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ÍSAFJÖRÐUR, CITY OF MYSTERY

24.7.2012
Words by Byron Wilkes
On the descent into Ísafjörður, decades’ worth of glacial labour is plainly visible. The small burg, named after the fjord it lies in, is surrounded by tall mountains and looks quaint and peaceful below. As the plane from Reykjavík lands, I haven't the faintest idea of what secrets this village keeps.

ÍSAFJÖRÐUR: THE FACTS

Our guide, Páll Ernisson (Palli) is an affable and well-informed chap about all things Ísafjörður. As we begin walking the backstreets of the city, Palli brings us up to date. When Ísafjörður officially became a town in 1786, it had around 26 settlers, half of whom were shopkeepers of Danish, German and Norwegian origin. Before then the area was sparsely populated as far back as the late 17th century.

"At first there were three towns here, very close to one another," Palli says, pointing to where each nationality was centered. “The houses are all still here. These are the German," he says, pointing at the dark, wooden facades of two buildings. The Danish section of town has a few houses with taller, leaner roofs. The more modern houses are equally diverse, some made of sheet metal or wood, some pastel-colour or unpainted. The international influence is undeniable (and certainly engrossing), but the town is still wholly Icelandic.

We walk through quiet streets and alleys with the occasional child running around, all the while basking in the mountainous glory of the fjord. While small in population (2,619 as of 2011, according to statice.is,) Ísafjörður has a rich history rife with unusual stories that which Palli calmly keeps at his side until the moment beseeches him.

THE PROLETARIAT AND THAT TIME WHEN A BAND (TRIED TO) FIGHT ALL OF ÍSAFJÖRÐUR

We near the old town hall, a somewhat plain, concrete building built in 1924 with small windows and tall, narrow columns. Palli tells us that for a long time Ísafjörður had been a bastion of Icelandic communism. "There were ultra conservatives and ultra communists; it was either bright blue or deep red," he says.

Palli waves at a woman walking by with a stroller. "Halló!" he says and she smiles and waves back. "My mom," he tells us, and gets back to the story.

Members of the conservative Independence Party raised a building adjacent to it, one just a bit larger. "The Independence Party pumped money in here, like, 'we're going to get that town," Palli says.

Describing the asphalt between the two buildings, Palli says: "This was actually paved with blood." But he's not referring to some riot between communists and conservatives. Palli tells us a more lurid chapter in Ísafjörður's past. In the 1990s, Icelandic band Jet Black Joe, upon finishing a concert, decided to fight the entire town of Ísafjörður.

"It kind of pissed off the people who [Jet Black Joe] were keeping awake," Palli says. "So the band decided to break up chairs and come out and beat up everybody, probably 50 people still outside. They had to be escorted in a police car."

Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, Palli adds, and locals affectionately call the cement area in front of town hall: "The Gas-a Strip."

After a generous lunch at Tjöruhúsið, we amble along Ísafjörður's piers to the second part of the day's tour, a sea journey to the island of Vigur, an island with a permanent population of no more than four at any point in the year.

As we approach the small island (now with several more tourists) via boat, I notice there are lots of birds flying around it. "Birds... generally cool animals. Nothing to fear here," I think to myself. Thoughts like these that can get a man hurt.

WE CAN'T STOP HERE. THIS IS 
TERN COUNTRY.

We get off the ship, and as we're walking toward what looks like a miniature golf course windmill, a squawking flash of white swings like a boomerang within inches of our new tour guide's head. She's unfazed, continues walking.

After she tells us about how proud Icelanders are of their only windmill, she brings us an armful of yardsticks with small blue flags.

"Here are your weapons," she says smiling. Weapon-mandatory hiking: Hell yeah.

The sticks are more distractions than weapons though. The assailants are Arctic terns, aggressive little bastards of birds that dive-bomb would-be predators, or in this case nervous tourists. Instead of us, though, they swoop near the sticks we're holding high. They are worthy adversaries to mundane tourism, and we prevail. No casualties to report. 

While the island boasts Europe's smallest post office and a notable population of Eider-birds (see: ducks), its most impressive feature is the puffin population. We walk to the far end of the island over a fine green grass. Looking into the ocean, there are thousands of puffins. Yes, thousands. Some of them fly around, most of them are in the water. Our guide tells us: "You are very lucky," then pauses before saying, "And no, I don't say that to every tour."

We board our ship and begin back to Ísafjörður. Coming back into the massive fjord reminds me that I've experienced but a portion of this place. One can see a lot in Ísafjörður in a single day, but it simply isn't enough.

The Back Streets of Ísafjörður daytour was provided by Air Iceland. Book trip at www.airiceland.is or call +354-570-3000.  


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