Hólar in Hjaltadalur is such a special place in Iceland and one of the best-known historic sites here. It is very dear to us Icelanders. To me, it is one of the most special places in Iceland and I always stay here when travelling in this area.
My first photo was taken on an August night when Hólar was bathed in the midnight sun.
Hólar in Hjaltadalur
For some 700 years, Hólar was the capital of the north until Akureyri got that title. From 1106-1801 Hólar was one of 2 bishoprics in Iceland - the Northern bishopric and the educational capital of the north. All in all, there were 36 bishops at Hólar, 23 Catholic, and 13 Lutheran.
The Agricultural school at Hólar has been operating since 1881. And there has been a University College at Hólar since 2003.
Among the things you can see at Hólar is Hólakirkja Cathedral from 1763, Nýibær turf-house from 1854, and Auðunarstofa log-house.
A church has been at Hólar since the 11th century. The current church was erected in 1763 and is the oldest stone church in Iceland. It is red in colour, built from stones from the mountain Hólabyrða above Hólar.
Hólakirkja cathedral is the seventh church on this site and the fifth cathedral.
The first bishop at Hólar was Jón Ögmundsson helgi "the holy" - but the best-known bishops are Guðmundur góði Arason, Guðbrandur Þorláksson, who published the first Icelandic Bible, Guðbrandsbiblía Bible, in 1584, and Jón Arason, who was the last Catholic bishop at Hólar.
The mosaic of Jón at Hólar
The church tower is so lovely and one of its kind here in Iceland seeing that it is free-standing. It is 27 meters high and stands beside the church.
The tower was built in 1950 on the 400th anniversary of the death of bishop Jón Arason, who was the last Catholic bishop of Iceland and is a monument for Jón and his sons, Björn and Ari.
The church tower is open to visitors and it is possible to walk up to the church bell. On the ground floor of the church tower, you will find a tiny chapel containing the earthly remains of Jón Arason and his 2 sons. And a beautiful mosaic of Jón.
The beheading of Jón Arason as depicted at the Saga Museum in Reykjavík, which I recommend visiting
Jón was beheaded in the year 1550 at Skálholt together with his sons, Björn and Ari, during the Reformation - the change from Catholicism to Lutheranism. A very tragic story.
The Vikings had converted to Christianity back in the year 1000 at Þingvellir without bloodshed, but that was not the case with the Reformation.
Jón and his sons were buried at Skálholt, but the spring after the execution the men from the northern part of Iceland rode to Skálholt, exhumed the bodies, and took them with them to Hólar for a proper burial.
Vígðalaug at Laugarvatn
The bodies were covered in mud and on their way up north, they washed the bodies in the holy spring, Vígðalaug - Holy Spring - at Laugarvatn in South-Iceland.
The rocks above the holy spring are called Líkasteinar, but it is believed that the biers for the bodies were laid on these 6 stones while the bodies were being washed.
Here in Vígðalaug the Vikings from the north and south were baptized after the conversion in the year 1000 at Þingvellir.
Beautiful mosaic at Hólar
I found old folklore on this event in Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - the Collection of Folklore by Jón Árnason:
"It is said that in Hólakirkja church in Hjaltadalur valley, the bell Líkaböng still hangs.
The story goes according to an account from up north that the bell had started ringing on its own when the bodies of Jón Arason and his sons were transported north from Skálholt.
The bell in the church tower
The story goes that the bell started ringing when the cortege arrived at Vatnsskarð, from where you can see Skagafjörður, and then it stopped; the second time the bell rang when the cortege arrived at Hrísháls, from where you can first see Hólar in the Hjaltadalur valley, and the third time when the bodies were carried into Hólar.
It carried on ringing with such great force when the bodies were carried into the church that it cracked. This incident is believed to be a symbol and a testimony of how badly even mortal things in North-Iceland reacted to the execution of Bishop Jón."
(Translated into English from Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - RHR)
This is my Jón and the bell in the church tower at Hólar
I always visit the Cathedral in awe as there is such a big part of Iceland's history here. There are so many artifacts in the Cathedral and a beautiful altarpiece from 1520 - we Icelanders are not used to such ornamental churches, being Lutheran.
At Hólar there is a lovely turf-house called Nýibær - New Farm, built in 1860. It is called New Farm as the old farm was still there when the new farm was built. People lived in the turf-house until 1945.
Nýibær turf-farm is now in the index of archaeological sites and relics and has belonged to the National Museum of Iceland since 1956, and opened to the public in 1958. It is open and admission is free.
But it is different from other turf-houses, which are now museums in Iceland, in that it is almost empty, and the turf-house itself is the showpiece. And it is a beautiful showpiece, both inside and out.
It is especially interesting walking around it, seeing the small windows in what seems to be only a grass mound. The turf farms only look like houses from the front - they are totally different from the side and from the back.
You will see a beautiful log house at Hólar. It was erected in remembrance of the Norwegian Auðun rauði Þorbergsson, who was a bishop at Hólar from 1313-1322. While he was a bishop he built a log-house from Norwegian wood which he carried to Iceland with him from Norway. It became the quarters of the bishops at Hólar for five centuries.
In the early 19th century the log-house was dismantled and in 2002 a new log-house was built. The Norwegians donated the wood and it was built with tools like were used in the 14th century.
At Auðunarstofa are the offices of the ordained bishop at Hólar located together with a parlour where concerts are held and meetings. In the cellar canonicals and old books are on display and the old chalices of the Cathedral at Hólar.
You will find a well called Gvendarbrunnur at Hólar. There are several wells in other places in Iceland with the same name, f.ex. at Klúka in Bjarnarfjörður. They are said to have healing powers as Guðmundur góði Arason blessed them.
Guðmundur the Good was a bishop at Hólar in 1203-1237 and a saintly man. The name Gvendarbrunnur comes from the nickname of Guðmundur being Gvendur.
The main water reserve for Reykjavik in Heiðmörk is also called Gvendarbrunnar. The well here at Hólar was reconstructed in the 1950s.
The view from Mt. Gvendarskál
There are lovely hikes at Hólar and a lot of things to see. One of the hikes takes you hiking up the mountain to Gvendarskál, where the above-mentioned Guðmundur góði Arason, who was the bishop at Hólar in 1203-1237, used to go and pray. On the top of the mountain, you will find an altar and a guestbook.
I hiked up to the mountain but didn't get to the altar. It is a relatively easy hike but when you reach the top it gets rocky and on the top, it is very rocky and a relatively long walk to the altar. The view from here of Hjaltadalur is breathtaking.
The population of Hólar is around 100 people but in the wintertime the population doubles in numbers. The University specializes in horse-breeding and horse-riding, fish-farming, and fish-biology - together with tourism.
I have stayed at Hólar a couple of times through the years and have always loved my stay. To me, Hólar is such a special place that I want to stay there as long as I can. I always stay in the same room in the cottage in the photo below.
I love staying at Hólar in Hjaltadalur
It is a double room with access to a shared kitchen and a shared bathroom. Very lovely and quiet.
Ruins of an early-Christianity church in Hjaltadalur
On my last visit to Hólar in Hjaltadalur, the ordination bishop at Hólar and her husband told me about very special ruins in Hjaltadalur. Ruins of a church from early Christianity in Iceland were discovered at Neðri-Ás in Hjaltadalur close to Hólar. Very few such ruins have been discovered.
The Viking Þorvarður Spak Böðvarsson lived at Ás back in the 10th century. He is believed to have adopted Christianity in year 981 from the first missionary in Iceland - Þorvaldur víðförli. He built a church here on his farm in 984, which was some 16 years before Christianity was adopted in Iceland. He imported wood for the church from England.
Ruins of 2 other medieval churches have been discovered here at Neðri-Ás in Hjaltadalur.
Ruins of an early-Christianity church in Hjaltadalur
The church ruins were discovered during an archaeological dig in 1998-1999. A sheep barn on this spot from the last millennium had always been referred to as bænhúsið - the house of prayer. Beneath the sheep barn, another structure was found, and beneath that structure were the ruins of a stithy - and beneath the stithy, the ruins of this 12 m2 church were unearthed.
Some 100 graves were found by the old church - the bones seem to date back to before 1104. Hólar was founded in 1106 so people might have wanted to be buried in the graveyard at Hólar instead.
You will see a monument by the road leading to Neðri-Ás. The following is written on it: "Þorvarður Spak Böðvarsson lét gera kirkju á bæ sínum í Ási. En kirkja sú var ger sextán vetrum áður kristni var í lög tekin á Íslandi. - Kristnisaga".
Translated into English: "Þorvarður Spak Böðvarsson had a church erected on his farm at Ás. But that church was erected 16 winters before Christianity was adopted in Iceland. - the Saga of Christianity".
A heathen temple has been erected on the land of the farmers at Efri-Ás.
Extensive archaeological excavations have taken place at Hólar and you can see some of the unearthed ruins when you visit Hólar. At the museum, you will also see some of the artifacts found during the excavations. None of them is as old as these ruins though.
Hólar in Hjaltadalur is located some 314 km away from the capital city, Reykjavík. You can rent a car in Reykjavík and drive up to Hólar in a day or two.
Once you have reached the Viking fjord Skagafjörður drive on road 76 north and turn right on road 767. Drive for some 11 km on this road to Hólar. Follow the sign "Velkomin heim að Hólum" or Welcome home to Hólar :)
Don't miss visiting this important historic site when travelling up north in Iceland.
Have a lovely time at the beautiful Hólar in Hjaltadalur :)