The south-west of Iceland has a great deal to offer when it comes to natural landscapes: geysers, waterfalls and a rift valley formed by the separating tectonic plates (this is visible at Alþingi). But travelers shouldn't neglect the more cultural and historical side of the area. I suggest taking a small detour from the Golden Circle, for the slightly less-trodden path of Skálholt and Flúðir.
In steep competition with Þingvellir as the place of greatest historical relevance in the south-west, Skálholt is the spot where one of Iceland‘s two episcopal sees was located from the 11th to the 18th century. Although the current building only dates from 1963, several churches have been built on the spot, but these variously fell into decay, or were destroyed by fires or by earthquakes during the last millennium.
Some of this long history is visible to the eye. Archaeological excavations in the period 2002-2007 unearthed the remains of buildings dating from the 18th century. The church of Skálholt maintained a school until 1785 and among the buildings found by excavators were the remains of the schoolhouse and a nightchamber for schoolboys. Skálholt also has its own small history exhibition in the basement of the church.
But a great deal of the history is not visible. There‘s no denying that Icelandic history has left rather little to the modern traveler in terms of buildings or monuments, largely due the weak resistance that the historically popular building materials (stone and turf) can give to the strong weather of the country.
I believe, however, that we visit historical places not only to look at material remains of the past, but also to soak up their atmosphere. What's the source of this historical atmosphere? A part of the experience simply comes from knowing something about the history of the place you're visiting (this is where it all happened!). Skálholt is where, during the 16th-century Reformation, one of its Icelandic proponents, Oddur Gottskálksson, secretly translated the New Testament into Icelandic, according to his own account working in the cowshed at night. This is where the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Arason, and his two sons were executed in 1550.
But another part of the historical atmosphere comes from the (relatively) constant element: the natural environment. Although it has been somewhat altered by time, the landscape probably raises similar feelings in modern visitors as it did in people living in the time of the Reformation, and helps us to imagine ourselves in their shoes. This atmosphere, coupled with the visible historical remains, is what to me makes a place like Skálholt a worthwhile visit.
Additionally, Skálholt has hosted an annual series of Summer Concerts for several decades. This year's program runs until the 4th of August and features baroque music, the Skálholt Festival Choir and new music from both Icelandic and international composers. Admission is free of charge.
Just a stone‘s throw from Skálholt is the small village of Flúðir. Flúðir has its own answer to the Blue Lagoon: a natural hot spring pool, somewhat dramatically named the Secret Lagoon (you will have no trouble finding it, consider it an open secret). The pool is open all year round and nearby lies its own little geyser, erupting every few minutes.
Afterwards it might be a good idea to drop in for lunch at Friðheimar for tomato soup made from homegrown tomatoes. A hot soup inside a warm greenhouse (heated with geothermal energy) is a good way to warm up on colder winter days. The dining area is inside the greenhouse itself, and bees fly about in its tropical temperature. It's quite an experience in the darkest days of Iceland's winter.
Skálholt is located in Biskupstungur, the area between the rivers Brúará and Hvítá, in the south of Iceland. It takes approximately an hour to drive to Skálholt from Reykjavík and 15 minutes to drive from Skálholt to Flúðir.
Text by Óskar Völundarson