Skriðuklaustur is a beautiful place to visit on your travels in East-Iceland. It is a Centre of History and Culture (Gunnarsstofnun) and one of the greatest historic sites in Iceland. The last Catholic monastery in Iceland, an Augustinian monastery, operated on this spot from 1493-1552. Its main purpose for these 60 years was to attend to the sick.
This beautiful building is the former home of the noted author Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975). He built this manor at Skriðuklaustur in 1939. It was designed by the German architect, Fritz Höger, who was a friend of Gunnar's. Fritz never came to Iceland, but I am sure that he was proud of how his beautiful work turned out. It is a mixture of a European mansion and a cloister with a reference to the traditional Icelandic turf houses.
I think it is an absolutely beautiful building and love the turf roof :) The double walls have turf insulation and there are basalt rocks in the concrete walls, which give this beautiful, one of a kind Icelandic building, a very distinctive look.
The ambulatory was added to the mansion in 1974-1982 and a new turf roof with a watering system was installed on the 100th anniversary of Gunnar Gunnarsson in 1989.
Gunnar had lived in Denmark for 30 years and when he returned back home to Iceland he wanted to build a European manor in the Icelandic countryside. He was born in Valþjófsdalur in Fljótsdalur in East-Iceland, where he lived for the first 7 years of his life. He built his 325-335 sq.m. manor on the land of Skriðuklaustur very close to his birthplace.
Gunnar had planned on building all in all 2,800 sq.m. with several outhouses and having large-scale farming at his big estate with up to 1,500 sheep. He didn't manage to do so, even though some of us might think that the 350 sheep, 10 horses, 5 cows, cattle, pig and hens he kept would be regarded as large enough. Unfortunately his timing was off as WW2 began and workers flocked from the countryside to the villages and towns, where there was ample and better paid work to be had.
Gunnar donated Skriðuklaustur to the Icelandic state 9 years later, in 1948, under the condition that it should be used for experimentation in farming and a residence for artists and authors. Gunnar himself moved south to Reykjavík. At Klaustrið artists and authors can apply for a stay at the writer's retreat.
Gunnarsstofnun is dedicated to the work of Gunnar Gunnarsson and you will find this bust of Gunnar in front of his former home.
Gunnar Gunnarsson was a very well known author and novelist and mainly wrote in Danish. Amongst one of his famous works is Aðventa - the Good Shepherd. It is a very popular book, written in 1936 on the ordeal of Fjalla-Bensi, Benedikt Sigurjónsson.
Aðventa was first published in Leipzig in Germany and has since been translated into 10 languages!
Back in 1925, when Fjalla-Bensi was searching for left behind sheep in the highlands of Iceland, he got caught in a major storm and had to stay alone with the sheep in a little hut, made of turf and stone, during the holy time of advent. Much like this little hut in my photo below.
I visited this hut on my way to the Askja caldera in the highlands. It is the only hut I have seen with a tree growing on top of it, quite distinctive.
It is cool visiting it in the summer time, but just imagine what it must have been like being stuck in an awful blizzard in the highlands of Iceland alone in this hut!
Now, back to Skriðuklaustur, where exhibitions, concerts and talks are held amongst other events. The manor reminds me of German and Danish mansions and it is very lovely finding such a beautiful house here in East-Iceland. We have nothing else in the liking of this beautiful mansion in Iceland.
My co-blogger Nanna has written about her visit to Klausturkaffi, the Cloister café at Skriðuklaustur, in her blog Local travels the ring road around Iceland: South to east Iceland.
Skriðuklaustur has irregular opening hours, but in summer time in June-August it is open from 10-18. In May & September from 11-17, April from 12-16 and October 1st-15th from 12-16. If you are travelling outside of these opening hours you can phone ahead at +354 471-2990 to get a peek into this beautiful mansion.
There is an entrance fee to the museum, where you will also get guidance.
Archaeological excavations of the old monastery
During the archaeological excavation old graves were dug up and the bones examined, which shed new light on the function of the monastery and the ailments of the patients at the hospital. Ca 260 skeletons were exhumed in the old cemetery. Many of these bones show that the patients had serious illnesses; cancer, hydatid disease, smallpox, syphilis, TB etc.
Many skeletons of babies and premature babies were also exhumed.
Two of the graves in the cemetery where most likely the graves of priors, who were buried with women and children, like they had been a family.
This might seem strange as the Catholic priors should have been celibate. But it seems like different rules applied here in Iceland. It was a rule rather than an exception that the clergy men had women and children. They were not allowed to marry though, but the women were called escorts.
Every room of the monastery has been marked with its function and an information sign has been put up to give us a better insight into the life and work at the monastery. You can walk around this area and have a "peek" into each room.
An excellent job has been done in presenting the monastery to visitors, event though nobody knows what it looked like. This lost monastery was 1200 sq.m. in size, which is large for Iceland. I would have loved to see what it looked like when it was operating, even though I am happy that I was not alive during the dark middle ages in Iceland.
Here you can find an infirmary, a cloister garden with a well in the centre, sleeping quarters for the monks, the quarters of the bishop, a chapel, a pantry and a dining hall, a brewery, an infirmary and many other rooms. The cloister church, which was consecrated in 1512, was the most important building in the monastery. Here are also night-stairs for the monks to enter the church, as they had to be able to access the church 24/7.
It is very interesting wandering around the different rooms, imagining what life must have been like during its time of operation.
Several objects were discovered during the excavation, including a beautiful golden ring and a statuette of St. Barbara dating back to the 15th century, made in Utrecht in the Netherlands. It was found in pieces in the church.
Some rosary beads were also unearthed, a knife and a chess piece to name but a few.
The grave of the vagrant Jón Hrak
Only one gravestone can be found in the cemetery by Skriðuklaustur, the grave and gravestone of the vagrant Jón Hrak.
There are many tales of this vagrant and it was believed that he was buried here in the cemetery. What is unique with his grave is that he is not buried east-west, which is customary here in Iceland, but south-north (út og suður).
The Chief Forester Hákon Bjarnason (skógræktarsjóri) had a tombstone erected on the grave. There is a known poem about Jón Hrak, which goes like this in Icelandic:
"Kalt er við kórbak,
kúrir þar Jón Hrak.
Ýtar snúa austur og vestur,
allir nema Jón Hrak, allir nema Jón Hrak"
- in English:
" It is cold at the choir's back,
there lies old Jón Hrak.
Everybody is buried lying East and West,
everybody but Jón Hrak, everybody but Jón Hrak".
One of the reasons why Jón Hrak is believed to have been buried this way is that he was a vagrant and might have died in the dead of winter, so those who buried him didn't show him the respect of burying him in the proper manner. Another reason might be that those, who buried him, didn't want him to return from his grave so they turned him in the "wrong" direction.
I found a folklore in Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - the Folklore of Jón Árnason, which I often refer to in my blog, telling a different story of Jón "Flak" in a different cemetery with the same poem - but here Jón "Flak" is repeating this poem after his death.
Sesselja the sinner
I just want to tell you in a few words how the old land Skriða (now Klaustur) came into the possession of the Catholic church. Sesselja Þorsteinsdóttir had married her second cousin once-removed, Einar Ormsson Loftssonar the Rich. Einar died in 1470 and after his demise the cousinship to his wife was revealed, but at this time it was forbidden for second cousins once-removed to get married (nowadays even cousins can get married).
Einar's brother, Loftur, convinced the bishop to strip his brother's children of their inheritance and to excommunicate Sesselja :( The only way for Sesselja to save her soul and the soul of her now illegitimate children, was to donate the land Skriða, which she had inherited from her husband, to the Catholic church, for a monastery to be built there.
I got this story from an information sign on the excavation site, but have not seen it anywhere else.
Snæfellsstofa visitor centre
Snæfellsstofa Information centre, is located almost next to Skriðuklaustur. It serves as a Visitor centre and an Information centre for the east territory of the National Park of Vatnajökull glacier. Snæfellsstofa was opened in 2010 and the building is the first eco-friendly building in Iceland according to the British environmental standard BREEFAM.
The Visitor centre hosts an exhibition on the circulation and formation on nature and the wildlife in this area. It is really interesting exhibition and so worth a visit. These Information centres are so helpful, and I always stock up on maps and information pamphlets on the area, as in the different regions of Iceland you can get more detailed information on the area in question.
April 19th-30th: 10-16, May: 10-17, June-August: 9-17, September: 10-17 and October 10-16.
I have written other blogs on interesting sights in the vicinity of Skriðuklaustur, i.e. the majestic Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss Waterfalls in East-Iceland, which is very close to Skriðulaustur and a must see (see my photo below) and Hallormsstaðaskógur Forest in East-Iceland - Iceland's largest Forest, which you will drive through on your way to Skriðuklaustur.
And last, but not the least, Lagarfljótsormurinn Serpent in Lagarfljót Lake in East-Iceland, which you might see while driving around the lake, hopefully not though as it is our equivalence to Loch Ness!
Here you can see the location of Skriðuklaustur and Snæfellsstofa on the map.
From Egilsstaðir drive on ring-road 1, then take route 931 to make a round-trip from Egilsstaðir around the lake, cross the bridge and turn left on 933 for Skriðuklaustur. To get back take 931 back to Egilsstaðir either on the same side as you arrived or drive around the lake. That road is partly gravel.
To get to this area you can either rent a car, go on a self-drive tour around Iceland or join many of the guided tours in East-Iceland. For accommodation in this area check out the Wilderness Centre of Iceland! My co-blogger Richard has written a blog on it and I will be staying there next summer.