“Hey look, another awesome waterfall!”
This is probably the most common sentence – or rather a childishly high-pitched shout – when driving along the Ring Road in Iceland. I can’t quite remember why exactly we wanted to stop in this little village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, or did we even have any specific reason. Besides curiosity.
We used to stop a lot. Because that’s what you need to do on a road trip in Iceland. There is something unbelievable around every corner, and if you don’t stop, you might never find out what you missed.
Luckily we stopped in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, as we would have missed a lot if we hadn’t!
Kirkjubæjarklaustur is a small village of a bit over 100 inhabitants, but all services you need are right there. When you’re driving along the South Coast of Iceland, Kirkjubæjarklaustur is the first place after Vik where you can find a gas station and a supermarket. And a very beautiful church. It’s a bit different. And the church was most likely the biggest reason why we decided to stop in Kirkjubæjarklaustur in the first place.
The church was built in 1974 to honour the pastor who is said to have saved the village by stopping the lava flow with his sermon after a volcano called Lakagígar erupted back in 1783. This is exactly why I love Iceland so much! These amazing stories together with the amazing views and natural wonders… This country just feels too unbelievable to really exist!
First we drove pass the church and it seemed like we were approaching a dead end. And so it was, sort of, but we got so distracted by this beautiful waterfall that we decided to park the car and have a little walk next to it.
Systrafoss, “the sisters’ waterfall”, is named after Benedictine nuns, whose abbey was located in Kirkjubæjarklaustur at the end of the 12th century. Locals often refer to the village with a shorter name, Klaustur, that I believe means a monastery or an abbey. I know nothing about Icelandic language, nor does my dictionary, so please correct me if I’m wrong.
Many stories are told about the nuns in the abbey. But before diving deep into the sins of the nuns, I want to ask you something: Is it just me, or do you think the rock formation on the top right corner behind the waterfall looks like a snail?
Only when we reached the waterfall we noticed a path. Or actually, two paths; One leading deep into the woods and the other one following the waterfall uphill. The sign next to the tables told us that the trees were planted by the local families. The first ones were planted in 1945, and I must say that the villagers did a good job, as the biggest trees in Iceland are growing here on the hills of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The tallest measured tree is more than 25 meters. That’s pretty big for a country with very few forests!
The curiosity took us over, as usual, and we started climbing up the hill. Adventure! This is exactly why we are in Iceland! Without having any kind of idea what would be waiting for us when we reach the top… let’s just climb!
On the way up I was about to lose faith in myself. A path would have been fairly easy to walk along, but no, it was stairs all the way up. Steep stairs! We really hoped that the views would be worth all the effort.
On the other hand, when you are driving most of the time, it requires a lot of sitting on your bum. So it’s good to have ‘a little walk’ every now and then. Although I wouldn’t necessarily take this trail with small children, just to give you a little heads-up.
When we reached the top we were welcomed by this rough but beautiful view. Systravatn, “The Sisters’ Lake” is the place where the nuns used to bathe.
It was a rainy and a bit dodgy day, and we still had a lot of driving to do, so we didn’t start following the path that starts from the lake. Well, that was a mistake, because the 2 km trail would lead to a stone formation called Kirkjugólfið, “The Church Floor”. Even if we missed this sight, it doesn’t mean you have to. So in the end of this post you’ll find some useful links for your adventure. Learn from my mistakes.
The rain drops on the lens of my camera, the dark clouds predicting a storm and the dramatic views over the lake and into the horizon fit perfectly to the story of the lake Systravatn.
The folktale tells how two nuns came to the lake to bathe, as usual. Suddenly they saw a hand rising up from the lake holding a golden comb.
When the nuns tried to reach the shiny comb, the hand grabbed them and pulled them under the surface. The nuns disappeared without leaving a sign, and no one ever saw them again.
The poor innocent nuns had a sad and mysterious destiny. But not all the nuns were that innocent. Oh no, exactly the opposite.
Systrastapi, “The Sisters’ Rock”, is located a couple of kilometers west from Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The big, steep-edged rock is said to be a grave to two sinful nuns, who were burned to their death due to their acts. The folktale tells how the other nun had sold her soul to the Devil himself, carried consecrated bread outside the church and broken her wows by surrendering to carnal lust. The second nun instead was doomed due to blaspheming the Pope.
Afterwards the second nun was vindicated. Unfortunately it was a little bit too late for the poor nun. According to the tale, beautiful flowers are blooming on her grave.
That’s not the case with the first nun though.
Here you can find a map with all the marked hiking trails in the area. Once you spot Kirkjubæjarklaustur, you will easily find all the sights mentioned in this post: The lake Systravatn and the trail leading to Kirkjugólfið, “The Church Floor”. There has never been a church, though. The spectacular stone field is formed by lava flows. In case you are curious to see how it looks like, just click here to open the photos!
Systrastapi, “The Sisters’ Rock” you can find easily by following the green trail west towards the start (or end) of the river. Click here to see some photos of The Sisters’ Rock.
Here you can find more stories about Iceland. There will be more soon…
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