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High Hopes For Husavík

A trip to northeast Iceland's hotspot with much to offer
3.9.2012
Words by Valur Gunnarsson
The northeast of Iceland has been steadily growing in popularity as a tourism destination, and small wonder, as it has a lot to offer. Just off the Ring Road, there are the haunting Dimmuborgir (“Dark Cities”), which have served as inspiration for many a troll story as well as for a Norwegian black metal band of the same name. When you see the rock formations, which look as if they were sculpted by an artistically challenged Goth, you can see why.

If the scenery looks otherworldly, you aren’t the first to think so. It was here at Eldhraun (“Fire Lava,” man, they really like poetic names up here) that the Americans practiced their moon landing, this being the closest approximation to the celestial orb they could find on planet Earth.

ASTRONAUTS VS. INSECTS

These days, it is still not uncommon to see people looking like astronauts around here, although the outlandish headgear might have more to do with warding off flies than rehearsing for space travel. That impressive looking lake to your left is Mývatn, or “Midge Lake” (ok, perhaps not so poetic), named after the pesky little buggers who do their best to enter your eyes, mouth, nostrils or other unprotected openings. This is not, as you might think, merely because they like to annoy people, but rather because they are attracted to the carbon dioxide we emit.

Knowing this might not give much relief, but the fact that they rarely survive being swallowed might offer some solace. On this particular day, however, with the sun shining and the air calm, they seem to have decided that life is worth living and no Kamikaze runs are attempted.

ENEMY MINE

A bit farther up the road, and looking even more otherworldly (dystopian, perhaps), is the Krafla plant. Microfossils to be used for filtering beer and such are mined here, and not far off is Hverarönd, with natural cauldrons bubbling, and the aptly named Víti (“Hell”), a water filled volcanic crater. We seem to have descended from the dark cities to Dante.

All this geothermal activity comes from Iceland being located right where the North American and European continental plates meet. This is evidenced not only in the natives’ fondness for American hamburgers as well as English pop, but also right here. It is assumed that around a third of all lava the earth has emitted in the past millennium has come up through the island. If you ever missed a flight due to volcanic ash, now you know why.

NEW CITIES ON THE HORIZON

Continuing westwards one would find Dettifoss (“Stumbling Waterfall”), the most powerful waterfall in Europe and one of Iceland’s premier sights. Heading north instead, one would come to the northernmost part of mainland Iceland, almost touching the Arctic Circle. This is an excellent place to enjoy the midnight sun in the summer, the Northern Lights in the winter and a touch of Fata Morgana any time of year. If you look out towards the sea and start to see islands, forests or even whole cities appearing, chances are you are in fact being duped by a Morgana.

THE RELUCTANT SETTLER

But this is not where we are in fact going. Rather, we will be taking a city trip to Húsavík which, with around 2,500 residents, is by far the biggest settlement in the area. Rather than go on a whale watching trip, supposedly the best in the country, or using it as a base to go to the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, we are here do to what one usually does when arriving in a foreign city: having something to eat and taking in a museum or two.  

But first some history. It was in fact at Húsavík that the first settlement in Iceland was located and not in Reykjavik, as big city folk would have you believe. This is chronicled in the sagas, (so it must be true), but still largely ignored in history books. The reason is probably that the settler in question was an Irish slave named Náttfari, rather than a noble Norwegian chieftain such as proper people would like to have for a founding father. Also, Náttfari didn’t really want to be stuck there, but got left behind. Even if he was the first settler, it wasn’t really his intention.

FROM BLOOD FIELDS TO OPERATIC RIVERS

The notorious Penis Museum has now been relocated back to Reykjavík, but there are other worthwhile sights. The town museum Safnahúsið has been dubbed the best in north-eastern Iceland by Insight Guide, and now has another accolade, as locals will be quick to tell you. This year, they were awarded the prestigious Icelandic Museum Award.

The museum includes a lot of local history, from stuffed animals to household appliances and weaponry. The most chilling is a helgríma, (“Mask of Death”), used for sheep executions on the so-called Blóðvöllur (“Blood Fields”). Small children, pregnant women and others easily upset were not allowed to enter while they were in use.

Perhaps most interesting is the story of Scottish opera singer Lizzie, who over a century ago left the big city to live in this remote area with an Icelandic farmer. She later told locals that the wailing of the rivers provided a substitute for the opera houses she missed, but one somehow gets the feeling she was mostly trying to convince herself.

WHOLLY LOCAL

Equally as impressive is the Whale Centre, which includes everything you ever wanted to know about whales but were afraid to ask unless you want to be drawn into an interminable debate with locals over the merits of whaling. They have everything at the centre, from life size skeletons of every local species to Saga accounts and photos of Icelandic politicians happily carving carcasses with an axe. Whatever your level of interest, it is well worth a visit.

Finally, there is the Húsavík Church, which has been likened to a gingerbread house. Most interesting here is the painting of the resurrection of Lazarus, set firmly in the Icelandic countryside. Locals were used as inspiration for the characters, but apparently they were not all happy with the results (disputing who got to be the Saviour and who the zombie, perhaps?).

After the sightseeing, you might want to retire down to the harbour, where there is a fair selection of restaurants, offering everything from the catch of the day to that staple of this side of the continental divide, the hamburger.  

You can do Húsavík in a day, or you can stay for longer and explore the surrounding area. The drive there can be made in roughly seven hours (including stops), or you can fly from Reykjavík Airport in a couple of hours.

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