From Sauðárkrókur, it’s a 100km run along routes 75 and 76 up the eastern side of Skagafjörður to Siglufjörður: between May and September three buses a week run this way. It’s worth making the short detour off Route 76 to Hólar í Hjaltadal, which was northern Iceland’s ecumenical and educational centre until the Reformation. Today, this tranquil place in the foothills of Hjaltadalur valley consists solely of a cathedral and an agricultural college, and is a remote and peaceful spot that’s worth seeking out – particularly if you fancy hiking, since a trail leads from here over to Dalvík. Beyond Hólar, Route 76 leads north to Hofsós, another diminutive settlement, best known as a study centre for North Americans of Icelandic origin keen to trace their roots, and beyond to Lónkot, an ideal choice of accommodation if you want to spend the night out in the wilds – and sample some truly inspiring local cuisine.
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Hólar í Hjaltadal
Hólar í Hjaltadal
Lying 12km down Route 767, which runs east off Route 76 about thirty minutes from Sauðárkrókur, the hamlet of HÓLAR Í HJALTADAL, or simply Hólar, was very much the cultural capital of the north from the twelfth until the eighteenth century: monks studied here, manuscripts were transcribed and Catholicism flourished until the Reformation. Now home to just sixty-odd people, most of whom work at the agricultural college – this and the cathedral are the only buildings remaining – it was the site of the country’s first printing press in 1530, set up by Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason (who was beheaded twenty years later at Skálholt for his resistance to the spread of the Reformation from the south).
A church has stood on this spot since Arason’s time, but the present cathedral was built in 1759–63 in late Baroque style, using local red sandstone from the mountain Hólabyrða, and is the second-oldest stone building in the country. Inside, the fifteenth-century alabaster altarpiece over the cathedral’s south door is similar in design to that in the church at Þingeyrar, and was likewise made in Nottingham, England. The main altarpiece, with its ornate carvings of Biblical figures, originated in Germany around 1500 and was given to the cathedral by its most famous bishop. Arason’s memory is honoured in the adjacent bell tower: a mosaic of tiny tiles, by Icelandic artist Erró, marks a small chapel and headstone, under which the bishop’s bones are buried.
Seventeen kilometres up Route 76 from the Hólar junction, HOFSÓS is a tiny, nondescript village on the eastern shores of Skagafjörður, consisting of one street and a tiny harbour, with a population of around two hundred. Nonetheless, it does have two good reasons to stop: a visit to the Vesturfarasetrið offers a fascinating insight into Icelandic emigration to North America; and a swim in one of the country’s most beautifully located outdoor pools.
Hofsós is primarily a base for the hundreds of Americans and Canadians of Icelandic descent who come here to visit the Vesturfarasetrið, or Icelandic Emigration Centre, housed in several buildings beautifully set on the seafront by the harbour. The centre’s genealogy and information service is located in the Frændgarður building, while the main exhibition, tracing the history of the Icelanders who emigrated west over the sea, is on display in the red-roofed building just beyond. In the Konungsverslunarhúsið, before the footbridge across to the main exhibitions, there’s a moving display of black-and-white photographs recounting the lives of children who emigrated to North Dakota.
Designed by the same architect responsible for the Blue Lagoon, the new swimming pool in Hofsós is quite simply magnificent. It may not be Olympic size, but because it has been built into the hillside above the sea, the views over to Drangey are breathtaking. It’s not strictly an infinity pool, but the impression you get as you swim in the geothermal waters is that you’re right next to the sea’s edge. The pool was donated to the town just before the economic crash by two bankers’ wives, frustrated by the fact they had nowhere to swim.