The Pilgrim Road to Nidaros

658 km (originally 643 km) medieval pilgrim road (Pilegrimsleden – “pilgrim path”) from Oslo to Nidaros (Trondheim) cathedral, where Saint Olav (king of Norway and responsible for much of the conversion of the country to Christianity) is believed to have been buried.  Part of a network of former pilgrim routes, “rediscovered” after centuries of abandon and waymarked in 1997 to coincide with the millenium of the city of Trondheim. This Pilgrim Road to Nidaros, the Gudbrandsdalsleden, like the Camino francés in Spain and the Via Francigena (Canterbury to Rome) before it, became a European Cultural Itinerary in 2010.

The Route. Starts in medieval Oslo and takes, on average, a month to walk from there to Nidaros.  There are two routes that separate shortly after leaving Oslo: the eastern one, passing to the RH side of the Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake, goes via Eidsvoll and Hamar, while the western option goes to its left, via Gjøvik, both options joining up at the church in Lillehammer.  After that the Pilegrimsleden continues up the Gudbrandsdal (valley), gently uphill all the time, crosses the Dovrefjell and leads on from there via Oppdal to Trondheim.  This was not, however, the only route to Nidaros, just as the Camino francés was never the only pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, but simply one of a whole network of routes as, in the past, of course, pilgrims set out from (and returned to) their own front doors, as did those travelling to Rome and Jerusalem too.  There were several routes starting in Sweden – the Romboleden, for example, the route from Selånger on the Baltic coast and which passes through Stiklestad, where Saint Olav was slain in battle, the Østerdalsleden, and several other routes to Nidaros which have also been wholly or partially waymarked, though the Gudbrandsdalsleden from Oslo has, at present, the most thoroughly prepared infrastructure.

Waymarking. Waymarked throughout, with a logo that is a mixture of the Olav cross and the sign used to indicate the existence of historic monuments.

Terrain. Undulating in parts, sometimes flat but often very strenous, with constant ups and downs.  Woods, agricultural land and open moorland.  Some walking on very quiet minor roads, but much of it on old tracks and paths.

Weather/When to go.  Very late May/early June to early/mid September (before and after which there will be too much snow to be able to continue).

What to see. Several historic churches and interesting vernacular buildings, places connected with the pilgrimage in the past.  Open-air museums in different places along the way give an idea life of in Norway in the past while the route itself provides an insight into life in this country away from the tourist resorts.

Accommodation.  No shortage of places to stay for most of the route, but much of it is expensive (especially for foreign pilgrims). The Pilegrimsleden is, however, now very much better served than it used to be with pilgrim-only type accommodation (several church halls have simple accommodation with cooking facilities), there are some youth hostels along the way, a number of farms have a stabbur (a traditional storage building) where pilgrims can sleep, almost always with cooking facilities though not always with running water, while there are a number of campsites which frequently have self-catering cabins for four people.  However, pilgrims on a very strict budget would be well advised to take a tent as camping is also permitted anywhere outside a town and more than 150m from a house.

The National Pilgrim Centre website has a downloadable, up-to-date accommodation list: see http://pilegrimsleden.no/en/plan/overnattingssteder

However, the biggest problem the pilgrim walking on his/her own (i.e. not part of a led group) will encounter is the everlasting daily hassle of buying food supplies, once he/she has left the Oslo area.  Unlike the busy Camino francés (for those who have already made the pilgrimage to Santiago and where there are shops/bars every 3-4 km), the pilgrim walking the Gudbrandsdalsleden will need to carry food with him/her for at least 3-4 days at all times, sometimes more, due to the scarcity of food shops along the way and to the fact that, in the interests of scenic walking, the waymarked route deliberately avoids going into the centres of places of any size, circumnavigating them instead.

Pilgrim centres.  Five of these were set up along the route in 2010, in Oslo, Granavollen, Hamar, Hunsdorp and Dovrefjell, in addition to the existing Pilegrimsenter in Trondheim.  These are a state-run initiative designed to promote the pilgrimage to Nidaros and provide information about it.    Note, however, that with the exception of Hamar and Hundorp, they do not provide accommodation, though they can advise about it.  See http://pilegrimsleden.no/en/plan/regionale-sentre for details of how to contact them. There are three pilgrim priests, based in Oslo, Hamar and Trondheim, and a pilgrim blessing is available, on request, for those starting in Oslo or Hamar.

Those who do not already have a pilgrim passport from pilgrim associations in their own country can be obtain one before they set off from the Oslo Pilgrim Centre.  On arrival in Trondheim an Olavsbrevet (“Olav’s letter,” akin to the Compostela granted to pilgrims to Santiago) is available to those who have walked at least the last 100km and can be obtained from the Pilegrimsgård located behind Nidaros cathedral.

The Pilegrimsfelleskapet St. Jakob Norge, based in Oslo, can also give you advice on the route and provide a pilgrim passport.  See www.pilegrim.no

Guide books

  • Pilgrim Road to Trondheim, by Alison Raju, Museumsforlaget (Trondheim) 2015, 280pp.  ISBN: 9788203050042.  Covers the entire route with both historical and practical information as well as high-quality Ordnance Survey type maps that you can actually walk from.  This is available from the CSJ bookshop, from pilgrim centres along the route or from the publishers: email post@museumsforlaget.no
  • There are also guidebooks available to the whole route in Norwegian (2015), German (2014) and Dutch (2015): see http://oslo.pilegrimsleden.no/en/guidebooks/

Maps  Apart from those provided in the above-mentioned guide books, detailed, downloadable Ordnance Survey type maps, each covering daily stages of 12 to 15 miles, are available on the National Pilgrim Centre website: go to http://pilegrimsleden.no/en/map/print and then click on each map in turn.

Distinctive features of the route/General  Solitary route where you are unlikely to meet many other pilgrims even though it is becoming better known (by people who live along the way too) and better used each year.

Cyclists. Most of the route is completely unsuitable for cyclists, even on mountain bikes

Thanks to Alison RAJU, January 2005, June 2011 and August 2015.

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