Jamtland and Trondelag: following in the footsteps of the pilgrims on St Olav’s Way in Sweden

Threading across the Swedish region of Jämtland, St Olav’s Way offers a blend of adventure and serenity, following the path laid out by Viking kings.

By Marco Barneveld
Published 13 Dec 2019, 12:33 GMT
 Walking along the shores of Lake Storsjön with the city of Östersund in the background.
Walking along the shores of Lake Storsjön with the city of Östersund in the background.
Photograph by Frits Meyst

Dark green ferns and thick mosses glow in the sunlight, while a young stream threads quietly through the grass. To the right, fine reeds and tiny, colourful flowers pop up from the wetlands, while in the distance, the last patches of snow cling to the mountains separating Sweden from Norway. 

The air is clean and clear. All is tranquil here on St Olavsleden (St Olav’s Way). The northernmost pilgrim’s trail in the world, it starts in Selånger, a small Swedish village on the east coast, by the Baltic Sea, and then runs 360 miles west to Trondheim. There, in Nidaros Cathedral, pilgrims will find the resting place of Olav II Haraldsson, after whom the route is named. 

My guide, Putte Ebby, tells me that Olav would’ve enjoyed the same view when he marched through here, on the way his final battle in Stiklestad, just across the border. 

“This is where his ships landed in 1030,” he explains. We’re admiring the ruins of Selanger’s church, which was built in the 12th century to honour the Viking king. But I’m puzzled by Putte’s comment, as there’s no sea in sight.

“The landscape has changed a bit,” Putte smiles. “The sea once came to where we’re standing. The main harbour was right here at the time, where St Olavsleden starts.”

Over the ensuing millennia, the trail had faded into obscurity, until 2012, when Sweden and Norway joined forces to revive it. Today, it runs through vast forests, over mountains, across pastures dotted with red wooden barns and along glimmering lakes. It would take about a month to complete the entire walk, so tackling a section at a time is a much less daunting prospect. 

For many people, wandering along the path is as much about undergoing an inner journey as it is about enjoying the spectacular scenery. While walking the trail, I come across a Belgian named Hedwig who’s on an 18-day hike of the route. She’s sitting against her backpack under a tree, enjoying a sandwich and stretching her toes, her walking shoes placed in front of her. 

“This journey offers me a sense of calmness and time for reflection,” she says. “It disconnects me from the stresses of everyday life for a while, allows me to think and experience a real sense of presence in nature. It evokes inner peace within me.” 

In the old days, a pilgrimage was sometimes the only way to travel in this part of the world. Free travel was forbidden for ordinary folk, and a letter from the church verifying a pilgrimage gave one freedom to roam. In other cases, walking the trail served as penance for sins committed, with stamps needed to be collected at specific points along the path to prove one had done the whole route. 

There were even ‘professional pilgrims’ who’d walk the path for wealthy people who didn’t want to do penance themselves. Modern-day pilgrims can still collect stamps proving their journey — get enough stamps and you’ll receive a certificate at the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.

Around 700 pilgrims walk or bike St Olavsleden every year, and locals who live along the trail like to extend their support. Tommy Nordwall is a retired army lieutenant who offers coffee to anyone passing his house. St Olav’s Way runs past his porch, from which a wide variety of flags are waving in the summer breeze. 

“My neighbours along the trail tell me which countries the pilgrims coming our way are from,” he says. “I then put out their flag to welcome them. We get people from everywhere — even from countries as far away as Nepal and Namibia.”

I’m descending a well-maintained gravel road into Norway. The mountain road between Skalstugan in Sweden and Sul in Norway encompasses a wide variety of terrain: from birch forests to rocky slopes and conifer thickets. But the one thing uniting these disparate landscapes is a pervading sense of tranquillity. If you’re looking for peace of mind, this is truly the place to come.

Hikers enjoying the view at Gällö, Bräcken municipality.
Photograph by Frits Meyst

Modern pilgrim: five more ways to explore the region

Set off on some 21st-century adventures in Jämtland & Trøndelag. 

1. Delve into history
Among the exhibits at outdoor regional museum Jamtli is a tapestry dating back over 1,000 years.

2. Get a taste
The Edible Country initiative lets you forage for your own herbs, catch fish and cook over a stove in the great outdoors.

3. Get on your bike
Åre Bike Park’s 35 miles of winding trails, include mountain routes, fast single-tracks and thrilling downhills.

4. Look for adventure
Rypetoppen Adventurepark has climbing trails, treetop traversals and zip-lines.

5. Go with the flow
Explore the Nidelven River. Tours are offered for families and adult groups, and night trips are even available for a unique experience.

Essentials

Getting there: Fly from the UK to Östersund or Trondheim. Alternatively, fly to Oslo or Stockholm for onward local trains or flights. Average flight time: 5h.

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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