I've always loved maps. In the foggy haze of my childhood, I remember spending entire class periods of grade school staring at the world map longingly. Looking at the map of Iceland, the Westfjords had never demanded my attention in the same way that other geographical formations elsewhere in the world had in the past. My eyes skipped over the jagged rocky borders without so much as a second thought. But now I found myself embarking on a road trip through this very place. This forgotten corner of the world, which had taken me nano-seconds to glance over in my youth, was a world unto itself. Even within Iceland, because of it's isolation, it has often been called "the other Iceland." During my time in the Westfjords, I would spend more than 24 hours (in total) driving from Akureyri to Ísafjörður, to Látrabjarg, back to Ísafjörður, and finally, southward to Vesturland. The landscape was vast, rugged, and unforgiving. And it just kept going, and going, and going.
In seemingly every fjord, there would be a small settlement of houses clinging to the cliffside or the tundra, weathering the elements. Looking out the window at them, I thought about what a lonely existence people here must live, so very isolated from their fellow humans. In time I would learn that these people are actually much more connected than one might think. Indeed, these were communities full of people that depended on one another, out here on the edge of the world. But of all the amazing pieces of civilization subsisting out here, none sparked my interest more than the following string of tiny Icelandic churches.
These little structures were often the only sign of human life for miles in any direction. Each time we caught a glimpse of the small pointy steeple from our place on the road, we would come to a screeching halt and dive off down the nearest dirt road to explore. No two of these churches were the same. Each was completely unique, and a few of them had even been left unlocked!
But, before we get started...
Quick Lesson In Icelandic:
Kirkja = Church
14 Beautiful Churches In Iceland's Westfjords
Staðarhóll is one of the most ancient Christian orders in Iceland, dating back to the year 1200. Not far from this spot, the original church has stood for centuries. However, that church was apparently damaged (mysteriously) and, in 1899, the church pictured below was erected to take its place.
This church sits at one of the southernmost parts of the neck of the Westfjords. This is the beginning of the wild mountains and cliffs that the region has become known for. Take note of the bride and groom made out of hay bails out back. Lolz.
This church also sits in what is more or less the gateway to the Westfjords. It's the oldest concrete structure still standing in Strandasýsla County, which covers most of the western side of the province. However, like many of the churches on this list, the Kollafjarðarneskirkja seen today was rebuilt to replace another much older church that did not survive until modern day. In this case, the original church was consecrated in the early 1700s.
This church was locked when we happened upon it, but inside there are valuable relics that date back to the founding of the original church in the 16th century. Still, it was nice to look at from the outside. It's location on the water in the grassy fields was pretty beautiful.
This church is unique on this list because of its elevation. The land between the fjords in this part of Iceland is all pretty much enormous mountains. On top of these mountains there is nothing but a rocky, green, windswept tundra. Most civilization here is at sea level, at the base of these mountains, but not Nauteyrarkirkja. This church came out of nowhere as we were flying through the tundra to the next fjord.
The church is on the banks of a river, which goes over the side of a cliff to become a waterfall, rocketing down to the ocean below. It took us a while to find our way over to this church. We had been off-roading for a while before we finally found our way onto the dirt road that leads to it. The church was locked, and it sat next to an overgrown cemetery. There were a few abandoned-looking structures in the distance, but other than that, it was completely isolated up in the tundra.
Although Vatnsfjarðarkirkja was not consecrated until 1912, it's history stretches back farther than almost any other surviving settlement in Iceland, to the dawn of the 12th century. From that time, until the 1700s, Vatnsfiord was one of the wealthiest farms in all of Iceland, and its owners were among the most powerful. In 2003, an archeological investigation was launched to learn about the this farm's rise to prominence, its role as a seat of political and economic power, and its eventual decline.
Today much of this once great settlement lays in ruins, barely even noticeable (if you aren't looking for it) beneath the thick layers of moss and grass that cover the Icelandic tundra. Luckily, it's a protected historical site. Overlooking the church's large, circular graveyard from a nearby ridge, there is a large cairn that was supposedly built by Grettir The Strong, about whom a famous Icelandic Saga was written in the 13th century. The cairn is called Grettisvarða. (If you didn't know this, a cairn is one of those commemorative piles of rocks that you find when you go hiking.)
Brjánslækur is a farm with a long history, stretching back to the early days of Iceland. However, the church itself was not built until 1908. I couldn't dig up much about that history, but I can say this: the location is gorgeous. Most of these locations were (and are) gorgeous, but this one was definitely in the top 5.
We spent some time poking around in the graveyard next to this church. The grave stones ranged from people who died in the late 1800s to the mid-1970s. Among the departed who had been laid to rest in this cemetery, we discovered the headstones of a few different babies, some less than 1 year old when they died. These little ones had passed away at or before the beginning of the 1900s. That meant that they could have lived long lives and still have been dead by the time we got to this cemetery. I remember reflecting on that as we walked back to the car. Time, dude.
This was, by far, one of the most beautiful spots I found in my entire time in Iceland. The fields surrounding this church were particularly luscious and green, and wildflowers were growing like I've never seen before. However, instead of showing you that, I've decided to show you the inside of this church.
Hagakirkja was one of the only churches we found that had been left unlocked. Inside this church was beyond charming. The ceiling was rounded in such a way that it connected to the walls smoothly, and on this surface was painted hundreds of tiny golden stars! It felt like something out of a Tim Burton movie... except not dark and scary.
We found this church on the sandy road to Látrabjarg, which is one of the most remote tips of the Westfjords. Set against the backdrop of the cliffs and the sandy beaches, this place was pretty freaking idyllic.
I was very surprised to find out that this church had been built as recently as 1964. It was poorly maintained, with a long overgrown staircase leading down to nowhere. One would assume that churches in this kind of disrepair would be very old, but that just goes to show how well the rest of these churches have been maintained. Apparently there had been another church here that had been built much closer to the water in 1824... but something happened to it. I don't know what. But this church was built to replace it.
Bad things happened here...
I was attacked by sheep. They saw me from across the pasture, and all began to run towards me at once. As they got closer to me, they were showing no signs of slowing down, so, not knowing what else to do, I turned and ran. They chased me all the way back to the goddamn car!
Let me tell you, it's pretty demoralizing to be chased by sheep, but maybe I had it coming. I had eaten a large dinner of lamb the night before, so maybe they could smell it on my breath. The sheep dog pictured below seemed pretty amused watching me get herded back to the car.
This was another amazing little spot that sticks out in my memory. The church itself was gorgeous, but what really set this place apart was its surroundings. All around this church was some of the most colorful grass I've ever seen. Wild sheep and horses grazed amongst the shades of green, yellow, and purple. With the sun hitting it just right, it was perfect. But across the fjord was another story. The snow and clouds you see across the water is Drangajökull Glacier. Iceland has many glaciers, but Drangajökull is the only one that has not yet been affected by global warming. So while it may have been summer on this side of the fjord, the other side was still trapped in winter.
Ögurkirkja is the oldest church on this list. Originally, it belonged to a little town called Ögur. This town's history stretches back to the earliest days of Christianity in Iceland, but this church was not built until 1859. Despite this church's age, it had clearly been very well maintained. There was a cozy little house next to it, which looked to be the home of a small family.
Between Ísafjörður (the capital of the Westfjords) and this church is a treacherous mountain road. The road goes so high up that plants no longer grow. Instead, there is black, volcanic dirt. Clouds swirl around this road constantly, often covering the road in a dense fog, and keeping the ground wet. It's a scary drive! And this church sits almost exactly at the foot of it.
This church used to be the home of Jón Sigurðsson, who is the famed leader of Iceland's independence movement from Denmark. His father was the pastor of this church! Next to this church there is an interesting museum about him and his family. It was raining when we arrived, so we stopped in this museum for some waffles and coffee. (Icelanders love waffles for some reason.)
11. Eyrarkirkja í Seyðisfirði
Very near to the town of Ísafjörður, much of this church's history is intertwined with the history of the Norwegian whalers who called this part of Iceland home in late 1800s and early 1900s. Apparently this church contains a number of valuable artifacts that were left behind from these days. Having been built in 1866, this is one of the oldest churches on our list, but like many other churches in this region, it was actually built to replace the church that had previously stood here. There are stones in this church's graveyard dating back to the year 1500.
The last member of the family that owned the property that this church sits on died in the year 2000. I'm not sure who owns it now, but they had their gate locked up pretty tight. We couldn't drive over, so we opted against hopping the fence and walking over to it. We were guests in the Westfjords after all. And we were also tired, so I let my zoom lens do all the work.
I was in Iceland visiting my little brother, who had been living in the Westfjords for some months at that point. Apparently he had spent a couple nights sleeping in this church at one point. At first, the thought of it creeped me out, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how incredibly safe I felt out here in the wastes. The people we had met along the way had just been so kind that, by this point, I was living a life free of my normal big-city anxieties.
Holtskirkja sits in an unusually wide valley, sheltered on all sides by giant walls of rock. Having been built in 1869, it is one of the oldest churches on this list, but it apparently received a thorough face-lift in 1937. Still, that was almost 100 years ago now, so it's safe to say that this church has weathered a few storms since then.
Súðavík is the last substantial town on the road to Ísafjörður, capital of the Westfjords. And this church sits right on the main road! This meant that we didn't have to go on the typical wild goose chase down dirt roads to find it. However, this is not the original location of this church.
This church was moved to Súðavík from its previous location in 1899 to support a settlement of Norwegian whalers, but not everybody in the local community was happy about this. Previously, the church sat in the village of Hesteyrarfjördur in a northerly fjord called Jökulfjörðum. This village had a long history stretching back to ancient times, but by 1899, the village was all but abandoned. Still, many inhabitants in the surrounding area felt that the church had been stolen from them, for the sake of outsiders. But it still sits in Súðavík to this day.
While this church was originally built in 1897, the history of this site reaches back much farther than that. The altar in this church has been preserved from 1775, and crucifixion picture behind it dates back to 1696. This area was also, at one point, home to the family of Jón Sigurðsson, who would lead Iceland's independence movement from Denmark. However, his actual home was listed above, Hrafnesyri.
Take note of the low light in this last picture. During the summer in Iceland, there is almost 24 continuous hours of daylight. Our journey through the Westfjords was about a month and a half after the summer solstice, so "night" was about 4 continuous hours of sunset, starting around 11:30. So these photos were taken somewhere in the 10:00pm ballpark. And in the winter, the Westfjords (along with the rest of Iceland) will live in perpetual darkness.
To learn more about the churches of Iceland's Westfjords (and the rest of the country for that matter), check out KirkjaKort. This site helped me track down a lot of the history behind these churches, and it has an interactive map with every church in Iceland. There's a lot of them. I don't know who took the time to put this database together, but I thank them for it.
That's it for Iceland's Westfjords! Next we'll be heading south to Vesturland's iconic Snæfellsnes Mountains. Hold onto your hats!