Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Kirkjubæjarklaustur (referred to locally as ‘Klaustur’) is a village of approximately 200 inhabitants in the Skaftárhreppur municipality of South Iceland.
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Situated by the Ring Road, approximately 250 km (155 miles) east of Reykjavík, Klaustur is one of the few villages providing amenities such as fuel, shops, a bank and a supermarket between Vík í Mýrdal and Höfn.
The history of Kirkjubæjarklaustur differs, in many respects, to the traditional Icelandic settlement. “Papar”, the Icelandic title for travelling Irish monks, were thought to have settled the area long before the Norsemen.
In that tradition, it was claimed that pagans of no kind would set foot in Klaustur; this was a strictly Christian area.
Stories have permeated, with one telling of a pagan, Hildir Eysteinsson, who attempted to move there in the 10th Century. Upon setting foot across the border, he fell instantly dead and was buried on the neighbouring hill, Hildishaugur (“Hildir’s Mound.”)
Despite twisting the tongue, the full village name 'Kirkju-bæjar-klaustur' actually tells the story of the area well; 'Kirkju' means church, 'bæjar' means farm and 'klaustur' means convent.
The word 'Klaustur' was added to the original name 'Kirkjubær' in 1186 AD when a convent of Benedictine nuns settled there.
In the 364 years leading to the Reformation in 1550 AD, Klaustur did much for the oral history of South Iceland. Systrastapi (Sister’s Rock), the Systrafoss waterfall and lake Systravatn all take their names from the nun’s settlement.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
The lore relating to these sites are rich in tales of religious heresy, superstition and death.
Sister’s Rock, for instance, has been said to be the burial site of two nuns executed for sinful behaviour. The nuns were accused of all sorts of behaviour, including selling their soul to the devil, removing communion bread from church, carnal knowledge with men, and blasphemy toward the pope.
Guilty or not, the nuns were swiftly burned at the stake.
Following the Reformation, one of the nuns was vindicated for her actions, and it is said that flowers soon bloomed on top of her grave. The other’s grave has remained barren, a continuing reminder of the lady’s ethereal disapproval.
Despite its petite size, Klaustur is a critical crossroads to the attractions nestled at the centre of the island, namely the Laki Craters in Vatnajökull National Park and the Landmannalaugar hiking trails in the scenic Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Only a few kilometres from the village itself lies the spectacular Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon.
A short walk east of Kirkjubæjarlaustur will take you to the fascinating Kirkjugólfið “Church Floor”, an 80 square metre flat of basalt columns, shaped and formed naturally by the tide and glacial melts. The aforementioned Sisters Rocks and Sisters Waterfalls can be walked to from the village as well.
These three sites are little known of, so should be visited by those avoiding the crowds.
Due to its location on the South Coast, Klaustur is visited or passed through by those travelling to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Skaftafell Nature Reserve or ice caves, or those encircling the whole country.
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