscape was pale and muted. Nevertheless, my overnight stays were mostly in homes, and people were kind and generous.

Photo: Barbara Dougherty

The main problem on that trip was the paucity of signage. The route went over fields, across schoolyards, down city streets, up hills, and through forests. I often worried that I had missed a sign and doubled back, only to reassure myself that I hadn’t. On the 18th day, friends arrived from Seattle to continue with me. Wayfinding was easier with four of us sharing the task.

But then we ran into the problem of the Dovre Mountains. The innkeeper at one of the oldest and most wonderful places to stay, Budsjord Historical Farm, announced that she and her husband forbade us from trying to cross. They drove us to the train station and said they intended to stay there until we got on the train, and it pulled out. I’m not sure whether they had us Americans pegged as courageously headstrong or just carelessly ignorant. We had a one-month time frame to reach Trondheim, so cutting off the mountains made that goal achievable. We arrived on time, very happy to set down our packs.

Photo: Barbara Dougherty
Hiking pilgrims and pals Barbara Dougherty, Kristine Leander, and Nancy Stromsem reach Dovre kyrkje.

A journey fulfilled

Missing that section left me with an itch to go back. Fourteen years later, in a book club, members put forth the idea of finishing the trail, and I was immediately on board. Friends opted in and out until two finally decided to go with me. We set about training and developing camaraderie. In August, we departed from Otta, walking first to Budsjord. A late summer start meant that the mountains were passable, and a delicious dinner of reindeer plus the beauty of the setting assured us we were in the right place at the right time.

A series of other pilgrimage-dedicated overnights welcomed us: Fokstugu Fjellstue, where a morning chapel service took our breath away with its significance to us as pilgrims, as well as Furuhaugli Turisthytter, Hjerkinn Fjellstue, Kongsvold Fjeldstue, Ryp­husan and finally Smegarden in Oppdal. The distances were six to 14 miles each day, but regardless, we were exceedingly tired but happy to arrive at our destination each evening.

Photo: Barbara Dougherty

Approximately 400 people hike the trail each year, including members of Norway’s royal family. Many pilgrims are German, but we met Norwegians and Danes on the recent trek. My advice for anyone? Train by walking a lot, with a pack and hiking poles; you will need them. Take the minimum. Packs get heavy, and you’ll find that your needs are minimal. In addition, expect to be surprised: by Norway’s beauty, by the people you meet, and by your own strength and endurance. It’s a wonderful adventure. I’m eager to return.

Kristine Leander is the granddaughter of Swedish immigrant pioneers to Skagit  Valley in western Washington She lived in Trondheim, Norway, for two years, which formed the basis for her doctoral studies at the University of Washington. She headed the group that has given statues of Leif Erikson to Trondheim, Greenland, and Newfoundland, and is currently the executive director of Seattle’s Swedish Club.

This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.