Travel Story In pictures: Churches of Iceland

Photo of Andy Tyndall

Small and discreet churches add a special tinge to the monochrome of an Icelandic winter dusk.

Keep an eye out for Iceland’s churches. Although most are of similar, simple design, their locations and views can be spectacular. 

Reykjavik’s Hallgrimskirkja soars to the skies, dominating the city below and affording spectacular views from its summit, but it is the little ones which have taken our fancy. 

Small and discreet, they can appear in locations chosen, it seems, to catch the eye: by a harbourside in Akranes where it can survey the fishing fleet, or standing faintly aloof from the rest of the town in Grindavik or on the river bank at Thingvellir, remote from any other habitation except the small row of attendant cottages next to it. 

The one that drew me in is the church at Saubaer.

We saw it first as we found our way to our cabin in the snow, a small church lying down by the dark, rippling waters of Hvalfjordur.

Saubaer Church has been placed away from any immediately visible human habitation. Presumably, like some of our own rural Western Australian churches, it is there as a halfway spot: a place where everyone can suffer equally to get there.

It is floodlit at night, as if a beacon to a lost local or, perhaps, a whaler returning to the base of the head of the fjord. So, sitting in our hot tub, surrounded by snow — as you should, if in Iceland (and, yes, I was sceptical less about the joys of sinking into hot water, but more about picking my way back over ice and snow on the return journey) — looking for the few strands of gossamer green light which is all we did get to see of aurora borealis, we notice a tiny, glorious splash of light on the shoreline. 

It must be investigated.

Next afternoon is still: a day of brooding skies and little wind makes for an eerie, silent ambience at the church. A building nearby has a Volvo parked outside. It is, presumably, the caretaker or priest’s residence but there are no signs of activity anywhere. Deafening footprints in the crusty, deep snow mark my journey around the church in the dusk. It is an idyllic setting: built on a small mound, the church has 180 degree views of the fjord and the light that shifts and changes off the opposite hillsides.

But as that light failed that afternoon, something else is revealed to me: the gloom must have reached just the right intensity to set off the solar sensors in an unexpected array amongst the sombre grey headstones. Quite suddenly lines of crosses are glowing and glittering in the gloaming. It really is very pretty.

Icelandic traditionalists decorate many gravestones with lights in winter. It does not happen in the summer months — with 24 hour daylight, you would not notice them anyway — but around Christmas time graveyards spring into light in the evening, adding a magical, ethereal feel to a normally sombre place. It is not only a positive way to celebrate a loved one’s life but also a small array of welcome lights, pin-pricked yet defiant, in the monochrome of an Icelandic winter dusk.

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