Just 6km north of the Ringroad along Route 721, the ancient site of Þingeyrar is worth a stopoff on your journey to Akureyri. If you don’t have your own transport, you’ll find that it’s a straightforward walk from the Ringroad. This was originally the site of a legislative assembly during the Icelandic Commonwealth, and the first Bishop of Hólar, Jón Ögmundarson, pledged to build a church and an associated farm here if God were to relieve a severe local famine. When the land began to regain its productivity, the bishop took things one step further and established Iceland’s first monastery, Þingeyraklaustur, here in 1133, which remained in existence until the Reformation in 1550. The monks went on to copy and transcribe some of the country’s most outstanding pieces of medieval literature, and it was on this spot that many of the sagas were first written down for posterity.
There’s nothing left of the monastery, but a superb nineteenth-century church, Þingeyrakirkja, now stands adjacent to where the monks once lived and worked. Constructed of large blocks of basalt, brought here on sledges dragged across the nearby frozen lagoon of Hóp, the church was the first building on the site to be made of stone – all previous structures had been of turf – and it brought much admiration from local worthies. Although its grey mass is indeed an impressive sight, clearly visible from miles around, it’s the interior that really makes a trip here worthwhile, with stark white walls setting off the blue ceiling, painted with a thousand golden stars, and the simple green pews. The wooden pulpit dates from 1696 and is thought to come from Denmark or Holland, whereas the altarpiece, inset with religious figures made of alabaster, dates from the fifteenth century and was originally made in the English town of Nottingham for the monastery there. The wooden figures of Christ and the twelve apostles lining the balcony were carved in 1983 to replace the original statues from Germany, which are now in the National Museum in Reykjavík.