“Don’t prepare too much”

It was on my way to Santiago de Compostella in 2012 that someone spoke to me about St. Olavsleden. When I visited Trondheim the year after my head and heart told me that I had to come back there – but as a pilgrim.

I started looking for more information about this Scandinavian pilgrimage and got more interested in the route, but still decided to walk to Rome first. Through the Swiss Alps, walking in Tuscany, eating the world’s best pizzas all day long. Yet Trondheim was still on my mind. I was bitten by the pilgrim-bug. It was a matter of time until I would embark on St. Olavsleden.

In September 2016 I started an evening class in Swedish at the Ghent University. I learned in Italy, when I had to undergo a surgery during my pilgrimage (which included several check-ups), that being able to understand and speak the native language is a massive win. It’s not only helpful; it’s very much appreciated by the locals.

Before I left for Compostella, I asked a teacher of mine for advice. “Don’t prepare too much – that’s the only thing I’ll say.” I felt a bit disappointed then, but now I can tell you it’s the best thing he could have said. I tried to prepare as little as possible for Compostella, prepared even less for Rome and for St. Olavsleden I was only going to be ‘armed’ with an evening course in Swedish. I didn’t know the terrain, I didn’t know the distances between towns, I had no idea if there were enough shops along the way. All would be experienced on the way and speaking to the people was going to be my biggest help. Why? Because I think it’s no fun when you know everything already. What possible surprises could you have? What unplanned meetings or decisions might cross your path? How are you going to break routine if you plan a whole trip before you even start? It’s up to everybody to do it the way he or she wants it of course – but this turned out to be my most rewarding way of handling things.

I didn’t know Vikbron was the largest wooden bridge in Sweden, I didn’t know Tannförsen was the largest waterfall, I didn’t know that all shelters were marked in the guidebook, I didn’t know that from Duved supermarkets were going to be sparsely available. Everything was new.

I started walking to Santiago de Compostella on 01/09/2012. I started walking to Rome 01/09/2015. My walk to Trondheim started on 01/09/2017 – obviously. I wrote a request on Couch Surfing and got hosted by Nathalie, a young woman who lived in Göteborg for a long time but moved to Sundsvall. She even walked with me on 02/09. Sunday morning, 03/09, she had to go back to Sundsvall and I was on my own, as I planned it initially. I cried for a few seconds – she had helped me out a lot with making the first bookings and improving my Swedish.

Lovely weather, beautiful panoramic views and comfortable trails: Sweden was giving me everything I hoped for. I gained confidence by talking to people in Swedish and received a lot from them in return. Some people stopped to have a chat, others asked I was walking St. Olavsleden and a couple even invited me in for a drink. You’re more than a just number on this trail: people show genuine interest in what you are doing. A bit rain came in, fields got muddier and dirtier and my mood changed during the walks from time to time. But because of the Scandinavian hospitality, everything was forgotten quickly. Everybody along the road does his or her best to make you feel welcome and relaxed.

St. Olavsleden is exceptionally well marked: most times I was able to focus on the environment and myself rather than searching for the route every few steps. I spotted squirrels, deer and reindeer. Sometimes I felt a bit frustrated by the difficult terrain and the last few days didn’t feel as good as the ones before that. But Paulo Coelho already said it in his book The pilgrimage: “If you only walk on sunny days, you’ll never reach your destination.”

It was a wonderful trip. Three beautiful weeks and a pilgrimage that has earned its place next to Rome and Compostella. All three routes are different – impossible and unnecessary to compare. But each one of them has given me so much joy that I’ll recommend any of them to anyone.

Don’t prepare too much, learn some basic Swedish and make mistakes. I’m sure you’ll have a great time and you’ll walk into Trondheim with a big smile and a backpack full of wonderful memories.

/Christophe Vandewalle, Belgium