Finding True Iceland Part 2: Dentist, Sailors, Soldiers, Smelters

Finding True Iceland Part 2: Dentist, Sailors, Soldiers, Smelters

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Photos by
Valur Gunnarsson
Skari

Entering the eastern fjords of Iceland, one gets a sense of being closer to Europe. They have ferries here, and forests. They even have non-Icelandic communities. Before World War I, Fáskrúðsfjörður was “Frenchtown”, a temporary home to many a French sailor—and in World War II, Reyðarfjörður became Britville, housing over three thousand Commonwealth soldiers in a town of merely 300. Both French sailors and Brit soldiers considerably enriched the local gene pool, unlike the Basque sailors in the Westfjords, who were cut short.

Of the eastern fjords, Seyðisfjörður is probably the best known. It is from here that the ferry embarks to Denmark, which is also the only way to travel to or from Iceland by car. The town has many old Norwegian timber houses, the submerged wreck of a British oil tanker bombed by the Germans (yes, it’s so close to the continent that they even had air raids during the war), and a thriving artist colony that renders it something of a “101 East”.

From Egilsstaðir, one can take the ferry up lake Lagarfljót, to the man-made forest of Hallormsstaður.

We, however, continue driving.

Slóð Hans Jonatans 115b

Celebrating Occupation Day

Home to around a thousand people, Reyðarfjörður has been in the news a lot over the past decade. This is mainly due to its highly disputed aluminium smelting plant—Iceland’s biggest—which commenced operations in 2007, after heavy protests from local environmentalists.

Since opening shop, Alcoa have done their best to keep the locals happy, funnelling money to the local football team and whatnot. And, it should be noted that the plant itself, tucked in behind the bend, is not too much of an eyesore. The problem does not lie here, but rather in the highlands, in the Kárahnjúkar area, where vast tracts of land disappeared under the dam that powers the plant. Even a decade ago, few Icelanders saw any value in the wilderness, especially not of the monetary kind. Now, with upwards of one million tourists coming in annually to observe the majestic desolation that is Iceland, they might be belatedly changing their mind.

The plant has not necessarily kept the local youth from relocating to the big city down south—or perhaps to Norway, which seems a lot closer here than in Reykjavík. Scores of Poles have moved in to work at the plant instead, even if they must first learn Icelandic to do so.

The current Pole population, however, barely registers in number compared to the British Invasion. No, this was not the fun kind of British Invasion that mostly involves debating the merits of The Beatles vs. The Stones—we’re talking about the full-on military invasion of 1940. The Brits arrived in RVK on May 10, but didn’t make their way to Reyðarfjörður until July 1, despite this being one of the more likely landing points for a German counter-invasion. The event is commemorated on “Occupation Day,” which is celebrated annually on the Sunday that falls closest to the date, and includes period-style parades, games, concerts and an “occupation cake,” served, of course, with Coca-Cola (the Yanks replaced the Brits a year later).

Those who feel that July 1 should be reserved for Canada Day needn’t worry—the Canadians were well represented in Reyðarfjörður, and their camp was close to the town centre. As occupations go, this was all in all a fairly friendly affair. The Americans built a huge barracks complex which housed a modern hospital and were happy to take the locals in. Some of them assumed the structure must have been intended for casualties of a planned invasion of Norway. The US still hasn’t invaded Norway (although with all the oil over there, who knows what could happen?), but their barracks can still be seen around town. There is also an excellent occupation museum, which displays many a curiosity from those years.

Parlez vous íslenska?

Another interesting history museum is to be found in Fáskrúðsfjörður, a mere half an hour’s drive away (and you get to go through a tunnel!). The French connection is celebrated on the last weekend of July, but can also be seen year round on the street signs which are adorned with both world languages, French and Icelandic. The French built a considerable hospital here, which now houses a hotel and a museum that takes you underground to the doctor’s house on the other side of the street. In the best Gallic tradition, most of the information is only in French, with a smattering of Icelandic and English thrown in here and there for good measure.

The fjords form a common municipality called Fjarðabyggð, and a ticket to any of the museums gives you 20% off all the others. We head to Eskifjörður, where the museum is more general than the other two mentioned, largely focused on the history of the area’s fisheries. There are some engaging exhibits on the second floor, including a 100-year-old dentist’s chair and a candy-making machine. Sadly, those were not owned and operated by the same person.

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To the Moon and beyond…

The next Star Wars movie could probably save a for-tune on special effects if they shot it up here. What’s that, you say, they already did?

Driving back from the eastern fjords to Akureyri, you pass through some of the most spectacular scenery in Iceland. Or even the universe, if you believe the movies. Due to a 20% tax discount (among other things), Iceland has proven a cheaper place to film outer space than outer space itself. Also, slightly to the south lies Ódáðahraun, where actual astronauts practiced getting into actual space before the moon landing (of course, they may have filmed that here too, but it remains unclear whether they got a tax rebate for that one).

Iceland has doubled as alien planet/post-apocalyptic Earth in films like ‘Oblivion’, ‘Interstellar’, and ‘Thor: The Dark World’. Furthermore, Ridley Scott filmed the opening sequence to ‘Prometheus’ at Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Even more otherworldly are the hot springs at Krafla, where steaming-hot black liquid bubbles out of a Martian landscape. The next Star Wars movie could probably save a fortune on special effects if they shot it up here. What’s that, you say, they already did?

After jaunting around outer space, there’s nothing better to bring you back down to earth than a nice cold beer. And, there is no better place to have one around here than at the Mývatn Nature Baths. Something of a Blue Lagoon North, it is actually close to what the Blue Lagoon used to be, with less crowds and a somewhat more humble pricing structure. But best of all, you can still order a beer here. At the entrance, you can buy an armband that entitles you to up to three beers, and all you have to do it flag down someone in a yellow west to bring you one. If only all lifeguards did this.

Sensory overload in Akureyri

Moving on, one finally returns to The Big City. Yes, Akureyri sure feel like one after a week spent in the far north and east. They have everything here: cinemas, bars, even more than one restaurant. All the qualities of life, their city webpage says, and they even put cocktail sauce on the hotdogs.

It feels nice to get lost in a crowd of 17,000 after days of being the last person on Earth. And, as in Reykjavík, tourism has come to Akureyri. The main street, Hafnarstræti, is dotted with puffin shops and hotels. The cheapest place to stay is probably the Backpackers Hostel, and they throw in a free beer, which is a nice touch.

The hostel’s restaurant isn’t half bad when it comes to burgers, but the portions leave the American in our party deeply unimpressed. However, there are plenty of other options at hand in the big city, and we adjourn to Kaffi Ilmur, a nice old-style café up on a hill where the American can have his second dinner. I myself am no slouch when it comes to second dinners, but when the group orders a hefty dessert, I admit to being beaten and retire to the patio with a beer. Akureyri is where most of Iceland’s beer is made, and it really does taste better up here. It feels nice to get lost in a crowd of 17,000 after days of being the last person on Earth.

We next venture to the bar Bláa Kannan (“The Blue Pitcher”), followed by Götubarinn (“The Street Bar”), which are both decorated in the style of Old Akureyri. The city was granted its town charter before Reykjavík, back in 1778, but the King of Denmark had its licence revoked when the local populace stubbornly refused to grow above the then-population of twelve. Akureyri’s rights were restored in 1862, and the town has been growing ever since, one of the few areas outside the capital area to have done so.

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Much as in Reykjavík, the locals don’t really come out until midnight, so if you want to party you should be prepared for a long night. I step out for a smoke and run into a man who tells me that his current job is making candleholders, and that people actually buy his stuff. This seems to be a source of great amusement to him, and I can’t help but laugh along at his mirth.

Blackouts are the same wherever you go, so I decide to go to bed early rather than sample the Akureyri variety. The city has plenty of sights and one could easily spend a day or two just visiting the museums. I, however, have an early bus to the capital, so I make do with what I can see in an evening. This includes the famous church steps, which sometimes prompt high schoolers to shout out “Adrian” once they reach the top (at least, they did in the 80s), and the house of Matthías Jochumson, author of the lyrics to that national anthem no one can sing.

He also wrote a poem called “Vesæla land,” which loosely translated amounts to “Filthy Country.” It includes the words:

Raven-found country

Aren’t you best suited to the crow?

From here our ships must go

Raven-found country!

Now, if we could only get Sigur Rós to write the music, we really would have an anthem worth singing along to.

How to get there: Take route 1 north to Egilsstaðir, from where oyu can continue on route 93 to Seyðisfjörður, or 92 and 96 to Fáskrúðsfjörður. To get to Akureyri from there, backtrack on route 1.

Looking to get there?
Bus trip provided by SBA-Norðurleið

Baths provided by Mývatn Nature Baths. book at www.myvatnnaturebaths.is or call (+354) 464-4411

If you wanna read more about Valur’s travels, check out this article:

Glaumbær

Finding True Iceland Up North: The Sagas Of Skagafjörður, A Siglufjörður Gold Rush, Húsavík Whales

There are many ways to get to the North from dear old Reykjavík. One entails flying, which provides an impressive view of the mountains as you close in on Eyjafjörður. Another way would be renting a car, which might be the cheapest one if others are pitching in. However, for our purposes, we’ll settle for the bus.