Misbehaving Nuns, Ancient Ice: Five Seasonal South Iceland Sights

Misbehaving Nuns, Ancient Ice: Five Seasonal South Iceland Sights

Larissa Kyzer
Photos by
Larissa Kyzer

Ideally, all of your travels in Iceland would be accompanied by mild weather and cloudless skies, but waiting for perfect weather in this country is much like waiting for Godot. This shouldn’t faze you, though, because the shoulder seasons (September and October, March and April) are frequently, if intermittently, lovely. They are typically a bit cold and windy—but also bright and clear and with enough daylight to allow for a decent day’s hiking or sightseeing. On a recent three-day drive along the South coast, my partner and I went to see some new sights and return to some favourites. Here are a few highlights.

This pretty little village has a rather gothic history, most of which has to do with nuns doing distinctly un-nunnish things and then meeting fabulously grim ends.

Litla Kaffistofan (Little Coffeeshop)
30 km outside of downtown Reykjavík

This green-trimmed cottage located in the Svínahraun lava field—by its own reckoning, the oldest coffee shop on Route One—is well worth a stop on your way out of town. With a surprising array of fresh-daily sandwiches and coffee (free for anyone who buys gas!), this is a great place for a quick breakfast. Even if you’re not peckish, stop to admire the charming interior, best described as the parlour of an Icelandic grannie if she was a huge fan of the footie. Lace curtains, doilies, and silk roses abound, as do photos and bios of Icelandic football players and local teams going back to the early 1930s.

Litla Kaffistofan

Seljavallalaug
154 km from Reykjavík

Tucked away at the base of Eyjafjallajökull, with narrow waterfalls trickling down the surrounding mountain walls, Iceland’s oldest swimming pool has the air of a place forgotten by time, even though it’s actually a very popular spot for both Icelanders and tourists. Built directly into the side of a rock face and fed by a natural geothermal spring, Seljavallalaug was built in 1923 by a local youth association. At 25 meters, it was the longest pool in Iceland until the mid-30s, and swimming lessons in the pool were once compulsory for local students. Today, the pool is still open to visitors, but no longer regularly maintained. Although the concrete paving is cracked and the dressing rooms are mildewy and bare, the scenery lends a distinct elegance to the disrepair.

Slipping into the water of Seljavallalaug is a bit like submerging in an algae-laced protein smoothie. If that doesn’t sound terribly appetising, I assure you that it’s wonderful—just slightly more “organic” than your everyday swimming experience. But that is, after all, the major draw of Seljavallalaug—the incongruence of sitting in a natural, untreated pool in such astonishing surroundings. Full disclosure: It’s a little chilly when the weather is hovering in the low 50s. You can treat yourself to a quick reheat in the far left corner, however, where the hot(ter) spring water that supplies the pool steadily trickles in.

Selljavallalaugb

Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón
370 km from Reykjavík

We were standing on board a duck boat in the middle of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, giddily gazing at a handful of giant, toothpaste-blue ice cubes as they floated stoically by when I heard the woman next to me grumble to her companion, “Gah! This totally sucks. I can’t believe that they aren’t running the small boats right now.”

Let me tell you in no uncertain terms: this woman was wrong. There was (and still is) nothing about Jökulsárlón that sucks. It is, in fact, totally worth the hype, and even worth return visits, as the icy landscape melts and moves and is completely different from week to week. It’s true that in the off-season, the guides only offer the “Amphibian boat tour,” a 45-minute circuit of the lagoon with anywhere between 15 and 30 passengers. And these don’t take you quite as close to the icebergs as you might get in the more intimate “Zodiac tours,” which take no more than seven people around the lagoon in small motorboats, sometimes getting within spitting distance of the icebergs and any resident seals.

But guys—big boat or small—you’re on a glacial lagoon. With icebergs. And the guide will pluck a piece of glacial ice out of the lagoon and let you touch it, and break off little pieces for you to taste, laughing that you now have “1,000 years just melting in your mouth!” Because the glacial ice is, in fact, probably around that age by the time it cracks off the Breiðamerkur glacier and becomes cocktail glass fodder. So no, lady, “this” did not suck. This was awesome.

If you are in no particular rush to be not-looking-at-glaciers, it’s also worth doubling back to Fjallsárlón (“Mountain Lagoon”), Jökulsárlón’s younger and slightly less impressive sister. Neither the lagoon itself nor the icebergs in it are as large, but it is less trafficked and feels quite intimate by comparison. The shoreline is also a lot closer to the base of the glacier, which looms rather magnificently behind the whole scene.

Fjallsárlón

Kirkjubæjarklaustur
259 km from Reykjavík

Home to a Benedictine convent from 1186 to 1550, this pretty little village has a rather gothic history, most of which has to do with nuns doing distinctly un-nunnish things and then meeting fabulously grim ends. At Systrastapi (“Sister’s Rock”), an anvil-shaped peak jutting out of lush grazing land, two nuns are said to have been burned at the stake: one for selling herself to the devil, carrying consecrated communion bread past an outhouse, and breaking her vow of chastity; the other for the comparatively mild sin of speaking impiously about the Pope. Stories also say that at Systravatn, the lake located above town and feeding into the Systrafoss waterfall, two bathing nuns made the mistake of grabbing at a phantom hand stretching out of the water and wearing a fine gold ring. They were dragged down into the depths and never seen again.

These campfire stories added an enjoyably creepy counterpoint to the tranquillity of the pastoral surroundings. Grazing sheep hopped along with us as we crossed through a local family’s farmland to get to Systrastapi (make sure to close the gate behind you). The sound of the waterfall blended with the light swishing sounds of birch and spruce leaves as we made our way up the (steep!) stairs and through the wood to Systravatn. And there, from the top, we encountered one of the loveliest vistas I’ve seen in Iceland yet.

More To See

It goes without saying that three days is not nearly enough to see all the sights dotting the south coast. For every location I mentioned here, there are two or three that I’ve left out. But this is a good problem to have: there’s always a reason to return for another round of exploration.

Car provided by Hertz car rental, book car at www.hertz.is

How to get there: Take Route One and drive south, and just keep going.

Distance from Reykjavík: Around 259 km

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