Posted on January 31, 2019
East of Vik, the Ring Road scenery is fairly average by Iceland standards. Southeast Iceland is mostly farmland, black sand beaches and miles and miles of lava fields covered in thick, green moss. A little weird that moss. When you get to a traffic circle, you’ll see the tiny the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur (church farm cloister).
Klaustur, the local nickname for the town, is quickly forgotten by the roadtrip visitor – they’re biding their time, heading east to Glacier Lagoon. But look closely and you’ll has a thousand years of history, a cataclysmic eruption and Fjaðrárgljúfur, a Geopark that’s a visual feast and was the setting for a Justin Bieber video.
The roundabout is central hub for a church, market, bank, tourist center, fast food joint and gas station, several guesthouses, even a hotel. I decided to stay there, at the Klaustur Guesthouse, because it’s so close to the river canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur, my favorite shot location in the area.
But my plan was to shoot this canyon in the evening light. So I stopped by the gas station/fast food joint for lunch and to see if the town offered anything for the curious tourist.
I ordered the grilled chicken sandwich and lemonade and continued talking to my server, a young guy from Hungary. He started off with a story about his grandfather and the Nazis worthy of Tarentino. Then conversation turned to life for a guest worker in Iceland; he and the others here were summer workers from Eastern Europe. They made good money and my new friend was an enthusiastic explainer of the local sights. So I got the scoop on what to do.
Of moss and history. It’s believed that Klaustur was where a group of Irish monks settled before the Norse arrived in the Ninth Century. By 1186 a Catholic cloister was founded in the area. Their farm was on the ridge, set next to the lake, Systravatn (“water of the sisters”). Just below that was the locally famous sight Systrafoss (“waterfall of the sisters”). The Laki volcano, few miles north of all this, was the site of a massive eruption in 1783, one of the worst in European history. All of these pieces of history are written in the stone and and culture of the town.
It was too early to check in Klaustur Guesthouse so I stopped by the Visitors Center on the way — it’s at 10 Klausturvegur road, just off the roundabout. Besides the local travel flyers and books, they have a little exhibit going, 10 or 12 types of moss under glass bell-jars — plus the excellent video on the Laki volcano.
The volcanic eruptions that happened at Laki from the summer of 1783 till early 1784 were the largest of the last thousand years in Europe. For a full 8 months, 42 billion tons of lava, 120 million tons of poison gases and ash blasted out of the fissure at Laki, killing 25% of Iceland’s population. The hydrogen fluoride gases killed 80% of the country’s sheep and 50% of the horses and cattle.
The release of the sulfur dioxide gases also had a cataclysmic effect in Europe. The thick haze decreased the amount of sunlight by enough to make that winter a deadly one in Europe. Even in North America the effects were significant, causing the Mississippi River to freeze over at New Orleans.
The months of dark haze caused crop failure as far away as Egypt. The famine in France was more deadly, one of the causes of the French Revolution. Remember “Let them eat cake?” Marie-Antoinette may not have said the iconic line, but the famine was real and deadly, even for the queen. According to the documentary, the Laki volcano killed a million people world-wide.
Klaustur, just south of the epicenter, was the town hardest hit. The scope of the lava flow was immense by any standards and the farmers in the area were devastated. After a month and a half of nightmarish damage, the people were certain their lives were over. That Sunday in July 1783, they gathered at the Klaustur church with a major lava flow bearing down on them.
The pastor, Jon Steingrimsson, delivered the sermon. He understood clearly that this nightmare was God’s doing, that evil was walking the Earth. And he gave his eldmesse, his “Fire Sermon,” demanding that the congregation look within, acknowledge their sins. He must have been particularly effective in urging the congregation to re-dedicate themselves to God. By the time the service was over, the lava had stopped. The worst of it was over.
After 20 minutes, the historical video was over as well. So I checked out the display on the ecology of moss and lava. And yes, moss is another part of the Laki story. The moss I saw that day was nature’s answer to the miles and miles of new-made lava. The eruption of 1783 is still recent in terms of geological history. And ever since, the moss has slowly turned black stone into vegetative earth.
I headed to the guesthouse to check in. The Klaustur Guesthouse is just down the Klausturvegur road from the visitors center. The folks at the front desk know all about the town’s history and mentioned that path behind the guesthouse leads past the waterfall and up the plateau. So once I showered, I headed up the trail, camera in hand.
The trails behind Klaustur Guesthouse are open to anyone; this landscape is a piece of history. The walk is popular with families and couples. Nothing spectacular by Iceland standards. But a pleasant walk in a quiet forest has its own rewards.
And that’s Klaustur, the cloister town, the village at the traffic circle. Very little of this stuff makes its way into the guidebooks. The tour buses drive by, on their way to Skaftafell National Park and Jokulsaron Glacier Lagoon. But Pastor Steingrimsson and his Fire Sermon are a part of every Icelander’s heritage and Klaustur is a tourist destination for them.