Vikings make Alpine pilgrimage
Christian Vikings Olavs Menn follow the path of Sigvat Skald, St. Olav’s poet
Olavs Menn is a Christian Viking group in Telemark, Norway. In 2011 we visited Istanbul searching for the sword Neite, which once belonged to Saint Olav. In 2012 we sailed to Newcastle in England in the Viking ship Gaia, to thank the English for sending missionaries to our country during the Viking age, and we also brought with us 150 kilos of whetstones from Eidsborg as a gift to York Viking Museum. Whetstones from Eidsborg in Telemark were important in the Viking age. Last autumn we crossed the Alps from the Aosta Valley to Martigny, following the path of the Vikings who went on pilgrimage to Rome. We are also members of the Telemark Viking Team and use the beautiful Viking ship Åsa. Last May we had pilgrims as passengers on lake Norsjø here in Telemark.
When Norway and the rest of Scandinavia became Christian countries, a lot of Vikings went on pilgrimage. In the Reichenau Monastery, at the Boden Sea in Switzerland, for instance, 700 Scandinavians are registered in the 11th and 12th century. Some, like the Norwegian chieftain Tore Hund, went as far as Jerusalem as early as 1033.
Last October, some of us crossed the Alps along the ancient road Via Francigena, the old pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome. The entire road runs 1,900 kilometers; we traversed only a small portion of it. This route was first recorded by English archbishop Sigeric the Serious in the 990s. He also became a friend of Norwegian Viking king Olav Tryggvason, who was baptized on the British Isles, and later allied with the English king Ethelred II. Olav was king of Norway from the year 995 until he fell at an ambush at Svolder in the year 1000, attacked by Danish, Swedish, and some Norwegian forces led by earl Eirik of Lade. After that Norway was not a sovereign country until Olav Haraldson (Saint Olav), who was baptized in Rouen in Normandy, gained control of Norway in 1016. He fell at the battle of Stiklestad the 29th of July in 1030, and was canonized soon after. When this battle was fought, the king’s skald (poet) and good friend, Sigvat Skald, was on his pilgrimage to Rome. On his way back, while crossing the Alps, he received the message that his king was dead.
We four members of Olavs Menn thankfully weren’t in such dramatic circumstances when we decided to go the same route back across the Alps as Sigvat.
We begin our pilgrimage in Étroubles, at 1,300 meters’ height. Here we get a copy of a map in the local tourist information office. We get our supplies and start walking along a narrow valley. After some time, we see green meadows filled with large cows, and we see a lot of farmers. Unfortunately they do not speak English, but we get a cup of coffee before moving on towards Bosses, a small village in a steep hill to the northeast. The place is almost empty, but in a garden we see an old woman washing clothes by a large stone.
The next village we enter is Saint Rhémy-en-Bosses, the last Italian rural setting before Switzerland. We do not see many people here either, but a service in the church has assembled the Alpine farmers. It is raining. On the outskirts of the village, we have a rest outside a large, old house. Then we hear talking and laughter; it is Rickardo and his family approaching us, men with beards and hats, and smiling women. We tell them that we are pilgrims on our way north. They look very interested when we tell them about Saint Olav, and that some of his men walked this route. They seem to know him, here in Catholic Italy. They tell us that Napoleon Bonaparte and his army also used this route to Italy around 1800, and that Napoleon himself slept over in the large house beside us, “together with two women,” he says with a smile.
Rickardo gives us a bottle of the local wine before we say goodbye and go toward the thousand-year-old monastery, Grand Saint Bernard. The hills are steeper now, and we are almost climbing when we reach the old Roman road. The romans also crossed the Alps along this route, and built an impressive road that was often cut high up in the hills. The reason for this is that the snow melts early here and the road would not so easily be destroyed by flood. The modern road goes in the bottom of the valley, beside the river.
Suddenly a fog is coming. We do not see the mountains above us any longer. Also in the valley beneath us, we see fog. We do not risk walking in this area in such weather, and it will soon be dark. It was probably around here that a young drummer in Napoleon’s army fell from a cliff. Some soldiers wanted to climb down for him, but Napoleon refused to let them.
We look for shelter and find an old hut built of stones. We find some firewood and make a fire with help of some flint. In the light from the fire we see a cross on the wall. It looks like other pilgrims have been here. We keep the fire alive during the night, because we do not have any sleeping bags. It is good to be inside, though. We can hear the wind blowing outside, and it is raining. We can hear some strange roaring from a place far away, but we fall asleep anyway.
The next morning is beautiful, with the sun shining on snowy mountain peaks. After a cup of coffee we continue towards the Grand Saint Bernard Hospice. After walking a while on the roman road, we cross the border into Switzerland. We are rather thirsty and soon we find a creek. The fresh water from the mountains makes us feel good, and we soon arrive at the monastery, at about 2,500 meters. The Augustine monks are really friendly, and we soon get a big, hot cup of tea each. In the evening we join the service in the crypt and have a good night’s sleep in this old building. It was at this monastery that the Saint Bernhard dogs were bred in the 17th century and used for rescuing operations in the Alps.
After breakfast we enter the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, a popular place for archeologists. The weather is good, but the fog is following us like a shadow. We take a wrong turn, but after a couple of hours in a steep hill, we realize this and turn back. The fog is coming closer, and when we see the village of Bourg Saint Pierre, the fog reaches us. After walking for ten hours, only eating biscuits, we are hungry and order the local food, fondue, and stay the night in a house from the 13th century.
After a delicious breakfast, we go to see the church. The tower is from the 11th century, and I am quite sure that Sigvat has been here. We then leave this old village and go for Orsieres, an easy walk. After spending the night in this town, we go for the last part of our journey, a rather challenging track according to the travel guide: “The valley up from Martigny Croix through Bovernier and up to Sembrancher is very narrow, with steep-sided cliffs on either side of the river Dranse… the worst section of the whole Via Francigena.” We reach Martigny in the afternoon and find after a while the Catholic church. We ask a young priest that we meet outside the church if we may sleep over in the church. He wants us to join them in the evening service first. I refuse, saying that I smell too much of sweat after these five days crossing the Alps. No, no, it is the smell of Jesus, he says, and opens the door for us. It feels good to be in this holy room, and we get the opportunity to thank our Lord that everything went well.
The next day snow flutters down over the Alps, and we’re quite glad to have made it through when we did.
This article originally appeared in the July 4, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.